Tag: President Obama

To Russia with Love: Why Obama Should Be Glad Russia Is Getting Involved in Syria

Russia’s push to support Assad in Syria and its agreement to share intelligence with Syria, Iran, and Iraq has evoked the predictable handwringing here in the United States. Some worry that Russian involvement will derail the U.S. fight against IS. Others worry that Russia’s engagement will weaken U.S. influence in the Middle East and further embolden Vladimir Putin in his various misadventures. Such concerns are misplaced. Even though Putin has no intention of helping the United States his maneuverings have in fact done just that. Rather than ramping up U.S. engagement to outdo the Russians, as hawks are calling for, Obama should instead take this opportunity to reassess and redirect U.S. policy.

Russian actions have improved Obama’s Middle East “strategy” in three ways.

First, Russian initiative in 2013 kept the United States from getting involved in Syria too early. As horrendous as the $500 million training initiative turned out to be, it was a drop in the bucket compared to what the United States would have spent by now had the United States engaged earlier and more aggressively. When Assad’s regime blew past Obama’s ill-advised “red line” on chemical weapons, it was Russia that came in to save the day, brokering an arrangement that led Syria to give up its chemical weapons. Had Obama instead launched a few meaningless missile strikes at the Assad regime the United States would have shouldered greater responsibility for the regime’s behavior. Both Republicans and liberal interventionists in his own party would have pushed Obama toward deeper and ultimately more costly intervention.

Second, Putin’s recent actions make clear that the United States does not have to carry the expanding burden of fighting IS alone. In the absence of any real partners on the ground and with no desire to go it alone, the United States has been reduced to half-measures in Syria. Had there ever been an identifiable group of moderate rebels then perhaps a U.S. training program would have made sense. Today, however, with IS pressing hard and moderates thin on the ground, such a strategy is clearly too little and too late. Without partners, the United States has no real ability to influence events on the ground. Airpower has many strengths, but even a much broader campaign of airstrikes could not win the day without the backing of U.S. ground troops. Russia is not the partner the United States would have chosen, of course, but the fact remains that Russia is willing and able to take the fight to IS in ways that benefit the United States.

Mr. President, Don’t Scapegoat Private Schools

It is not often I get a chance to latch on to someone as high profile as the President of the United States saying that public schools “draw us together.” But in his appearance at Georgetown University a couple of days ago, President Obama blamed, among other things, people sending their children to private schools for breaking down social cohesion and reducing opportunities for other children.

First, let’s get our facts straight: Private schools are not the main way better-off people, or people with high social capital, isolate themselves from poor families. Only 9 percent of school children attend private schools, and as Matt Ladner points out in a great response to the President, that percentage has been dropping over the years. No, the main way the better-off congregate amongst themselves is buying houses in nice places, which translates into access to good school districts. Even the large majority of the mega-rich appear to send their children to public schools, but rather than paying school tuition, their tuition is the far-steeper, far more exclusive price of a house. And let’s not pretend – as the President hinted – that we’ve seen anything close to long-term decreased funding for public schools. Even with a slight dip during the Great Recession, inflation-adjusted, per-pupil spending in public schools has well more than doubled since 1970.

On the deeper point, do we really know that public schools “draw us together,” and more importantly, do so better than private schooling? No, we don’t. That’s the accepted wisdom, but basic history doesn’t necessarily bear it out. Roman Catholics ended up starting their own school system – which at its peak in 1965 enrolled about 12 percent of all students – because the de facto Protestant public schools could not accommodate them. African-Americans, of course, were long legally excluded from public schools, especially white public schools. Similar situations existed for Asians and Mexican-Americans in some parts of the country. And, of course, public schools reflected the communities they served, which were often small and homogeneous. Finally, public schooling forces diverse people into a single system, which has led to seemingly incessant, cohesion-tearing clashes over values, personal identities, and much more.

Conflicted on 529s

If you like feeling conflicted, you’ll love being a libertarian thinking about President Obama’s recent proposal – and even more recent rescinding of that proposal – to essentially end 529 college savings plans. The President proposed killing the ability to use funds saved under a 529 plan tax free to pay for college, which would have gutted the program’s real value.

On one side, a libertarian should be aggravated by such a proposal. The goal certainly seemed to be income redistribution, generating new revenues from relatively well-to-do Americans and giving it to (presumably) less well-to-do Americans with free community college and expanded “refundable” tax credits. It also seemed intended to support a divisive, rhetorical war of the “middle class” vs. “the rich” (though certainly many people who use 529s consider themselves middle class). And unlike federal grants, loans, and those refundable credits that are often essentially grants for people who don’t owe much in taxes, 529s are about people saving their own money to pay for college, not taking it from taxpayers.

On the other side, libertarians – heck, everyone – should want a simple tax code that isn’t riven with special breaks, loopholes, and encouragements to do things politicians decide are worthy but which have massive negative, unintended consequences. And when it comes to higher education, those consequences are huge, including rampant tuition inflation, awful completion rates, major underemployment, serious credential inflation, and a burgeoning academic water park industry. And where does the federal government get the authority to incentivize saving for college in the first place? Not in the Constitution.

So how should libertarians feel about the demise of the President’s 529 plan? I guess a little sad, because the Feds simply shouldn’t be in the business of encouraging college consumption. Even more, though, they should feel angry, because we are so deep in a federally driven, college-funding quagmire.

TONIGHT: Cato Scholars Live-Tweet the State of the Union


Tonight at 9 p.m. EST, President Obama will lay out his plans for the upcoming year in his sixth annual State of the Union (SOTU) address. What will the President’s words mean for liberty? 

Find out tonight: Cato scholars will be live-tweeting their reactions to what the president says—and what he leaves out. Following the President’s address, stay tuned for commentary on the Republican and Tea Party responses. Featured scholars will include everyone from David Boaz to Mark Calabria, Walter Olson to Alex Nowrasteh….and many, many more.

This is your chance to ask the experts what to expect from the policy world in 2015—and to add your two cents to the discussion. Follow @CatoInstitute on Twitter and join the conversation using #CatoSOTU

Community College Courtesy of the Federal Taxpayer? No Thanks

Word came out last night that in a speech in Tennessee today President Obama will propose that two years of community college be made free to all “responsible” students, primarily funded by federal taxpayers. But one look at either community college outcomes or labor market outlooks reveals this to be educational folly.

The fact of the matter, according to the federal government’s own data, is that community college completion rates are atrocious. The federal Digest of Education Statistics reports that a mere 19.5 percent of first-time, full-time community college students complete their programs within 150 percent of the time they are supposed to take. So less than 20 percent finish a two-year degree within three years, or a 10-month certificate program within 15 months. And that rate has been dropping almost every year since the cohort of students that started in 2000, which saw 23.6 percent complete. Moreover, as I itemize in a post at SeeThruEDU.com, even when you add transfers to four-year schools, the numbers don’t improve very much. Meanwhile, interestingly, the for-profit sector that has been so heavily demonized by the administration has an almost 63 percent completion rate at two-year institutions, and that has been rising steadily since the 2000 cohort.

The other huge problem is that the large majority of job categories expected to grow the most in the coming years do not require postsecondary training. Of the 30 occupations that the U.S. Department of Labor projects to see the greatest total growth by 2022, only 10 typically need some sort of postsecondary education, and several of those require less than an associate’s degree. Most of the new jobs will require a high school diploma or less.

Of course, one of the biggest problems in higher ed is that for so much of it, someone other than the student is paying the bill, tamping down students’ incentives to seriously consider whether they should go to college and what they should study if they do. This proposal would only exacerbate that problem, essentially encouraging people to spend two years in community college fully on the taxpayer dime while they dabble in things they may or may not want to do—and as they maintain a pretty low 2.5 GPA—then maybe focusing a little more when the two years is up and they have to pay something themselves.

Unfortunately, there is no way to look at this proposal (at least as it has been spelled out so far), investigate the reality of community college, and conclude anything other than it is a terrible idea.

DACA Did Not Cause the Surge in Unaccompanied Children

In June, 2012 the Obama Administration announced that it had authored a memo deferring the deportation of unauthorized immigrant childhood arrivals in the United States, a program known as deferred action for childhood arrivals (DACA).  The memo directed then Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security to practice prosecutorial discretion toward a small number of unauthorized immigrants who fulfilled a specific set of characteristics.  In essence, some unauthorized immigrants who had come to the United States as children were able to legally stay and work–at least temporarily. 

Did DACA Cause the UAC Surge?

Some politicians contend that DACA is primarily responsible for the surge in unaccompanied child (UAC) migrants across the border in recent years.  A recent House Appropriations Committee one-pager stated that, “The dire situation on our Southern border has been exacerbated by the President’s current immigration policies.”  Proponents of this theory argue that DACA sent a message to Central Americans that if they came as children then the U.S. government would legalize them, thus giving a large incentive for them to come in the first place.  Few facts of the unaccompanied children (UAC) surge are consistent with the theory that DACA caused the surge.

First, the surge in UAC began long before the June 15, 2012 announcement of DACA.  It is true that DACA had been discussed in late May 2012 but the surge was underway by that time.  From October 2011 through March 2012, there was a 93 percent increase in UAC apprehensions over the same period in Fiscal Year 2011.  Texas Governor Rick Perry warned President Obama about the rapid increase in UAC at the border in early May 2012 – more than a full month before DACA was announced.  In early June 2012, Mexico was detaining twice as many Central American children as in 2011.  The surge in unaccompanied children (UAC) began before DACA was announced.

Second, the children coming now are not legally able to apply for DACA.  A recipient of DACA has to have resided in the United States continuously from June 15, 2007 to June 15, 2012, a requirement that excludes the unaccompanied children coming now.   

Third, if DACA was such an incentive for UAC to come from Central America, why are so few Nicaraguan children coming?  They would benefit in the same way as unaccompanied children from El Salvdaor, Honduras, and Guatemala.  The lack of Nicaraguans points to other causes of the surge.

The timing, legal exclusion of the UAC from DACA, and lack of Nicaraguans indicate that DACA was not a primary cause of the surge.  Of the 404 UAC interviewed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees since 2011, only 9 mentioned that U.S. laws influenced their decision to come to the United States.  Other American laws could have influenced the unaccompanied children to come but DACA is not the main culprit.           

Details on DACA

The DACA beneficiaries, at the time of the memo, would have to fulfill all of these requirements to have their deportations deferred:

  • Under the age of 31,
  • Arrived to the United States before reaching their 16th birthday,
  • Entered the United States without inspection or overstayed a visa prior to June 15, 2012,
  • Continuously resided in the United States from June 15, 2007 to the time of the memo,
  • Physically present in the United States on June 15, 2012, as well as at the time of requesting deferred action from United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS),
  • Been in school at the time of application, or have already graduated or obtained a certificate of completion from high school, or have obtained a general education development (GED) certificate, or are an honorably discharged veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard or the U.S. Armed Forces
  • Not been convicted of a felony, significant misdemeanor, or three or more other misdemeanors, and do not otherwise pose a threat to national security or public safety.

Beneficiaries of DACA were also allowed to apply for employment authorization according to the Code of Federal Regulations.  There is a debate amongst legal scholars over whether the administration’s grant of deferred action was legal.  Those who argue that DACA was illegal contend that the President overstepped his constitutional authority to defer the deportation of some unauthorized immigrants.  Those who argue that DACA was legal point to the general power of the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security to defer enforcement action.  They argue that the Supreme Court has ruled that decisions to initiate or terminate enforcement proceedings fall within the authority of the Executive – an enforcement power used since the early 1970s.  Here is more of their argument.  This disagreement has not been settled.     

By the end of September, 2013, 580,000 requests for DACA were accepted by the U.S. government and 514,800, or 89 percent, were approved.  Seventy-six percent of the requests came from Mexicans.  Twenty-nine percent of the requests were filed from California, 16 percent from Texas, and 6 percent from Illinois.

Core Misinformation: Bad News for the Blame Obama Crowd

A favorite refrain of Common Core advocates is that their opponents are peddling “misinformation.” Well Core fans are quite adept at doing the same thing, and as a new Washington Post article reinforces, no case of this is more egregious than pretending that Core adoption was supposed to be “state-led” and “voluntary,” and federal coercion was just unwanted Obama administration interference. That is simply not true: Core crusaders wanted federal involvement from before the Common Core was even given its name.

On numerous occasions I have cited the 2008 report Benchmarking for Success, from the Core-creating National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, as indisputable evidence that Core supporters wanted federal pressure to push state adoption of common, internationally benchmarked standards. That report – written before there was an Obama administration – says explicitly that Washington should “offer funds” and provide “tiered incentives” to push states onto common standards. It was a call reiterated on the website of the Common Core State Standards Initiative, though it was eventually removed.

Despite this crystal clear evidence, Core defenders have continued to imply that federal intervention has all been the unwanted, unappreciated pushiness of President Obama. Indeed, just last Friday, Michael Petrilli of the Core-supporting Thomas B. Fordham Foundation said it again in a discussion with AEI’s Mike McShane. Go to the 28:50 mark to hear Petrilli say, “I think many of us could make the argument that this whole thing would have played out very differently if the Obama administration had just stayed out of it.” And Petrilli is not alone in suggesting that the Core initiative was always supposed to be fed-free. Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin (R), signing a bill removing her state from the Core last week, implied the same thing, saying:

Unfortunately, federal overreach has tainted Common Core. President Obama and Washington bureaucrats have usurped Common Core in an attempt to influence state education standards. The results are predictable. What should have been a bipartisan policy is now widely regarded as the president’s plan to establish federal control of curricula, testing and teaching strategies.

Obviously, based on Benchmarking for Success alone, this is utterly misleading. But what the Washington Post has now reported, in a piece largely about the role of Bill Gates in pushing the Core, is that Core supporters not only suggested that there be federal incentives, they worked with the Obama administration to get them:

Duncan and his team leveraged stimulus money to reward states that adopted common standards.

They created Race to the Top, a $4.3 billion contest for education grants. Under the contest rules, states that adopted high standards stood the best chance of winning. It was a clever way around federal laws that prohibit Washington from interfering in what takes place in classrooms. It was also a tantalizing incentive for cash-strapped states.

Heading the effort for Duncan was Joanne Weiss, previously the chief operating officer of the Gates-backed NewSchools Venture Fund.

As Race to the Top was being drafted, the administration and the Gates-led effort were in close coordination.

Note that the article goes on to say that an early draft of RTTT mentioned the Core by name, but supporters objected that that would be too much for some states to handle. Instead, in contrast to what the article suggests, to be fully competitive for grants the regulations required adoption of standards common to a “majority” of states – not just “high” standards – a parameter that only included Common Core.

Now, I don’t think this will happen, but at this point it would at least clear the air for Core supporters to openly admit that they always wanted to employ federal pressure, and gladly worked with President Obama to get it. At the very least, it would make their own accusations of “misinformation” a little more tolerable.