I wrote something a while ago about why I think forgiving all student debt is neither a good idea nor progressive. One of the common responses to people who make the kinds of argument that I make is that, indeed, forgiving student debt is progressive, because, at least on the plan Sanders had, it would be paid for by a tax on speculative trades. So, it is progressive because it redistributes down.

After I saw that objection several times I realized that I didn’t have a well-formed concept of progressivity or regressivity, and didn’t really know what other people meant by it. So I’m asking you to do either or both: help me understand what progressive means, and/or understand why it matters that some policy is progressive.

To be clear. I agree that, if paid for the way Sanders planned to pay for it, loan forgiveness would have the net effect of redistributing down. Now, that doesn’t impress me a huge amount. Imagine a proposal that redistributed down from the top 1% just to the next 9%, and does nothing for the bottom 90%. Sure, that redistributes down, but the population within which it redistributes isn’t really of interest to me for now.

The definition of “progressive” on which the transfer from the top 1% to the next 9% is progressive is:

  • A policy is progressive as long as it has the net effect of redistributing resources downward at all.

That’s clearly not the definition underlying my objection to student debt forgiveness being progressive. (As I say, I just didn’t have a clear idea of what definition was in my head, but it wasn’t this one).

Here’s a second possible definition:

  • A policy is progressive as long as it has the net effect of reducing inequality of resources in the whole population

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