Here’s A “Toxic Asset” for You…

The Obama administration seems obsessed with making American taxpayers eat toxic assets. And I’m not talking about bad paper, derivatives, or any other inscrutable financial stinkers. I’m talking about good ol’ American public schooling.

Truth be told, after listening to the president’s presser last night, even I started to think that the key to American economic success is “investing” in education. After all, once you’ve heard something for about the twentieth time, you start to believe it. I mean, that’s how propaganda works, right? But somehow my mind refused to give in, and it forced me to remember:

We’ve been “investing” in government schools for decades, and have been reaping nothing but AIG-like results!

I actually laid out the startlingly awful returns we’ve gotten for our education dollars in several blog entries last month, but thought I’d revisit the basic, revolting facts one more time. I want it to be absolutely clear that lavishing more money on education isn’t change, nor, given what we get for the money, could it possibly be the key to long-term economic success.

So what have we invested? Let’s start with total outlays for elementary through post-secondary education, taken from table 26 of the latest Digest of Education Statistics. In 1969 we spent a total of $347 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars. In 2007, we spent $981 billion, a 183 percent increase.

How about public k-12 spending on a per-pupil basis? Again using Digest data (table 181) – which understates total expenditures by excluding such things as “state administration expenditures” – we can see that we’ve been spending increasingly sizable amounts. After adjusting for inflation, in 1969 we spent $5,161 per child. By 2005, that number had more than doubled, hitting $11,643. And what has that “investment” yielded?

Other than massive bloat, bupkus! Looking at National Assessment of Educational Progress long-term trend scores for 17-year-olds – essentially, our schools’ final products – we see almost complete academic stagnation. In mathematics, the average scale score was 304 (out of 500) in 1973, and only a measly 3 points higher in 2004! That’s a one percent increase in math outcomes for a roughly 100 percent increase in funding! And that actually beats the “return” in reading, where 17-year-olds were at 285 in 1971 and, yup, 285 in 2004!

How about higher education? Here we don’t have very good outcome measures and it is difficult to break down overall per-pupil expenditures. What we do have, however, suggests another bad investment.

To get a feel for expenditures, we can examine the State Higher Education Executive Officers report (figure A) showing that total revenue collected per full-time-equivalent student at public institutions, adjusted for inflation, grew from $8,463 in 1983 to $11,037 in 2008, a 30 percent increase. We can also look at aid per student, most of which came through government. According to data from the College Board (table 3), in 1983 the average full-time-equivalent student received $3,769 in inflation-adjusted aid. In 2007 she got $10,392, a 176 percent increase.

What are the returns on these investments? Again, lots of bloat, but from what we can tell, relatively little of educational value. Graduation rates, for one thing, seem to be falling.

According to the Population Studies Center, within eight years of graduating high school, 51.1 percent of students in the high school class of 1972 had finished college degrees. In contrast, only 45.3 percent of 1992’s high school class had done the same. And grads seem to be getting less well educated; according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, between 1992 and 2003 literacy levels dropped for both Americans whose education maxed out at a bachelor’s degree and those with graduate degrees. Whether it was graduates’ ability to read prose, documents, or handle math, scores went down while costs went up.

So all told, what do we have to show for our education investment? Pretty much just empty bank accounts. And yet, some politicians just can’t seem to get enough of those toxic assets!

Sign the Petition against Protectionism

You only have to glance at the headlines to know that protectionist pressures are rising around the world – from the “Buy American” provision in the stimulus bill to the unnecessary trade war with Mexico to the World Bank’s report last week that 17 members of the G-20 have recently implemented restrictive trade measures.

And you only have to read a history of the 1930s to know that a worldwide turn to protectionism deepened and lengthened the global depression.

So some people are starting an international campaign to protect and expand free trade. The Atlas Economic Research Foundation, the International Policy Network, and the Atlas Global Initiative for Free Trade, Peace, and Prosperity are sponsoring a global Freedom to Trade Petition to be released just before the upcoming G-20 meeting in London. To help head off another Smoot-Hawley-type spiral, please sign the petition. Academic economists, business and labor leaders, authors, and all concerned citizens are encouraged to sign.

And click on ShareThis below to tell your friends!

Obama’s Tax Commission

The Obama administration has announced the formation of a task force to recommend major changes to the federal tax code. According to Congressional Quarterly today:

[Obama budget director Peter] Orszag said the task force will focus on three areas: tax simplification, reducing “corporate welfare” and shrinking the estimated $290 billion a year “tax gap” between taxes owed and taxes paid.

Isn’t Orzag missing something here? For goodness sakes, what about about economic growth? The economy is in the crapper, America has huge competitive challenges ahead with the rise of China, and the ratio of unproductive retirees to productive workers is soaring – it’s obvious that we need to reduce government hurdles to economic growth every way we can, and the high-rate federal tax code is one giant hurdle that policymakers need to start cutting. U.S. companies are not investing in China and elsewhere because our business tax code is too complex, but because our business tax rates are far higher than just about anywhere else.

More on the AZ Supreme Court Ruling

As Andrew Coulson noted earlier, the Arizona Supreme Court struck down two voucher programs today that serve special needs and foster children.

I think some of his points deserve an additional emphasis; this is a tragedy for many of the state’s most needy and vulnerable children but it can be easily fixed. (See who school choice opponents are so determined to send back to an inadequate public school system here).

These children can be quickly and seamlessly supported in their school of choice through an immediate expansion of the state’s two existing education tax credit programs, which have been ruled constitutional.

These children are in desperate need of the education they currently receive at private schools, and lawmakers must ensure that they can continue to attend their school of choice.

Vouchers Defeated in AZ. Freedom Can Still Prevail

The Arizona Supreme Court has just struck down two voucher programs serving disabled and foster children. This is a terrible blow to the families involved, but there is a way to continue offering them educational freedom: incorporate them into the state’s popular education tax credit programs.

Arizona residents and businesses can already make donations to non-profit scholarship funds and receive a tax credit for their donations. If the caps on those credits are raised, it will be possible to generate enough funding to serve the students formerly participating in the voucher programs. It would even be possible to create non-profit scholarship funds that specifically focus on serving special needs students, which could help parents choose the schools best suited to their individual children’s needs, and allow donors to know that their funds would go toward that cause.

While the Court has said that vouchers are impermissible in Arizona, it has already upheld the state’s tax credits that accomplish the same ends entirely through voluntary action. It is a solution that should satisfy everyone.

Everyone, that is, who has the best interests of children in mind.

An Intellectual Counterinsurgency

My friend (and noble peacemaker) Spencer Ackerman points us to Tom Ricks’ take on the Army’s new stability operations manual:

ricks1I wonder if the very title of the manual is incorrect. After all, we didn’t invade Iraq to provide stability, but to force change. Likewise in Afghanistan. And once we were there, we didn’t aim for stability, but to encourage democracy, which (the thought is not original with me) in a region like the Middle East generally undermines stability. I mean, if all we wanted was stability, why not find a strongman and leave?

What we really are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan, I think, is instability operations… Personally, I think the mission of changing the culture of Iraq was nuts – but that was the mission the president assigned the military.

I think a more intellectually honest title for the manual would be “Revolutionary Operations.” Don’t hold your breath.

Ricks is right, but he misses a larger problem.  The argument of the folks who want to develop COIN capabilities has become completely circular.

Take, for example, the worry of Lt. Gen William Caldwell, in unveiling the original release of FM 3-7, that we live in an “era of uncertainty and persistent conflict.” Accordingly, says Caldwell, we need capabilities to produce stability.  Hence, the stability operations field manual.

This elides the fact that if we had to take an impartial look at where the instability is coming from, a hell of a lot of it is emanating from Washington, DC.  Our Rube Goldberg political science theories, based in large part on liberal international relations theory, have led us to knock over governments and pursue radical transformation everywhere from Latin America to Eastern Europe to the mountains of Central Asia, the jungles of Vietnam, and the sands of Iraq.

Then, when confronted with the wreckage of our policy, we convince ourselves that we are gravely threatened by the instability we have created, and must enhance our capabilities to rectify this instability.  Less kindly, it’s like the Tennessee Valley Authority with guns, Humvees and translators.

Look at the new “whole-of-government” counterinsurgency guide, for example.  The issuance of the volume was predicated on the logically-true-but-practically-misleading claim that “in today’s world, state failure can quickly become not merely a misfortune for local communities, but a threat to global security.” (emphasis mine) The COIN manual then quickly proceeds to tell us that any decision to do COIN “should not be taken lightly; historically COIN campaigns have almost always been more costly, more protracted and more difficult than first anticipated.”  Then it quickly becomes a cookbook on how to use the Agriculture, Treasury, and Transportation Departments to transform the way foreigners run their countries.

My colleague Ben Friedman recently remarked that “Both Creighton’s Abrams’ reforms ensuring that the president had to activate the reserves to start a war and the Weinberger-Powell doctrine were sneaky usurpations of authority. They were also realistic efforts to avoid bad wars and on balance good things.”  He’s right.  It would be good if we were devoting a tenth the resources toward stopping the next policy disaster as we are devoting to figuring out how to execute self-destructive policies more effectively.

In short, if, as the leading COIN advocate of the moment tells us, the best way to fight the “war on terrorism” is by engaging in a “global counterinsurgency,” we’re in deep, deep  trouble.  As long as the only people who can stop us are ourselves, I’m afraid we won’t be stopped.

Power, as Karl Deutsch once wrote, is “the ability to talk instead of listen.  In this sense, it is the ability to afford not to learn.”  And we’ve got loads of power.

Obama’s Spending Theory

President Obama focused on budget and economic issues in his press conference last night. One concern raised by reporters was that federal deficits were exploding and that Obama’s big spending plans would seem to make the problem worse.

Obama’s response was essentially that higher spending reduces the debt problem, which would strike most people as paradoxical to say the least:

Here’s what I do know: If we don’t tackle energy, if we don’t improve our education system, if we don’t drive down the costs of health care, if we’re not making serious investments in science and technology and our infrastructure, then we won’t grow [the economy by] 2.6 percent, we won’t grow 2.2 percent. We won’t grow. And so what we’ve said is, let’s make the investments that ensure that we meet our growth targets that put us on a pathway to growth as opposed to a situation in which we’re not making those investments and we still have trillion-dollar deficits.

First note that Obama’s budget would drive government health care costs up, not down. But aside from that technicality, the economics of Obama’s theory don’t make any sense.

Government spending on infrastructure, education, science and energy are already at high levels. For example, infrastructure spending today is as high as it was during the 1950s, and higher than it has been in recent decades. If government worked efficiently—as liberals believe it does—then all the highest-valued uses of taxpayer money would already be funded. At the margin, the only place for Obama’s new spending would be on low-value items of less economic importance.

Thus, Obama’s new college subsidies might induce some added young people to attend college, but most of those people are probably pretty marginal students because the high-quality students are already going to college. The marginal students might pick up some added skills, but at the cost of higher tax burdens and less economic output in the years when those folks are out of the workforce. Liberals assume that more spending on any activity they are interested in, whether public or private, is always better, but the real goal of economic policy is to find the optimum because all spending has a cost. (And the optimum level of government spending on most things is pretty darn low, or zero, in my view).

Obama is essentially claiming that even with federal, state and local spending at about one-third of GDP, there are government spending projects left over that are so powerful that “we won’t grow” if they don’t happen.

Serious economists know that that is nonsense. Most government activities have negative effects on growth, not positive effects. Take the largest federal program, Social Security, which will consume about $660 billion in taxpayer money this year. The program is a negative on economic growth because it suppresses personal savings and the taxes to fund it create large distortions. Lots of liberal economists support such transfer programs for non-economic or “social” reasons, but few economists would argue that they expand GDP on net.