Why we should pay tuition for wealthy families

Democratic proposals for free pre-kindergarten for every 3- and 4-year-old and community college tuition may be as significant for the modern American economy as Social Security and Medicare.

These ideas are popular with broad bi-partisan segments of the population who are struggling with the same non-partisan family challenges. Even Trump voters have to pay for childcare and struggle with the high cost (and debt) of higher education.    

The economic benefits are clear, evidence based, and obvious, even without the data that confirms it. And I don’t need data to be absolutely certain of the social benefits of an educated population. 

It’s simple: A more educated population is better than a less educated one. 

No, it won’t stop us from disagreeing on issues, politics nor our favorite movies. But maybe, just maybe, it’ll help us learn how to disagree, argue, and maybe better understand each other.  (Hope never dies.)

As reported in the New York Times: “Expanding free early childhood education could lead to greater earnings, higher levels of education and lower levels of participation in crime, according to research from James J. Heckman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist at the University of Chicago. ‘You’re creating a ladder into the middle class,’ Mr. Heckman said.”

But Heckman also said that free pre-K for wealthy families would be a “waste of funds.”

He’s wrong.

Free education (both pre-k and higher ed) makes the strongest case yet for the importance—and wisdom—of providing universal public goods, even for those who can afford them. 

By “public goods” I mean those things that we can only provide to everyone—regardless of ability to pay—if we do them and pay for them together. Think clean water and Covid-19 vaccines.

There’s only one institution that can make that happen—government, whether provided by public institutions or paid for by public institutions with standards and rules.

Let’s first acknowledge the absolute fact of our collective interdependence.

It’s in all and each of our interests for everyone to be educated, not just for families with school age children. An educated population is essential for economic prosperity, for democracy, for a good society.  

Why do I care if every child gets a good education? It’s not just because I want to eliminate crime, poverty, homelessness, etc. It’s not just because I want our economy to be more productive, innovative, and resilient. I want all those things, and there’s very little doubt that more education will help.  

But there are also more fundamental reasons. Universal public education connects us to each other. It increases our understanding of different perspectives and experiences of people from different walks of life, life experiences, countries, religions, political viewpoints, histories, etc.

I certainly don’t need to monetize increased understanding and empathy. It’s just the country I want to live in.

During the 2012 presidential campaign, President Obama got pushback for his quote, “You didn’t build that.” It was clumsy politically and perhaps an obvious tag line for the “job creators” who looked down on Mitt Romney’s 47 percent (“the takers”).

Perhaps Obama could have made his point a little clearer by simply adding the word “alone,” but he was right. No one builds their business, their career, their place in society, alone. Things work because we work together. (No doubt the GOP would have still used his quote against him.)

Conservatives may see it differently—that we are individuals on our own to succeed or fail. But that replaces a discussion of economics, social cohesion, democracy, and some pretty basic facts about how the world actually works with simplistic morality tropes.

The leaked video of Romney’s comments at an exclusive high dollar fundraiser may well have sunk his campaign. But he just said it out loud for those who don’t want to pay their fair share of taxes.

“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what,” Romney said in the video. “All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them.”

Turns out the 1 percent (and the other 53 percent) actually needs the 47 percent moocher class.

Even Elon Musk benefits from an educated population for workers and consumers. He benefits from the taxes we pay that build the roads, put firefighters in our communities, and hire air traffic controllers to keep planes in the sky, not to mention the billions of dollars in government subsidies he’s secured.

Next, let’s acknowledge the absolute truth that we have to pay for public goods. The only question is how we pay, who pays, and when we pay.

Free pre-k and community college doesn’t mean we don’t pay for them. It just means we all pay. Yep, through the politically dangerous taxes as opposed to tuition. But last I checked, the dollars are the same regardless of who they get paid to. 

If we pay with taxes, progressive tax structures give us a built-in and simple way to ensure that everyone pays their fair share. Paying for universal public goods with progressive taxes is the fiscal institutionalization of interdependence.

And it’s the acknowledgement that we all benefit. It’s just a matter of getting the pay-benefit balance correctly.  

The attorney Perry L. Weed writing in the Baltimore Sun back in 2016 clearly articulated the pay-benefit truth and case for progressive taxation: “Those who gain the most in income and wealth from the American society and economic infrastructure not only have the greatest ability to pay, they also derive far and away the greatest benefits.”  

That’s only become more true as the gap between the uber-wealthy and the rest has become, well, even more gaping.

The Ayn Rand conservatives and supply-siders will naturally respond with the same tired arguments. First, free pre-K and community college will create a nation of moochers dependent on the state. If public education is being dependent on the nanny state then I guess we’re all moochers.

Second, making the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes will slow economic growth. They are, after all, the “job creators.”

One would hope that trickle-down economics was dealt it’s ultimate death blow by Richard Branson’s billion dollar ride into space (followed soon by the billionaires boys club of Musk and Bezos.)

Or, at least, it should have. Hope springs eternal.

Photo by Berkeley County Schools WV.