Tag: grants

Homeland Security Grants: Subsidizing Dystopia with Your Tax Dollars

My Washington Examiner column this week focuses on an important new study from the office of Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK): “Safety at Any Price: Assessing the Impact of Homeland Security Spending in U.S. Cities.”  If you’ve read any of the ample media coverage the report’s received, you may have heard that DHS grants have gone toward 13 sno-cone machines for terror-warriors in Michigan, a latrine on wheels for Fort Worth, Texas, a $100,000 underwater robot for Columbus, Ohio, and a Halloween “zombie apocalypse” demonstration at a swank resort outside San Diego.

But, as I argue in the Examiner,

the media focus on “waste, fraud, and abuse” misses a graver problem with DHS’s decade-long spending spree. Sno-cone machines and “zombie apocalypse” parties aren’t the worst things DHS is underwriting. We ought to worry more about the proliferation of surveillance cameras, mobile biometric scanners, armored personnel carriers and police drones.

The useless projects DHS funds are far less troubling than the ones that can be used to harm Americans’ privacy and liberty—and Coburn’s report is replete with examples of the latter.

Just today the Daily noted another troubling DHS project: “Government officials are quietly installing sophisticated audio surveillance systems on public buses across the country to eavesdrop on passengers…. Linked to video cameras already in wide use, the microphones will offer a formidable new tool for security and law enforcement. With the new systems, experts say, transit officials can effectively send an invisible police officer to transcribe the individual conversations of every passenger riding on a public bus.” The Daily notes, unsurprisingly, “In San Francisco, the Department of Homeland Security is funding the entire cost with a grant.”

It’s a mistake to look at DHS grants simply through the prism of government waste—as if what’s going on here is of a piece with $500 toilet seats and bridges to nowhere.  The costs of this unthinking slide toward a militarized, high-tech Idiocracy can’t be measured in budgetary terms alone.

More highlights from Coburn’s report after the jump:

Coburn also notes the use of DHS funds for police purchases of “Long Range Acoustic Device” crowd-control weapons:

originally developed for use by the military as a nonlethal way to repel adversaries, including Iraqi insurgents or pirates, by making a loud and intense sound that is capable of damaging hearing. Law enforcement agencies have purchased LRAD machines for purposes that include crowd control and issuing message and alerts across vast distances, though its use in terror-related preparedness is questionable.

In 2009, the Pittsburgh police department used its LRAD machine to disperse a crowd that was protesting the G-20 summit….
In 2009, the San Diego County Sheriff stationed its LRAD device at the town-hall meetings of Rep. Darryl Issa (R-CA), Rep. Susan Davis (D-CA), and Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA), which drew conservative and liberal protestors. The San Diego sheriff’s stated that the LRADs were in place so they “could use the LRAD in place of pepper spray” if there were problem at the event, which there was not.

… Mobile Fingerprinting Devices:

The Fairfax County Police Department in Virginia,
part of the National Capital Region around
Washington, D.C., spent nearly $12 million to upgrade
its automated fingerprinting system called NOVARIS
and purchased mobile devices for use by officers in the
field. Digital fingerprinting had been in place for
Fairfax police since the early 1980’s, but the county
applied for, and won, UASI funds to purchase a new
state-of-the-art system, that would also help it
coordinate with neighboring counties. “Since it was
due for an upgrade, we took the opportunity to use the
UASI grant funds to refresh the system,” explained Alan Hanson with the department.
Hanson explained that the equipment “is used most often in a voluntary capacity” in situations where people are stopped but do not have identification.

…Armored Personnel Carriers:

police departments are arming themselves with military assets often reserved for war zones. One California resident observed as much when officials in Carlsbad—a city with one of the state’s lowest crime rates—expressed interest in using DHS funds to buy a BearCat: “What we’re really talking about here is a tank, and if we’re at the point where every small community needs a tank for protection, we’re in a lot more trouble as a state than I thought.”….

Fargo, a town which “has averaged fewer than 2 homicides per year since 2005” bought a “new $256,643 armored truck, complete with a rotating [gun] turret” using homeland security funds. Fargo Police Lieutenant Ross Renner acknowledges that Fargo “[does not] have every-day threats here when it comes to terrorism.”

…and “Drones: Patrolling the Skies Like Never Before”:

In Texas, the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department successfully acquired a $300,000 Vanguard’s ShadowHawk drone fully paid with UASI dollars. Vanguard, located near Montgomery County, approached the sheriff’s department about procuring one of its unmanned systems, according to Chief Deputy Randy McDaniel. In fact, Vanguard helped the Sheriff’s department write “a winning grant proposal that allowed the entire cost of acquisition, training, insurance, and maintenance for a period two years to be absorbed in an Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI) grant.”

Do read the whole thing.

Did Canada Steal Our Tenth Amendment?

Under the U.S. Constitution, the federal government was assigned specific limited powers, and most government functions were left to the states. To ensure that people understood the limits on federal power, the Framers added the Tenth Amendment: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Those delegated powers are “few and defined,” noted James Madison.

But the Tenth Amendment has disappeared. No one has seen it in recent decades. But I’ve found some statistics that make me very suspicious that the Canadians stole the Tenth. Look at the pie charts below. The top pie shows that 71 percent of total government spending in the United States is federal, while 29 percent is state/local. (See BEA tables 3.1, 3.2, 3.3 for 2010 data).

Back when we still had the Tenth, that ratio was the other way around—like how the bottom chart looks for Canada today. In Canada, federal spending accounts for just 38 percent of total government spending, while provincial/local spending accounts for 62 percent. (See Canada Yearbook for 2010/11 data.)

Actually, the real culprit for the missing Tenth is not the Canadians, but the U.S. Congress. In recent decades, Congress has undertaken many activities that were traditionally reserved to state and local governments. A primary method has been through “grants-in-aid.” These are federal subsidies combined with regulatory controls that micromanage state and local affairs. In United States, federal grants are about 4.1 percent of GDP (in fiscal 2011), while in Canada they are about 3.3 percent of GDP.

Even more striking: while we’ve got a complex mess of more than 1,000 state grant programs, Canada seems to have just a handful, and they are simple block grants. As I understand it, Canada’s federal grants to lower governments mainly just include:

  • A health care block grant
  • A social services block grant
  • An “equalization” block grant to help the poor provinces.

There is a smattering of other aid, but that’s just about it. There are no federal subsidies for K-12 education in Canada, for example. There are a few large block grants and not much else.

On October 27, I’m on an Urban/Brookings panel looking at “What Can the United States Learn from Canada.” Perhaps we can learn how to get our decentralized federation back. While we’re at it, we could get some tips on how to cut government spending, as the Canadians did in the 1990s.

Fordham Institute Reviews ‘The Other Lottery’

Gerilyn Slicker, of the Fordham Institute, offers a brief review of my study of charter school philanthropy in the latest “Education Gadfly” mailing, including the following observation:

Note, though, that this analysis is not without fault. The report doesn’t break down spending by pupil (only reporting aggregate grant-giving), nor does it account for student growth over time or for how long the charter networks have been operational.

All three of these concerns are worth raising, and the first two of them were actually addressed in the paper itself. The aggregate vs. per-pupil grant funding question is discussed in endnote 15:

Note that total grant funding, rather than grant funding per pupil, is the correct measure. That is because enrollment is endogenous—it is a product, in part, of earlier grant funding. So, controlling for enrollment (which dividing by enrollment would do) would control away some of the very characteristics we are trying to measure: the charter network’s ability to attract funding.

Student growth over time, as noted on page 5, cannot be measured using the California Standards Tests, because it reports results as averages of subgroups of students at the classroom level, not as individual student scores. And since the CST is the only source that has broad-based performance data for all charter and traditional public schools in the state, it is the only dataset that can be used to measure the performance of all California charter school networks. Fortunately, good controls for both student factors and school-wide peer effects are available, and the study’s results are consistent with earlier research, where it overlaps with that research.

The final concern, network age, is not one that I directly addressed in the study. There are a couple of reasons to expect it would not have much of an impact on the findings, however. First, a cursory look at the age of some of the top networks shows no particular pattern. American Indian and KIPP are both a decade old, and rank #1 and #7, respectively, out of 68 networks. Oakland Charter Academies and Rocketship are just a couple of years old, and rank #2 and #4, respectively. Similarly, some of low performing networks are brand new, while others, like GreenDot (ranked 42nd), are also over a decade old.

Second, in Appendix E, I show that network size and network academic performance are not significantly linked to one another. And since network age and network enrollment are likely to be strongly positively correlated with one another, it would be surprising if network age were correlated with performance when enrollment is not. That said, I’d probably include network age as a control in future, if I repeat the study, just to be on the safe side.

Federal Employees and College Costs

For a long time now I’ve been writing about how student aid fuels explosive college costs, while Chris Edwards and Tad DeHaven have been highlighting the ever-cushier compensation of federal workers. Well, I’m pleased to have finally discovered a direct linkage between these topics: A new U.S. Office of Personnel  Management report on student loan repayment programs for federal workers.

According to the report, in calendar year 2009 “36 Federal agencies provided 8,454 employees with a total of more than $61.8 million in student loan repayment benefits.”

Now, 8,454 employees is a small chunk of the entire, roughly 2-million-person federal workforce. Still, $61.8 million isn’t anything to sniff at, and loan forgiveness is one more perk that needs to be considered when thinking of federal worker compensation. And then there’s the trajectory of forgiveness: According to the report, spending on student-loan forgiveness by federal agencies in 2009 was “more than 19 times” bigger than it was in 2002. Were things to continue at that rate, in 2017 the cost would be almost $1.2 billion, and then you’d almost be talking real money!

The important point from a student-aid perspective is to emphasize something that must never be forgotten: While many analyses of student aid will only count grants – because they don’t ever have to be paid back – as “aid,” the reality is that that hugely under counts the true cost of federal aid to taxpayers. In addition to grants, taxpayers fund all federal student loans (and eat them when they aren’t repaid), help finance work-study, and pay for federal expenses that people taking federal education tax credits don’t pay for. So when you look just at federal grants, the bill for taxpayers in the 2008-09 school year was about $24.8 billion (see table 1). Add in loans, credits, and work-study, however, and the bill suddenly balloons to nearly $116.8 billion.

“But wait,” will say the only-grants-are-aid crowd, “isn’t a lot of that $116.8 billion loan money that will be paid back?” Yup – it’s just that at least $61.8 million of that repayment is coming, once again, from beleaguered federal taxpayers. And that, to be sure, is just the tip of the federal loan-forgiveness iceberg.

Obama Ringing the Pell

As part of his ill-considered credentialing-to-compete initiative, President Obama wants to greatly increase both the size and availablity of Pell Grants. Under his proposed FY 2011 budget, the total pot of Pell aid would rise from $28.2 billion in 2009 to $34.8 billion in 2011; the maximum award would go from $5,350 to $5,710; and the number of students served would rise by around 1 million.  

A critical question, of course, is whether increasing Pell will ultimately make college more affordable or self-defeatingly fuel further tuition inflation. The New York Times took that up in yesterday’s Room for Debate blog.

Economist Richard Vedder has long educated people about the inflationary effect of student aid, and does so again with great clarity. It’s higher-ed analyst Art Hauptman, however, whom I think best captures what likely occurs when Pell is combined with all the cheap loans and other aid furnished by Washington, states, and schools themselves:

The degree to which student aid affects what colleges and universities charge varies between the Pell Grant and student loans. The Pell Grant has not had much effect on tuition levels in part because the amount of the awards does not vary with where a student enrolls. Institutions cannot affect how much a student receives, and the institutions that charge the most enroll the fewest Pell Grant recipients.

By contrast…there are several good reasons to believe that student loans have been a factor in the rising cost of a college education. Tuition has increased by twice the inflation rate for the past three decades while annual loan volume has increased tenfold in constant dollars.

Unlike Pell Grants…colleges have some control over how much students borrow as loan amounts. Moreover, just as one couldn’t imagine house prices being as high as they now are if mortgage financing were not available, it is difficult to believe that colleges and universities could have increased their charges so rapidly over time without the ready availability of students’ ability to borrow.

[W]e should worry…that increases in Pell Grants may lead institutions to reduce the amount of discounts they would otherwise have provided to the recipients, who are from poor families, and move the aid these students would have received to others. This possibility…is supported by the data showing that public and private institutions are now more likely to provide more aid to more middle-income students than low-income students.

So what’s likely going on? Cheap federal loans – which are available to students of all income levels and vary according to a college’s price – are probably the main direct tuition inflator. More indirectly, Pell probably encourages schools to move other aid from poorer to wealthier students, enabling the latter to pay ever-higher “sticker” prices. In other words, student aid powers tuition inflation!

Which brings me to a quick comment about the submission from College Board economist Sandy Baum, who trots out the standard “declining state appropriations”  to explain our college-price pain.

How many more times do I need to disprove this? Apparently, at least once more:

(Source: State Higher Education Executive Officers)

Public funding is a roller coaster and tuition revenue an incline. Over the last quarter century, per-pupil state and local funding for public colleges and universities went up and down, but dropped overall by a mere $8 per year. In contrast, public colleges’ per-pupil revenue from tuition (net of state and local student aid) rose more or less unabated, growing by about $73 per year. 

This – as well as the fact that private colleges are also guilty of huge price inflation – clearly belies the notion that colleges raise prices because skinflinty governments make them. That might be part of the explanation, but an even bigger part is almost certainly that colleges raise prices because, thanks to ever-growing student aid, they can.

College Prices Aren’t So Bad When Other People Are Paying

Today the College Board – maker of such fine products as the SAT and Advanced Placement exams – released its annual reports on college prices and student aid. College prices, it seems, have gone up significantly over the last year. However, if the following statement from the reports’ author, economist Sandy Baum, is accurate – I haven’t been able to see the reports myself yet – student aid largely offset the price increases. And do you know what that might mean? Colleges were able to charge students more without greatly affecting access by pawning much of the new charges off on donors and taxpayers:

Sandy Baum, the College Board senior policy analyst who wrote both reports, said it was important to focus on the net price students actually paid, after subtracting grants and tax benefits, rather than the published tuition, or sticker price. And in that regard, Ms. Baum said, the situation looks far less dire. “Over all, it could have been worse,” she said.

So could it actually be, as I and others have argued repeatedly, that student aid helps fuel tuition increases by having third parties cover so much of the new costs? Here’s yet more evidence saying that yes, it could.