Topic: Government and Politics

To Fix Student Lending, Government Must Go

There’s been a lot of unflattering news lately about the student loan industry: Revelations about schools and lenders in revenue-sharing deals; college financial aid officers holding stock in companies on their schools’ “preferred lender” lists; a U.S. Department of Education official owning shares in a lending company he was supposed to be overseeing; and just yesterday, revelations that some lending companies have had largely unfettered access to a federal database stocked with Social Security numbers, email addresses, loan balances, and other sensitive information belonging to tens-of-millions of student borrowers.

To many people, these revelations are just further evidence of the immoral, rapacious greed of for-profit lenders. As Generation Debt author Anya Kamenetz explained recently on the Huffington Post blog:

When I wrote my first piece about the student debt crisis in the Village Voice in June 2004, the future looked grim. Average student loan burdens doubled in the 1990s to nearly $20,000, and in February 2006, barely a year ago, Congress passed the largest cuts to student aid in history.

I never would have guessed that the tide would turn so quickly and that the loan industry, with its fat profits, billions in government subsidies, private jets and baseball teams, would be on the defensive. But here we are.

Kamenetz and others like her are right to be angry about the cushy arrangements lenders have secured through the Federal Family Education Loan Program (FFELP), which guarantees student loans with federal tax dollars. Her solution to the overall student loan mess, however, would do little to attack the root cause of the scandals and graft:

The Direct Loan Program. Switching [to it from FFELP], as described in the reintroduced STAR Act, would save billions we could then use for much needed grant aid. And a “single payer” Direct Loan program would save on marketing costs and limit the potential for scandals like the current one.

The federal Direct Loan Program – which currently furnishes about a quarter of all federal student loans – cuts out private lenders and sends loans directly from the U.S. Treasury to college kids. Now, that might be cheaper to run – though that is itself hotly debated – but the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, which is just what we’d be doing if we decided to solve the current student loan disaster by giving the federal government even more student lending power. The government, you see, is the root cause of the current problems, not the solution:

  • The subsidies that have enriched lenders were created by federal policymakers, not loan companies.
  • Massive federal aid – which according to the latest inflation-adjusted data from the College Board exploded from $48.3 billion to $94.4 billion over just the last decade – has helped fuel skyrocketing tuition, creating ever-bigger federal and private loan markets.
  • Some of the biggest problems unearthed so far directly involve federal breakdowns, including a federal official owning over $100,000 worth of stock in a company he was supposed to be overseeing, and federal bureaucrats giving some lenders almost free rein to comb over highly sensitive student data. (Which, by the way, also ought to make even the most trusting person very dubious of federal promises to fully protect student privacy if allowed to maintain a proposed “unit record database” containing detailed information on every college student in America.)

Unfortunately, many of the student lending industry’s antagonists aren’t actually all that concerned with maximizing efficiency or saving taxpayers money. What they’re primarily interested in is getting as many cheap dollars to students as they can. In other words, its not outrageous subsidies they’re especially angry about, but that the wrong special interests are getting them.

Michael Dannenberg, Director of the New America Foundation’s Education Policy Program and editor of its Higher Ed Watch blog, recently made this abundantly clear:

The ultimate success of these student loan investigations will be measured by the degree to which they result in cheaper college loans for students and families. Right now, students are paying interest rates for college loans that are simply too high.

Apparently it doesn’t matter that total, inflation-adjusted federal aid doubled over the last decade; that inflation-adjusted aid per full-time-equivalent student rose from $6,700 to $10,113 in that same time, or that the interest rate on subsidized federal loans is fixed at 6.8 percent while the prime rate is currently 8.25 percent. For Dannenberg and others like him, when it comes to federal policy college students never get a fair deal.

In light of the reality that the special interests most heavily involved in the student aid debate want as much money for themselves as they can get, and that the government has almost always been happy to provide it, it’s clear that what would be best for taxpayers would neither be to maintain FFELP nor to switch completely to Direct Lending, but to eliminate federal aid altogether. Then, the people who would be enriched would be taxpayers – well, maybe “unharmed” would be a more accurate description – while both lenders and students would finally have to earn an honest buck.

Romney Embarrassed about His Health Plan?

Michael Cannon writes below that the health insurance time bomb that presidential candidate Mitt Romney left for Massachusetts is “becoming less universal and less affordable all the time.” It’s also becoming less visible, at least in Romney’s campaign speeches, according to two new reports. Romney often fails to mention the plan, the only real accomplishment of his four years as governor, as he campaigns for the Republican nomination.

Both stories quote the plan’s leading critic, Michael Tanner. The Washington Post notes:

“This mandate is unprecedented,” said Michael Tanner, a health expert at the Cato Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington. “It’s the first time a state has said simply because you live there you must buy a specific product. If he wants to be the Republican who embraces Hillary-care, I don’t think that’s going to go hand in hand with him trying to portray himself as Ronald Reagan’s heir.”

The Associated Press correctly identifies Cato as libertarian. AP also notes that the major supporter of the plan, the Heritage Foundation, is standing by it in a new report, which says it is “already showing progress.”

By this time next month, Heritage may be alone. Romney may well have become a leading opponent of Romneycare. After all, a man capable of reversing his views on abortion, gay rights, and gun control is surely capable of doing a 180 on a complex health care plan that rests on “abolish[ing] the laws of arithmetic.”

Over-taxed

From the Agoraphilia blog, Glen Whitman ridicules those who ridicule Americans who feel over-taxed:

Sub-headline from an article about a survey on taxes: “An MSN-Zogby poll says that many Americans think they’re paying too much in taxes even though research shows the average tax burden is light compared with other developed countries.”

Interesting. I’ve also heard that for some reason, paraplegics would like to get the use of their limbs back, even though other people are totally paralyzed from the neck down. Oh, and people who have lost an eye would like to get their 3D vision back, despite the existence of blind people. What is wrong with these people?

The Nation’s Worst-Managed Transit Agency

For years, Washington, D.C. has been considered by many students of government to have the nation’s worst city government. Similarly, the Washington area transit system, Metro, is in contention as the nation’s worst-managed transit agency.

The Metro Rail system was built with federal dollars, with the understanding that local governments would pay for its operation. But no one was prepared to pay for rail reconstruction, which is needed every 30 years or so and which costs a substantial fraction of the original construction cost. Now, some of the system is approaching 30 years of age and is breaking down with increasing frequency.

But Washington’s Metro is not the nation’s worst-managed transit agency — not by a long shot. That dishonor goes to San Jose’s Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA).

VTA persuaded local taxpayers to raise sales taxes to construct billions of dollars worth of rail transit lines. But it failed to budget enough money to operate those lines. Even as it opened new light-rail lines in the early 2000s, VTA was forced to severely cut bus and rail service on its existing lines. The result was a 34 percent decline in transit riders.

A few weeks ago, a consultant hired by VTA released an audit blaming the system’s board of directors for its failures. “The Board has approved capital projects that were political solutions to address the needs of certain local neighborhoods at the expense of regional congestion management,” states the audit. “As a result, VTA has built transportation systems that have low ridership and are also expensive to operate and maintain.”

After the audit was published, VTA’s chief financial officer resigned. Unfortunately, none of the board members followed. Instead, they hired a temporary chief financial officer for the munificent sum of $13,600 per week for 39 weeks. That’s a total of $530,400 and more than three times the weekly pay of the previous CFO.

It gets weirder: The new CFO has no history in the transit industry. Instead, he is a former mining company executive who oversaw a shell game of companies taking over other companies. “He has a lot of experience with projects and a lot of our money is tied up in projects,” says VTA’s general manager. There are so many similarities between digging gold and sapphire mines and building transit lines — like none.

One wonders what the new CFO might do. Merge VTA with Washington Metro? Bull the stock with rumors of an untapped source of transit riders? Corner the market in light rail?

Meanwhile, everyone is trying to ignore the gorilla in the corner, which is that VTA’s board wants to spend $4.7 billion to connect the San Francisco BART system to San Jose. The agency only has enough money to build to the edge of San Jose, but even if it had all the money for construction, its general manager admits “we clearly do not have the money to operate the system.” Nevertheless, the board recently voted to spend $185 million — more than half of VTA’s annual operating budget — on preliminary engineering.

Meanwhile, VTA is still short on operating funds, so it is contemplating “eliminating or consolidating” service on more than a quarter of its remaining bus lines.

Almost every Bay Area transit group opposes the BART line. But the audit (which itself cost $500,000 — I would have done it for $5,000) barely mentions the BART line, and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group (formerly the Silicon Valley Manufacturers Group) strongly supports it.

Last June, San Jose voters angrily rejected VTA’s request for a further sales tax increase to build the BART line. VTA’s board members are hoping they can convince taxpayers that they are fiscally responsible enough to deserve a tax increase anyway. But spending $530,400 for less than one year’s work by a temporary CFO hardly seems conducive to gaining the taxpayers’ trust.

It’s Official—Democratic Leaders Want a Third War

Yesterday, Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) made clear what many of us have been suspecting for some time: the Democrats want to “redeploy” out of Iraq and into Sudan. Unfortunately, the full transcripts aren’t on Nexis yet, but here’s Biden:

“I would use American force now. I think it’s not only time not to take force off the table. I think it’s time to put force on the table and use it.”

“Let’s stop the bleeding. I think it’s a moral imperative.”

Whatever one’s views on the merits of starting a third war with an Islamic country in the span of six years, what was most alarming was Biden’s desire to look past the fact that what is going on in Darfur is essentially a civil war. There are two sides fighting, and multiple rebel groups that make up the resistance. Still, he practically begged US envoy Andrew Natsios (who, in fairness, doesn’t have the soundest track record) to overlook the fact that atrocities are being committed on both sides, and to reduce the conflict into Good Guys vs. Bad Guys so that we could get involved. Here’s a part of that exchange (link is to an audio clip):

BIDEN: Are the atrocities that are being carried out sanctioned by, cooperated with, or blind eye being turned by Khartoum, umm, not significantly greater than the atrocities that are occurring at the hands of the rebels?

NATSIOS: There is no equivalency whatsoever, Senator.

BIDEN: Well, I wish you’d stop talking about it–

NATSIOS: Well, I’m talking about it, Senator, because the rebels think they can get away with it. And it’s getting worse, and what’s happening is no one’s saying anything about it because it’s politically sensitive. We can’t let any civilian get–

BIDEN: No, it’s not politically sensitive, I mean, why won’t you just say, is genocide still the operative word?

NATSIOS: Yes.

BIDEN: So genocide is occurring in Darfur?

NATSIOS: Yes.

This is illustrative of the nature of so many foreign policy debates in Washington. If someone can get the other side to agree to a slogan of their side (“Saddam is a threat to global security,” say), then the debate ends. If “genocide” is occurring in Darfur, fire up the B-2s. And never mind all the “nuance” about the nature of what’s actually going on and who’s killing whom over there. If Biden had been reading his New York Times more closely, he would know that things aren’t so simple.

Biden’s unrelenting attempt to interpret a highly complex civil war where America has no discernible security interest through the lens of Bush-style Manichaeanism doesn’t inspire much confidence in the Democrats’ vision of U.S. national security policy. (And to the extent we do have a security interest, it’s probably in acquiescing to Khartoum, since they’ve sporadically cooperated with the war against al Qaeda and would probably be less likely to continue doing so if we start a war with them.)

The whole thing harkens back to when Howard Dean was simultaneously standing against the Iraq war and favoring U.S. military action in, umm, Liberia.

Scant Evidence? That’s Voter Fraud Calling

One of the more clever country song titles I ever heard was If the Phone Don’t Ring, You’ll Know It’s Me.

That’s something like the predicament of searchers after the menace of voter fraud, who can’t seem to find much of it. The New York Times today reports that “scant evidence” exists of a significant problem.

Voter fraud is the idea that individuals might vote multiple times, in multiple jurisdictions, or despite not being qualified. This is distinct from election fraud, which is corruption of broader voting or vote-counting processes. While voter fraud (and/or voter error) certainly happens, it is apparently on a trivial scale. It probably has not changed any election results, and probably will not do so if ordinary protective measures are maintained.

This is important because voter fraud has been used as an argument for subjecting our nation’s citizens to a national ID. The Carter-Baker Commission found little evidence of voter fraud, but went ahead and called for adopting REAL ID as a voter identification card. One of the Commission’s members apparently retreated from that conclusion, having learned more about REAL ID.

For proponents of a national ID, if the phone’s not ringing, that’s voter fraud calling.

Response to Tom Mann on Campaign Finance Reform

Tom Mann has responded to earlier criticisms by Bob Bauer and me of an op-ed by Norman Ornstein and Anthony Corrado. Bob responds on our behalf here. Bob has done well as usual; I respond here on my own behalf.

Mann argues that the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) did not devastate the political parties. But I did not argue that it had devastated the parties. Tom concedes my original point: earlier trends suggest the parties have fewer resources in 2006 than they would have had without BCRA. I argued that this shortfall for the parties cost the Democrats 15 to 20 seats in 2006 since they were not able to fully exploit the national shift in public mood. Tom says they had enough money to contest the races. My claim about the effects on the party came from Rahm Emanuel and other party leaders. Here’s evidence from the New York Times [$$$] quoted in an earlier post:

Stan Greenberg, the Democratic pollster, …said that Republicans held 14 seats by a single percentage point and that a small investment by [Howard] Dean [head of the Democratic National Committee] could have put Democrats into a commanding position for the rest of the decade…” There was a missed opportunity here,” he said. “I’ve sat down with Republican pollsters to discuss this race: They believe we left 10 to 20 seats on the table.”

[…]

Mr. Emanuel said … : “More resources brings more seats into play. Full stop.”

Emanuel’s statement supports my claim. Tom himself cites the testimony of Terry McAuliffe, a Democratic party leader, in his post on another matter. If McAuliffe counts, so does Emanuel.

Here are some other arguments from Tom Mann (in italics) and my replies:

BCRA did not ban any political ads; it stipulated that electioneering communications may not be funded by corporations and unions.

Well, if an “electioneering communication” is a type of political ad and a law stipulates that corporations and unions may not fund them, then the law has banned the funding (and hence, the existence) of a certain kind of political ad. Part of the struggle over BCRA was whether these ads were “issue ads” (and hence protected by the First Amendment) or like contributions to campaigns (and hence, illegal because or earlier bans on contributions by labor unions and corporations). BCRA defined the ads as contributions by calling them “electioneering communications.” The Supreme Court acquiesced in that definition. The ads have disappeared from campaigns. The regulation of money does appear to eliminate speech. Sen. McCain himself thought disclosure of the supporters of the advertising would be enough to stop the ads (i.e. the political speech). Or so he said on the floor of the Senate.

There is another part of this story. These issue ads were irritating and threatening vulnerable members of Congress. In response, Congress declared funding of the ads illegal. That strikes me as striking evidence that campaign finance regulation protects its authors, i.e. members of Congress.

The amount of political advertising in 2006 supports the view that BCRA did not constrain vibrant free speech.

This is an interesting confusion. If we define vibrant free speech as “the amount of political advertising in 2006,” then indeed BCRA did not constrain vibrant free speech. But if BCRA constrained spending on political speech and other electoral activities, then it did restrict free speech, even if we had lots of speech otherwise. “Vibrant” here means something like “enough” political speech. Thus BCRA may have restricted some speech, but the society had enough for its purposes.

There is a parallel here to an argument made some years ago by the law professor Owen Fiss. He argued that the free speech of some disfavored speakers might be restricted to foster a “rich public debate,” which he took to be the goal of the First Amendment. Hence, in Fiss’s view, the First Amendment empowered government to suppress speech for the higher goal of a “rich public debate.”

Tom Mann is not explicitly arguing for suppression of speech. But he is implicitly reading the First Amendment as expressing a social goal rather than a restraint on government. Once we have “enough speech,” we should not be especially worried about restrictions on some speech.

This point supports Tom’s general observation that arguments about campaign finance are dependent on political theory. As I argue in The Fallacy of Campaign Finance Reform, progressives have come to see the First Amendment as empowering government to regulate and suppress speech in pursuit of larger social goals. But the First Amendment simply restricts the government’s power over speech. It does not say the government may limit freedom of speech if we have enough speech during an election, or to assure that we have the right kind of speech for a “rich public debate.” It just restrains the government. (In the interest of accuracy, I should point out that not all of Tom Mann’s allies mentioned in his post are progressives; Michael Malbin is not for one).

Party soft money was not diverted to 527s. The research on this by the Campaign Finance Institute, reported in The Election After Reform, is crystal clear.

Mann may be correct here. If so, the parties were deprived of huge sums in 2006.

Samples judges BCRA by the arguments made in Congress by some of its supporters. I don’t doubt that some wanted to reduce the overall amount of money in campaigns and eliminate negative advertising. But those were not built into the design of the law.

This implies that the Senators who explicated the law on the floor of the Senate and later voted for BCRA did not understand its purposes or how it would work. We should wonder about the validity of a law if the people who enacted it did not understand its goals or its design. But, then again, the goals many senators assigned to BCRA were not constitutional. (You can read about the many purposes of BCRA in the Introduction to The Fallacy of Campaign Finance Reform).

Tom Mann finishes up by arguing that my “libertarian framework” leads me to ignore reality. (Similarly, Ornstein and Corrado branded critics of BCRA as “ideologues” in their original Washington Post piece). Here’s what Tom is doing rhetorically: Libertarianism is a kind of religion that believes things without proof. We – that is, Tom Mann and company – are pragmatic and moderate, trying to grapple with complexity in pursuit of the common good. So who are you going to believe? The simple-minded fundamentalist or the scientific centrists?

This is a neat rhetorical gambit often deployed by self-described moderates. But there are several ironies here.

First, Tom’s allies in the “reform community” (though not Tom himself, or any of the people he mentions) are not especially scientifically-minded. For example, I have been told that such self-described reformers have bitterly criticized political scientists for not finding evidence of corruption caused by campaign contributions.

Second, The Fallacy of Campaign Finance Reform is filled with attention to empirical work and some original analysis of data. I do not simply assert that campaign finance law protects incumbents, I discuss data that is consistent with that hypothesis. I also mention data that is not consistent with that hypothesis (for the latter, see pages 231-2). I also deal with empirical work that suggests contributions do influence congressional behavior (see pages 98-100). I do discuss the political theories behind the campaign finance struggle. And yes, you can get all that for $22.04 plus shipping!

Note also that I wrote above, “Mann may be correct here.” But read the book and then decide for yourself whether Tom is correct about my attitude toward empirical evidence.

Third, policymaking about campaign finance itself has not been anything like the empirically-minded model Tom sets out. The basic federal campaign finance law was passed in 1974 (and amended a bit shortly thereafter). Its regulations were justified as a means to prevent corruption or the appearance of corruption. Over the next three decades studies consistently cast doubt on the influence of contributions on policymaking. Other studies indicated that campaign finance rules had little to do with trust in government. Were the laws changed in response to these studies? For example, were contribution limits raised to keep up with inflation or even increased? In fact, the limits were left at their 1974 levels, thereby becoming ever smaller through the effects of inflation. The appearance of corruption rationale, for its part, remains a frequently-cited justification for more campaign finance regulations. To be sure, studies have been used to justify more regulation of money in politics. Studies that suggest liberalization, however, are ignored by judges and legislators. In science, that’s called selection bias. In politics, it’s called business as usual.