That America faces a mounting student loan problem is increasingly difficult to ignore. Coming across a youngish person or couple who own their home in the wild can feel like a spectacular find in a country where so many have to prioritize paying off college debt. Millennial home-ownership rates have been lagging behind those of other generations at the same age, and student loans are one of the many reasons behind that trend. According to numbers released by Federal Reserve economists last month, some 400,000 young people who might otherwise have owned a home in 2014 didn’t because they had racked up so much debt in the preceding decade. Essays about student debt—including sometimes-greater credit-card debt, or Millennial economic woe generally—seem to go viral with alarming frequency. At least two television shows have recently promised cash payouts to help people pay down student debt, and at least two potential 2020 presidential contenders, Eric Swalwell and Pete Buttigieg, have made reining in student loans a key part of their pitch targeted at Millennial voters in particular.
But because this is America, personal debt held by individuals is rarely discussed as a topic of concern by policymakers, who instead fixate on national debt, which is typically portrayed as somehow collapsing the economy or at the very least threatening to rip apart our social fabric. The people making these frantic arguments often tend to be vaguely compromised old men determined to cut social programs like Medicare—programs young people, if anything, might like to see get bigger and more generous in an era of relentless precarity.
A column published in the New York Times Monday amounts to a case in point of just how broken America’s elite dialogue is about debt and money. Steven Rattner, a former Treasury official under Barack Obama who was banned from Wall Street trading after being implicated in a pay-to-play scheme, spends about 1,000 words freaking out about how buzzy left-wing wish-list items like Medicare for all, “free college tuition,” and the Green New Deal would explode the debt. Rattner suggests young progressives are wild-eyed dreamers disconnected from reality in a column that is itself deeply disconnected from reality: At one point, Rattner says Republicans and Democrats might, in some bizarro future, “quickly agree” on investments in national infrastructure, which is odd given they have spent the last two years failing miserably to even have a serious conversation about said investments, much less agree on them.
To his credit, Rattner concedes that Donald Trump’s tax cuts targeted mostly at the super rich are part of the problem here—and that the GOP, which once marketed itself as the party of fiscal discipline, is increasingly populated by jokers who barely bother pretending it’s a concern. (Trump’s top budget official, a former deficit hawk in Congress, reportedly explained the lack of focus on the national debt in the latest State of the Union speech by intoning, “Nobody cares.”) But Rattner also insists raising taxes isn’t enough on its own to get us out of this mess, nor pay for ambitious new spending. The facts might disagree with him: Elizabeth Warren’s proposed wealth tax alone could probably cover the cost of making public colleges tuition-free, and while other, more expensive, programs such as Medicare for all might be extra complicated—and require non-rich people pay more in taxes, too—the idea that the deficit is out of control often just seems like a way to target social welfare programs Americans love and depend on. Indeed, Rattner suggests raising the retirement age.