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Democrats Debate Wealth Tax, Free Public College & Student Debt Relief as Part of New Economic Plan

StoryJanuary 15, 2020
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At Tuesday’s Democratic debate, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg repeated his criticism of plans for tuition-free public college and wiping out student debt, supported by both Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Activist and Truthout contributor Alexis Goldstein says the dispute highlights a philosophical split within the Democratic Party. “We essentially have a disagreement between the progressive candidates and the moderate candidates about whether or not we want to pursue a universal benefit for higher education and make it a public good, much in the way that K-12 education is treated as a public good,” Goldstein says.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s turn to higher education. This is former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who was asked why he opposes proposals for free public college.

PETE BUTTIGIEG: We’ve got to be making sure that we target our tax dollars where they will make the biggest difference. And I don’t think subsidizing the children of millionaires and billionaires to pay absolutely zero in tuition at public colleges is the best use of those scarce taxpayer dollars.


SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: So, look, the way I think we need to do this is we need a wealth tax in America. We need to ask people with fortunes above $50 million to pay more. And that means that the lowliest millionaire that I would tax under this wealth tax would be paying about $19 million in the first year in taxes. If he wants to send his kid to public university, then I’m OK with that, because what we really need to talk about is the bigger economic picture here. We need to be willing to put a wealth tax in place, to ask those giant corporations that are not paying to pay, because that’s how we build an economy and, for those who want to talk about it, bring down the national debt.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg. Alexis Goldstein, activist and contributor to, talk about this and Warren yesterday laying out a plan for abolishing student debt.

ALEXIS GOLDSTEIN: So, I think this issue is actually one of the most important ones that the Democratic Party needs to decide on when it comes what direction are they going to go in. We essentially have a disagreement between the progressive candidates and the moderate candidates about whether or not we want to pursue a universal benefit for higher education and make it a public good, much in the way that K-12 education is treated as a public good.

And I believe, and I think the data bears out, that when you make benefits universal, they are more resilient, they are more robust, they can withstand attacks that come from austerity, that even come from reactionaryism. We see this with Medicaid, and we see this with Social Security, which are incredibly popular across the political spectrum and have withstood many attacks by past administrations to reform them, to privatize them, to reduce them.

And so, I think people also need to remember that there used to be free public college in the United States in California prior to the election of Governor Ronald Reagan. And then he essentially made that a signature issue in his campaign and really began the end to free public college in California, which has sort of been reduced ever since. And there also used to be free public college in the state of New York, in the CUNY system. And so this isn’t a new concept for us in the United States, but it’s treated as if it’s something strange and something we should be skeptical of.

You know, the mayor of South Bend has always used this as an attempt to wedge people and say, “Oh, well, we don’t want to give this benefit to millionaires and billionaires.” Millionaires and billionaires, first of all, send their children to public colleges at a much lower rate than the rest of the population. You know, as someone who is — you know, I’m queer, and I know that there are a lot of people who sometimes are disowned by their families. And I’m a little disappointed, frankly, to see, you know, the first openly gay major Democratic primary candidate sort of ignore that simple fact that sometimes LGBTQ folks are disowned from their families. And so, if you have a millionaire or billionaire who disowns their LGBTQ child, you know, they won’t be able to access public college.

But I think the most important point here is that we need to build programs that can resist any attacks on them, wherever they come from. One of the things that we saw, you know, we’ve seen historically — there was a 2018 study that sociologists put out that said that if white Americans see that a benefits program is going to benefit black Americans, they are less likely to approve of it and to be in favor of it. And one of the ways that you can tackle that kind of sort of racism, really, is with universal programs, where everyone benefits and you don’t have either racial resentment or class resentment. Now, I should mention that usually those perceptions by white Americans are completely false. There’s lots of data and lots of studies that show that white Americans think that black Americans and brown Americans benefit from programs like SNAP and TANF at rates that are far lower than they do. White Americans often make up the majority of those programs.

But this is a real decision point, I think, for the Democratic Party. And I think going the route of universal benefits is really the way to go. Amy, you also mentioned Warren’s plan yesterday.

AMY GOODMAN: We have 10 seconds.

ALEXIS GOLDSTEIN: Oh, about the student debt cancellation plan. That’s something that would benefit the entire economy for all. If we cancel student debt, that’s going to benefit everyone. And that’s a real strong reason, in my opinion, to do it. There’s a study that says $108 billion a year, over 10 years, boost to the economy if we cancel student debt on a wide scale.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there. We want to thank you Alexis Goldstein, who writes for Truthout. Thank you so much to the Native American journalist Julian Brave NoiseCat, to Larry Hamm, who’s head of the Bernie Sanders 2020 committee in New Jersey, has just announced he’s running for Senate against Cory Booker. Julio Ricardo Varela of Latino Rebels, thanks for joining us from Boston. And, Phyllis Bennis, thanks so much for joining us, as well, from the Institute for Policy Studies. That does it for our broadcast. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thanks for joining us.

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