Make that: “Even if We Bus Kids to Mars…”

In my last post I observed that U.S. public schools would save $100 billion annually if they returned to the staff/student ratio that existed in 1970, and that this would be more than enough to erase the budget crunches districts are facing due to higher fuel prices “unless we start busing kids to Mars.”

Well, I’m a tad embarassed to admit I was a little off. Assuming that one could actually drive to other planets, $100 billion would be more than enough to fuel a fleet of three school buses making round trips to Mars every day for the full school year. And the nation’s school districts would still have $13 billion in pocket change left over to cover their higher fuel bills here on Earth. (Numbers crunched below the fold).

Average distance to Mars 143,000,000.00 miles
Savings from 1970 student/staff ratio 100,000,000,000.00 dollars
Bus fuel economy 7.50 miles per gallon
Average price of diesel 4.21 dollars per gallon
Could buy this many gallons 23,752,969,121.14 gallons
Could drive this many miles 178,147,268,408.55 miles
Could make this many trips to Mars 1,245.79 trips
School years of one bus service 3.46 years (two trips per day, 180 school days)

The President-Driven Life

Back in a 1979 interview with Roger Mudd, Democratic presidential contender Ted Kennedy flubbed what looked like a softball question: “Senator, why do you want to be president?” Kennedy’s sputtering answer did real damage to his campaign.

Senators Obama and McCain gave marginally more coherent answers than Kennedy when Rick Warren asked the same question at Saturday’s megachurch confab, but in an America with a saner perspective on the presidency, their answers would have been disqualifying as well.

Obama offered some touchy-feely Rawlsianism mixed with a call for bipartisanship:

You know, I remember what my mother used to tell me. I was talking to somebody a while back and I said the one time that she would get really angry with me is if she ever thought that I was being mean to somebody, or unfair to somebody. She said, imagine standing in their shoes. Imagine looking through their eyes. That basic idea of empathy, and that, I think, is what’s made America special is that notion, that everybody has got a shot. If we see somebody down and out, if we see a kid who can’t afford college, that we care for them, too.

And I want to be president because that’s the America I believe in and I feel like that American dream is slipping away. I think we are at a critical juncture. Economically, I think we are at a critical juncture. Internationally, we’ve got to make some big decisions not just for us for the next generation and we keep on putting it off. And unfortunately, our politics is broken and Washington is so broken, that we can’t bring together people of goodwill to solve these common problems. I think I have the ability to build bridges across partisan lines, racial, regional lines to get people to work on some common sense solutions to critical issues and I hope that I have the opportunity to do that.

Only the first sentence of McCain’s answer is particularly cogent, but it reflects what Matt Welch has described as McCain’s “exaltation of sacrifice over the private pursuit of happiness” 

I want to inspire a generation of Americans to serve a cause greater than their self-interest. I believe that America’s best days are ahead of us, but I also believe that we face enormous challenges, both national security and domestic, as we have found out in the last few days in the case of Georgia….

America wants hope. America wants optimism. America wants us to sit down together. I have a record of reaching across the aisle and working with the other party, and I want to do that, and I believe, as I said, that Americans feel it is time for us to put our country first.

And we may disagree on a specific issue… but I want every American to know that when I go to Gee’s Bend, Alabama, and meet the African-American women there who are so wonderful and lovely, an experience I’ll never forget, and when I go to places where I know they probably won’t vote for me, I know that my job is to tell them that I’ll be the president of every American and I’ll always put my country first.

In the original constitutional scheme, the president wasn’t supposed to be the Empath-in-Chief or a national life coach-cum-self-help guru, charged with getting us off our duffs and uniting us all behind a higher calling. He was there to faithfully execute the laws, defend the country from foreign attack, and check Congress with the veto power whenever it exceeded its constitutional bounds. The formless, boundless vision of presidential responsibility revealed in Obama and McCain’s answers shows us how dangerously far we’ve travelled from that modest, unromantic conception of the president’s role. I could recommend a book that might set them straight.

Unless We Start Busing Kids to Mars…

We’ve all been told that school districts around the country are feeling the pinch from higher fuel costs. What’s never mentioned is that districts are supposedly suffering budget crunches despite spending more than twice as much – in real, inflation-adjusted dollars – as they did in 1970.

According to the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, districts spent an average of $5,247 per pupil in 1970 (in 2008 dollars). Today, the average is about $12,000. How is it possible that districts could have trouble covering higher gas prices when they have an extra $6,500 to spend per pupil? One reason is that the public school bureaucracy has been doing what bureaucracies do best: growing. Since 1970, total public school employment has nearly doubled to over 6.1 million people, while total enrollment has increased by less than 9 percent. It is to support this army of new public school employees that taxpayers are being asked for more and more funding each year. If the public schools were to return to the student/staff ratio they had in 1970, they would have an extra $100 billion per year with which to fill the tanks of the nation’s school buses. And unless we start busing kids to Mars, that should probably cover it.

Of course, taxpayers might be willing to foot this lavish bill if the smaller class sizes and larger bureaucracies of recent years had led to improved student outcomes. They haven’t. Students at the end of high school score no better in reading and math today than they did in 1970, according to the Long Term Trends tests administered as part of the National Assessment of Education Progress. In science, their scores today are lower.

John McCain: Recruiting for Al Qaeda?

At the “Civil Forum” at Saddleback Church in Orange County, California this weekend, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) repeated a favorite line of his about Osama bin Laden:

If I have to follow him to the gates of hell, I will get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice… . No one should be allowed to take thousands of American, innocent American lives. Of course evil must be defeated … we are facing the transcendent challenge of the 21st century–radical Islamic extremists.

What a gift to the recruiting efforts of Al Qaeda! - to have an American presidential candidate declare himself a follower of Osama bin Laden. According to McCain, Bin Laden is so powerful that he poses a “transcendent” challenge to John McCain’s United States.

In his cogent, well-supported, and readable article, “What Terrorists Really Want,” Max Abrahms at UCLA argues that terrorists “are rational people who use terrorism primarily to develop strong affective ties with fellow terrorists.” Think of Al Qaeda as a gang that disaffected youth might join - something powerful to belong to that gives their lives meaning.

McCain’s “gates of hell” talk is leadership malpractice, and he should stop using it immediately. Calling the threat of terrorism “transcendent” is equal parts incoherent and false. Terrorism stands no chance of defeating the United States or the West unless we ourselves collapse the society. Speaking this way about terrorism thrills our terrorist enemies and draws recruits and support to them. Silence would be much better, presidential campaign or no.

I wrote here a year and a half ago about the sensible thinking of Bill Bishop, Director of the Idaho Bureau of Homeland Security. He understood that our national ID law, the REAL ID Act, fails as a security tool. Something else about Bishop came back to me as I was recently reading Abrahms’ article: Bishop wouldn’t even speak the name of Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber. This is how he exhibited his loathing for a shameless terrorist killer, and it also happens to comport with sensible counter-terrorism.

Exalting terrorism - as John McCain does with his “gates of hell” talk - is precisely the wrong thing for a national leader to do. The country will be made more secure by deflating the world image of Osama bin Laden and making his movement less attractive. Our leaders must withdraw rhetorical power from terrorists by controlling their tongues.

Please Ensure Your Sense of Entitlement Is Stowed

This week, I sent the following letter to the editor of The Washington Post:

With fuel prices surging, commercial airlines have started charging passengers for once-gratis amenities (sodas, the first checked bag, pillows-n-blankets) and have increased fees for other amenities (alcoholic drinks, additional checked bags).  A recent editorial [“Pillows and Planes,” August 13] describes these fees as “picking passengers’ pockets” and “idea[s] to separate you from your money.”
Are you kidding me?  Those amenities weigh down the plane.  The fees therefore distribute higher fuel costs to passengers who consume more fuel.  As important, they allow passengers to avoid getting their pockets picked by avoiding those amenities.  (Don’t want to pay for checked baggage?  Pack light.)  The only people those fees hurt are the free-riders whose amenities were being subsidized by everyone else.  The fees don’t allow pocket-picking; they put an end to it.
The next time I hear a temper-tantrum coming from the main cabin – or first class? – I’ll know it’s a Post editor who had to pay $14 for his vodka tonic and pillow.
Today, I saw that my letter had been passed over for one that piles the … wisdom higher by wondering when the airlines will begin charging “a $20 fee for use of the emergency exit.”  Good grief.

A Modest Proposal to Protect Newspaper Jobs

Gannett announced this week that it will eliminate more than 1,000 positions among its 85 daily newspapers and 900 non-dailies. The reason for the layoffs has become all too familiar — declining readership and advertising sales, primarily because of lower-cost competition from the Internet.

I’m waiting for a member of Congress to issue the following news release:

WASHINGTON, Aug. 15—Rep. John Smith today announced his opposition to the loss of jobs at Gannett and other newspaper companies and demanded that Congress and the president rethink their commitment to “so-called free domestic trade.”

“The loss of thousands of decent, good-paying middle-class union jobs will be devastating to my district and to communities across America,” Rep. Smith announced. “Our misguided domestic trade policies have exposed vital industries to unfair competition. Our newspapers, record shops, and book stores must not be forced to compete against dumped services sold at predatory prices.”

Rep. Smith blamed growing use of the Internet since 1994 for stagnant real wages, a shrinking middle class, falling home prices, and rising levels of crime, alcoholism, and divorce in America’s newsrooms.

Rep. Smith rejected what he called “academic theories about competition, comparative advantage, technological progress, and productivity gains.” He also denounced supposed evidence that the Internet has brought benefits to millions of workers and consumers as “mere statistics.”

As Rep. Smith told cheering constituents at a recent debate, “Look, people don’t want cheaper news and information if they’re losing a job in the process. They would rather have the job and pay a little bit more for their news. And I think that’s something that all Americans could agree to.”

Rep. Smith demanded that the president and Congress embrace an immediate “time out” on all new technologies and web sites until domestic trade policies “can be made to work for all Americans.” He demanded more vigorous enforcement of domestic antidumping rules and an additional $1 billion in the FY2008 budget to expand Technology Adjustment Assistance (TAA) programs.

Truth-Squading Fursbee

I just got a media inquiry from someone who was on a conference call with Obama economic advisors Jason Furman and Austan Goolsbee.  According to this source, they claimed that McCain’s health insurance tax credit “will surely prove a trojan horse tax increase on middle class familes” (my source’s words) because the amount of the tax credit would grow only at the rate of the Consumer Price Index (i.e., inflation).  That’s much slower than the growth rate for the value of the current tax exclusion for employer-sponsored health insurance, which grows at the much-faster rate of premium growth.  (BTW, it also grows with the rate of increase in marginal tax rates.  Ahem.)

Others have made this charge before.  I’m sorry to hear that Fursbee have picked it up.

Here’s what I wrote to our media friend:

Fursbee are correct, in the sense that providing a tax break that is standardized (i.e., a fixed credit versus an exclusion whose value varies with one’s premiums and marginal rate), and whose growth is limited (to CPI versus today’s unlimited exclusion), would tax currently untaxed activity. 

But they’re flat wrong in concluding that would be a net tax increase.  The ‘why’ requires some explanation. 

Employers provide health insurance principally because those benefits are excluded from income & payroll taxes, while individual-market coverage is not.  A recent survey of health economists found that 91 percent agree that workers pay for health benefits through reduced wages.  The average “employer contribution” to the average family policy is roughly $9k.  That means that if employers weren’t providing health benefits, the labor market would force them to return that $9k to workers.  We call the current exclusion a tax break, even though it denies workers the ability to control $9k of their compensation.  If government took $9k from workers and used it to provide workers with health insurance, then we would call that a tax.  Yet when government effectively takes that money from workers and gives it to employers, we rather curiously call it a tax “cut.” 

McCain’s tax credit would level the playing field between job-based and individual-market health insurance.  With no tax penalty encouraging workers to let their employer control that $9k, the labor market would gradually force employers to add that money to workers’ cash wages.  Letting workers own and control that money is nothing if not a tax cut.  And it would swamp the tax-increasing effect of limiting the tax credit’s value to CPI growth. 

Fursbee are being too cute by half.  And I don’t even like the McCain tax credit.

I might have added that McCain’s credit would encourage Americans to be much more economical about their health insurance, which could restrain premium growth.  (Any excess premium growth due to the exclusion is itself a tax.)  Or I might have noted that the McCain credit would be a pure tax cut to people without access to job-based coverage. 

Or I might have mentioned that Fursbee should know better.  They know that tax exclusion for employer-sponsored health insurance is horribly inefficient, that reform is crucial, and that any reform will be imperfect.  Assuming my source is correct, they are being selective about their facts, demagoguing a serious effort to fix this problem, and making it harder for anyone to do so.