Archives: 08/2006

It Wasn’t Hard to See Coming

Today the federal Commission on the Future of Higher Education adopted its final report on reforming America’s ivory tower, and it’s just the sort of document one would expect from a commission stacked with higher education insiders. Indeed, I saw it coming months ago.

The report calls for substantially more taxpayer money to be spent on student aid, promoting “innovation,” and research. It also suggests throwing the doors open for a sweeping “partnership with states and federal agencies” to develop “a national strategy for lifelong learning,” and endorses the creation of a federal database populated with information on every college student in America, whether they receive public aid or not.

Perhaps the only areas where the report does not quite live up to my original expectations are in its sections on testing and “accountability.” It does urge schools to begin measuring student learning using standardized tests, and says the federal government should provide incentives for them to do so, but it stops short of saying outright, as I once feared, that the federal government should require such testing. What eventually put the kibosh on mandatory testing was that many higher education associations expressed big reservations about it, and the commission has tried very hard to please the ivory tower establishment.

Of course, the report’s recommendations are just the beginning. Next comes implementation, and politicians are likely to turn even the commission’s reasonable suggestions into bad policies. For instance, while the commission recommends focusing student aid more on the needy, policymakers are very unlikely to increase aid for the poor without also boosting it for wealthier people whose votes they need. The present student aid system demonstrates that reality perfectly.

Indeed, the corruption of the report’s few good recommendations began even before the document was approved. As I wrote yesterday, the draft which has now been adopted originally contained a passage suggesting that people consider – just consider – using more private loans. But that segment was removed when student advocacy groups protested against it, seemingly on the grounds that students should only get loans backed with money taken from taxpayers.

Which brings me to the ultimate point: No matter what kind of “common good” rhetoric it’s dressed up in, government policy primarily serves entrenched special interests, not the larger “American people.” That is why the only good recommendation this commission could have made would have been to get government out of the ivory tower, and why the recommendations it did make would do just the opposite.

A Civil War May Be the Necessary Next Step Toward a Political Equilibrium in Iraq

Iraq is an artificial country, the combination of three former Ottoman provinces with a quite different Muslim group dominant in each province. Few people have significant loyalty to any government of the combination of these provinces, and Iraq can probably be held together only by a strong man who commands the support of the military. After Tito’s death, for example, the former Yugoslavia broke up into six independent governments, and the separation of Serbia and Kosovo is still likely.

My judgment is that the only plausible political equilibria in Iraq are the emergence of a strong man or the fragmentation into three independent governments dominated by the Sunnis, Shia, and the Kurds. A civil war, I suggest, may be the necessary next step toward either of these outcomes. Current U.S. government policy, of course, is to try to achieve an accomodation among these groups without continued violence or an indefinite U.S. military role, an outcome that is desirable but increasingly implausible.

The U.S. government may not have the capability to prevent a civil war in Iraq, and in any case, we may not have a dog in that fight.

Our government, ironically enough, may prefer the emergence of a Sunni strong man to maintain a unified Iraq, someone like Saddam Hussein who is not subservient to Iran; and of course, Hussein was “our” man in the Middle East during the Iran-Iraq war. Fragmentation into three governments would be the preferred outcome only if it did not precipitate a larger regional war. The problem is that the Turks may oppose an independent Kurdistan on their border, and the Saudis may oppose a Shia state subservient to Iran on their border.

The increasing sectarian violence in Iraq may yet be controlled by the military and police forces of the current government without indefinite U.S. military support. Fine, but the Iraqi government should be aware that popular support for an indefinite U.S. military role in Iraq is falling rapidly. In the event of a more open civil war, the U.S. government should avoid taking any side in the conflict and should pursue a loss-minimizing strategy during a rapid phase-out of U.S. troops. In anticipation of a possible fragmentation of Iraq, the U.S. government may still have enough leverage on other governments to reduce the prospect of a larger regional war.

There is no plausibly rewarding outcome to the U.S. role in Iraq. Sometimes, the wisest course, if also the most difficult, is to choose the least bad of a set of bad outcomes.

Next Week at Cato Unbound: Mexicans in America

Tune in Monday for the August issue of Cato Unbound, devoted to the topic of “Mexicans in America.”

Richard Rodriguez, author of the celebrated Hunger of Memory and, most recently, Brown: The Last Discovery of America, leads off this month’s issue with a provocative meditation on the role of Mexico and Mexicans in the U.S. economy and consciousness. Hoover Institution senior fellow Victor Davis Hanson, author of Mexifornia, will reply, along with Douglas Massey of Princeton University’s Mexican Migration Project, and labor economist and immigration expert Steve Trejo at the University of Texas.

Here’s the subject:

Today’s heated debate over immigration and border control is largely a debate about Mexicans. It is often argued that Mexican immigrants in particular place a heavy burden on social services, especially in border states, bring crime in their wake, depress wages, and displace American workers. Some argue that although we are a nation of immigrants, and that immigration is generally good, Mexican immigrants are different: they are either unwilling or unable to assimilate and become full-fledged Americans, and, therefore, a heavy concentration of Mexican immigrants in the Southwest threatens a distinctly American way of life. How much truth, if any, is in these arguments? A reasonable debate about Mexican immigration requires that we really know about Mexicans in America. Who are the Mexicans coming to the U.S.? Are they fitting in? Are their children fitting in? Their children’s children? What kind of contribution are they making to the American economy and national character? In what ways are the U.S. and Mexico interdependent? Are the new Mexican immigrants buying homes, starting businesses, setting down roots? Are they upwardly mobile? Civically active? Is their participation in the labor market hurting American workers? Making America richer, economically and culturally? Answers to these questions can make a huge difference–between belief in amnesty and openness, or deportation and a wall. Getting it right matters. So let’s try to get it right.

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Michael Gerson Thinks You Are “Morally Empty”

If you like the work of the Cato Institute, that is.  “Morally empty” is how Bush’s former head speechwriter described the “small-government” aspect of small-government conservatism in this interview with Foreign Policy magazine:

It is superficially attractive. But in the long run, it’s politically self-destructive because [candidates] end up talking about the size of government while others are talking about education, healthcare, and serious public concerns. It’s morally empty because, from my tradition and political philosophy, any political movement has to have a vision of social justice and the common good in order to appeal [to people]. And government can play a part in that. I’ve seen over the last five years that it clearly can.

And in case you had caught your breath after almost six years of Bush’s foreign policy, here he is on the question “Which of the president’s speeches do you think best expresses his worldview?”

Probably the second inaugural, which he wanted to be the democracy speech—the culmination of a series of doctrines and approaches that we had defined in the previous two to three years. It talks very frankly about the necessity of democratic transformation for the future of American security. Particularly in the Middle East, the cycle of tyranny and radicalism has produced an unsustainable situation. That dynamic has to be changed, and democracy is the only way to do it. Some of it is working with authoritarian governments that may go down the path of reform, some of it is standing up for dissidents and taking the side of the oppressed, and some of it is confronting outlaw regimes that threaten the international order. This is, in many ways, the clearest crystallization of his foreign policy.

It’d be comforting to think they’ve learned their lesson, but they clearly haven’t.  In case your outrage quotient isn’t yet filled, you can read this interview at Christianity Today.  Gerson on the Democratic Party:

I would love to see the Democratic Party return to a tradition of social justice that was found in people like William Jennings Bryan. During that period, many if not most politically engaged evangelicals were in the Democratic Party, because it was a party oriented toward justice.

I don’t see much of that now in the Democratic Party. Instead of an emphasis on the weak and suffering, there’s so much emphasis on autonomy and choice. And so the party of William Jennings Bryan, the party of Franklin Roosevelt, I’m not sure it exists any more. But it would be good if it did.

Gerson on Republicans:

There are some members of the Republican Party who…have a much more narrow view of government’s role. It would be a shame if conservatism were to return to a much more narrow and libertarian and nativist approach.

Your Republican Party, ladies and gentlemen.  Bomb-slash-democratize the Arabs, accomplish “social justice,” cure AIDS in Africa, and ban gay marriage.  There’s going to be a lot of work left for the federal government, apparently, even after Bush leaves office.

Cavanaugh on Lieberman

Tim Cavanaugh’s short, acerbic postmortem on Joe Lieberman is worth a read. Here’s a snippet:

Lieberman is possibly the least libertarian member of the United States Senate: An infinite-state liberal who always found ways to oppose Social Security reform (which he allegedly supported), an absurd moral scold who co-sponsored the “Silver Sewer Awards” with William Bennett, a values buttinski who couldn’t resist attaching himself to Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube, he was in the final analysis nothing but a fake, a tartuffe, a figure able to puff enough gas into every opportunistic action to make it seem like an example of high principle.

Lessons Learned

A couple of days ago I wrote a surprisingly upbeat blog entry about the third public draft of the federal Commission on the Future of Higher Education’s report on reforming the American ivory tower. I should have known better: Today commission chairman Charles Miller removed one of the highlights of the draft, a statement asserting that private sector lending should be a much bigger part of the college funding picture than it currently is.

Apparently, that bright spot – well, bright for anyone other than students who are trying to grab as much taxpayer money as they can possibly get their hands on – produced too much pressure for the chairman. A letter sent to him by the Project on Student Debt opposing the nod to the private sector – which I’ve boiled down to its main points below – illustrates just how persuasive the arguments by student interest groups can be:

  1. Private loans have no limits on interest rates. If overall market rates go up, student loan rates could too!
  2. Private loans have no set limits on the amount students can borrow. Like chickens without a farmer, student borrowers will apparently eat private loan money until they explode.
  3. Private loans don’t include all the ways for students to get out of paying them back that federal loans do. Unlike government loans, where taxpayers get stuck eating the losses when students don’t repay what they borrow, private lenders, it seems, actually want their money back.
  4. Encouraging middle-class students to get private instead of federal loans won’t free up federal resources. Apparently, lots of middle-class kids take federal loans today even though they accrue no benefits from them. So why don’t they just use private loans? Oh, right: Federal loans have artificially low interest rates thanks to being guaranteed with taxpayer money, and federal borrowers can slough off all or part of their debt on the American people.

Sadly, the Project on Student Debt’s kind of “reasoning” has prevailed in higher education policy for decades, and its letter illustrates better than I ever could why the only thing the higher education commission should recommend is that government withdraw completely from the ivory tower. Unfortunately, the chairman’s actions today illustrate another thing better than I ever could: This sort of revolting, taxpayer-robbing, special-interest “logic” almost always prevails in politics, and the commission’s final report will be no different.