In April, Elizabeth Warren announced a plan to alleviate much of the nation’s $1.6 trillion student debt load. The plan would forgive up to $50,000 per person and apply to 42 million of the nation’s 44 million student debt holders.
In June, Bernie Sanders upped the ante by announcing a plan not just to alleviate the nation’s debt load, but to eliminate it. Sanders’ plan is universal — it affirms the right of all people to plan for their future however they see fit, and leaves not one penny of student debt outstanding.
And in July, Kamala Harris blew the competition out of the water when she announced a plan to… forgive up to $20,000 of student debt for Pell grant recipients who start successful businesses in disadvantaged communities.
Harris’s plan immediately and rightfully came under heavy fire. There were two main objections. First, most Pell grant recipients come from families whose incomes are less than $20,000 per year. Where are these graduates going to get the startup capital to develop a business, and keep it running for three years in order to be eligible for the relief Harris’s plan provides? The plan would functionally apply to hardly anyone, and even then it promises incomplete forgiveness. It’s more of a gesture than a structural fix.
And second, what’s so special about business owners? Singling out business owners for debt forgiveness implies that they render a more useful service to society than teachers, nurses, engineers, and social workers.
Additionally, why is Harris focusing on more businesses in poor communities rather than what they more desperately need: more social services, better healthcare, better schools, more public parks and community centers, better and more affordable housing, and higher wages. New businesses mean new jobs, but so does public investment. If jobs are the objective, public money would be better spent on job-creating public infrastructure projects and social programs.
After the plan was widely ridiculed online, Harris’s campaign went into damage control mode. She clarified that the program is not intended to be her flagship contribution to the student debt relief conversation; instead, it was one bullet point in a separate plan intended to promote black entrepreneurship. Harris has yet to release a detailed and comprehensive proposal for student debt forgiveness, as Warren and Sanders have done.
But that doesn’t mean she’s been completely silent on the issue. In fact, she has a page on her website outlining her general approach to the problem. Unfortunately, it’s just as underwhelming as her Pell grant plan. Its primary mechanisms are “allowing current debt holders to refinance high-interest loans to lower rates, expanding Income Based Repayment (IBR) to ensure no student pays more than they can afford, and cracking down on for-profit colleges and lenders that defraud our students.”
The reason Warren and Sanders have stepped out with bold student debt relief proposals — Sanders’s bolder than Warren’s — is that the incremental approach Harris embraces has already been tried, and it has failed. Barack Obama’s orientation to the problem was the same as Harris’s: income-driven repayment plans, more refinancing options, and tighter regulation of for-profit colleges. Obama’s approach hardly made a dent in the problem. The student debt load has grown 157 percent since the beginning of Obama’s presidency.
It wasn’t so long ago that Barack Obama was seen as representing the progressive edge of American politics. Kamala Harris built her career in that context; Harris and Obama are “old friends and good friends,” and she could always count on his endorsement and glowing praise.
But times have changed: in particular, Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign dramatically shifted the window of mainstream politics. This time, Warren has staked out a position to Sanders’s right and Obama’s left, solidifying new norms and drawing new boundaries around the political terrain. Harris is struggling to keep up.
Sanders rejects all corporate money and completely eschews the usual donor circuit, and Warren takes a softer and more ambiguous stance roughly in the same vein. Harris, meanwhile, is still playing by the old rules, cozying up to megadonors and schmoozing in the Hamptons. She’s walking a tightrope, trying to maintain the progressive image she cultivated during the Obama years without scaring off the corporate elites who bankroll her.
It’s likely that Harris will soon come out with a more detailed proposal for student debt relief. It’s unlikely that the plan will be as impressive as Warren’s, much less Sanders’s. Between her debt relief outline and her concrete Pell grant plan, it’s clear that she’s using a centrist Democrat playbook of means-testing, incremental technocratic reform, and market-based solutions — a combination that allows politicians to look like they’re taking major social issues seriously without directly contravening the interests of the capitalist class.
Her waffling on Medicare for All speaks further to her unwillingness to embrace the new politics of universalism and ambitious redistribution that have gained popularity in the Sanders era. The working-class majority may want Medicare for All, but insurance and pharma executives don’t, and it’s their class that pays to keep the lights on.
For politicians like Harris, the trick is to avow support for popular progressive reforms while also posturing as an expert who needs time to seriously study the issue, i.e. obfuscating and delaying through complicated technocratic concern-trolling. It’s a strategy designed to win both working-class votes and capitalist-class dollars, while promising nothing.
The Pell grant entrepreneurship scheme is just the beginning. Expect Harris’s campaign to continue pumping out policy proposals that, masquerading as social justice initiatives, accomplish little and reify the role of capitalist enterprise in remaking society. It’s exactly what Obama did, and what most Democrats did before him. Only times have changed, and now millions of people aren’t buying it.