Archives: 05/2011

One-third of College Degrees Wasted?

The most recent, comprehensive Pew higher education survey has gotten a lot of coverage for its findings on how important the public thinks college is, its financial payoff for grads, etc. For some reason, though, by far the most interesting statistic in the report has gotten roughly zero play, either from Pew itself or media coverage of the report: “Among all college graduates, 33% say they are in a job that does not require a college degree.”

Wait. One-third of all college graduates are in jobs that don’t call for a college education? So one-third of all college degrees are quite possibly total economic wastes? (To be fair, no doubt some of those grads are looking for jobs requiring a degree, mitigating this somewhat. On the flip side, many jobs probably require a degree without actually requiring college-level skills, counterbalancing that.)

In light of this, can someone please tell me why President Obama wants the United States to lead the world in the precentage of its population with a college degree by 2020? And please, explain why Washington furnished over $113 billion in student aid in the 2009-10 academic year? I’d really like to know.

Wednesday Links

  • Next up for marriage equality: Perry v. Schwarzenegger. Please join us at 12:00 p.m. Eastern today as co-counsels for the plaintiffs Theodore Olson and John Boies join Center for American Progress president John Podesta and Cato chairman Robert A. Levy for a panel discussion on marriage equality, exploring legal and moral questions dating back to the landmark 1967 Loving v. Virginia decision that ended state bans on interracial marriage. If you cannot join us here at Cato, please tune in to watch a live stream of the event.
  • “Republicans have an opportunity for a much more important debate, which will frame the election campaign next year.”
  • In President Obama’s next speech, Cato director of foreign policy studies Christopher Preble hopes “that the president reaffirms the importance of peaceful regime change from within, not American-sponsored regime change from without.”
  • What will former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney’s next position on health care be?
  • Like cleanliness next to godliness, so is democracy next to tyranny.
  • The U.S. hit the debt limit–what’s next?


Willie Nelson Endorses Gary Johnson for President

Politico reported earlier today that iconic crooner Willie Nelson has endorsed former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson for president. Johnson came to be known as “Governor Veto” for axing nearly half of all the bills sent to him by the legislature, and I am  starting the rumor rumors are already circulating that Nelson will record a new song, to the tune of his hit “To all the girls I’ve loved before,” celebrating that fact.

We cannot confirm that the lyrics will go something like this:

To all the bills I’ve axed before
That traveled in and out my door
I’m mad they came along
I dedicate this song
To all the bills I’ve axed before

To all the bills that made me laugh
I kept the wheat and axed the chaff
Inane legislation
Explains my great frustration
With all the bills I’ve axed before

Walking dogs just ain’t a proper thing
For government to regulate
Legislators to their powers cling
But that ain’t no role for the state

To all the bills I’ve slashed and burned
The dumb laws that I’ve dissed and spurned
I’m mad they came along
They were profoundly wrong
And that’s why I showed them the door

To all the bills I’ve axed before
We can’t afford dumb laws no more
We need fiscal restraint
That was my main complaint
With all the bills I’ve axed before

Michigan State Policymakers Push to Keep Federal Gas Taxes

Last week I discussed the Obama administration’s decision to redistribute federal high-speed rail money rejected by Florida Gov. Rick Scott. I noted that “Florida taxpayers were spared their state’s share of maintaining the line, but they’re still going to be forced to help foot the bill for passenger-rail projects in other states.” My underlying point was that the states should be allowed to make their own transportation decisions with their own money.

Two Michigan state policymakers – both Republican – want to send the same message to Washington. State representatives Paul Opsommer and Tom McMillin have introduced resolutions that call on the federal government to allow the states to keep the federal gasoline taxes that they send to Washington. (Opsommer’s resolution would have to pass both state chambers, whereas McMillin’s resolution would only need to pass in the Michigan House.)

Michigan would no longer send its money to Washington so that it can be washed through Congress and the federal bureaucracy and sent back to Michigan (and the other states) with costly federal strings attached. Instead, highway financing and control would be left to the states. As a Cato essay on federal highway funding argues, re-empowering the states is clearly preferable to the current top-down approach:

With the devolution of highway financing and control to the states, successful innovations in one state would be copied in other states. And without federal subsidies, state governments would have stronger incentives to ensure that funds were spent efficiently. An additional advantage is that highway financing would be more transparent without the complex federal trust fund. Citizens could better understand how their transportation dollars were being spent.

The time is ripe for repeal of the current central planning approach to highway financing. Given more autonomy, state governments and the private sector would have the power and flexibility to meet the huge challenges ahead that America faces in highway infrastructure.

Some people, particularly those with an interest in the current convoluted arrangement, argue that it’s necessary for the enlightened beings in Washington to provide us with a national “vision” or “plan.” But the redirection of Florida’s high-speed rail allotment to other states shows that decision-making in Washington usually has more to do with politics than economics.

Conspicuously left out of the Obama administration’s re-spreading of high-speed cheese was Wisconsin, which tried to grab some of the Florida money for an intercity rail line that connects the state to Chicago. Reason’s Sam Staley points out that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker also said “no thanks” to the administration’s high-speed rail money. Staley says “the snubbing of the State of Wisconsin smells a lot like political payback,” and links to a piece from a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel columnist who doesn’t have any doubts.

If either or both of the Michigan resolutions pass, Congress can simply choose to ignore the message. Hopefully, more states will take a cue from Michigan, which could make it harder for the folks in Washington to simply look the other way. Regardless, Opsommer and McMillan deserve a round of applause for trying to score one for fiscal federalism.

HUD’s ‘Wastelands’

A year-long investigation by the Washington Post into the Department of Housing & Urban Development’s HOME affordable housing program uncovered systemic waste, fraud, and abuse. The tale is yet another example of why the federal government should extricate itself from housing policy and allow the states to chart their own course.

The piece is lengthy and should be read by interested readers in its entirety, so I’ll just excerpt the Post’s findings:

  • Local housing agencies have doled out millions to troubled developers, including novice builders, fledgling nonprofits and groups accused of fraud or delivering shoddy work.
  • Checks were cut even when projects were still on the drawing boards, without land, financing or permits to move forward. In at least 55 cases, developers drew HUD money but left behind only barren lots.
  • Overall, nearly one in seven projects shows signs of significant delay. Time and again, housing agencies failed to cancel bad deals or alert HUD when projects foundered.
  • HUD has known about the problems for years but still imposes few requirements on local housing agencies and relies on a data system that makes it difficult to determine which developments are stalled.
  • Even when HUD learns of a botched deal, federal law does not give the agency the authority to demand repayment. HUD can ask local authorities to voluntarily repay, but the agency was unable to say how much money has been returned.

In a Cato essay on HUD community development programs, I cite similar examples of HOME funds being wasted. And an essay on HUD scandals shows that mismanagement and corruption in federal housing programs is hardly new. Indeed, a follow-up story from the Post that focuses on related affordable housing shenanigans in the DC area explains that housing speculators who bilked HUD in the 1980s are involved in the current troubles:

All three were convicted in a scheme in the 1980s that involved getting straw buyers to purchase properties in the District at inflated prices using fraudulent appraisals. HUD backed the loans and ultimately lost millions of dollars. The Post called it the largest real estate fraud of its kind in the city’s history; about 30 people were convicted.

The response from Congress to the Post’s expose isn’t any more surprising than the findings: it’s time for a probe! This is where members of Congress point the finger at everybody else except themselves, promise to “fix” the problems, and pay lip-service to the concerns of taxpayers.

From the statement issued by Senate Banking Committee chairman Tim Johnson (D-SD) and ranking member Richard Shelby (R-AL):

We are deeply concerned by these reports, particularly at a time when so many Americans are in need of affordable housing. Many communities across the country have successfully used HUD programs to create vital housing opportunities for their citizens. However, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, like any government agency, has a duty to safeguard taxpayer funds. The Committee takes its oversight responsibilities very seriously, and we plan to get to the bottom of this issue.

Republicans are having a difficult time naming federal programs to abolish, while Democrats would have us believe that only the federal government can take care of the “less fortunate.” For Republicans who are serious about spending cuts, HUD’s latest black eye offers an opportunity to challenge the existence of federal housing programs. For Democrats, well, perhaps one or two will start to question the sanctity of these programs.

The Morality of Profit

The free market needs and deserves a moral defense. Cato senior fellow Tom G. Palmer delivers part of that defense, regarding economic profits, in a new video:



This is an installment in a series entitled “The Morality of Free Enterprise,” a joint project of the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, where Palmer serves as the vice president of international programs, and the John Templeton Foundation.

Palmer is also the director of Cato University; so if you’d like to hear more from him, we hope you’ll register today and join us July 24-29 in historic Annapolis, Maryland for our annual summer seminar on political economy. Students may also apply for a scholarship.

President Obama’s ‘War on Fun’

My DC Examiner column this week focuses on Barack Obama’s transformation into our National Noodge, nudging, shoving, poking and prodding Americans into healthier lifestyles via the powers of the federal government.

A year ago, the New York Times got all excited about the “new age of regulation” the administration was busy ushering in. The president had elevated “a new breed of regulators”: folks like regulatory czar Cass Sunstein, who wants to “nudge” Americans toward healthier consumption choices, and CDC head Thomas Frieden, who, as NYC health commissioner, proclaimed ”when anyone dies at an early age from a preventable cause in New York City, it’s my fault.”

Today’s column tracks how this killjoy crusade is playing out:

Quitting smoking was “a personal challenge for [Obama],” the first lady explained recently, and she never “poked and prodded.”

Of course not. It’s obnoxious to hector your loved ones. “Poking and prodding” is what good government does to perfect strangers. And that’s what the Obama administration has been doing, with unusual zeal, for the past 2 1/2 years.

You’re not a real president until you fight a metaphorical “war” on a social problem. So, to LBJ’s “War on Poverty” and Reagan’s “War on Drugs,” add Obama’s “War on Fun.” Like the “War on Terror,” it’s being fought on many fronts…

Among them: graphic warning labels for cigarettes; a ban on clove cigarettes and possibly menthols; shutting down online poker sites; banning caffeinated malt liquor; mandatory menu-labeling and ratcheting down allowable sodium levels in food to “adjust the American palate to a less salty diet.” Even healthy “real food” aficionados can find themselves in the crosshairs, as Dan Allgyer, an Amish farmer selling raw milk discovered last month, when FDA agents and federal marshals raided his farm.

Last year, in a remarkably silly column entitled “Obama’s Happiness Deficit,” Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt wondered whether the president’s political difficulties stemmed from the fact that “he doesn’t seem all that happy being president.” I couldn’t care less whether Obama’s enjoying his job. He asked for it, he got it. But if he isn’t having fun, he shouldn’t take it out on the rest of us.