Education Subsidies And Activist Culture

Via Zunguzungu an interesting point that starts as a discussion of the debt ceiling deal’s reduced subsidies for graduate students but is really about the origins of protest culture:

Large debt–and the fear it creates–is a pacifying force. There was no tuition at the City University of New York when I attended one of its colleges in the 1970s, a time when tuition at many U.S. public universities was so affordable that it was easy to get a B.A. and even a graduate degree without accruing any student-loan debt. While those days are gone in the United States, public universities continue to be free in the Arab world and are either free or with very low fees in many countries throughout the world. The millions of young Iranians who risked getting shot to protest their disputed 2009 presidential election, the millions of young Egyptians who risked their lives earlier this year to eliminate Mubarak, and the millions of young Americans who demonstrated against the Vietnam War all had in common the absence of pacifying huge student-loan debt. Today in the United States, two-thirds of graduating seniors at four-year colleges have student-loan debt, including over 62 percent of public university graduates. While average undergraduate debt is close to $25,000, I increasingly talk to college graduates with closer to $100,000 in student-loan debt. During the time in one’s life when it should be easiest to resist authority because one does not yet have family responsibilities, many young people worry about the cost of bucking authority, losing their job, and being unable to pay an ever-increasing debt.

Obviously, though, neither college nor graduate school is ever “free.” The professors who teach the classes expect to get paid, as do the janitors who clean the classrooms. But higher education is usually subsidized by taxpayers, sometimes extremely subsidized. This creates a climate in which people have both the time, social capital, and sense of security necessary to engage in a lot of political activism. Reduced subsidization tends to cut that off. That said, it seems to me that it would be difficult to make the case to the country’s non-college educated majority in order to create the social and psychological conditions for left-wing political activism should be a high priority use of tax dollars. This does, however, cast the Tea Party movement in a suggestive light. The United States has moved to making students bear a much higher share of the cost of their education, but remains strongly committing to subsidizing senior citizens’ retirements. At the same time, one of the points of consensus in the fiscal policy debate is that today’s old people should be held harmless in any set of potential entitlement cuts. Is it a coincidence that so much of present-day activist energy is located in the heavily conservative senior cohort and its peculiar brand of nostalgic nationalism?