Progress Defined

“So we open up a quarrel
Between the present and the past
We only sacrifice the future
It’s the bitterness that lasts.” — Mike Rutherford

One of the things I am most envious of is the right’s ability to boil down an issue to its lowest common denominator. On the flip side, I thought I would highlight the more complex thinking that goes into a progressive perspective on a particular issue. For today, we will be going down a journey into the world of college loan debt and it’s effect on people.

I saw a meme on social media about a simple two step method to “solving” the college debt problem. The first step was to take out a loan. The second step was to repay the loan. Wow! I love it when they make it so easy on us. The thought process is simple and when you take it on its own merits it seems reasonable enough. It just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

The legendary comedian George Carlin developed a bit he called “not in my backyard.” Essentially, it described everything about progress and development. Everyone is okay with it as long as it isn’t done in their backyard. Progress is fine as long as I don’t have to foot the bill. That philosophy doesn’t directly apply here, but it does have a companion philosophy that does.

You’ve probably heard this phrase uttered before: “if it was good enough for me….”. I’ve heard it for years growing up with parents in the school business. People turned down bond issues to build new schools because that school was good enough for them when they were growing up. That logic also applies to student loans. No one paid for my student loan debt. I paid it off myself. Of course, that’s not entirely true and we will get to that fact in a minute.

The pick yourself up by your bootstraps mentality sounds wonderful and at first glance seems like it hits the core of the American spirit, but it breaks down at closer examination. When you understand this fact you understand the heart of progressivism. It should be noted that some people have fiscal and practical objections to paying for everyone’s college. This post doesn’t really address those. Someone entering a debate with those objections in mind is at least willing to discuss the idea if those issues are addressed.

We all want a better world for our children than we had. Our parents wanted a better world for us than what they had. The American experience has generally been that we have accomplished this. In some cases it is simply that technology was better for us than for our parents. In other cases, they were able to give us a better future through their hard work. The core of our anxieties comes when we realize we can’t do that for one reason or another for our children. Either we failed outright or circumstances have rendered that difficult to impossible. The foundational question is whether each individual should be made to suffer for that failure.

Progressivism is simply the extension of that thought process from our own families to society at large. We all want the world to be a better place, a safer place, a happier place than the world we currently live in. So while many of us had significant student loan debt, it doesn’t mean that we want that for our children. We shouldn’t want that for anyone’s children. We don’t get style points for drudging through difficult conditions. The mentality of, “I had to do it, so you should have to do it too” just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

These make for great stories I guess. They are akin to the ones our parents told us about going to the movies for a quarter, buying a candy bar for a nickel, and killing a grizzly bear with their loose leaf notebook. Sure, we could kill that same bear with our Trapper Keeper. You see, progress does happen. These stories ignore the obvious fact that the world is constantly changing and those proverbial bears change with it. They often become bigger and more fierce bears.

That school that was good enough for you to go to school in is now 30 years older. It is more run down and has more damage. It also wasn’t built to meet the needs of modern learning. It wasn’t equipped to handle the networking needs for distance learning. There might be more kids in the school now too. Population growth is a thing.

Similarly, the education that may have cost us 50,000 to 60,000 25 years ago is at least twice that now. So, yes, you can claim that they should buckle down and pay for their loans themselves, but you are asking them to pay twice as much as we did without twice the pay. Wages haven’t gone up that much and many graduates are entering an uncertain job market. Some can’t find jobs in their fields. So, maybe they work at a Starbucks or Barnes and Noble. Yet, the student loan debt never goes away.

This brings us back to the bootstraps theory. I worked hard and paid my way through college. Why should someone else have their college paid for? If we have an honest moment we’d admit this wasn’t entirely true. My parents paid for my education just like we are saving up for our daughter’s education. Additionally, the government intervened and funded public colleges when we were little. Those educations were subsidized. They aren’t subsidized as much now and that is one reason why they’re considerably more expensive. In other words, whether my parents paid or not, I had help just the same.

Progressivism is simply the thought that government can help make this a better world than we had. The hard work comes down to how we do it. One of my other favorite complaints I hear is that “we can’t afford it.” Yet, dozens of other countries manage to do it. You afford what you choose to afford. The whole idea behind a federal, state, and local budget is that we all contribute to make our lives better. Some of the things we spend money on don’t help a majority of the people. Maybe it’s time to reexamine our priorities.

A number of community colleges are adding career certification programs to beef up careers that we would stereotypically call trades or blue collar jobs. These are all good paying jobs that the economy needs. Those certifications would be the equivalent of an associate’s degree. Certainly free community college is within our grasp and would allow millions of Americans the chance to get their feet under them with good paying jobs and little to no debt in the process.

We can do that. We can make life easier for the next generation. They can make it easier for their children as well. That’s really how societies work. That’s how successful societies work. While it might be fashionable to sit in your lawn chair and shout, “get off my lawn” that isn’t really the way we operate. It might be fashionable to brag about how difficult we had it and that we did just fine, but do we really want our children to struggle as much as we did? Is that the world we really want to leave them?

Author: sbarzilla

I have written three books about baseball including The Hall of Fame Index. I also write for You can follow me on twitter @sbarzilla.

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