Bernie Sanders has vowed to make the public more amenable to his brand of democratic socialism by explaining to them what the philosophy actually entails. But during a recent interview on Bill Maher's show—an interview that started out with Maher firmly on board the make-socialism-popular train, and ended with the host shooting down all of Sanders' ideas on grounds of unaffordability—the Vermont senator and presidential candidate utterly failed to explain what was democratic or socialist about his policies.
This is typical of Sanders. Given all the lip service he pays to income inequality—to the idea that the game is rigged in favor of the 1 percent—one would think he has a plan to restructure society so that wealth and power are redistributed fairly by some kind of democratic collective. But so far, Sanders is mostly offering tired leftist policies that benefit the exact people he is otherwise keen to demonize: corporations and the wealthy.
Take his much touted plan to make college "free" for all public university students (at a cost of $70 billion in its first year). Sanders told Maher:
"Public college, free tuition to public colleges and universities. You know how we pay for that? Through a tax on Wall Street speculation."
Yes, let's stick really stick it to those rich Wall Street bankers! Let's… pay their kids' tuition!
Indeed, college degrees are status symbols of wealthy Americans. Kids from rich families attend college at much higher rates than kids from poor families. Cost is obviously a structural barrier for disadvantaged teens, but so are application struggles, rockier high school careers, and a host of other problems. If the goal is to make college accessible for more poor and middle-class families, setting the price at zero is a solution to a problem very far down on the list of reasons why lower-income students don't achieve degrees. After all, there is already a variety of comparatively cost-efficient alternatives to the most expensive public institutions of higher education: community colleges, online courses, etc. And there are always subsidized federal loans for students dead-set on a more expensive route; loans that are easy to pay back if students are smart and disciplined about what fields they choose to study.
But there's another reason making college free wouldn't be such an economic panacea for the lower and middle classes: incentivizing more people to seek a public university education is not necessarily in their best interests. While it's certainly true that getting a college degree is—broadly speaking—a good investment of one's time and resources, a traditional university education doesn't hold the same value for everyone. And the more people who attend college, the more a degree becomes a prerequisite for jobs that don't technically require college-educated workers. According to a survey released in May, 49 percent of people who graduated in 2013 and 2014 consider themselves "underemployed," meaning they attained a higher level of education than they actually needed to do the job they now have. News outlets routinely run stories on the thousands of over-educated college graduates now working at Starbucks.
Making college free would be doubling down on the idea that everyone just has to attend college to achieve anything in the United States. It would represent a massive federal financial investment in the way things used to be, at a time when there have never been so many awesome alternatives to traditional higher ed. And it would be an endorsement of the road to power disproportionately traversed by the already relatively wealthy.
Consider also that universities would respond as they always do: exploit the government's generous subsidization of their sticker price by finding other ways to gouge students. The New York Federal Reserve Bank recently found evidence of this phenomenon: universities that were the most impacted by increases to the federal student loans program were disproportionately likely to jack up prices, according to the study. Expect universities to find creative ways to punish students for "free" tuition—like making room and board more expensive.
This just isn't a good plan. And it's not a particularly socialist or democratic one, either.