The Most Delightful—and Little-Noticed—Idea in Bill Clinton’s Speech

Bill Clinton addresses the Democratic National Convention on Wednesday.

Photo by Brendan SmialowskiAFP/GettyImages.

These days, it is fashionable to challenge the very notion of national political conventions. After all, they are devoid of suspense, meaningful debate, or even much good entertainment. But even so, they give us the opportunity to listen to the rhetoric of our national politicians, to see our major parties participate in a long-range debate with the other side, and to examine politicians in one of their most important public  habitats, the convention hall.

And every now and again, conventions produce a gem of a speech.


Watching Bill Clinton last night was like seeing Rembrandt painting a portrait—a master at work. But adding more superlatives to the many already offered is of little use. Instead I want to draw attention to a morsel buried in the speech. President Clinton promoted an idea that is already part of the Obama administration’s education finance reform: the ability to pay off college loans as fixed percentage of one’s income, rather than a fixed-dollar amount.

A more sophisticated version of this idea—initially proposed by Nobel laureate economists Milton Friedman and James Tobin, would lower barriers to education, reduce and almost eliminate barriers to the types of jobs that might be more socially useful but less financially rewarding that many students wish to take, and ensure a more equitable society. (See “Loan Ranger,” my 2009 Slate column for more on the topic.)

These are the values and policies we should want the government to promote.  The idea won’t get much attention—but it should.