On Student Debt, Democracy, Unions, and a Wealth Tax

I recently received an email from a man in my district with several pertinent questions on student debt, democracy, unions, and a wealth tax. Here are my responses, which also serve to further explain my perspectives on lawmaking and federal policy.

1. I owe over $180k in student debt, over $70k of it is private loans. My monthly payments are $500 a month, but will jump up to $850 a month next year once I finish my free associate’s degree (through my union). Even though I’ve been making payments since end of 2016, my interest rates are so high that they’ve pushed up student loans by an extra $20k since when I first left college. What’s your plan to address the Student Loan Debt Crisis?

I agree it is a crisis. I think we need to be thoughtful about forgiving student loans at a massive scale, but for people like you it would at least make sense to stop charging interest on the balance of both federal subsidized and unsubsidized loans, and to refund any interest that has already been charged. I think private student loans should be dischargeable in bankruptcy and would recommend this brief podcast episode on the topic: The Loan Ranger on The Indicator by Planet Money. We need to make public K–12 and public higher education a higher priority, at state and federal levels. Private institutions of higher education should not be allowed to mislead and rip off students with degrees that go nowhere, or even packing up shop in the middle of your degree so you are left with debt and no way to finish. They also do sneaky things like high tuition but everyone gets a generous “scholarship” admission offer. There is certainly an educational component needed for this too, but also legislative/policymaking action is needed. If we just forgive all student loans, though, it will benefit the wealthy and those with high incomes more (in raw dollar terms) than the working class, so we need to be selective about it.

2. Our democracy is healthiest the more that people participate in it. Do you have a stance on Ranked Choice Voting, Open Primaries, Election Day as a Holiday, Expanding Prisoner Voting Rights Restoration, Overturning Citizens United, ending gerrymandering, etc.?

I think prisoners should be able to vote and there are some states (Maine, Vermont) where this is already the case. For ranked choice voting, I think what Florida does for nonpartisan offices makes a lot of sense, having a primary and then a run-off for the top two candidates if no one gets more than 50% of the vote the first go-round. Yes, I support making Election Day a holiday… as well as fighting voter suppression such as what occurred in Georgia’s 2018 gubernatorial race. We should probably replace Columbus Day with Election Day, although it will be important that private employees actually get the day off to vote as most do not for Columbus Day. Gerrymandering is a travesty and I support whatever we can do to stop this practice, either Congressionally or in federal courts or at the state level. Citizens United v. FEC was decided as a 1st-amendment issue which makes it difficult to “overturn,” but I agree that campaign finance reform is sorely needed. As a Congressional candidate I am a long shot with no funds, and in the prior race we saw incumbent Michael Waltz raise $2.0 million compared with $3.2 million from Democratic opponent Nancy Soderberg plus several million from Michael Bloomberg’s PAC toward the end of the race. This is ridiculous. Most people would not be making these contributions if they do not expect to curry favor and get something in return. Florida also has egregiously high ballot access fees, so I have to pay $10,440 to get on the ballot or collect 5,479 petitions, which is a big barrier to entry that should be reduced or eliminated as it particularly affects women and minorities who might otherwise run for office.

3. As a Union Organizer/Rep, unions are very important to me. We’ve been playing defense for so long that we’re slowly losing all of our rights and the 40-hour work week to live off of is essentially a joke now. What’s your plan on strengthening unions to be as strong as they were before the Reagan Presidency?

I think the German model might be a good model for unions here, where they cooperate rather than giving take-it-or-leave-it offers as we have seen recently from the State of Florida regarding teacher pay increases. My American grandmother’s 2nd marriage was to a General Motors retiree, so I saw firsthand that even after being widowed in 2003 (she passed away in 2017), she had such excellent health insurance the likes of which most Americans will never see again. I think her in-network out-of-pocket annual maximum was $400 and out-of-network was $800. Of course, United Auto Workers was a tremendous cost to GM, but what we are seeing now is a dereliction of responsibility from both employers and the government. They keep telling us that right-to-work and being fired at the drop of a hat is capitalistic, competitive, and produces better outcomes for talented employees, which is a victim-blaming arrangement where people who can’t afford their bills are blamed for not being valuable enough to their employers in order to be paid better. I agree with Professor Robert Reich’s ideas that unions should be easier to form, companies should be held accountable, and we should move away from “right-to-work.” I’ve read plenty of accounts in the news of employees of TESLA or Amazon who lost a finger, hurt their back, have chemical burns or eyesight problems, and the companies covered it up not even filing OSHA paperwork and then set them out to pasture. Unions can help as a check on this sort of abusive illegal behavior, as can Congress and our federal agencies, but right now they aren’t doing a whole lot.

4. Would you support a wealth tax so that the less fortunate are not the ones carrying society on their backs and the wealthy will pay their fair share?

Yes, I support a wealth tax. In a prior article I suggested it should be on the top 0.1% by wealth. Many of America’s wealthiest have significant holdings of shares in public corporations they founded or have been closely involved with since the beginning. I would not suggest that they be forced to liquidate their shares, but that the U.S. Treasury department takes ownership of wealthy individuals’ corporate equity and other securities (in coordination with revised tax laws and the IRS), while allowing them to maintain their shareholder voting rights on ceded shares. Of course, what we are talking about here is unlikely to be accomplished by a president, let alone a new member of the U.S. House who is only 1 of 435, but I think it’s appropriate to move the dialogue in this direction. Really, a wealth tax tries to make up for our dereliction of duty when it comes to taxation over past decades, but especially with the Tax Cuts & Jobs Act of 2017 which I have dubbed the greatest robbery in modern American history. The estate tax exemptions are now ridiculously high, and there are all sorts of tricks for the super-rich to pay a lower percentage than the rest of the upper class and middle class Americans. If you think about it, we already have a wealth tax that is called state property tax. If your millage rate is 20, this means each year you are paying 2% of the value of your house, or $4,000 if it’s worth $200,000 (not considering exemptions and non-ad valorem assessments). That’s a wealth tax. We just don’t treat corporate equity in the same way, which is unfortunate. A wealth tax on the top 0.1% could address this, and the assets of the top 0.1% are also easier to value because they are often publicly traded or subject to rigorous accounting standards. I do not think we should be proposing wealth taxes on small businesses or anything that disenfranchises the working class, middle class, or even much of the upper class from their livelihoods. One of my campaign issues is to expand the IRS, in funding, technology, and manpower, including highly skilled employees such as lawyers and high-level accountants. Right now, even under existing tax law we are leaving at least $131 billion on the table or possibly even more. It is so disappointing to see headlines like The IRS Admits It Doesn’t Audit the Rich Because It’s Too Hard, while working-class American parents are having to go through getting audited for the Earned Income Tax Credit because they are easy targets.

Richard Thripp, Ph.D.
Democratic Candidate for U.S. Congress (FL-06)
Adjunct Faculty, University of Central Florida

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