Archives: October, 2010

Higher Education Subsidies Wasted

A study from the American Institutes of Research finds that federal and state governments have wasted billions of dollars on subsidies for students who didn’t make it past their first year in college. The federal total for first-year college drop outs was $1.5 billion from 2003 to 2008.

Due to data limitations, the figures are only for first year, full-time students at four-year colleges and universities. Community colleges have even higher drop-out rates, and part-time students or students returning to college are more likely to drop out. Therefore, the numbers in the report are “only a fraction of the total costs of first-year attrition the nation and the states face.” Moreover, it doesn’t include the cost for students who drop out some time after their sophomore year.

Federal policymakers from both parties are fond of lavishing subsidies on college students. Proponents argue that without federal subsidies, an insufficient number of future workers will possess the skills necessary to compete in a global economy.

However, a Cato essay on federal higher education subsidies argues that students wishing to attend college already have plenty of incentive to save or borrow from private sources:

Supporters of student aid subsidies argue that higher education is a “public good” that would be underprovided in a free market. However, that is probably not the case. People have a strong incentive to invest in their own education because it will lead to higher earnings. Those with a college degree will earn, on average, 75 percent more during their lifetime than those with just high-school degrees. That is a big incentive for people to save or borrow in private markets to pay for their own college costs. There is no “market failure” here.

In fact, higher education subsidies drive up tuition prices:

It is matter of supply and demand. More and more Americans have sought a college education, which has pushed prices higher. Ordinarily, such upward pressure would be restrained by consumers’ willingness and ability to pay, but as government subsidies have helped absorb tuition increases, the public’s budget constraint has been lifted. Peter Wood, a professor at Boston University noted that federal subsidies “are seen by colleges and universities as money that is there for the taking … tuition is set high enough to capture those funds and whatever else we think can be extracted from parents.”

But isn’t it great that Uncle Sam is helping put more young folks in college? Not necessarily:

Many of those additional students may not have been ready, or suited, for college. As evidenced by the rising shares of college students who require remedial work. Further evidence of the problem is that institutions have lowered their standards to adapt to the rise in second-rate students. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences reported that from the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s, college grade point averages grew steadily but Scholastic Aptitude Test scores declined. The share of entering college students who complete degrees has also fallen over the decades. In addition, while college attendance is up, overall adult literacy has barely budged over the last 15 years.

The essay also notes that college students devote 3.2 hours to education on an average weekday, versus 3.9 hours to “leisure and sports,” and that the six-year graduation rate for bachelor’s students is only about 56 percent, indicating that many students are not very serious about education.

Just as housing subsidies incentivized people to purchase homes that they otherwise shouldn’t have, higher education subsidies have incentivized people to go to college who weren’t ready or suited for it. In both cases, the cost to taxpayers has been substantial while the alleged benefits have proven illusory.

Time to End the Campaign Finance ‘Reform’ Ruse

Today POLITICO Arena asks:

Looking at the repeated failures of campaign finance reforms, is it time to end the restrictions?

My response:

Funny, we didn’t hear the primal scream about campaign finance from liberal Democrats during the 2008 campaigns, when money was pouring into their coffers from everywhere. Do we need any better evidence of the hypocrisy surrounding their screams this year? If so, turn to the lead editorial in this morning’s Wall Street Journal. It’ll tell you all you need to know about the campaign finance “reform” ruse that has been going on for years.

As I’ve written often at the Arena, the true aim of this game is incumbent protection, and it has been from the beginning. But thanks to the First Amendment, incumbents can’t shut down all private campaign financing, or regulate it in many of the ways that have been tried over the years. So after each new “reform,” private money – which is speech – finds new ways to try to influence election outcomes. The reformers real beef, then, is with the First Amendment. They won’t say it. But there it is. It’s time to end this nonsense.

Cato Study: ObamaCare’s Hidden $550 Billion Cost

In a study released today by the Cato Institute, Duke University professor Chris Conover estimates how much ObamaCare and related provisions will reduce economic output:

The Congressional Budget Office has projected the 10-year, on-budget cost of [The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. ObamaCare] will be just over $1 trillion. This paper estimates PPACA will impose an additional, hidden cost of $157 billion to $494 billion in the form of reduced economic output. Related provisions (such as the so-called “doc fix”) could drive the economic losses to $550 billion, or more than half of the bill’s official cost estimates.
Conover will present his paper at a Cato policy forum at 10 a.m. today.  Click here to watch online.

Least Shocking Education News of the Year …

The Washington Post reports that Michelle Rhee is on her way out of the DC Public School system:

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee will announce Wednesday that she is resigning at the end of this month, bringing an abrupt end to a tenure that drew national acclaim but that also became a central issue in an election that sent her patron, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, to defeat. Rhee survived three contentious years that made her a superstar of the education reform movement and one of the longest-serving school leaders in the city in two decades. Student test scores rose, and the teachers union accepted a contract that gave the chancellor sweeping powers to fire the lowest-performing among them.

No man or woman, mayor, chancellor or superintendent can significantly and permanently reform the government education monopoly. It is unreformable. Rhee’s tenure and modest success underscores this fact. Entrenched interests regroup, respond, bide their time, and reformers move on or are shoved along.

We’re all still waiting for Superman in DC and across the nation, and it reminds me a whole lot of waiting for Godot. Rhee, Geoffrey Canada, and all the rest of the celebrated reformers clearly aren’t Superman, and the whole reform conversation is far past absurd.

Only systemic reform that creates a market in education will bring sustained, continual improvement. Try looking a this for a sustainable bite out of the system.

The New York Times Undermines its Narrative

The New York Times has an odd story today on campaign finance on its front page. The story argues that organizations which do not have to identify their donors are sponsoring ads that criticize candidates for office. Complaints about secrecy notwithstanding, the third paragraph of the story discloses one of the major contributors to a group and reveals his putative interests in becoming involved. It also goes into great detail about the donor, his political associates, and even meetings his associates attended and what decisions were made therein. Later parts of the story recount the already disclosed names of supporters of Karl Rove’s efforts in this cycle. True, the story does not reveal everything the reporters believe should be disclosed about donors. But the groups and their donors are hardly secret given what is revealed in the story itself.

The story also cannot get its story straight. The Times’ reporters evidently wanted to fit what they have found into a standard, “special interest” template: the organization in question - the American Future Fund - as a front for energy interests. The story also says the group has sponsored ads on general themes like too much spending,  Obamacare, and another stimulus. But the reporters are determined to see “suggestions of an energy-related agenda,” their own reporting notwithstanding. This forcing of facts into a template comes along with a recognition that the politics of energy and ethanol have become more complicated making it difficult to say what interests are actually being advanced in the American Future Fund effort.

So the story discloses, while decrying secrecy, and both asserts and denies the domination of special interests. In the end, the story holds fast to a simple, conventional theme which is then undermined by its reporting. We should admire, I guess, that the Times’ reporters were willing to undermine their own narrative. But why not just embrace complexity? They are writing the first, not the final, draft of history.

The story also reports that donors desire anonymity because they wish to avoid taking sides in political disputes in public. The story does not say why they desire to avoid taking sides. Perhaps a quick call to the Koch family or George Soros might have provided an answer to that question.

Meltzer on Looming Inflation

Allan H. Meltzer, a frequent participant in Cato’s annual monetary conferences, warns in the Wall Street Journal that the Federal Reserve may be about to lay the groundwork for another Great Inflation like we saw in the 1970s:

The Federal Reserve seems determined to make mistakes. First it started rumors that it would resume Treasury bond purchases, with the amount as high as $1 trillion. It seems all but certain this will happen once the midterm election passes.

Then the press reported rumors about plans to raise the inflation target to 4% or higher, from 2%. This is a major change from the Fed’s quick rejection of a higher target when the International Monetary Fund suggested it a few months ago.

Anyone can make a mistake, but wise people don’t repeat the same one. Increasing inflation to reduce unemployment initiated the Great Inflation of the 1960s and 1970s. Milton Friedman pointed out in 1968 why any gain in employment would be temporary: It would last only so long as people underestimated the rate of inflation. Friedman’s analysis is now a standard teaching of economics. Surely Fed economists understand this….

Yes, a sustained deflation would be a big problem, but it is unlikely in today’s circumstances. Countries with a depreciating exchange rate, an unsustainable budget deficit, and more than $1 trillion of excess monetary reserves are more likely to inflate. That’s our problem today, and it’s another reason the Fed should give up this nonsense about more stimulus and offer a credible long-term program to prevent the next inflation.

Register for Cato’s upcoming monetary conference here. More on inflation risks here and here.

Cut (Really Cut) Military Spending

Today ForeignPolicy.com has a feature article examining possible “Plan B’s for Obama,” with contributions coming from numerous experts. My contribution to the feature is titled “Cut (Really Cut) Military Spending.”

It is time for President Obama and the administration to finally notice the increasing calls—from across the political spectrum—that the Pentagon’s budget should not be off limits when reducing the deficit.  From the Foreign Policy article:

Despite all the hype about Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his cuts of big-ticket military projects, the Pentagon’s $680 billion budget is actually slated to increase in coming years. This is unconscionable at a time when taxpayers are under enormous stress and when the U.S. government must reduce spending across the board. Barack Obama can save big bucks without undermining U.S. security – but only if he refocuses the military on a few, core missions.

The hawks will scream, but America will be just fine. Obama can capitalize on the country’s unique advantages – wide oceans to the east and west, friendly neighbors to the north and south, a dearth of powerful enemies globally, and the wealth to adapt to dangers as they arise – by adopting a grand strategy of restraint. The United States could shed the burden of defending other countries that are able to defend themselves, abandon futile efforts to fix failed states, and focus on those security challenges that pose the greatest threat to America. A strategic shift of this magnitude will not only reduce conflict and make the United States safer, but it will enable Obama to reshape the military to suit this more modest set of objectives, at a price that’s far easier for taxpayers to swallow.

Click here to read the full article