Archives: October, 2008

Federal Student Aid: Our Disaster in Microcosm

I should have posted this yesterday, but was busy with other things, including a terrific discussion about higher education featuring Charles Murray, author of the new book Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality, and St. John’s College, Annapolis, President Christopher Nelson. (The video should be up shortly if you’re looking for a little enlightenment.)

Anyway, there was, as many in the edublogosphere have been lamenting, almost no mention of education in Tuesday night’s debate. There were, however, quick, periodic mentions from Senator Obama of the need to make college affordable, something he plans to do by throwing yet more cash into already overflowing federal student aid streams. Unfortunately, no education commentators looking to latch onto our current economic woes and be heard have made this clear connection (probably because they don’t want to): Federal student aid is our current, government-driven, economic disaster in microcosm. Washington has been buying middle-class votes with ever-greater loads of student aid for decades, but rather than making college more affordable it has wasted hundreds-of-billions of taxpayer dollars, driven tuition higher and higher into the stratosphere, and made colleges richer and fatter. It’s a perfect example of how government “help”–such as Fannie and Freddie buying sub-prime loans like they were plastics–only truly helps politicians get re-elected, special interests wealthier, and everyone else stuck with huge bills.

The Freedom to Pay for Only the Features You Need

After listening to the second McCain-Obama debate the other night, I saw an ad for Progressive.com that promised to reduce your auto insurance premiums by letting you pay for only the features that you need.  It was as though the Invisible Hand had just watched the candidates discussing health care, and quickly whipped off an ad to tell Obama how stupid is his plan to force people to buy insurance coverage that they don’t need.

All of which inspired an oped that appears in today’s New York Post.  An excerpt:

Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to choose the features of your health policy, just like your auto insurance?

John McCain proposes to let you do just that, simply by letting you choose a plan available in another state. With the power to choose a policy regulated by a state with fewer mandated benefits and no community-rating laws, you could knock $1,000 off the price of a $7,000 plan.

This would boost coverage, too: A recent study by economists at the University of Minnesota suggests that McCain’s proposal could cover an added 12 million Americans.

But Obama sees choice as dangerous. He fears that “where there are no requirements for you to get cancer screenings,” no insurers would offer such coverage. The New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn echoes, “Less cancer screening under McCain’s plan? Actually, yes.”

Nonsense. California doesn’t mandate colon-cancer screening, yet Kaiser Permanente of Northern California is a leader in such research and boasts the most aggressive screening program in the country.

Michigan doesn’t mandate prostate or cervical cancer screening, yet six of the University of Michigan’s seven insurance offerings cover both. That’s where Cohn gets his insurance, so I’ll bet him a fancy dinner that he has coverage for both, even without a mandate.

If anyone from my senior-year calculus class is out there (what were there, six of us?), you may recognize the reference to a horrific chapter from my academic career.

McCain and the Military Budget

John McCain likes to hold himself out as a fiscal conservative, and compared to Barack Obama there is no comparison. McCain expresses concern over the mountains of debt that George Bush and his willing accomplices in Congress have left for future generations, and has put forward modest plans for reversing these ominous trends. For example, the Republican pledges to freeze some government spending – with the notable exclusion of the military budget, veterans benefits, and entitlements – and perhaps to eliminate certain federal agencies, although in last night’s debate he didn’t stipulate which ones. Obama will not commit to similar steps to halt the runaway train of federal spending, and his tax increases are unlikely to generate nearly enough revenue to offset his proposed spending increases, and may well make the fiscal imbalance worse by stifling entrepreneurship and job creation.

But McCain’s specific proposals don’t add up to considerable savings. For example, last night he cited his opposition to the Boeing tanker deal, which he claimed saved taxpayers $6.8 billion (back in June, McCain put the figure at $6.2 billion). He has mentioned his opposition to earmarks, which total $18 billion. In the previous debate, he suggested that eliminating cost-plus contracts would save money in the Pentagon, but he didn’t venture a guess as to how much. Such modest proposals invited Obama counterattacks: the Democrat noted that the costs from the Iraq War, which McCain has pledged to continue until we achieve “victory,” would erase McCain’s vaunted earmark savings in less than two months.

Beyond sparring over Iraq War costs, however, the two candidates have not been pressed to justify their plans for military spending.

Personnel costs constitute roughly one third of the total defense budget, and are likely to grow in 2009 regardless of who wins next month’s election. Both McCain and Obama support President Bush’s decision to increase the size of our ground forces by 92,000 men and women over a five-year period. It is curious that Obama, a man who wears his opposition to the war in Iraq like a badge of honor, would support such increases. If Obama gets his wish, and removes most U.S. military personnel from Iraq over a 16-month period, he will presumably have more than enough troops to surge some into Afghanistan, while still reducing the burdens on our men and women in uniform, and their families. So, why the need for still more troops? Where else would a President Obama send them? Darfur? Congo? Burma? Georgia? He hasn’t said.

But leaving that aside, the scheduled increases are not nearly enough for John McCain. Writing in Foreign Affairs late last year, McCain pledged, “As president, I will increase the size of the U.S. Army and the Marine Corps from the currently planned level of roughly 750,000 troops to 900,000 troops.” If McCain gets his wish, these two branches will be nearly 40 percent larger than they were prior to 9/11.

And how much will these additional troops cost? By my estimates, nearly 10 times what McCain would save if he eliminated every single earmark.

In April 2007, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that Bush’s plan to grow the force would cost an additional $108 billion through 2013. Backing out those figures – $108 billion / 92,000 – equates to $1,173,913 per additional man or woman in uniform. Applying that same number to McCain’s additional 150,000 troops comes to $176 billion.

Don’t take my admittedly crude, back-of-the-envelope estimate as gospel. According to earlier Army estimates, every additional 10,000 soldiers cost about $1.2 billion a year, so the costs of McCain’s proposal to grow the force by another 20 percent might ultimately total less than $176 billion. But if CBO pegged the earlier Bush increases at $108 billion over six years, then it seems logical to conclude that McCain’s additional 150,000 will cost still more than that.

And McCain is proposing to increase that portion of the military budget that has already witnessed considerable cost growth in recent years. The military has boosted bonuses to entice new recruits to join, and to keep those already in the service from leaving. Health care costs have also risen for the military, just as they have in the private sector. If anything, the CBO’s projections likely understate the true costs of the additional troops, because they consider only the incremental expenses associated with adding 92,000 new personnel to the system, but do not fully account for the long-term costs of keeping these troops paid, fed and equipped over the course of their military careers. Then there are the additional expenses associated with caring for more military retirees.

In two successive debates, moderators Jim Lehrer and Tom Brokaw have tried to pin the candidates down on what they would do to control spending, and both times the candidates have evaded the question. CBS’s Bob Schieffer gets his shot next week in the third and final debate. Rather than an open ended “What would you cut?” question, he might ask them how much their different plans for increasing the size of the military will cost the taxpayers.

Say It Ain’t So, NCC!

Apparently, former President Bill Clinton has been chosen as the next chairman of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. In terms of unintentional irony, that’s right up there with “The Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom.”

In the waning days of his presidency, Clinton said of the impeachment struggle that he was, “proud of what we did there, because we saved the Constitution of the United States.” Like his successor, he seemed to see the Constitution in highly personal terms–as a document designed to protect his powers and prerogatives. When it came to others’ rights, eh, not so much.

Here are a few Cato publications you can peruse to get a sense of President Clinton’s fidelity to the Constitution: Tim Lynch’s Dereliction of Duty: The Constitutional Record of President Clinton, my paper on Clinton’s Imperial Presidency , and Roger Pilon’s edited volume The Rule of Law in the Wake of Clinton. Tim Lynch summed it up succinctly:

Although President Clinton has expressed support for an “expansive” view of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, he has actually weakened a number of fundamental guarantees, including those of free speech and the right to trial by jury and that against double jeopardy. He has also supported retroactive taxes, gun control, and warrantless searches and seizures. The president’s legal team is constantly pushing for judicial rulings that will sanction expansions of federal power. The Clinton White House has, for example, supported the federalization of health care, crime fighting, environmental protection, and education. Clinton also claims constitutional authority to order military attacks against other countries whenever he deems it appropriate. President Clinton’s record is, in a word, deplorable. If constitutional report cards were handed out to presidents, he would receive an F.

Of course, if we were to grade on a curve, we’d have to bump Bill up a few notches compared to the man who followed him. One of “Lowi’s Laws”–maxims coined by the political scientist Theodore J. Lowi–was “the Law of Succession: Each president contributes to the upgrading of his predecessors.” And George W. Bush’s constitutional record certainly makes Bill Clinton’s look less awful by comparison. Tim and I examined the Bush constitutional record in this 2006 White Paper.

But we shouldn’t grade on a curve. And an institution like the NCC, which otherwise does fantastic work “increasing public understanding of, and appreciation for, the Constitution, its history, and its contemporary relevance,” shouldn’t have a man who repeatedly violated his oath of office as its chairman. In fact, choosing any modern president as NCC chair (Clinton succeeds George H.W. Bush as chairman) is utterly wrongheaded. The modern presidency is an office that has burst its constitutional bonds, so virtually any living ex-president has already violated the document the NCC exists to promote.

What Is This Drawing About?

Arts+Labs, a new coalition “committed to a better, safer internet that works for both artists and consumers,” has written up Friday’s book forum on The Crime of Reason on their ArtLab blog. Author Robert B. Laughlin will present his book, then we’ll have comments from Tom Sydnor of the Progress and Freedom Foundation.

I’ve gotten a glimpse at the slides Dr. Laughlin will be using, and this Nobel laureate in physics also turns out to be something of an artist.

Join us Friday to learn what this image is all about.

Obama to Deploy Troops to America’s Health-Care Sector

From last night’s presidential debate:

Barack Obama: So one of the things that I have said from the start of this campaign is that we have a moral commitment as well as an economic imperative to do something about the health care crisis that so many families are facing…

Tom Brokaw: What is the Obama doctrine for use of force that the United States would send when we don’t have national security issues at stake?

Barack Obama: Well, we may not always have national security issues at stake, but we have moral issues at stake.

You’ve been warned.