Archives: 10/2012

Politics Is Better as Fiction

If the season’s got you thinking cynically about politics and politicians, TCM has the movies for you. It’s running a series all this month called “American Politics on Film.” You’ve missed classics like “A Face in the Crowd,” but there’s still time to catch “All the King’s Men” this Thursday night, about a Southern reformer who becomes corrupted by power, and “All the President’s Men” on Friday night, about an ambitious Westerner who was probably corrupt long before he got power. Also on Friday night: “Advise and Consent” and “Seven Days in May,” made from the great political novels of the 50s and 60s. Whatever happened to great political novels, anyway?

For movies about freedom, click here.

Would Romney Be Good for American Education?

Without picking a winner in last night’s debate, it’s fair to say that Mitt Romney avoided the sort of conspicuous gaffs that can sink a campaign. He may well become the next president of the United States. Would that be a good thing for American schoolchildren?

Yesterday, I faulted an op-ed the Governor wrote for consisting chiefly of vagaries—but perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. Given that the federal government has spent roughly $2 trillion on k-12 education since 1965 and achieved none of its objectives, a president who talks much but does less would be a decided improvement.

But there are a few specifics in Romney’s education white paper… and some of them are deeply disconcerting. Immediately after stressing that “states and localities are best-positioned to reform their education systems” the document reverses course and declares that “the federal government cannot ignore the troubled state of American K-12 education,” and “is uniquely positioned to provide financial support for the education of our neediest students and to require states and districts to tell the truth about how their schools and students are performing.”

Certainly the federal government should not ignore America’s educational woes, having contributed to many of them for over half a century. But the subsequent claims are untrue and do not follow from the first. It is simply false that federal government funding is “uniquely positioned” to improve the education of the neediest students. In fact, one of the flagship federal programs for helping these students, Head Start, has been proven to have no lasting benefits by the federal government’s own research. More broadly, there appears to be no link between federal K-12 spending patterns and the student achievement gaps by socio-economic status or race. Nor is there any evidence that the federal oversight introduced by the No Child Left Behind law (the “telling the truth” referred to above) improved achievement overall or narrowed the gaps.

To be fair, the document acknowledges the ineffectiveness of past and current federal programs, and so the claim that federal funding is “uniquely positioned” to help disadvantaged students could be read to apply only to the Romney campaign proposal of “attaching federal funding to the students it is intended to support rather than dispersing it to districts.” The idea is essentially to voucherize federal funds, allowing them to be used even at private schools, where permitted by state law.

The benefits of increasing parental choice and competition between schools are well supported by the evidence, but here again, the federal “uniqueness” claim is simply false. Federal funding is not unique or necessary to ensuring universal school choice. The states are fully capable of doing this themselves because private schooling is, on average, about two thirds the per-pupil cost of public schooling, and so even without the roughly ten percent of education funding that comes from the federal government, state-level private choice programs could serve everyone.

Even though federal involvement in state school choice programs is not necessary it could still be a good idea. But it isn’t. As I argued when a similar idea was floated by President G. W. Bush, federal regulations would almost certainly follow federal funding of the nation’s private schools, homogenizing them from coast to coast and thereby eliminating the educational diversity upon which any choice program must rely. Since writing that piece, I have conducted a statistical study of the regulations imposed by state-level private school choice programs and found that vouchers already impose a large and highly statistically significant extra burden of regulation on participating schools. This is a grave enough problem when the regulations affect just the private schools in a single state, but that pales in comparison to the damage that would be done by such regulations at the national level.

Universal private school choice can also be achieved via personal and “scholarship donation” tax credits, and these programs do not seem to carry with them the same regulatory pall. But there is no reason to run the risk of enacting such a program at the federal level. On the contrary, the growing diversity of school choice programs at the state level is an asset, allowing us to see which state policies do the most to expand educational freedom and improve quality and efficiency. The best can then be replicated and the worst reformed.

Governor Romney says that he understands the free enterprise system, and knows that trickle-down government doesn’t work. He says that he wants to uphold our nation’s founding principles. Well, the evidence is clear that there is no need for or benefit to federal government intervention in state education policy and that there are in fact very grave risks to such intervention. And though it is unfashionable to draw attention to this fact, neither the word education nor the word school is mentioned in the U.S. Constitution. So if Governor Romney becomes President Romney, American schoolchildren will be very lucky if he remembers these facts, and uses the presidential bully pulpit to promote more and better state-level school choice programs rather than opening the Pandora’s Box of federal funding and regulation of private schools.

Care about the Poor? Consider Consequences

On the day of the second presidential debate, I had the pleasure of participating in a panel discussion at debate-host Hofstra University. The topic was “defusing the student loan debt bomb,” and I was the lone voice calling for an end to inflation-fueling federal student aid. My co-panelists were Tamara Draut of the think tank Demos, Above the Law blog co-editor Elie Mystal, and U.S. PIRG’s Ed Mierzwinski.

I had perhaps the best interaction with Mystal, with whom I had interesting chats throughout the day. Mystal’s response to my proposal was basically that poor and minority students need help, and phasing out federal aid would disproportionately hurt them. It was an argument with which I could sympathize, and it made more sense than just proclaiming “college education is a public good and should basically be free.” Unfortunately, writing on his blog post-debate, Mystal said that my “view makes a certain kind of sense” but nonetheless smacks of “the classic, Republican ‘f**k ‘em’ approach that disproportionately screws the poor and minorities.”

Um, ouch. Ascribing callousness or cruelty to either me or Republicans because we don’t like the negative effects of aid is, frankly, precisely why we can’t have a reasoned debate about these things. Maybe I’m an exceptionally gifted multi-tasker, or maybe I’ve just contemplated some important logic and facts, but I can be against mega-inflation without being indifferent to the poor. Indeed, quite the opposite.

First, much aid goes to people with little regard to their income. Pell Grants might be pretty well targeted – though they’re getting less so by the minute – but “unsubsidized” federal loans, which are backed by taxpayers, are available irrespective of need. Tax-based aid also skews high-income. The American Opportunity Tax Credit, for instance, can be claimed by joint filers making up to $180,000. And the well-to-do are best positioned to maximize their aid because they can afford financial planners to tell them how to hide wealth, or temporarily reduce income to optimize their eligibility. The cumulative effect of all this is to push up college prices.

Then there’s the psychological effect of hugely inflated sticker prices. If the message “college is astonishingly expensive” is repeated often enough, who do you think will more often be deterred from attending college, the rich or the poor? Probably the latter.

Next, the poor and minorities are no doubt disproportionately burdened by debt. Data indicate that’s definitely the case for African-Americans, and is likely the case for the poor considering that even debt loads that are small compared to some totals might be huge relative to a poor student’s wealth.

Finally, while people of all income levels and races spend too much time and treasure on higher education, the poor and minorities are probably the most snookered by “college for all.” The unfortunate reality is that those groups tend to be the least prepared to do college-level work or pay mammoth, inflated bills, and as a result tend to most readily pursue degrees without completing them. Among first-time, full-time students entering college in 2004, a weak 58.3 percent that didn’t transfer schools completed a four-year program within six years. Much worse, only 39.5 percent of African-Americans completed their degrees, and 50.1 percent of Hispanics. In large part this is the fault of factors preceding higher education – including our moribund K-12 system – but the dismal college completion reality remains.

In light of all this, is it really fair to proclaim that those who want to phase out inflationary, consumption-driving aid don’t care about the poor and minorities? Or is it long past time to give them a full and fair hearing?

Cross-posted from SeeThruEdu.com

Free Speech Week, Day 2

As I mentioned yesterday, this is Free Speech Week.

Today we are highlighting Cato’s work in the area of campaign finance reform.

Live Blog of the Third Presidential Debate

Join us Monday, October 22nd at 8:45 PM ET for live commentary during the third and final presidential debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. The debate this time will focus on foreign policy, covering these topics:

  • America’s role in the world
  • Our longest war - Afghanistan and Pakistan
  • Red Lines - Israel and Iran
  • The Changing Middle East and the New Face of Terrorism - I
  • The Changing Middle East and the New Face of Terrorism - II
  • The Rise of China and Tomorrow’s World

Tweet questions during the debate to the live blog participants below:

UPDATE: Due to technical difficulties, please follow the live blog directly on Twitter here. You can also join the conversation with the hashtag #Debate and by following @CatoInstitute and @CatoFP.

Romney’s 4 Percent: A Goal not a Promise, but Still Expensive

The advisers who introduced Mitt Romney to the idea that he should spend at least 4 percent of GDP on the Pentagon’s budget are busy clarifying what he means. But “their comments,” conclude Bloomberg’s Gopal Ratnam and Tony Capaccio:

only add to the uncertainty about how much a President Romney might add to the Pentagon’s budget and when, what the additional spending would buy other than more warships and how he’d propose to pay for what analysts say may be as much as $2 trillion in added spending while also whittling down the federal deficit as he’s promised.

Dov Zakheim, a former Pentagon comptroller in George W. Bush’s administration, told Ratnam and Capaccio that Romney’s 4 percent promise is a goal that “is not going to be achieved overnight or perhaps even by the end of the first term.” How quickly Romney reaches his 4 percent target, Zakheim explained at an event last week organized by the group Military Reporters & Editors, “will very much depend on the state of the economy and very much depends on the offsets you’ll be able to find within the defense budget,” but he affirmed that “Every effort will be made to ramp up as soon as possible.”

Differing assumptions about the pace of Romney’s increase explain the continued confusion surrounding his 4 percent plan. Zakheim had earlier claimed that the $2 trillion estimate cited by Obama “is essentially an assumption that we go to 4 percent of GDP from the get-go.” The Romney campaign, he explained, doesn’t intend to “come in with a massive supplemental” to the current budget to boost defense spending.

Others, including vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, have criticized the $2 trillion figure, but have failed to offer their own estimate of the likely costs of Romney’s promise. In particular, Romney supporters have singled out an analysis by Travis Sharp of the Center for New American Security (CNAS), and have accused Sharp and CNAS of running cover for Obama. In earlier remarks to reporters, Zakheim asserted that the $2 trillion was concocted by Democrats, for shock value, and that it should therefore be taken with a grain of salt.

As to the question of how the additional Pentagon spending would be paid for, James Carafano at the Heritage Foundation shared some ideas with Ratnam and Capaccio. Romney may be able to reach the 4 percent of GDP goal by the end of the first term and still cut deficits as he has promised “with two caveats,” Carafano explained. Romney would have to get “tax reform done and address long-term entitlement spending.”

Slowly but surely, we are starting to understand Romney’s promise. And who said presidential campaigns were a waste of time?

A few clarifications are still in order, however.

First, the claim that the $2 trillion figure was created by Democrats and the president’s supporters is false. I first estimated–before Travis Sharp did–the likely costs of Romney’s four percent pledge here. Since then, I have twice revisited my estimates (here and here), settling most recently on two figures: $1.85 trillion in additional spending if Romney reached the 4 percent target in 4 years; $1.7 trillion if he reached it at the end of his second term. I noted, also, the remaining unknowns: what is included within the base budget, and GDP (I have deliberately used CBO projections, the most conservative – Obama/OMB and Romney believe that GDP will grow faster). I also note that a number of others, none of them obvious “Obama supporters”, have questioned Romney’s 4 percent promise, including Byron Callan, a defense industry analyst with Capital Alpha Partners LLC, and the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment’s Todd Harrison.

Second, the two “caveats” at the center of Carafano’s supposition that Romney could achieve his goal by the end of his first term without increasing the deficit are more than that; on the contrary, the belief that Mitt Romney can achieve long-term entitlement reform and fundamental tax reform within the next four years strains credulity to the breaking point.

The fundamental reform of “long-term entitlement spending,” though badly overdue, is not seriously on offer by either Republicans or Democrats, and would not generate significant savings in the short term, in other words, by the time that Romney wanted to ramp up military spending. His spending, therefore, would grow the deficit, at least in the short term.

Equally dubious is the presumption that far-reaching tax reform – the elimination of some deductions in exchange for lower marginal tax rates – is likely any time soon. For starters, many fiscal hawks oppose any reform that results in higher revenue. More revenue, by definition, is a tax increase, something that is still verboten among most Republicans. And with good reason. “The American people know,” said Michelle Dimarob, spokeswoman for House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.), “when Washington politicians call for higher taxes it is to fuel more Washington spending.” “Americans,” Dimarob concluded, ”don’t want to pay more in taxes to bailout Washington.”

She’s right, and they don’t change their tune when the Pentagon is doing the spending. This study (.pdf, Q56) found that a plurality (including 52.2 percent of Republicans) are opposed to paying higher taxes in order to fund a still larger military. Other recent polls have found that Americans support military spending cuts (here, here and here), and barely one in four Americans (27 percent) believe that we should be spending more, according to a recent Rasmussen survey. In short, Pentagon spending boosters might succeed in pushing through a tax increase, but this would likely be unpopular with voters.

So, after all of this, I’m still left with two nagging questions: will Mitt Romney’s promise to spend more on the military win him votes? And, if he is elected, can he achieve his goal of spending 4 percent of GDP on the Pentagon without raising taxes or increasing the deficit?

Where President Obama Went Wrong in Time

The President and Governor Romney have dueling op-eds in Time Magazine that are nominally about higher education. Neither really is. Governor Romney’s piece, in fact, doesn’t seem to be about anything at all, its vagueness evoking Isaac Asimov’s Lord Dorwin. The President’s piece does offer a few concretes, but mostly about K-12 and entirely wrongheaded. On the principle that bad specifics are worse than no specifics at all, let’s start with President Obama. He writes:

We know that a good teacher can increase the lifetime income of a classroom by more than $250,000. A great teacher can change the trajectory of a child’s life. That’s why, even as we faced one of the worst economic crises in history, I fought to keep teachers in the classroom.

The President conflates the quantity of teachers with their quality. At best, these two factors are uncorrelated. At worst—in those few states and districts which pay teachers based on performance—the two factors are negatively correlated: employing more teachers leaves less money to pay suitable salaries to excellent ones.

We have already doubled the public school workforce over the past 40 years despite having only 8.5% more students today than we did in 1970. Put another way, employment has grown 11 times faster than enrollment. What good did it do? See the charts here. After hiring 3 million additional public school employees—two million of them teachers or teachers’ aides—student performance at the end of high school is essentially flat. The cost of this public school employment bloat is about $210 billion annually—roughly double the combined state budget shortfalls for 2012.

The President knows all this, but can safely assume that most American voters don’t. Thanks to decades of misreporting by the media, most Americans think public school class sizes have been growing and spending has been declining, when in fact the complete opposite is true.

Next, President Obama claims to have spurred states “to raise standards for teaching and learning.” Even if we grant the President’s unjustified assumption that high government standards improve student performance, he is ignoring the reality that his administration’s policy of conditionally waiving requirements of the federal NCLB law have caused some states to lower their standards. A recent and notorious case is Florida, which, thanks to an Obama administration NCLB waiver, has introduced new standards for educational achievement by race and ethnicity: black students will be held to a lower standard than Hispanics, who will be held to a lower standard than whites, who will be held to a lower standard than Asians. Had this happened under a previous administration, the national media would have assailed it as institutional racism and pilloried the President for pursuing the policy that precipitated it.

In a sensible world, each and every child would be helped and encouraged to fulfill his or her individual potential. Children are not interchangeable widgets to be sorted by color—or, for that matter, by age. Proclivity to learn differs not only between kids, but even within them, from one subject to the next.

We live at a time when it is easy to tailor instruction to each child, individually; grouping them—when group instruction is advantageous—based on where they are in the material in each subject, not purely on their age or some other arbitrary measure. The Jesuits started doing this in 1599, for heaven’s sake, we should certainly be doing it in 2012.

Indeed, the private tutoring sector already functions this way all over the world, because it seeks to provide the most educational value for parents’ dollars. Such individually-tailored instruction is unlikely to ever dominate the government-run approach to schooling championed by President Obama.