Archives: 11/2009

Rhodes Scholars and the Business World

On the weekend that next year’s Rhodes Scholars are announced, Elliot Gerson, American secretary of the Rhodes Trust and executive vice president of the Aspen Institute, writes in the Washington Post that he is greatly disappointed that a few Rhodes Scholars have gone into business.

Yes, you read that right. He’s disappointed that even a few Rhodes Scholars have chosen to go into business:

For more than a century Rhodes scholars have left Oxford with virtually any job available to them. For much of this time, they have overwhelmingly chosen paths in scholarship, teaching, writing, medicine, scientific research, law, the military and public service. They have reached the highest levels in virtually all fields.

In the 1980s, however, the pattern of career choices began to change. Until then, even though business ambitions and management degrees have not been disfavored in our competition, business careers attracted relatively few Rhodes scholars. No one suggested this was an unfit domain; it was simply the rare scholar who went to Wall Street, finance and general business management. Only three American Rhodes scholars in the 1970s (out of 320) went directly into business from Oxford; by the late 1980s the number grew to that many in a year. Recently, more than twice as many went into business in just one year than did in the entire 1970s.

Apparently Gerson believes that our best and brightest can accomplish more good for the world in such fields as writing, law, and bureaucracy than they can by creating, innovating, and improving lives in the world of business – the arena that not only provides all of us with more comfortable, more interesting lives, and has lifted billions of people out of the back-breaking labor and short lives that were the human condition for millennia, but also makes possible the luxuries of the Aspen Institute, which was founded by Walter Paepcke (1896-1960), chairman of the Container Corporation of America, and is supported by successful businesspeople and their heirs today.

Of course, it’s not clear that business needs Rhodes Scholars. Think of the businesspeople who have revolutionized our world in recent decades: Bill Gates and Paul Allen, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, Larry Ellison, David Geffen, Ted Turner, and Malcom McLean, among others, either never attended or never finished college. Sam Walton, Bill McGowan, and Fred Smith did finish college but weren’t Rhodes Scholars. In the Washington Post Jay Mathews notes that the chief executives of the top 10 U.S.-based Fortune 500 companies attended Pittsburg (Kan.) State, Texas at Austin, University College Dublin, Texas Tech, Texas at Austin, Dartmouth, Kansas, Gannon, Georgia State and Central Oklahoma, not the usual sources of Rhodes Scholars.

But the elite hostility to business – a holdover from Europe, perhaps, where aristocrats looked down on “trade,” or an unconscious echo of Marxism – is unseemly and harmful to both general prosperity and the individuals who are influenced by it to avoid productive enterprise. It crops up in President Obama’s commencement addresses sneering at students who want to “take your diploma, walk off this stage, and chase only after the big house and the nice suits and all the other things that our money culture says you should buy” and in Michelle Obama’s urging hard-pressed women in Ohio, “Don’t go into corporate America.” It’s nice that some people, like senators’ wives, can make $300,000 a year in “the helping industry,” but it’s business that produces the wealth that allows such nonprofit generosity.

Gerson and the Obamas are disparaging the people who built America – the traders and entrepreneurs and manufacturers who gave us railroads and airplanes, housing and appliances, steam engines, electricity, telephones, computers and Starbucks. Ignored here is the work most Americans do, the work that gives us food, clothing, shelter and increasing comfort. That work deserves at least as much respect as “scholarship, teaching, writing, medicine, scientific research, law, the military and public service.”

Homeownership Myths

In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Professor Joseph Gyourko, chair of the Wharton School’s Real Estate Department, lists what he sees as the five biggest myths about homeownership. Given the central role of federal housing policy, particularly Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, in our recent financial crisis, it is worth following Professor Gyourko’s suggestion and question whether a national policy of ownership, all the time for everyone, really makes sense.

Professor Gyourko’s five myths:

1.  Housing is a great long-term investment.

2.  The homebuyer tax credit makes buying a house more affordable.

3.  Homeowners are better citizens.

4.  It’s safe to buy a house with a very low downpayment.

5.  Owning is always cheaper than renting.

You’ll have to read the op-ed to see his explanations.  An important qualification on his analysis is that in many cases what can be good for the buyer, such as putting no money down, may not be good for the economy if it results in additional foreclosures.

This Week in Government Failure

Will America Copy England’s Self-Destructive Class-Warfare Tax Policy?

After several posts about crazy decisions by the UK government, mostly involving extreme political correctness, it’s time to get back to basics and look at tax policy. A financial services consulting firm in London has just released a survey with the stunning finding that one-fifth of entrepreneurs are thinking of escaping the country because of punitive taxes — particularly the new top tax rate of 50 percent.

Here’s what Tax-news.com reported:

The poll of more than 300 entrepreneurs by business advisors Tenon also found that many more may follow in an attempt to escape the 50% rate of income tax, due to be introduced from next April on annual incomes above GBP150,000, with nearly half of the respondents (48%) still deciding what action to take. …Tenon points out that in the last month, high profile names such as the actor Sir Michael Caine and the artist Tracey Emin have threatened to change their tax residency to countries with more favorable tax rates. Popular locations for redomiciling include Monte Carlo, Guernsey, Liechtenstein, and the Cayman Islands. Andy Raynor, Chief Executive of Tenon Group, noted that entrepreneurs are showing their disapproval of the tax measures by “letting their feet do the talking.”

The mayor of London, meanwhile, is much less restrained regarding the foolishness of Gordon Brown’s class-warfare policy. Here’s what he has to say in the Daily Telegraph:

[T]he 50 [percent] tax rate that is beginning to drive these people away is a disaster for this country, and it is a double disaster that no one seems willing to talk about it. When Margaret Thatcher’s government cut the top rate of tax to 40 per cent in 1988, she was completing a series of reforms — beginning with the removal of exchange controls and followed by the Big Bang — that helped to establish London as the greatest financial centre on earth. Britain had been transformed from a sclerotic militant-ridden basket-case to a dynamic enterprise economy, and the capital became a global talent magnet. …So it is utterly tragic, at the end of the first decade of this century, that we are back in the hands of a government whose mindset seems frozen in the wastes of the 1970s.

By the way, I’m not picking on England. America is soon going to be making the same self-destructive mistake. Here’s my video on the broader subject of class-warfare tax policy.

Cost Overruns: It’s the Same in Britain

The Taxpayers’ Alliance has published a new study examining a sample of 240 government capital projects in Britain, including weapons systems, highway projects, computer upgrades, health care spending, and other items. The results mirror the serious cost overrun problems we have in the U.S. federal government.

The Alliance study found that 32 percent of projects sampled had cost overruns, while 24 percent came in under budget, but that the projects with overruns were generally much larger. As a result, the average net cost overrun on all the projects was 38 percent. Thus, when the government says that a new project will cost taxpayers 1 billion UK pounds, on average it will actually cost them 1.38 billion.

The study also explores the reasons why UK government projects run into trouble, and I have observed that most of the same problems are also chronic in our government. To me, this provides more evidence that the inefficiencies in government stem from deep, structural factors, not the skills of the particular politicians or administrators in office.

California Grubbing

Kids often have a tremendous sense of entitlement. Well, there are a lot of kids in California colleges — and running them.

You probably have heard about the University of California Regents voting yesterday for a 32-percent tuition hike over the next two years. Not surprisingly, many students are angry, some enough that they were arrested protesting outside the Regents’ meeting.

Now, a 32 percent hike over two years isn’t small. But here’s the thing: California has typically charged students very little relative to both state taxpayer funding and national averages. As you can see in the chart below, which uses data from the State Higher Education Executive Officers, net per-pupil tuition revenue (meaning revenue from tuition minus any state financial aid) in California has hovered around $1,200 over the last 25 years, and has only gone up about $18 per year. Meanwhile, state taxpayers have been shelling out around $7,300 per pupil per year. So state taxpayers have been furnishing the vast majority of funding for California college students, and students have done very little to make up the vast gulf between what they pay and what taxpayers shell out.

How does California compare to the rest of the nation? On average for all states, net per-pupil revenue from students has risen from just about $2,000 to $4,000, putting the ever-growing average around $3,000, or close to three times what Golden State students have been furnishing. Funding from state and local taxpayers, meanwhile, has been just slightly lower nationally than in California.

So California students have been getting a heck of a deal, which is no doubt one among many reasons the state is on fiscal life support. Sooner or later bills come due, and that has left the state little choice but to make students pay more for the education of which they are by far the biggest beneficiaries.

Naturally — but still shamelessly — students are acting like victims now that the decrepit gravy train is slowing down a bit.  Unfortunately, the adults in charge of California colleges are also naturally — but perhaps even more shamelessly — stoking student anger so that they don’t have to do things that make their jobs less pleasant.

Despite the utterly unsustainable taxpayer funding for higher education that California has doled out for decades, for instance, UC president Mark Yudof had no qualms about declaring that:

We’re being forced to impose a user tax on our students and their families. This is a tax necessary because our political leaders have failed to adequately fund public higher education.

Last I checked, what a customer pays for a service is called a “price” not a “tax.” A tax is what has been used to make taxpayers bear by far the biggest part of California’s higher education burden while students have furnished but a token amount. And please don’t give us the “failed to adequately fund” line. UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau has been happily trotting out that disproven dreck in a grab for federal taxpayer dollars at the same time it has been discovered that he’s been pushing millions of dollars intended for academics and other purposes to Berkeley athletics.

It’s hard enough to accept the underfunding bit when the data clearly show it not to be the case. It’s even harder when college leaders spend their precious dollars on water polo and golf.

It’s time in California for the adults to stop acting like kids, and for the kids to start paying their share. But don’t get your hopes up, at least in higher education. It seems that no one there is without a shameless sense of entitlement.