Does Whoever Pays for Education—and Health Care—Call the Tune?

10_05_Sanders_01
A Washington Post writer claims Bernie Sanders’s plan for paying for college with a tax on Wall Street trades would mean “colleges would run by government rules.” Jim Young/Reuters

This article first appeared on RobertReich.org.

On October 1, The Washington Post ran an attack on Bernie Sanders that distorts not only what he's saying and seeking but also the basic choices that lie before the nation. Sanders, writes the Post's David Fahrenthold, "is not just a big-spending liberal. And his agenda is not just about money. It's also about control."

Fahrenthold claims Sanders's plan for paying for college with a tax on Wall Street trades would mean "colleges would run by government rules."

Apparently, Fahrenthold is unaware that three-quarters of college students today attend public universities financed largely by state governments. And even those who attend elite private universities benefit from federal tax subsidies flowing to wealthy donors. (Meg Whitman's recent $30 million donation to Princeton, for example, is really $20 million from her, plus an estimated $10 million she deducted from her taxable income.) Notwithstanding all this government largesse, colleges aren't "run by government rules."

The real problem is that too many young people still can't afford a college education. The move toward free public higher education that began in the 1950s with the GI Bill—and was extended in the 1960s by leading public universities—was reversed starting in the 1980s because of shrinking state budgets. Tuition has skyrocketed in recent years as states slashed education spending. It's time to resurrect that earlier goal.

Besides, the biggest threats to academic freedom these days aren't coming from government. They're coming as conditions attached to funding from billionaires and big corporations, which is increasing as public funding drops.

When the Charles Koch Foundation pledged $1.5 million to Florida State University's economics department, for example, it stipulated that a Koch-appointed advisory committee would select professors and undertake annual evaluations. The Koch brothers now fund 350 programs at over 250 colleges and universities across America. You can bet that funding doesn't underwrite research on inequality and environmental justice.

Fahrenthold similarly claims Sanders's plan for a single-payer system would put health care under the "control" of government.

But health care is already largely financed through government subsidies—only they're flowing to private for-profit health insurers that are now busily consolidating into corporate leviathans. Anthem's purchase of giant insurer Cigna will make it the largest health insurer in America; Aetna is buying Humana, creating the second largest, with 33 million members.

Why should anyone suppose these for-profit corporate giants will be less "controlling" than government?

What we do know is they're far more expensive than a single-payer system. Fahrenthold repeats the charge that Sanders's health care plan would cost $15 trillion over 10 years. But single-payer systems in other rich nations have proved to be cheaper than private for-profit health insurers because they don't spend huge sums on advertising, marketing, executive pay and billing.

So even if the Sanders single-payer plan would cost $15 trillion over 10 years, Americans as a whole would save more than that.

Fahrenthold trusts the "market" more than he does the government. But he overlooks the fact that government sets the rules by which the market runs, such as whether health insurers should be allowed to consolidate even further, or how much of a "charitable" tax deduction wealthy donors to private universities should receive, and whether they should get the deduction if they attach partisan conditions to their donations.

The real choice isn't between government and the "market." It's between a system responsive to the needs of most Americans or one more responsive to the demands of the superrich, big business and Wall Street—whose economic and political power have grown dramatically over the last three decades.

This is why the logic of Sanders's ideas depends on the political changes he seeks. Fahrenthold says a President Sanders couldn't get any of his ideas implemented anyway because Congress would reject them. But if Bernie Sanders is elected president, American politics will have been altered, reducing the moneyed interests' chokehold on the public agenda.

Fahrenthold may not see the populism that's fueling Bernie's campaign, but it is gaining strength and conviction. Other politicians, as well as political reporters, ignore this upsurge at their peril.

Robert B. Reich, chancellor's professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley, was secretary of labor in the Clinton administration. Time magazine named him one of the 10 most effective Cabinet secretaries of the 20th century. He has written 13 books, including the best-sellers Aftershock and The Work of Nations. His Beyond Outrage is now out in paperback. His latest, Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few, is being published this week. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine and chairman of Common Cause. His new film, Inequality for All, is now available on Netflix, iTunes, DVD and On Demand.

Does Whoever Pays for Education—and Health Care—Call the Tune? | Opinion