President Obama, in his last term as President, obviously feels unshackled by reality.
In his recent State of the Union address, the President advanced a plan that he marketed as “two free years” of community college, for any American student that had the capability. Of course, to many of us in Canada, we might be wishing (for once) that we were American. Taking a step back, and looking at the situation rationally, that hope might be a bit premature.
Obama’s presidency has been marked by many endeavours of this sort. The first that comes to mind is his universal healthcare plan, colloquially known as Obamacare. Obamacare sought to address a challenge in the US that many Canadians hold as a point of pride: we have universal healthcare, and they don’t. It’s part of the Canadian ethos, really.
Obamacare has, however, not been without a cost. The real cost of the initiative will clock in at $1.35 trillion by 2025. As we know in Canada, healthcare (while a public good) is a long-term entitlement that can add to the deficit and debt. The US, while only a short time ago enacting its universal healthcare program, already has financial solvency issues — with debt and deficits numbering in the high billions and low trillions, credit downgrades are on the horizon. This hobbles the American government’s ability (without reductions in spending), to finance long-term entitlements and social obligations.
This is the context in which President Obama dreamed up the idea of subsidizing, in a joint venture with the state governments, two free years of community college. So far, no costs have been ascribed to the plan. Given the breadth of what is proposed, one can assume they would be high.
At the core, the idea that everyone should be able to go to college despite their financial means is laudable. There have been a ton of studies done about the economic potential inherent in giving young people a chance at post-secondary education. Much like public healthcare, there are benefits to Obama’s plan that would at least make a dent in America’s flagging education system.
But perfection is not of this world. Nor is anything a free lunch. Obama’s plan, in the context of fiscal restraint or a budgetary surplus, might make sense. In Canada, it might make sense — we are on the road to a surplus that rightfully should be re-invested in key priorities that will give Canada an economic advantage.
Anyone with eyes can see that the US is not in the financial position to expand entitlements any further. Free tuition is something people talk about ad nauseum; as students, we all want a bill of $0 for our education. It’s my judgment that Obama sees this as an opportunity to solidify a base of political support among young people.
But, this has to be about more than politics. Virtually no one ever considers what the true cost of free tuition can really be. Does it come at the cost of mortgaging the country, paying off debt and deficits for time immemorial? Does it come at the cost of increased taxes, in a time of economic recovery? Perhaps it comes at the cost of cutting other social services. Either way, someone has to foot the bill.
In the US, I am unsure what the end game is. Who will foot the bill? Or is the plan, instead, to forget reality?
It seems as if Obama has chosen the latter.