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“We need to have a public debate about where markets belong—and where they don’t.” Michael Sandel

Why are our schools a major cash cow for the banking industry?

This is one of the major questions I sought to answer when researching my most recent piece about the role of investment banks in school construction. It is pretty well known to most Americans that banks have a big role in financing higher education costs, typically in the form of student loans. While the Obama Administration has done good work to rein them in a bit, they’re still finding ways to play a major role in that industry. But fewer Americans know about the role of private investment banks in financing their local K-12 public schools. States and the federal government chip in very little, and districts are left to fend for themselves in rough and tumble bond markets. Billions of public dollars meant to support students are lost to fees and financing the role of these middlemen in the process of constructing our schools.

Back to student loans for higher education, the government isn’t much better, still maintaining a system that earns a major profit off of the backs of young people. Together with Wall St, the government charges American families a pretty penny for something that is a basic human right. In short, multiple generations of Americans are now shackled to debt in ways we’ve never seen before. Their life choices, their very freedom (which we purport to so love) are hampered in profound ways by this setup. Because that’s what it is, it’s a setup. We have found multiple creative ways to siphon off public funds from both our primary and higher education systems and send them to private markets.

“The United States government turns young people who are trying to get an education into profit centers to bring in more revenue for the federal government. This is obscene. The federal government should be helping students get an education – not making a profit off their backs.” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-MA

Why is that we choose, as a nation, to finance critical human services through private markets or charity? Private markets operate on the principle of scarcity, so we know before we even try to allocate through these markets that the service in question will not reach everyone it needs to, by design. And charity is not justice. So why farm out the provision of services that we all agree, in principle, that all people need, to systems that will, by design, consistently fail to deliver them broadly and fairly? It makes no sense, from a human rights perspective. But part of the problem is that we’re not looking at the issue from a human rights perspective, we’re busy worshipping at the altar of markets.

As Michael Sandel notes in The Atlantic (as well as in his book What Money Can’t Buy), using “markets to allocate health, education, public safety, national security, criminal justice, environmental protection, recreation, procreation, and other social goods were for the most part unheard of 30 years ago. Today, we take them largely for granted.” Sandel pushes us to think about whether, in society, we should reserve certain civic goods for non-market distribution because we simply value them differently.

For me, this resonates deeply as someone whose ancestors were bought and sold freely in deeply immoral “markets.” In many ways, markets have done much more harm than good for my people (Black people) and I take that quite personally. Perhaps it is that historical seed inside of me that pushes me to think beyond markets and about the balance between public and private goods. I strongly lean towards keeping services that meet fundamental human needs public/civic and leaving the production and distribution of “widgets” to private markets (with strong limits, as we’ve seen the need for in the recent Epi-Pen debacle.)

Finding the right balance between private and public is one our generation’s greatest challenges. We’ll need to stop pretending that markets are benign, amoral, or even wholly positive, especially those of us (I include myself here) who have benefited greatly from markets. If we hope to face down generational challenges like climate change and economic inequality, we’ll need to engage that debate in a vigorous and intentional fashion. Solving those issues will require a massive reconsideration of the neoliberal orthodoxy that’s been pumped into us. It will ask that we clearly and purposefully define the lines between our dual roles as both citizens and consumers.

I see a lot of my fellow Millennials just living their lives in a rather Epicurean manner (again, I include myself here), assuming the righteousness of markets in all corners of our lives, and it scares me. This becomes particularly apparent when one travels among a group of mostly Westerners. I realize that our current global economic structure demands that most of us spend most of our days doing things to make money in order to just survive. This comes into stark relief when one begins to travel and work remotely. For now, I am continually thinking of ways to draw out and highlight this debate about what kind of society we want to live in, one where everything is for sale or one where we’re conscious and intentional about what and how we value the things that matter most in our lives.