Archives: 09/2006

College Aid Calculations Don’t Measure Up

Every other year, the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education (NCPPHE) – an organization run almost exclusively by politicians and higher education insiders – issues a report called Measuring Up, which typically declares that as a nation we provide far too little aid to students to help them afford college. Measuring Up 2006, released today, is no different.

Now, to be fair, the 2006 edition of the biennial woe-fest does make a good point about government-funded student aid, noting that it has increasingly targeted middle and even upper-class – rather than low-income - students. Of course, it fails to note the inevitability of that outcome given that aid to the poor must be accompanied by aid to the middle class to be politically viable.

Where Measuring Up 2006 deserves scorn, though – as have previous Measuring Up reports – is in how it calculates federal student aid, a critical part of the report’s determination of college affordability.

A reasonable person would, of course, consider federal aid to be any kind of financial assistance provided to students by the federal government. That would be both federal and aid, after all. But the folks at NCPPHE don’t see it that way. No, for them, only Pell grants count as federal aid. Why? Because, according to the Measuring UpTechnical Guide” – which is separate from the main report – “Pell grants are by far the largest component of federal grant aid.”

Oh, come on! According to data from the College Board, while it is true that Pell grants provide more aid than any other federal grant programs, Pell is still far from the only federal grant initiative, and not even close to the only federal aid program.

Here are the numbers: In the 2004-05 academic year, while the federal government doled out $13.1 billion in Pell grants, it provided an additional $6.3 billion through work study and grant programs other than Pell. Add to that the $8.0 billion that people received through federal higher education tax benefits, and the non-Pell total surpasses the Pell amount, hitting $14.3 billion. And then there are federal loans, which even when not technically subsidized (the feds pay the interest on the loans for a given amount of time) are still in reality subsidized because they are backed with taxpayer dollars, which helps keep their interest rates artificially low. Add those loans – a total of $62.4 billion – to the student aid pot and Pell grants are absolutely dwarfed, coming in at just 14 percent of all federal aid.

And so, the higher education establishment has struck again. Absurdly defining all federal student aid as just Pell grants, Measuring Up 2006 has ignored the vast majority of aid furnished by federal taxpayers and cried out for more money. It’s just the kind of accounting that could only measure up in a report intended to further rip off taxpayers and enrich the ivory tower.

So Should We Go Dutch, or Not?!?

A while back, Reason Magazine’s Julian Sanchez blogged about what he saw as an inconsistency in my position on the Dutch national school voucher program. Though I missed his post at the time, it’s worth responding to.

Julian pointed out that I have bemoaned the stifling regulatory encroachment  besetting private voucher schools in the Netherlands, while also touting the superior academic outcomes of those schools.

What gives?

The answer is relativity. While Dutch academic performance is among the best in the world, that does not mean it is anywhere near as good as it would be under actual market conditions. The Netherlands competes with nations (like our own) suffering from morbidly obese government school monopolies. Their own system, with its modicum of parental choice and competition, is merely fat and out of shape by comparison. When they race, the Netherlands invariably comes out at or near the front of the pack. That does not mean it is the Carl Lewis of school systems.

The same can be said of the Dutch school system’s impact on social harmony. While it has advantages in this area over state school monopolies, it still has shortcomings when compared to market systems that do not rely on government funding of private schools to ensure universal access.

So, when I talk about the Dutch voucher program, I try to point out its shortcomings while also noting that – even though it falls short of a true market – it outperforms our calcified centrally planned school systems.

As Julian no doubt saw, I wrapped-up my earlier piece trumpeting the academic superiority of the Dutch system with the following caveat:

All this might sound like a sales pitch for introducing a Dutch-style voucher program. It isn’t. As it happens, research suggests that there are even better ways to reintroduce the benefits of parental choice and competition in education.

When everyone else is moving backwards, the guy who’s standing still seems like a high-achiever.

Welcome to the Blackout Period! NOT

Today McCain-Feingold’s 60-day window on electioneering communications opens. Perhaps a better metaphor would be that the window slams shut.

An electioneering communication is a broadcast ad that mentions a candidate for federal office. Until election day you cannot sponsor an electioneering communication unless you meet certain conditions specified by federal election law.

Practically, this part of McCain-Feingold means business corporations, labor unions, many interest groups (which are incorporated), and groups that receive money from corporations or unions may not fund ads mentioning candidates for federal office. The same groups also may not sponsor ads urging citizens to contact their member of Congress about an issue if that member is running for re-election.

Defenders of McCain-Feingold (and a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court) have argued that the electioneering communication rules do not prohibit political speech. After all, these groups can simply form a political action committee or use other available alternatives to sponsor the advertising.

Maybe, maybe not. In 2000, a donor gave the NAACP a multi-million dollar gift that was used to fund ads criticizing a candidate for federal office, George W. Bush. Under McCain-Feingold, the NAACP would have had to raise that multi-million dollar donation under federal law including disclosure requirements and contribution limits. Raising money under those constraints is much harder than receiving a single gift from one donor. Given those difficulties, the NAACP might well have not raised as much money with a PAC as they did in 2000 from that one contributor. Of course, funds that are not raised cannot be spent on political speech.

Jim Bopp, Jr., a leading First Amendment lawyer, has recently noted other ways McCain-Feingold discourages speech:

 “As one who represents advocacy groups, I have seen first hand that the burdens and undesirability of each available alternative [for example, PACs]  is such that the vast majority of advocacy groups have abandoned issue advertising during the blackout periods… One of the key considerations is that to avail oneself of one of these alternatives requires (1) hiring expert legal assistance to design and implement such strategies and (2) exposing your organization to heightened scrutiny by the FEC, press, and offended public officials.  As a result, only the wealthiest, most sophisticated, and most insistent have assumed these burdens and risks.  The vast majority of advocacy groups have just dropped out – to the everlasting joy of incumbent politicians who face less scrutiny from the general public for what they do to us and for us in office.  A prohibition indeed!”

I am reminded of Frederic Bastiat’s essay on “The Seen and the Unseen.” Americans see the political world after McCain-Feingold. Electoral ads continue to run, and no one has been sentenced to a re-education camp. They conclude that nothing all that bad has happened to free speech.

Americans do not see the political speech that would have existed if McCain-Feingold had not been enacted. They thus discount the possibility that the speech that may not exist in the future may be their own and that blackout periods now may portend a longer night to come.

Big Day

Today the U.S. government hands over control of the Iraqi army to the Iraqis and takes control of American political debate.

Incredibly, the McCain-Feingold ban on independent broadcast advertising that mentions candidates by name, beginning 60 days before the election, is apparently not mentioned in any major media. The blackout period for free speech has been noted in newspapers by such civil libertarians as Ryan Sager, Jacob Sullum, and the D.C. Examiner. But no news stories warning people to stop talking about candidates. No editorials from major papers deploring this restriction on political speech before an election. Nor even any editorials hailing the new restrictions, which might be more likely since most major papers endorsed the McCain-Feingold legislation.

What would McCain, Feingold, and the New York Times say if the U.S.-backed government in Iraq banned any criticism of itself for the next 60 days? Would they say “one giant step toward democracy”? I doubt it.

Anyway, if you want to criticize a member of Congress, or just ask your neighbors to call him about an issue, you’re free to do that – starting November 8.

Gingrich’s Big Government Manifesto

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is reportedly planning to run for president in 2008, hoping to ride a wave of nostalgia for the Republican revolution of 1994 to the nomination.   Admittedly, the current Republican Congress is so bad on so many issues, that Gingrich’s tenure looks like the good old days.   But anyone who seriously believes that Gingrich is a small-government conservative in the mold of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, should look at the new Contract with America-style manifesto that Newt has proposed as the basis for Republicans to campaign on this fall.

Much of the proposal is simple pandering to various base groups.  Confronted with the many serious problems facing this country, Newt proposes that Republicans base their campaign on such crucial issues as declaring English to be the national language, forbidding the courts from considering cases involving the words “under God” in the pledge of allegiance, and creating a national voter ID card.   Many other proposals would explicitly increase the size of government.  For example, Gingrich would expand No Child Left Behind to create national teacher competency standards.

Gingrich does call for Congress to cut spending.  Well, not exactly.  He does not actually call for any specific spending cuts.  What he proposes is budget legislation that would lead to a balanced budget in seven years.  Perhaps balancing the budget takes so long because he wants to spend so much more on a national energy policy.  Gingrich proposes an array of subsidies to every conceivable energy interest group and project from ethanol to hydrogen-powered cars.  Of course, there’s nothing in Gingrich’s manifesto about reforming entitlement programs.  That’s hardly surprising—Gingrich supported the Medicare prescription drug benefit.

Gingrich does embrace a couple of good ideas, such as making permanent the repeal of the death tax and overturning the Kelo Supreme Court decision.  But, in general, Gingrich seems to be calling for the Republican Party to continue its march toward big government conservatism.  Goldwater and Reagan must be spinning in their graves.

What You Don’t Know Is Costing You… Dearly

The excellent blog Sound Politics had a great post yesterday by Marsha Michaelis, revealing how little Washington state residents know about current levels of public school funding. Washington is fairly close to the national average, with total per-pupil spending in 2004-05 coming in at $10,121. Only 12 percent of Washingtonians surveyed came within $2,000 of that figure. (There’s nothing special about Washington state in this regard, by the way. A similar knowledge gap was found earlier this year in Florida).

When asked if $10K was too low, too high, or about right, 61 percent of Washingtonians said it was either too high or about right.

In other words, the reason taxpayers keep voting to increase public school spending is that they have no idea what is being spent per child now. If they did know, they’d stop feeding the beast.

But why doesn’t the public know how much the public schools spend per-pupil? I’ll let Marsha explain that one.

Lenin, Hitler, Bin Laden — and Iraq

In his speech yesterday before the Military Officers Association of America, President Bush focused on Osama bin Laden’s speeches and writings. “We know what the terrorists intend to do because they’ve told us,” Bush told the assembled crowd, “and we need to take their words seriously.”

For the president’s part, bin Laden’s words affirm that Iraq is the central front in the war on terror. “For al Qaeda,” the president explained, “Iraq is not a distraction from their war on America – it is the central battlefield where the outcome of this struggle will be decided.”

We know of Al Qaeda’s intentions – to expel the Americans from Iraq, and then to establish a Caliphate there – but what do we know of their capacity for achieving such ends? History is littered with the names of kooks and fanatics who aspired to global world domination. In relatively recent times, Americans remember cult leaders such as David Koresh, and perhaps even Jim Jones, but the vast majority of these individuals merit barely a footnote in textbooks.

The president wishes us to focus on the exceptions, on the evil, tyrannical few who have managed to translate their grandiose intentions into reality. He pointed to Lenin, and to Hitler, men who laid out their plans in clear view, in published writings and in speeches, but who were all but ignored until after they had seized the reins of power.

President Bush further contends that bin Laden has much in common with Lenin and Hitler, and that “History teaches that underestimating the words of evil and ambitious men is a terrible mistake.”

We must not underestimate bin Laden, but we would be foolish to fight a war on his terms. We must especially avoid the apocalyptic conclusion that a U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq will have the effect of handing all of Iraq over to Al Qaeda on a silver platter. For what differentiates the Lenins and Hitlers of the world from countless other megalomaniacal fanatics was their unique ability to marry their evil designs to the power and resilience of a modern state, complete with an industrial base and a functioning military.

As Justin Logan and I wrote last year, the claims that bin Laden can and will create such a super state in Iraq are absurd on their face. The Kurds will not tolerate Al Qaeda in their midst. Neither will the Shiites, including many of the factional leaders and militia groups that are outspoken in their hostility to the United States. Even many Sunni Arabs, the minority who have lost the most since Saddam Hussein was removed from power, are loathe to make common cause with the murderous jihadists perpetrating indiscriminate violence against innocent Iraqis.

Rather than empowering potential allies in the fight against Al Qaeda, the continuing U.S. military presence is discouraging Iraqis from stepping forward because it feeds into bin Laden’s cynical narrative – that the Western nations, with the United States in the lead, seek to humiliate and dominate Iraqis, and all the Arab peoples. Absent a formal pledge to leave, ideally by some date certain, President Bush’s repeated assertions to the contrary are seen as nothing more than rhetoric, in contrast to the proximate, physical reality of nearly 140,000 U.S. troops on sacred Arab lands.

The occupation is counterproductive in the war against Al Qaeda, but it is also ineffective in its other stated aims. Nearly three and a half years since American forces went into Iraq, the U.S. military presence has not delivered on the promise of establishing a stable and unified Iraq. And for those who say Americans must be more patient, that monumental change takes time, perhaps even generations, it is not too much to expect that the trend lines would at least be moving in the right direction.

But they are not. Three nationwide elections in 2005 have not delivered stability, nor have they contributed to it. If anything, the political process in Iraq has empowered some of the most radical elements in Iraqi society. The ethnic militias and the death squads have used the political process to infiltrate the Iraqi Interior and Health ministries, among others, and have subverted the good faith efforts of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to establish order.

With no definitive milestones on the horizon – there are no nationwide elections scheduled for Iraq until 2009 – the occupation grinds on indefinitely. Beyond the sickening drip-drip-drip of American casualties, there is the torrent of violence against Iraqis, particularly sectarian killings of Iraqi vs. Iraqi. From this maelstrom of bloodshed, the president can offer only more of the same. “The road ahead is going to be difficult, and it will require more sacrifice.”

That it is, and that it will be.