Tag: fiscal responsibility act

Dr. Frankenstein on His Creation: It’s All The Monster’s Fault

As I have explained on numerous occasions, supporters of the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA) – which would end federal guaranteed student loans, turn everything into lending direct from Uncle Sam, and spend the resulting savings and way much more – have often shamelessly promoted the bill as a boon to taxpayers when it will almost certainly cost them tens-of-billions.  Where they have generally been right is in rebutting criticisms that SAFRA would be a federal takeover of a private industry. With lender profits all but assured under federal guaranteed lending, the vast majority of student loans haven’t been truly private for decades.

Unfortunately, SAFRA advocates are just as clueless – or, more likely, rhetorically unbridled – about what constitutes a private entity as are status-quo supporters. Case in point, an article in today’s Huffington Post that, along with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, attempts to portray the suddenly rocky road ahead for SAFRA as a result of evil lender lobbyists dropping boulders in the selfless legislation’s way:

Taking aim at Sallie Mae, the largest student lender in the country and a driving force behind the lobbying effort, Education Secretary Arne Duncan on Tuesday accused the company of using taxpayer funds to lobby and advertise, and cast its executives as white-collar millionaires uninterested in serious education reform.

“Sallie Mae executives have paid themselves hundreds of millions of dollars in the last decade while teachers, nurses, and scientists – the backbone of the new economy – face crushing debt because of runaway college tuition costs,” Duncan said.

Here Sallie Mae is painted in the same ugly hues as Lehman Brothers, AIG, and all the other supposedly rapacious, unscrupulous companies whose unchecked greed, we’re told, brought the American economy to its knees. (We also get the baseless but obligatory pronouncement about “crushing debt” for teachers and other toilers for the “public good.”)

But wait! Doesn’t  “Sallie Mae” sound a lot like”Fannie Mae” and “Freddie Mac”? Of course! That’s because just like Fannie and Freddie, Sallie was created by the federal government,  only with Sallie’s job being to furnish lots of cheap college loans. And guess what? Just like Fannie and Freddie, Sallie became by far the biggest kid on her block because her huge federal creator fed her and protected her for decades, not setting her off on her own until 1996. But that part of her story doesn’t fit anywhere into the evil corporation narrative, so it’s just not mentioned.  All we need to know is Sallie is private, her owners and employees make a lot of money, and that is why she is evil and dangerous.

And so the politics of demonization and denial, a staple of the recession blame game, continues. Private institutions are portrayed as malevolent predators and government as a warm, pure, protective father-figure. But there is much more accurate imagery possible when it comes to Sallie Mae: Egomaniacal Dr. Frankenstein furiously blaming the monster he created for doing exactly what he built it to do.

And some wonder why there’s such widespread outrage – the real reason SAFRA is in trouble – about ever-expanding federal power?

NYT Nonsense on SAFRA

With the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA) likely to be voted on by the full House or Representatives today, the media is finally giving some space to debate over the bill. Unfortunately, the New York Times only pays attention to the parts it likes, writing in an editorial today that:

The private lenders and those who do their bidding in Congress have recently taken issue with a Congressional Budget Office analysis that showed that the bill would save about $87 billion over the next 10 years.

They argue, absurdly, for example, that the savings would be smaller if the system were analyzed under accounting rules other than the ones that the federal government is required to use. The aim is to mislead taxpayers and members of Congress into believing that the C.B.O. estimate is dishonest.

Um, excuse me New York Times, but the CBO has never said the bill – not just going from subsidized to direct lending, but the whole bill – would save $87 billion over ten years. Moreover, it has been a series of analyses from the CBO – albeit driven by requests from members of Congress – that have continually increased the cost estimates for SAFRA. (I have linked to all the CBO analyses here.) CBO’s very first estimate of the bill’s likely net cost put it at around $6 billion over ten years, and it only went up from there after incorporating such things as lending risk and potentially higher Pell grant costs.

Of course, the Times isn’t alone in its refusal to talk honestly about SAFRA. Despite all of the CBO estimates, yesterday U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said SAFRA would give college students and numerous other interests the world without costing taxpayers a dime.  “We’re not asking the taxpayers for one single dollar,” he said. And SAFRA’s sponsor, Rep. George Miller (D-CA), has been touting his bill as a revolutionary money saver since day one.

The truth on this thing is out there, but it’s definitely not in the New York Times.

How’d That Get in Here?

Understandably, the public is a little preoccupied right now with efforts in Washington to “reform” health care by making it much, much worse. Fortunately, people are starting to notice that a congressional bum rush is heading right toward them — maybe they’ll be able stop it in time. Unfortunately, that is giving Washington a chance to sneak some other stuff by us.

In particular, I’m thinking of the just-introduced Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act. It’s been largely ignored so far, save a little chatter about the community college stuff it incorporates. In a simpler time, it would have generated a lot more copy. After all, it will:

  • end federally backed student loans that come through private companies, and instead make Uncle Sam the universal lender;
  • greatly increase Pell Grants and peg their growth to the rate of inflation plus 1 point;
  • balloon the federal Perkins loan program;
  • authorize $5 billion over two years for elementary and secondary school facility projects, with a focus on “green” efforts;
  • authorize $10 billion over ten years for Early Learning Challenge Grants; and
  • furnish $12 billion for community colleges.

Not all of this, I should say, is terrible. Getting rid of the Federal Family Education Loan Program — which backs loans coming from ostensibly private companies and guarantees lenders a profit — is a good thing. But replacing it all with loans directly from D.C.? That’s a bad thing.

To be fair, transitioning from guaranteed to direct lending could save some money, especially in the short run, eliminating various fees and guarantees Washington pays to lenders under FFEL. But those savings almost certainly won’t be the $87 billion over ten years supporters claim, a number that is no doubt overstated as a result of budget chicanery and how quickly government grows. And don’t expect taxpayers to benefit from whatever savings are ultimately generated. According to the proud declaration of SAFRA sponsor George Miller (D-CA), only $10 billion of the projected $87 billion savings is slated for deficit reduction. The rest — breathtaking deficit be damned! — is going to standard, feel-good government spending, including school “modernization” projects and “early learning” grants

Which brings me to the community college components, which have, unlike the rest of the bill, been getting some media play. I wrote about them earlier this week, noting especially that they make little sense in light of Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers showing that positions requiring on-the-job training will grow in much greater numbers than jobs requiring at least an associate’s degree. What I didn’t mention was the dismal performance of community college students, who take remedial courses in droves and complete their programs at very low rates.

Ah, but we’re told that this new legislation, backed wholeheartedly by the Obama administration, is going to reform community colleges. As David Brooks celebrates in his column today:

The Obama initiative is designed to go right at these deeper problems. It sets up a significant innovation fund, which, if administered properly, could set in motion a spiral of change. It has specific provisions for remedial education, outcome tracking and online education. It links public sector training with specific private sector employers.

Now, I thought Brooks was supposed to be a seasoned political observer, but he seems to have swallowed the reform-y rhetoric hook, line, and sinker. He’s seasoned enough, though, to give himself an out with the qualifier, “if administered properly.”

He’s gonna’ need that out, though the reform failure probably won’t be primarily administrative; the legislation itself offers gaping holes through which schools can escape real reform. To get “innovation” grants, schools would simply have to agree to do such nebulous, input-centric things as provide “student support services” and implement “other innovative programs.” In other words, they’d need do nothing meaningful at all.

Unfortunately, this bill will probably become law. Few politicians or interest groups are standing firmly against it, and with health care storming the public’s front door, few people will notice SAFRA tiptoeing through the back. Combine that with the few people who are writing about the bill giving it little critical thought, and its passage seems assured.