Published online 9 October 2015.
This anti-Sanders argument comes from Stephen Stromberg, and pinpoints Sanders’ College for All Act. His piece, which came out Tuesday in the Washington Post, is titled “Why Hillary Clinton Is More Progressive Than Bernie Sanders, In One Sentence.” Here’s the main argument:
Sanders’s platform isn’t visionary, it’s dull. Rather than devising smart solutions that target scarce federal resources where they’re most needed, he wants to waste massive amounts of money Congress wouldn’t ever give him — and shouldn’t — to provide benefits to a lot of people who don’t need them.
This argument has the old familiarity of arguments for austerity, of course. “We can’t afford X” because fiscal prudence or whatever. None of these arguments are ever applied to issues of “national defense,” and so the Pentagon continues to spend trillions of dollars on jet planes that don’t work. None of the austerity advocates think of “scarce federal resources” as a reason to scrutinize such plans. And certainly none of them want to get into why the Federal government doesn’t really need to worry about its deficits. But such arguments cover old ground.Here, instead, Stromberg’s angle is that Sanders wants to waste “massive amounts of money” (an actual dollar amount might be nice) “to provide benefits to a lot of people” (an actual number might be nice) “who don’t need them.” Stromberg’s argument looks nice if what you really want to do is to shut down social programs while making it look all the while like you want to keep them. Presumably, Clinton’s program is more “progressive” than Sanders’, because Clinton wants to means-test access to her program, whereas Sanders is in favor of “College for All.” Let’s see how this plays out:
In actual public policy decisionmaking, the programs which survive are the ones which benefit everyone. Programs like Medicare, for instance, benefit everyone and are thus politically viable. The programs which don’t survive are the ones which target the poor as a “special interest” without, of course, giving the poor enough money to be a real special interest. We all know what real special interests do — they provide lobbyists, they hire teams of experts who eventually get themselves hired to teams of Federal policy writers, they supplement the retirement incomes of their favorite politicians, they make campaign contributions to political action committees which funnel said contributions to the campaigns of their favorite politicians, and so on. The poor are not organized as a special interest in those ways, so setting them up as a special interest makes it easy for politicians to attack them as a special interest without any of the hazards of gainsaying a real special interest.
Hillary Clinton must know this reality well. She’s quite smart, and her husband, after all, was the President who signed the 1996 bill which replaced AFDC with TANF, and limited emergency assistance to America’s poorest people. It’s easy, once again, to attack a “special interest” which isn’t politically organized as one.
This, then, is the main argument against means-testing benefit programs. If everyone benefits from a benefit program, then everyone has an interest in maintaining said benefit program. The public as a whole is not a “special interest,” and this is why Bernie Sanders’ program is called “College for All” and not “College Only For Those Pitiful Poor Folk.”
As for the ostensive cost of not means-testing such a program (never mind the cost of doing the means-testing itself!), we are talking about giving, perhaps, the richest 20% of college students the same benefits we give the poorest 80%. What’s that, an increased cost of about a quarter of the total cost of the program? It’s money well spent to keep the program politically viable. Meanwhile, let’s focus on those Pentagon jet programs, shall we?