Is Forgiving Student Loans the Worst Idea Ever?

The third pillar of President Obama’s new college affordability plan is “ensuring that student debt remains affordable.” Here’s a bit more detail:

The President has proposed allowing all student borrowers to cap their federal student loan payments at 10 percent of their monthly income. Currently, students who first borrowed before 2008 or have not borrowed since 2011 are not eligible for the President’s Pay As You Earn plan. In addition, the Administration will work with Congress to ensure that the benefits are targeted to the neediest borrowers.

When I read about the plan this morning, I thought of an interesting and provocative post by Justin Wolfers on forgiving student loans. He concludes that student loan forgiveness is the worst idea ever for the following five reasons:

  1. Distribution: If we are going to give money away, why on earth would we give it to college grads? This is the one group who we know typically have high incomes, and who have enjoyed income growth over the past four decades.  The group who has been hurt over the past few decades is high school dropouts.
  2. Macroeconomics: This is the worst macro policy I’ve ever heard of. If you want stimulus, you get more bang-for-your-buck if you give extra dollars to folks who are most likely to spend each dollar. Imagine what would happen if you forgave $50,000 in debt. How much of that would get spent in the next month or year? Probably just a couple of grand (if that). Much of it would go into the bank. But give $1,000 to each of 50 poor people, and nearly all of it will get spent, yielding a larger stimulus. Moreover, it’s not likely that college grads are the ones who are liquidity-constrained. Most of ‘em could spend more if they wanted to; after all, they are the folks who could get a credit card or a car loan fairly easily. It’s the hand-to-mouth consumers—those who can’t get easy access to credit—who are most likely to raise their spending if they get the extra dollars.
  3. Education Policy: Perhaps folks think that forgiving educational loans will lead more people to get an education. No, it won’t. This is a proposal to forgive the debt of folks who already have an education. Want to increase access to education? Make loans more widely available, or subsidize those who are yet to choose whether to go to school. But this proposal is just a lump-sum transfer that won’t increase education attainment. So why transfer to these folks?
  4. Political Economy: This is a bunch of kids who don’t want to pay their loans back. And worse: Do this once, and what will happen in the next recession? More lobbying for free money, rather than doing something socially constructive.  Moreover, if these guys succeed, others will try, too. And we’ll just get more spending in the least socially productive part of our economy—the lobbying industry.
  5. Politics: Notice the political rhetoric?  Give free money to us, rather than “corporations, millionaires and billionaires.”  Opportunity cost is one of the key principles of economics. And that principle says to compare your choice with the next best alternative.  Instead, they’re comparing it with the worst alternative.  So my question for the proponents: Why give money to college grads rather than the 15% of the population in poverty?
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About ozidar

I'm an Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and a Faculty Research Fellow at National Bureau of Economic Research. You can follow me on twitter @omzidar. http://faculty.chicagobooth.edu/owen.zidar/index.html
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