A Serious Matter

The Washington Post deserves a lot of credit for publishing this piece on its editorial page today. An anonymous businessman explains his predicament after having been served with an FBI “national security letter”:

Three years ago, I received a national security letter (NSL) in my capacity as the president of a small Internet access and consulting business. The letter ordered me to provide sensitive information about one of my clients. There was no indication that a judge had reviewed or approved the letter, and it turned out that none had. The letter came with a gag provision that prohibited me from telling anyone, including my client, that the FBI was seeking this information. Based on the context of the demand — a context that the FBI still won’t let me discuss publicly — I suspected that the FBI was abusing its power and that the letter sought information to which the FBI was not entitled.

I resent being conscripted as a secret informer for the government and being made to mislead those who are close to me, especially because I have doubts about the legitimacy of the underlying investigation.

(For background on national security letters, go here). 

This businessman has given us a sneak preview of life in the surveillance state. I’ve tried to draw attention to the conscription aspect of anti-terrorism laws and policies, but conservatives don’t want to talk about it. The ACLU has gotten involved in the gag order/free speech aspect, but the conscription gets tossed aside in a cacophony. 

President Bush insists that he is ”defending freedom.” John Yoo and Eric Posner advance the view that the sphere of liberty has been expanding over the years. Other conservatives see the impact on liberty but strangely taunt: “The government has already been doing that! If Bush wants to take it further, what’s the big deal? This is no time to rethink legal precedent.”

Robert Higgs, among many others, has showed that liberty has been losing ground to government over the years. Since 9/11, we have been in a vicious political cycle. The courts are defending constitutional liberties at the margins, but the overall trend is quite bad. A few months ago, some U.S. senators voted to enact a law that they believed to be unconstitutional. That’s an indication of the political climate. Bad.

Tipping Point for School Choice in AZ?

The Arizona Republic gave an unqualified endorsement of school choice today, coupled with a stinging rebuke of the state Education-Industrial Complex, also known as “Big Ed” (yes, I will continue repeating this gimmicky label) for challenging this and other school choice laws in court.

It’s difficult to pick just one quote, but their opening will do nicely:

Of all Arizona’s attempts over the years to provide education options for poor students, the law allowing corporations to take a dollar-for-dollar credit on their taxes is the best-structured reform effort so far.

And they pull no punches on Big Ed:

Despite the indisputable value it provides students and their parents — that of real education options — the program’s opponents have gone to court against it and other education-choice programs . …  It would be a shame to see such programs flounder on the specious fear that if you give vouchers to disabled kids, or to kids at the rocky bottom of life’s well, that public education itself will crumble. Simply put, it won’t. Education choice strengthens the underlying system. Someday, with luck, opponents of reform will figure that out.

The Arizona Republic is fearful that the voucher programs for disabled and foster children might have a tougher battle in court. But they rightly recognize that the challenge to the business tax credit program is desperate, bordering on completely absurd:

Earlier this month, a Maricopa County Superior Court judge ruled that the corporate tuition tax credit program was “legally indistinguishable” from existing tax-credit programs, and so passes the same constitutional muster.

Huzzah to the editorial board at the Arizona Republic, and congratulations to all of the Arizona organizations who have put their state at the front of the march to educational freedom. Don’t let up.

Fewer Uninsured!

The Census Bureau just released a revised estimate of the number of Americans who lack health insurance:

The revised estimates show that, in 2005, 44.8 million people, 15.3 percent of the population, were without health insurance — about 1.8 million fewer than the Census Bureau reported in August 2006. Based on the Current Population Survey, the original 2005 estimate was 46.6 million, or about 15.9 percent of the population… . Conversely, an estimated 249 million Americans had coverage, up from the 247.3 million reported in August.

I think I speak for the entire health policy community when I say:

It is important that we not over-react to these numbers. The worst thing we could do would be to stop panicking about the uninsured. A lot of interest groups have spent a lot of money and misused a lot of data to convince the public that this mostly healthy bunch of people are America’s #1 health care problem. If we were to go off-message now, then Barack, Hillary, Mitt, Arnold, and all the other Chicken Littles we’ve created … well, they might get horribly confused. Thank you for your continued support.

In Praise of Administrative Costs

Advocates of socialized medicine, such as Physicians for a National Health Program, love to argue that America’s health care sector is less efficient than socialized systems because private insurers appear to have higher administrative costs. In yesterday’s New York Times, Tyler Cowen reveals the flaw in that logic:

The monitoring, marketing and overhead costs of private insurance are what allow more expensive medical treatments through the door. It is precisely because competing insurance companies spend money evaluating the appropriateness of claims that they are willing to pay for so many heart bypasses, extra tests, private hospital rooms and CT scans.

If European health care systems appear to have lower administrative costs, it is because, rather than scrutinizing claims, they limit the overall amount they will spend on medical services. Of course, that just means they shift costs to patients who either must pay for medical services themselves, or deal with the costs of waiting.

If the U.S. Medicare program appears to have lower administrative costs, it is because, rather than scrutinizing claims, Medicare just shovels money out the door. That merely shifts those costs onto taxpayers by driving up Medicare spending and taxes. 

In Medicare Meets Mephistopheles, Cato adjunct David Hyman delights in the irony that medicine-socializers praise one of Medicare’s greatest failings (inadequate oversight of claims payment) as if it were a virtue.

The Real College Sports Madness

Tonight the mighty Hoyas of Georgetown University will square-off against the Vanderbilt Commodores in a Sweet 16 hoops tilt.

In light of Georgetown’s dominance this season (28-6 overall, winners of 17 of their last 18, champions of the Big East Conference, and easy victors over the Commodores back in November), it’s probably a bit cruel to make Vandy face the Hoyas again. At least in the big picture, though, this is a fair match-up: both teams are from relatively small, private schools with pretty high academic standards, and both rely on voluntary fan and booster support to compete.

Unfortunately, a bit of breaking college basketball news on ESPN.com yesterday demonstrates that the latter is not always the case. The story was about Steve Alford leaving his head coaching job at the University of Iowa to take the reins at the University of New Mexico, a move many college hoops fans consider a bit of a step down. Iowa, after all, plays in the powerful Big Ten Conference, while New Mexico toils in the lesser Mountain West. So what was Alford’s inducement to trade corn for sand?

One possibility is that Alford was on his way out of Iowa anyway. He had only three NCAA Tournament appearances in eight seasons there, and not every Iowa fan exactly loved him. But, important as this might have been in Alford’s decision, it wasn’t what ESPN said ultimately attracted him to Albuquerque (it also wasn’t the city’s famed petroglyphs):

Sources said Alford was thrilled with the commitment from recently hired New Mexico athletic director Paul Krebs and impressed by the university’s decision to upgrade the famed Pit, which, according to Krebs, will receive $12 million from state government for renovation. There also is hope that the figure could rise to $20 million. [Italics added]

Now, as a matter of principle, I’m against forcing taxpayers to fund entertainment venues, arenas, or any of the other “bread and circuses” projects on which politicians love to lavish public dollars. But what really makes me angry about public schools like UNM building new basketball arenas with taxpayer funds is the unfair advantage it gives those schools over little private schools like Georgetown and Vanderbilt, who need people to give them money voluntarily. Facilities have been an especially big problem at GU, where the on-campus gym seats at-most 2,500 people, forcing the team to play almost all of its home games at the downtown Verizon Center and lose lots of revenue in rent.

Of course, UNM is not the only public university where the sports teams benefit from forced taxpayer largesse. Last May, for instance, the State of Minnesota decided to pay $10.25 million per-year for 25 years to help finance a new U of M football stadium. Similarly, the University of Pittsburgh’s Petersen Events Center, where the school’s basketball teams play, was financed with $10 million from the couple after whom it was named and $53 million from state taxpayers who, as always, have remained nameless. 

Now, colleges and universities in general — both public and private — benefit from all kinds of tax breaks, pork projects, and government subsidies, so don’t feel too sorry for Georgetown and Vanderbilt. When it comes to big-time sports, though, recognize what private schools are up against, and perhaps root for them a little harder. And, come to think of it, maybe do feel sorry for Vanderbilt. Georgetown is going to crush them tonight.

(In the interest of full disclosure, Neal McCluskey in a Georgetown graduate and a huge Hoya fan.)

Bob Herbert, What Are You Talking About?

Give New York Times columnist Bob Herbert credit — not many writers can pack three ridiculous claims into a single lede. Somehow he manages to do so in his latest column, which begins:

One of the weirder things at work these days is the fact that we’re making it more difficult for American youngsters to afford college at a time when a college education is a virtual prerequisite for establishing and maintaining a middle-class standard of living.

Did you catch all three? They are:

  1. “American youngsters” are finding “it more difficult “to afford college.”
  2. “[W]e’re” the ones who are “making it more difficult for American youngsters to afford college.”
  3. “[A] college degree is a virtual prerequisite for establishing and maintaining a middle-class standard of living.”

Let’s tackle these in order: 

If American youngsters are finding it more difficult to go to college, that’s not showing up in college enrollment data. The enrollment rate of recent high school graduates for 2004, the most recent year for which data are available, was the second-highest in history at 66.7 percent. The years 2000, 2002 and 2003 are also among the seven highest in history, with enrollments of 63.3, 65.2 and 63.9 percent, respectively. And, looking forward, projected enrollment numbers out to the 2015–2016 school year suggest enrollment rates will continue to rise.

What of Herbert’s claim that “we’re” the ones who are making it more difficult for youngsters to go to college? If by this he means that American taxpayers aren’t doing enough to help college students pay their tuition bills then, again, the data aren’t on his side. Funding for federal Pell grants has increased 80 percent in real terms between 1994 and 2006, while the money available through federally subsidized student loans (Perkins Loans, Direct Student Loans, and Family Education Loans) has increased 87 percent in real terms over that time. Data from the 2003–2004 school year (the most recent data available) show that more than half of undergraduates that year received grant money (in the average amount of $4,000) while 35.1 percent of undergraduates received subsidized loans (in the average amount of $5,800).

What of Herbert’s claim that a college degree is a “virtual prerequisite” for a middle-class standard of living? To be sure, higher education translates into increased earnings over a person’s lifetime. However, people who lack a college degree are not doomed to a life of lower-class living. Earnings data for 2004 show that a high school diploma and some work experience can add up to a middle-class lifestyle. The mean earnings per person in 2004 were $37,897; the mean earnings for a person with only a high school diploma who was between 35 and 44 years of age were $32,060. If that person had some college education but no degree, mean earnings were $38,076.

Herbert’s column goes on to lament the debt burden incurred by recent college graduates, including grad- and professional school graduates. Remarkably, he gives no thought to the value of the degrees that were purchased with that debt. Fortunately, more-thoughtful people have done present-value calculations on various college degrees (see, e.g., these calculations by Arizona State’s Carey School of Business, or these by Don Burleson of Burleson Consulting, or these by MSN Money’s Liz Pulliam Weston). The general consensus is that a bachelor’s degree, after subtracting tuition and other college costs as well as lost earnings from the years spent in school, has a present value of about a quarter-million dollars. Advanced degrees provide mixed returns (my MA in philosophy is of great personal value, but it doesn’t deliver much bling in the marketplace), but degrees in law and medicine deliver a present-value payback of upwards of $1 million dollars or more. And the still-ridiculously-cheap associates degree is the best deal in higher education, delivering well over $100,000 in present value for a mere few thousand dollars in cost.

Now, ask yourself: Would you be willing to spend $5,000 in exchange for something worth $100,000? Or $50,000 in exchange for $300,000? Or $100,000 in exchange for $1 million? Apparently, Herbert wouldn’t — unless taxpayers subsidize him (more) to do so.

Herbert’s column strikes me as yet another example of the all-too-common “progressive” lament that not enough money is being redistributed to the upper middle class. He would tax people (including many with no college degrees) to help out the soon-to-be-well-off.

Curiously, Herbert’s column says absolutely nothing about the one obvious issue in higher education financing: Why has a four-year college education gotten so expensive? My Cato colleague Neal McCluskey has discussed that, and you can read some of his thoughts here.