Tag: jfk

American Education, From Camelot to Obamaville

The president has relentlessly called for a more extensive—and expensive—federal role in education. Here’s just one example:

The human mind is our fundamental resource. A balanced Federal program must go well beyond incentives for investment in plant and equipment. It must include equally determined measures to invest in human beings—both in their basic education and training and in their more advanced preparation…. Without such measures, the Federal Government will not be carrying out its responsibilities for expanding the base of our economic… strength.

And if we spend all those new federal dollars on k-12 education, the president promised that “it will pay rich dividends in the years ahead.”

But here’s the strange part: in that same speech, the president made this seemingly ridiculous claim:

Our progress in education over the last generation has been substantial. We are educating a greater proportion of our youth to a higher degree of competency than any other country on earth.

It’s actually not so ridiculous when you learn that the president who said it was John F. Kennedy, in February of 1961. Back then, we really had been making educational progress.

Aside from the ill-fated National Defense Education Act of 1958, the federal government had made no attempt to improve k-12 academic achievement or attainment in the four decades before JFK… and yet, as he noted, American education did in fact improve during that period.

But within a couple of years of JFK’s assassination, Congress passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, now known as the No Child Left Behind Act. And in the four plus decades since, the feds have spent roughly $2 trillion trying to improve outcomes and attainment. Over that course of years, both graduation rates and academic achievement at the end of high school have been flat or declining.

Perhaps it could be argued that JFK couldn’t have known better. There was no history showing him what an expensive failure U.S. federal education spending would turn out to be. But the same cannot be said of President Obama, or of those in Congress who continue to tell the public, and presumably themselves, that fed ed. spending is a useful “investment.”

Today, we can look back at a half-century of failed federal education programs. We can think about how much better off the U.S. economy and our children would be if we hadn’t thrown $2 trillion at a calcified school monopoly that cannot spend money efficiently.

And reflecting on that history, perhaps we’ll find the wisdom not to repeat it.

Topics:

Ask Not What Frankenstein Can Do for You…

Today is the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, where he implored, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”  People are commemorating the anniversary in various ways.  Google is paying tribute to JFK’s address in its logo:

I thought it might be worth reprinting Milton Friedman’s assessment of JFK’s memorable line, taken from the introduction to Friedman’s 1962 book, Capitalism and Freedom:

IN A MUCH QUOTED PASSAGE in his inaugural address, President Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” It is a striking sign of the temper of our times that the controversy about this passage centered on its origin and not on its content. Neither half of the statement expresses a relation between the citizen and his government that is worthy of the ideals of free men in a free society. The paternalistic “what your country can do for you” implies that government is the patron, the citizen the ward, a view that is at odds with the free man’s belief in his own responsibility for his own destiny. The organismic, “what you can do for your country” implies that government is the master or the deity, the citizen, the servant or the votary. To the free man, the country is the collection of individuals who compose it, not something over and above them. He is proud of a common heritage and loyal to common traditions. But he regards government as a means, an instrumentality, neither a grantor of favors and gifts, nor a master or god to be blindly worshipped and served. He recognizes no national goal except as it is the consensus of the goals that the citizens severally serve. He recognizes no national purpose except as it is the consensus of the purposes for which the citizens severally strive.

The free man will ask neither what his country can do for him nor what he can do for his country. He will ask rather “What can I and my compatriots do through government” to help us discharge our individual responsibilities, to achieve our several goals and purposes, and above all, to protect our freedom? And he will accompany this question with another: How can we keep the government we create from becoming a Frankenstein that will destroy the very freedom we establish it to protect? Freedom is a rare and delicate plant. Our minds tell us, and history confirms, that the great threat to freedom is the concentration of power. Government is necessary to preserve our freedom, it is an instrument through which we can exercise our freedom; yet by concentrating power in political hands, it is also a threat to freedom. Even though the men who wield this power initially be of good will and even though they be not corrupted by the power they exercise, the power will both attract and form men of a different stamp.

Contra Camelot

My DC Examiner column this week looks at the controversy surrounding the History Channel’s forthcoming miniseries, “The Kennedys,” starring Greg Kinnear and Katie Holmes as JFK and Jackie.  It’s controversial in large part because the producer is “24“ ‘s Joel Surnow, who is cigar-buddies with Rush Limbaugh and an outspoken conservative:

The screenwriter, Stephen Kronish, insists that he’s “not out to destroy the sacred cow” of the JFK presidency. Too bad: In an age when Americans still periodically swoon for imperial presidents, a little sacred-cow tipping would be a public service.

Robert Greenwald, a left-wing documentarian who read an early version of the script, is leading the fight to discredit the project. Greenwald seems especially troubled by the (largely true) allegations about Kennedy’s Tiger-Woodsish sex life.  But I argue that:

More troubling were Kennedy’s routine abuses of power. His attorney general, brother Bobby, ordered wiretaps on New York Times and Newsweek reporters, along with various congressmen and steel executives who’d had the nerve to raise prices. At JFK’s instigation in 1961, the Internal Revenue Service set up a “strike force” aimed at groups opposing the administration. Nixon’s defenders had half a point when they complained that the sainted Jack had gotten away with the sort of abuses that brought Nixon’s own downfall.

Worse still is how the persistent longing for Camelot has distorted Americans’ views of the presidency’s proper role:

Kennedy’s charm and vigor, and the tragic circumstances of his death, have made it hard to see the man clearly. A 1968 study on “juvenile idealization of the president” quoted a Houston mother: “When my little girl came out of school she told me someone killed the president, and her thoughts were – since the president was dead, where would we get our food and clothes from?” But “juvenile idealization” isn’t limited to juveniles.

Presidential biographer James MacGregor Burns, a Kennedy fan, wrote that “the stronger we make the Presidency, the more we strengthen democratic procedures.” Even today, far too many pundits and historians seem to get a Chris Matthews-style “thrill up [their] leg” when they contemplate “heroic” presidential activism.

Conservatives aren’t immune to presidential cultishness, of course.

Peggy Noonan called Bush’s post-9/11 address to Congress “a God-touched moment and a God-touched speech.” Fred Barnes wrote that “the stage was set for Bush to be God’s agent of wrath.” National Review Online ran ads for the Bush “Top Gun” action figure, and an article about how wonderful it was to have a presidential superhero to complement your GI Joe collection.

And even the What Would Reagan Do? stuff smacks of the “man on horseback” dream of the presidency that’s caused us so many problems.  In fact, Surnow, “the Kennedys” producer, seems to have an unhealthy case of Gipper-worship himself.  He told the New Yorker:

“I can hardly think of him without breaking into tears. I just felt Ronald Reagan was the father that this country needed… . He made me feel good that I was in his family.”

If more people felt embarrassed to talk about presidents that way, we’d be well on our way to putting the presidency back in its proper constitutional place.

It’s the End of 2009. Where Are Our Troops?

This is not the change we hoped for. President Obama rose to power on the basis of his early opposition to the Iraq war and his promise to end it. But after a year in the White House he has made both of George Bush’s wars his wars.

Speaking of Iraq in February 2008, candidate Barack Obama said, “I opposed this war in 2002. I will bring this war to an end in 2009. It is time to bring our troops home.” The following month, under fire from Hillary Clinton, he reiterated, ”I was opposed to this war in 2002….I have been against it in 2002, 2003, 2004, 5, 6, 7, 8 and I will bring this war to an end in 2009. So don’t be confused.”

Indeed, in his famous “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow” speech on the night he clinched the Democratic nomination, he also proclaimed, “I am absolutely certain that generations from now we will be able to look back and tell our children that … this was the moment when we ended a war.”

Now he has doubled down on the war in Afghanistan and has promised to keep the war in Iraq going for another 19 months, after which we will have 50,000 American troops in Iraq for as far as the eye can see. If McCain had proposed this sort of minor tweaking of the Bush policy, I think we’d see antiwar rallies in 300 cities. Calling the antiwar movement!

President Obama’s promises are becoming less credible. He says that after all this vitally necessary and unprecedented federal spending, he will turn his attention to constraining spending at some uncertain date in the future. And he says that he will first put more troops into Afghanistan, and then withdraw them at some uncertain date in the future (“in July of 2011,” but “taking into account conditions on the ground”). Voters are going to be skeptical of both these promises to accelerate now and then put on the brakes later.

The real risk for Obama is becoming not JFK but LBJ – a president with an ambitious, expensive, and ultimately destructive domestic agenda, who ends up bogged down and destroyed by an endless war. Congress should press for a quicker conclusion to both wars – and should also remember the years of stagflation and slow growth that followed President Johnson’s expansion of the welfare state.

George W. Bush: Biggest Spender Since LBJ

The Congressional Budget Office has released final budget numbers for fiscal year 2009. The numbers allow us to take a last look at the Bush administration’s record on spending from a statistical point of view.

The following three charts show annual average real (or constant dollar) outlays during the tenures of recent presidents. Presidents were in office for either 4 or 8 budget years, except JFK (3 years), LBJ (5 years), Nixon (6 years), and Ford (2 years).

President George W. Bush’s last year was fiscal 2009. Outlays that year were $3.522 trillion, according to the CBO. However, $108 billion was spending for the 2009 economic stimulus package passed under President Obama. Bush was thus roughly responsible for $3.414 trillion of spending in 2009, which includes outlays for the financial bailouts enacted under his watch. (For FY2009, $154 billion for TARP and $91 billion for Fannie and Freddie).

Spending in Bush’s first year (FY2001) was $1.863 trillion, thus he presided over an 83-percent increase in overall federal spending, which includes defense, domestic, entitlements, and interest. Even without TARP and Fannie/Freddie, spending was up a huge 70 percent under Bush over eight years. By contrast, total spending under eight years of President Clinton increased just 32 percent. These are the overall increases in nominal dollars.

Now let’s look at the real annual averages. Figure 1 shows the average increase in total spending under recent presidents. Bush II was the biggest spender since LBJ. His spending increases were far larger than the three prior presidents.

Of course, presidents share spending power with Congress and it is easier for presidents to control discretionary spending than entitlement spending. Nonetheless, the results in these charts reflect the general spending approach taken by the presidents quite well. For example, Bush II was instrumental in adding the Medicare drug benefit, which by 2009 was adding more than $60 billion a year to federal spending.

200912_blog_edwards27

Figure 2 shows total federal spending without interest payments. Presidents have the least discretionary control over interest. The biggest spenders by this measure were again LBJ and Bush II. Note that Bush’s record by this measure is worse than in Figure 1. That is because Bush lucked out with relatively low interest rates on the federal debt and relatively low amounts of federal debt because of four years of surpluses under President Clinton.

200912_blog_edwards28

For Figure 3, I took out both interest payments and defense spending from the totals. So spending includes domestic discretionary spending and so-called entitlement spending–in other words, mainly spending on the growing federal welfare state. By this measure, Eisenhower, JFK, LBJ, and Nixon had awful records. These were the years of massive creation and expansion of federal subsidy programs for the elderly, state governments, and many other groups. By the late-1970s, the creation of new programs had slowed but existing programs continued to grow.

The 1980 election of Ronald Reagan represented a revolt against the rapidly expanding welfare state. His record shown in Figure 3 of just 1 percent real spending growth over eight years was impressive, at least relative to the other presidents of the last half century.

What about Bush II? Figure 3 shows that he was the biggest domestic spender since Nixon. He set the stage for the explosive spending growth we are seeing under President Obama. Big spending was a key cause of Bush’s failure as president both economically and politically, and it is proving just as damaging and unpopular under President Obama.  

200912_blog_edwards29