Livin’ in a Left-Brained World

Michael Metzger

The president’s debt-forgiveness plan reminds us we’re livin’ in a left-brained world.

On August 24th President Biden announced a sweeping debt-forgiveness plan through executive order. The federal government will “forgive” up to $10,000 from the balances of individuals earning less than $125,000 a year, and $20,000 for those who received Pell grants, which are mostly awarded to university students from poor families. Sounds generous, doesn’t it? It’s not. It reminds us we’re livin’ in a left-brained world.

I recognize no one is right- or left-brain only. But we pay attention to the world via our right or left hemisphere. Ninety-five percent of the Western world population biases the brain’s left hemisphere. And therein lies the rub. Iain McGilchrist says the right hemisphere has an intuitive sense of numbers and their relative size in the larger context. The left hemisphere by contrast thinks of numbers as absolutes (e.g., 3-1=2) but has no intuitive sense of what they mean in the larger context.

And there’s another distinction between the hemispheres that bears on the president’s plan. The left hemisphere “prefers single meanings” and “single solutions,” McGilchrist writes. The right hemisphere on the other hand sees complexity in issues.

Now look at the president’s plan. Those who bias the left hemisphere think of debt as absolutes. Pretend I owe $30,000 in student loans. The president’s plan “forgives” $10,000 of my debt. $30k-$10k=$20k. Sounds like a good deal to me.

It doesn’t to those who bias the right hemisphere. They ask Where’s this “forgiveness” money coming from? It comes from the federal government which is deeply in debt. How much? Current federal debt is $28.43 trillion. The US population in 2021 was 332.8 million. $28.43 trillion is the equivalent of every individual in the US owing @$86,000.

Add to this the federal government’s unfunded liabilities (Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security). They’re not included in our “official” national debt but have grown to $162 trillion, equivalent to more than $534,600 for every individual in the US. If every individual in the US paid the US government $620,600 the entire US federal debt would be gone.

Those who bias the right hemisphere recognize that ain’t gonna happen. They recognize the president’s plan adds to this mountain of debt, one that can only be repaid two ways: the US Treasury can pump more money into the system, lowering the value of every dollar but also lowering its debt (the Feds euphemistically call this “quantitative easing”). Or the economy can expand, reducing the federal debt relative to the size of the economy. But history reminds us that as the economy expands, tax revenues increase, so government spending increases, increasing the federal government’s debt and unfunded liabilities.

Those who bias the left hemisphere have difficulty paying attention to all this. Seeking single simple solutions, they hear “unfunded liabilities” and eyes glaze over… yada, yada, yada.

Those who bias the right hemisphere pay attention longer. They note that everyone holding student loans, rich or poor, has not had to make payments since March 2020. It’s cost the federal government an estimated $60 billion a year. They also that 69 percent of benefits of this blanket forgiveness accrued to those in the top 60 percent of the income distribution.

Again, for those who bias the left hemisphere… yada, yada, yada.

Those who bias the right hemisphere also note that the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget reckons Biden’s plan will cost between $400 billion and $600 billion. Having just dubbed its recently climate-change and tax plan the Inflation Reduction Act—because it would reduce net federal expenditures by $300bn over the next decade—writers in The Economist suggest we call this the Inflation Acceleration Act.

But for those who bias the left hemisphere… yada, yada, yada.

Finally, those who bias the right hemisphere pay attention to reports from institutions such as the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. It estimates that aggregate student-loan debt loads will return to their present levels in five years. The president’s “forgiveness” plan solves nothing in the long-term. It’s a short-term partisan play for votes.

That’s not original. Read The Partisan Power of Money by John C. Calhoun. Published in 1851, Calhoun recognized that the “fiscal action” of government was an irresistible temptation to those who would use power to reward partisans with benefits and punish enemies through taxation. This divides the country into two antagonistic classes; one consisting of those who bear the brunt of paying taxes and “those who are the recipients of their proceeds.” The president’s plan is mostly paid for by the middle class but accrues to those in the top 60 percent of income distribution, often coastal elites, graduates of elite universities.

I close with two comments. First, this column seeks to be non-partisan. But when it comes to economics, Democrats have a decided advantage over Republicans. Livin’ in a left-brained world, Dems cut a check for $1,200 to every individual and everyone’s happy. Traditional Republican thinking is more complex, macroeconomic, taking into account debt loads, government spending relative to private investment, and so on. But Republican leadership has lately been lousy at picturing Econ 101 to a left-brained population. Their loss.

Second comment. I wish more churches would touch on these issues related to the public square. The early church did. She argued for a public square that can promote (as Augustine put it) the “best of citizens.” Christians ought to be the best of citizens, recognizing there’s no such thing as free “forgiveness” of debt. Jesus paid our debt. When it comes to student debt, someone, somewhere, somehow pays. When payment falls disproportionately on the middle class, the partisan power of politics further divides America into two warring classes.

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7 Comments

  1. “The president’s “forgiveness” plan solves nothing in the long-term. It’s a short-term partisan play for votes.” — Agreed. But to assume that Republicans are “fiscally conservative” and Democrats are not, is naive. Where were the fiscal conservatives when the Republicans cut taxes on corporations? Where were the fiscal conservatives when in a straight line percentage tax cut, gave 80% to the top tier fat cats?

    I used to think that federal debt was a problem until I realized, the people who buy the debt are the rest of the world and as long as the world is so unstable, money will flow to the US to buy our bonds because it is the safest place to invest. The taxpayer will never have to pay back that debt as long as the world buys it for us. If we lose their trust, (and this is a distinct possibility given our debt ceiling games) then watch out.

    As to the $10,000. My daughter owes $18,000 and, because she is a missionary, she can only afford to pay $125 a month towards that debt. It will take her until she is 49 just to pay off the principle, let alone the interest. This gift from the government cuts the time to 5 years. God bless Joe Biden.

  2. As always, I love your writing and appreciate your use of McGilchrist. Thanks. I was just wondering if it might be possible — asking for a friend — to rewrite this, flipping it around, saying those who bias the right brain and therefore aren’t caught in reductionistic mathematical answers, might thereby imagine maybe more multi-dimensional and complex benefits of the debt forgiveness scheme. And that those with what you say is the more typical left brain only see the mathematical details. Actually, I wonder if the description you have of the obvious problems with the plan (the data about the national debt) is a perception of not the right brain but more the domain of the typical left. In other words, when you first started this off, I figured you were going to say it was those constrained to the typical left brain who were stuck in the financial details, but a right brained perception maybe had a more open-minded/ creative scope and could see the nuanced benefits. I’m not exactly ready to make that case, but your remarks about the forgiveness policy problems didn’t strike me as all that right brained; you just looked at data about the finances differently. Both “sides” seems to be pretty rooted in standard-fair Western assumptions about data and cash, progress and growth — that is, the left brained details.

  3. Byron: Good question… or points. I think McGilchrist would say those who bias the right brain don’t reduce complex monetary issues to simple solutions. Yes, they might imagine “more multi-dimensional and complex benefits” of Biden’s forgiveness plan but more to the point they imagine more multi-dimensional and complex problems with the plan. It seems to me that most Americans are blithely unaware of them .

    According to J.H. Cullum Clark, Director at the Bush Institute-SMU Economic Growth Initiative, “History teaches that high spending on politically-favored priorities and rising debt have consistently undermined growth through three standard mechanisms — crowding out private-sector investment, crowding out public-sector investment in longer-term priorities, and sparking financial crises as investors come to doubt the government’s creditworthiness.” These are the sorts of considerations that folks who bias the right hemisphere of the brain take into account.

  4. Tom: An additional thought. I too graduated from college and went into missionary work (Campus Crusade, 1976). Back then, grads with debt were encouraged to find work and pay off the loan, then join Crusade. I worked personnel for Crusade in the summer of 1981, assessing new staff applicants. It was policy back then that if you had debt, find work and pay it off, then apply to be a missionary.

  5. …and this is precisely why there is an increasing trend of folks who would self-identify as political “nones.” Much like religious “nones,” political “nones” adhere to an agnostic view of politics – not denying the existence or intervention (in this case, invasiveness) of politics in their lives, but simply not acknowledging or adhering to any political party. This is a growing movement of people (many of them much younger than myself) who are turning to decentralized systems of exchange, buying up cryptocurrency, even going so far as to ditch their 401-k’s and conventional healthcare plans for other alternatives. They see left and right as a paradigm from which one must break free. This movement gets mocked, shrugged off and ignored – but I assure you, it’s growing slowly, steadily and quietly behind the scenes.

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