Posts tagged ‘Washington Monthly’

Previewing the President's College Rankings

Today, President Obama sort-of kind-of acknowledged a problem with Federal college student lending:  Federal loans are doing nothing to improve the affordability of colleges, as colleges are just raising tuition in lockstep with increased lending, thus leaving students massively in debt for the same old degree.

His proposed solution is to somehow tie the availability of Federal funds to some type of government scoring system for colleges.  The probability that this will do anything to reign in student debt is exactly zero.  But it will potentially give the Feds another vehicle for control (similar to what Title IX has given them) of even the most mundane university policies.  Why not, for example, give high scores to universities with the restrictive and politically correct speech codes this Administration favors, thus effectively denying money to students of universities that don't have Eric Holder-sanctioned speech policies?

If you think I am exaggerating, look at the recent Washington Monthly college rankings as a prototype for the Obama scoring system.  In their system, colleges are ranked higher if they have a higher percentage of Peace Corps*** graduates, if more of their Federal work-study grant money is used for jobs at non-profits rather than for-profits**, and if their school reports more community service hours.  This latter points to another issue -- a number of schools rank really low on community service hours, effectively all tied with zero.  This is obviously a reporting issue.  The Obama plan just about guarantees that universities will start to game all these metrics -- does no one pay attention to the fraud that has been found in the law school rankings?

They also have a ranking of the schools providing the best value.  The good news, I suppose, is the school my son attends is #1.  The bad news is that my alma mater Princeton is not even on the list.  I found this odd, because while the authors explicitly laud Amherst's generous program that helps fund students through grants rather than loans, Princeton actually was one of a few schools that did this first (update:  Princeton was the first school to eliminate loans from financial aid packages of low income students, and since has eliminated loans altogether from all financial aid packages.  If you can get in, you can graduate debt-free).

It says this of Amherst:

 It chose to tap its sizable $1.6 billion endowment to provide tuition discounts so generous that the annual net cost to students with family incomes below $75,000 is only $843, less than a third of the sticker price of a year at the average community college. Another elite liberal arts college, Williams, also makes our list. But instructively, none of the other prestigious, well-endowed private colleges and universities in America—not Harvard or Yale, Swarthmore or Smith, none of them—can make that claim.

Actually, we don't know if that last sentence is true because the authors left Harvard and Yale off the list entirely.   My impression is that Princeton makes is very inexpensive for families making less than $75,000 as well, so I could not understand the claim -- perhaps even without debt the tuition charges to low-income families are still unreasonably high.  But we will never know, because apparently Princeton is not even on the list -- not because it does not direct a lot of its endowment to need-based scholarships, but because it has only 10% students on Pell grants, and the authors decided that you could not be on the list unless that number was at least 20% "to make sure they aren’t just catering to the affluent."  This just points to how quickly such a system gets politicized.  What does "catering to the affluent" have anything to do with bang for the buck?  If they really trust their methodology, they would have included these schools and if they are really just over-priced rich kids' playgrounds, that should have come through in the ranking.  Instead, the author's have explicitly invented an unrelated criteria to weed Ivy League schools out, a criteria more related to admissions requirements than to financial aid requirements and affordability and value (the ostensible bases for the rankings).

By the way, if you want to get a really good laugh, this is supposed to be a value or "bang for the buck" ranking, but they only rank the costs.  There is absolutely no ranking of "bang".  Bizarre.  It is as if any degree of any type from any institution is equally valuable.  Which, by the way, is part of the problem in the student loan bubble -- just this assumption.


** This is EXACTLY the kind of incentive that will help pay off those future college loans -- lets make sure to encourage every student to work in non-profits rather than for-profits jobs.

*** Why the Peace Corps?  Why not a myriad of other useful and productive occupations?  If you want to have a service metric, why is Peace Corps there and, say, Teach for America not?

Defending Corporatism, In the Name of Eliminating It

For years I have argued that Obama is leading us to a European-style corporate state rather than socialism per se (though the two have many things in common).  It seems like his defenders on the Left have figured that out, and are getting on board.

The other day, Kevin Drum seems to agree with a Washington Monthly article that defends corporatism in the name of attacking it.  In this case, it was an example from the beer industry:

Prior to the 2008 takeover, Anheuser-Busch generally accepted the regulatory regime that had governed the U.S. alcohol industry since the repeal of Prohibition. It didn’t attack the independent wholesalers in control of its supply chain, and generally treated them well. “Tough but fair” is a phrase used by several wholesale-business sources to describe their dealings with the Busch family dynasty. Everyone was making money; there was no need to rock the boat.

All that changed quickly after Anheuser-Busch lost its independence....Today, with only one remaining real competitor, MillerCoors, the pressure it can put on its wholesalers is extraordinary. A wholesaler who loses its account with either company loses one of its two largest customers, and cannot offer his retail clients the name-brand beers that form the backbone of the market. The Big Two in effect have a captive system by which to bring their goods to market.

.... So distributors are caught in an impossible bind: they either do the brewer’s bidding, including selling their businesses to favored “Anchor Wholesalers,” or they lose Anheuser-Busch InBev as a client. And if the wholesalers try to push back? Anheuser-Busch InBev will get rough.

I don't know if this is just tremendous ignorance or some sort of calculated scheming.  The article decries the growing power of beer manufacturers vis a vis liquor distributors, and wants to call this some sort of slide into corporatism.    Actually just the opposite is true -- what we see is Anheuser-Busch taking on some of the largest beneficiaries of government cronysism:  the liquor wholesalers.

The liquor distribution scheme, and resulting government enforced monopolies, created post-Prohibition have been the worst sort of corporate statism, and what is going on here is that the beer manufacturers are finally fed up with it.  Regional liquor wholesalers are generally some of the most politically powerful forces in local and state politics.  These distribution monopolies have all created multi-millionaire owners who deploy money and political clout to prevent any changes in law that might weaken their government-enforced monopoly position.  Wonder why you still can't mail order from Amazon that bottle of California Merlot -- thank the liquor wholesale lobby.  Without all this government protection of distributors, the soft drink business went through identical changes, relatively quietly, decades ago.

This whole liquor distribution scheme we have today is consistent with FDR's corporatist thinking (he was a great admirer of the economic aspects of Mussolini's fascism, and modeled the National Recovery Act after this Italian system).  But it is also thoroughly anti-consumer, and has both raised prices of alcohol to consumers as well as stifled innovation and competition.  We are living in a glorious age of incredible micro-brew choice, but this almost didn't happen.  The biggest hurdle these early pioneers had to clear was cracking this liquor distribution monopoly.

I find it incredible that a Progressive like Drum sees fit to defend such a system and castigate Anheuser-Busch for challenging it.  It is even more amazing to see him positing that anti-trust is all about protecting millionaire corporate players in one part of the supply chain from billionaire corporate players in another part.  I have said for years that anti-trust has been corrupted from protecting consumers to protecting weaker competitors, even when this protection hurts consumers  (remember, Microsoft was convicted of anti-trust violations for giving away free stuff to consumers).  I just am amazed that the Left has come so far that it has now openly adopted this view of anti-trust.

Update:  Here is another example of the Left describing market attacks on a government-protected corporation "Corporatist."  There are always beneficiaries of deregulation (consumers being the most unsung of these).  It is crazy and disingenuous for the Left to call those who win in a newly deregulated market "cronies."

...Or, You Could Choose Your College This Way

Last week, I pointed out that my alma mater Princeton had again topped the USN&WR college rankings.  But those college rankings were for those who wanted to invest their tuition money and four years of their life at the school that would, you know, educate them the best. 

If, however, you would rather choose a college based on how well it serves everyone else's interests rather than your own, you can use this ranking from Washington Monthly, presumably chosen with help from special correspondent Ellsworth Toohey.  Universities are chosen for social contribution and research and number of Peace Corps volunteers and the like.  No indicators of educational quality or student satisfaction are used.  Really, they don't seem to be joking:

U.S. News & World Report publishes its university rankings
every year, and every year people complain about them. So starting in
2005 we decided to do more than just complain, and instead came out
with our own rankings "” based not on reputation or endowment size, but
rather on how much of a contribution each university actually makes to
the country.

Top universities on the list presumably teach important skills like:

  • How to find a job that helps lots of people but doesn't pay very much and provides no job satisfaction
  • How to find a boyfriend who beats you a lot and never can hold a job, but needs your financial support really badly
  • How to invest in companies with no prospects but who need the money very much (taught presumably by Eugene Lawson)

In this list, a Peace Corps volunteer is ranked to have made a larger contribution to America than say:  Jimmy Stewart, Meg Whitman, Jeff Bezos,  James Madison,  etc.  (Oh, and Pete Conrad, probably my personal favorite Princeton Grad, and first man on the moon after Neil Armstrong's dress rehearsal on a Hollywood soundstage with Buzz Aldrin and OJ Simpson.)

This is maybe a great list if you have a billion dollars burning a hole in your pocket and want to find a university to endow, but of what utility is this for prospective students?

Postscript: You do, though, have to give Washington Monthly props for putting Texas A&M at the top of their list, a university whose student body is probably least likely of almost any major state school to purchase very many copies of their magazine  [a comment on their political orientation, not their ability to read].

Update: OK, this is how people REALLY pick schools, from this list.

Political Party as Fashion Statement

A while back I lamented that so few people actually strive to maintain a consistent personal philosophy, rather than a hodge-podge of isolated political views.  In this context, I thought the profile of "progressive" Markos Moulitsas Zuniga (the Daily Kos) by the sympathetic progressive-liberal Washington Monthly was interesting.  For example:

The younger-than-35 liberal professionals who account for most of his
audience seem an ideologically satisfied group, with no fundamental
paradigm"”changing demands to make of the Democratic Party. They don't
believe strongly, as successive generations of progressives have, that
the Democratic Party must develop more government programs to help the
poor, or that racial and ethnic minorities are wildly underrepresented,
or that the party is in need of a fundamental reform towards the
pragmatic center"”or at least they don't believe so in any kind of
consistent or organized manner. As this generation begins to move into
positions of power within the progressive movement and the Democratic
Party, they don't pose much of a challenge on issues or substance. So
the tactical critique takes center stage.
Moulitsas's sensibility suits his generation perfectly. But it also
comes with a built-in cost. Moulitsas is just basically uninterested in
the intellectual and philosophical debates that lie behind the daily
political trench warfare. By his own admission, he just doesn't care
about policy. It's here that the correlation between sports and
politics breaks down. In sports, as Vince Lombardi is said to have put
it, "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing." When the season is
over, you hang up your cleats and wait for the next season. But in
politics, that's not the case"”you have to govern, and if you don't
govern well, you won't get reelected. So while tactics and message are
crucial, most voters will ultimately demand from politicians ideas that
give them a sense of what a party is going to do once in power. Wanting
to win very badly is an admirable and necessary quality in politics,
and Moulitsas is right that Democrats have needed it in greater
quantity. But it is not really a political philosophy.

This article tends to reinforce a notion I have had of late, that is a trend toward political party as fashion statement.  For example, I get the impression that many of Kos's audience call themselves Democrats more because of the statement they think it makes about themselves rather than a thought-out comparison of the various party's positions and how they stack up vs. their own thought-out philosophy.  I am starting to sense that people choose parties for their brand-image rather than for the actual positions or people who represent them.  Democrat might mean "I am smarter than you", "I am with-it and cool", "I am dynamic" while Republican might mean "I am patriotic", "I am moral", "I am level-headed".  By the way, don't send me mail for the wrong reasons -- I am not saying the parties actually consistently meet these images, I am just saying that a large number of people seem to adopt their party to make these kind of statements about themselves.

Postscript:  If you think I am exaggerating, then someone needs to explain to me how a Democratic president can send us to war in Bosnia with Republicans opposing and then have a Republican president send us to war in Iraq with Democrats opposing when at the 40,000 foot level they are the same freaking war (US intervention to unseat a genocidal dictator with at best unclear UN mandate and opposition from key European nations).  I keep coming back to the simplistic explanation that the default political position is "I got my guy's back no matter what, and you guys suck no matter what", which I admit effectively compares the current political discourse to the chants at a Michigan-Ohio State football game, but I'm going to go with it.

PPS-  As a good libertarian, though, I am happy to know that young progressives are not necessarily pushing for more state control.

Local Subsidies for Business Relocation

It is not that often I get the opportunity to find something about taxes and markets in Kevin Drum's column that I agree with, but his guest blogger Paul Glastris has a good series of posts on state and local tax breaks, and even direct subsidies, for relocating businesses (first post here).  Glastris argues for the elimination of these tax breaks and subsidies, and I agree 100% with this conclusion, though not necesarily his legal justification for doing so (more on that later).

I have written a number of times about my frustration with a particular type of these subsidies - the public financing of stadiums for private sports teams (here, here, and here).  This stadium construction is usually undertaken as a result of corporate blackmail, where sports teams threaten to move unless they get a new stadium.  The dynamics of other tax breaks and subsidies to relocating businesses referred to by Glastris are usually similar, though these companies don't tend to have the monopsony power of sports franchises so they often get a smaller payout.

Why do local governments pay out huge incentive to corporations who after all have to put their business somewhere?  The answer is that they are caught in a classic prisoner's dilemma.  Basically, in this "game", each participant has individual incentives that seem to point to a certain set of actions.  Unfortunately, when players follow these incentives, the result is sub-optimized for everyone.

In this example, local authorities see a business that may move to town, and decide it is better to have it in their city with tax concessions than to have it in another city.  Since cities lose some of these battles and win some, and since cities that lose one battle tend to pay more to win the next one, the end result is that businesses end up being distributed fairly evenly, but cities have all given up huge tax concessions.  Clearly the ideal state, at least for city governments, is to not give any tax concessions at all.  In this case, businesses would likely still end up being distributed fairly evenly, but cities would not have given out tax breaks.

The only way to get to this end state is 1) have a philosophic change, with local citizens rejecting the use of government to affect relocation decisions (ie become libertarians!); 2) collude - have the council of mayors get together and sign a no new subsidy pledge or 3) have some higher authority police the local governments (that is the option explored in the Glastris article - can the US Government or courts constitutionally stop this). 

The Washington Monthly, in opposing these tax breaks, has a problem, though.  As good technocrats and liberal interventionists, they wholeheartedly support the government's right to regulate the hell out of business and commercial decision-making.  They can't, therefore, take the much cleaner libertarian argument I do, that the government should not be interfering in free, arms-length commercial decision-making at all. 

They are stuck with narrowly opposing just one kind of government interventionism (tax breaks to business) and this leads to a couple of problems in Galstris's argument.  The first is a consistency problem, which you can see in the attorney's letter Glastris quotes.  He argues in the first paragraph of his letter that these tax breaks violate the commerce clause because they unduly influence interstate commerce, then argues in his second paragraph that these tax breaks have no discernible influence on corporate decision making.  Well, if the second part is true, then their logic in the first part can't be true.

The other problem with their argument is that liberals want a commerce clause, as redefined by courts in the 1930's, as enabling massive government intervention, but in this case Glastris is trying to use it in its pre-1930's use, which was restrictive.  If the Glastris wants to take the position that the commerce clause limits state and local businesses from trying to change the decision-making and cost structure of businesses engaged in interstate commerce, wouldn't this same logic extend to making unconstitutional state-based business regulations?  If you can't give a local tax break to a certain industry, doesn't that mean you can't give a higher tax (say on lodging) to another industry?  The specific words of the Ohio decision referenced says:

... the tax scheme discriminates against interstate commerce by granting preferential treatment to in-state investment and activity.

I might ask, if you take this argument, wouldn't laws that make in-state investment and activity less attractive than other states also be unconstitutional? 

One final note.  As a libertarian, I have gone through phases on targeted tax breaks.  There have been times in my life when I have supported tax breaks of any kind to any person for any reason, by the logic that any reduction in taxation is a good thing.  I know there are many libertarians that take this position.  Over time, I have changed my mind.  First, targeted tax breaks seldom in practice reduce the overall tax burden - they tend to be made up somewhere else.  Second, these tax breaks tend to be gross examples of the kind of government coercive technocratic meddling in commerce and individual decision-making that I despise.  Almost always, they are trying to get individuals to do something they would not otherwise do, so in practice they tend to be distorting and carry all kinds of unintended consequences (as well as being philosophically repugnant).