Kevin Drum

As Federal Aid Goes Up, College Costs Rise Enough to Gobble It All Up

| Sun Aug. 2, 2015 5:46 PM EDT

Josh Mitchell of the Wall Street Journal writes today about the spiraling cost of college:

The federal government has boosted aid to families in recent decades to make college more affordable. A new study from the New York Federal Reserve faults these policies for enabling college institutions to aggressively raise tuitions.

....Conservatives have long held that generous federal-aid policies inflate higher-education costs, a viewpoint famously articulated by then-Education Secretary William Bennett in a 1987 column that came to be dubbed the Bennett Hypothesis.

Regular readers know that I have at least a bit of sympathy for this view.  But Mitchell doesn't really explain how the data supports this hypothesis. So I'll give it a try. As you can see on the right, federal aid increased very modestly from 2000 to 2009. Then it went up sharply starting around 2010. If this aid were truly helping make college more affordable, out-of-pocket expenses for students (i.e., actual cash outlays net of loans and grants) would start to flatten out or even go down.

But that hasn't happened. You can lay a straightedge on the red line in the bottom chart. Basically, families received no net benefit from increased federal aid. Actual cash outlays rose at exactly the same rate as they had been rising before.

My guess is that this will continue until universities get to the point at which students and families simply don't value higher education enough to pay any more. That's the gating item, not aid programs. When out-of-pocket expenses finally equal the value that students put on a college degree, prices will stabilize.1 That's my guess, anyway.

The Journal article has more on this, and the Fed study is here if you want to read more about the methodology—much more sophisticated than mine—that the authors used to come to a similar conclusion.

1Actually, it's when the perceived value of a college degree equals current cash outlays plus whatever burden students associate with future loan paybacks. However, the latter is pretty tricky to quantify since it varies widely depending on the university, the student's major, and their subjective discount rate.

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Tell Us What You Really Think About Donald Trump

| Sat Aug. 1, 2015 7:23 PM EDT

I've sort of promised myself not to write about Donald Trump, but (a) it's a weekend, and (b) David Fahrenthold has a pretty entertaining piece about Trump in the Washington Post today. Here's a brief excerpt of some of the reactions Fahrenthold got to a variety of Trump's blatherings:

Mark Krikorian, a foe of illegal immigration, on Trump's immigration ideas: “Trump is like your Uncle George at Thanksgiving dinner, saying he knows how to solve all the problems. It’s not that he’s always wrong. It’s just that he’s an auto mechanic, not a policy guy.”

David Goldwyn, a former State Department official in the Obama administration, on Trump's plan to fight ISIS by simply bombing them and then taking all their oil: “That is sheer lunacy on so many counts, it’s hard to start.”

Some anonymous sources on the same idea: “Oil-industry experts expressed skepticism about this plan. Skepticism, in fact, may not be a strong-enough word.”

Michael Tanner of Cato, on Trump's endless vision of new building projects combined with his insistence on lowering taxes: “You can’t spend more and collect less. That’s kind of basic math. You can argue about how the math adds up in the other people’s plans. But there’s math there. This, there’s just no math.”

Gary Hufbauer of the Peterson Institute on Trump's plan to jack up tariffs on countries he doesn't like: “If you thought this had a ghost of a chance — which it doesn’t — you would sell all your stocks,” because of the damage that a trade war would do to the U.S. economy.

You know, when Mark Krikorian is critical of your anti-immigration ideas; Michael Tanner is skeptical of your tax-cutting ideas; and oil companies want no part of your oil-stealing ideas, you just know there's something wrong.

Anyway, Fahrenthold's piece is worth a weekend click. And you might as well do it while you can. We won't have Trump to kick around forever.

Our Anti-ISIS Program in Syria Is a Bad Joke

| Sat Aug. 1, 2015 11:44 AM EDT

So how are we doing in our efforts to train moderate Syrian allies to help us in the fight against ISIS? Here's the New York Times two days ago:

A Pentagon program to train moderate Syrian insurgents to fight the Islamic State has been vexed by problems of recruitment, screening, dismissals and desertions that have left only a tiny band of fighters ready to do battle.

Those fighters — 54 in all — suffered perhaps their most embarrassing setback yet on Thursday. One of their leaders, a Syrian Army defector who recruited them, was abducted in Syria near the Turkish border, along with his deputy who commands the trainees....Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter has acknowledged the shortfalls, citing strict screening standards, which have created a backlog of 7,000 recruits waiting to be vetted. Mr. Carter has insisted the numbers will increase.

Okay, I guess 54 is a....start. So how good are they? Here's the New York Times today:

A Syrian insurgent group at the heart of the Pentagon’s effort to fight the Islamic State came under intense attack on Friday....The American-led coalition responded with airstrikes to help the American-aligned unit, known as Division 30, in fighting off the assault....The attack on Friday was mounted by the Nusra Front, which is affiliated with Al Qaeda. It came a day after the Nusra Front captured two leaders and at least six fighters of Division 30, which supplied the first trainees to graduate from the Pentagon’s anti-Islamic State training program.

....“This wasn’t supposed to happen like this,” said one former senior American official, who was working closely on Syria issues until recently, and who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential intelligence assessments....Division 30 said in a statement that five of its fighters were killed in the firefight on Friday, 18 were wounded and 20 were captured by the Nusra Front. It was not clear whether the 20 captives included the six fighters and two commanders captured a day earlier.

Let's see, that adds up to either 43 or 51 depending on how you count. Starting with 54, then, it looks like Division 30 has either 11 or 3 fighters left, and no commanders. But apparently that's not so bad!

A spokesman for the American military, Col. Patrick S. Ryder, wrote in an email statement that “we are confident that this attack will not deter Syrians from joining the program to fight for Syria,” and added that the program “is making progress.”

....[A senior] defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence reports, described what he called “silver linings” to the attack on Friday: that the trainees had fought effectively in the battle, and that coalition warplanes responded quickly with airstrikes to support them.

The trainees fought effectively? There are no more than a dozen still able to fight. That's not the same definition of "effective" that most of us have. As for the US Air Force responding quickly, that's great. But the quality of the US Air Force has never really been in question.

This is starting to make Vietnam look like a well-oiled machine. Stay tuned.

The Clinton Rules, Tax Record Edition

| Fri Jul. 31, 2015 5:01 PM EDT

I was sitting in the living room this afternoon and Hopper jumped into my lap. So I told Marian to turn the TV to CNN and I'd watch the news until Hopper released me. The first thing I saw was John Berman teasing a segment about Hillary Clinton releasing a health statement plus eight years of tax records. In other words, pretty routine stuff for any serious presidential candidate. But when Berman tossed to Brianna Keilar, here's what she said:

KEILAR: When you think of a document dump like this, you normally think of, uh, in a way, sort of having something to hide. But the Clinton campaign trying to make the point that they're putting out this information and they're trying to be very transparent.

Talk about the Clinton rules! Hillary Clinton releases nearly a decade's worth of tax records, and the first thing that pops into Keilar's mind is that this is probably an effort to hide something. But hey! Let's be fair. The Clinton campaign says it's actually so that people can see her tax records. But they would say that, wouldn't they?

Unbelievable. If any other candidate released eight years of tax records, it would be reported as the candidate releasing eight years of tax records. But when Hillary does it, there's very likely something nefarious going on. God help us.

Friday Cat Blogging - 31 July 2015

| Fri Jul. 31, 2015 2:50 PM EDT

Hopper (left) and Hilbert are so entranced by something or other that even my sister wants to know what they're looking at. My guess: a dust mote in the cat dimension.

Speaking of my sister, she is promising some guest cat blogging for next week. Will she come through? Tune in next Friday to find out!

It's Republicans, Not Obama, Who Want to Bust the Sequestration Deal

| Fri Jul. 31, 2015 2:21 PM EDT

The LA Times reports today that we might be headed for another government shutdown. Big surprise. But these paragraphs are very peculiar:

President Obama has signaled his intention to bust, once and for all, the severe 2011 spending caps known as sequestration. He's vowed to reject any GOP-backed appropriation bills that increase government funding for the military without also boosting domestic programs important to Democrats such as Head Start for preschoolers.

The Republican-controlled Congress is also digging in. Since taking control in January, GOP leaders had promised to run Congress responsibly and prevent another shutdown like the one in 2013, but their spending proposals are defying the president's veto threat by bolstering defense accounts and leaving social-welfare programs to be slashed.

It's true that Obama has proposed doing away with the sequestration caps. But his budgets have routinely been described as DOA by Republican leaders, so his plans have never gotten so much as a hearing. What's happening right now is entirely different. Republicans are claiming they want to keep the sequestration deal, but they don't like the fact that back in 2011 they agreed it would cut domestic and military spending equally. Instead, Republicans now want to increase military spending and decrease domestic spending. They're doing this by putting the additional defense money into an "emergency war-spending account," which technically allows them to get around the sequester caps. Unsurprisingly, Obama's not buying it.

So how does this count as Obama planning to "bust" the sequestration caps? I don't get it. It sounds like Obama is willing to stick to the original deal if he has to, but he's quite naturally insisting that this means sticking to the entire deal. It's Republicans who are trying to renege. What am I missing here?

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California Really Doesn't Need to Worry About Losing Jobs to Texas

| Fri Jul. 31, 2015 12:54 PM EDT

Is California losing jobs to Texas, thanks to California's stringent anti-business regulations vs. Texas's wide-open business-friendly environment? It's a question I have only a modest interest in, since there are lots of reasons for states to gain or lose business. California has nice weather. Texas has cheap housing. Recessions hit different states at different times and with different intensities. Business regulations might be part of the mix, but it's all but impossible to say how much.

But now I care even less. Lyman Stone ran some numbers and confirmed that, in fact, California has been losing jobs and Texas has been gaining jobs over the past couple of decades. But by itself that isn't very interesting. The real question is, how many jobs? Here is Stone's chart:

Stone comments: "Net migration isn’t 1% or 2%. It’s plus or minus 0.05% in most cases. Even as a share of total change in employment, migration is massively overwhelmed by employment changes due to local startups and closures, and local expansions and contractions. The truth is, net employment changes due to firm migration are within the rounding error of total employment. Over time they may matter, but overall they’re pretty miniscule."

What's more, these numbers are for migration to and from every state in the union. They're far smaller if you look solely at California-Texas migration.

Bottom line: An almost invisible number of workers are migrating from California to Texas each year due to firm relocation, probably less than .02 percent. The share of that due to burdensome business regulation is even less, probably no more than .01 percent. That's so small it belongs in the "Other" category of any employment analysis. No matter how you look at it, this is just not a big deal.

UPDATE: In a Twitter conversation, Stone makes it clear that this is solely a look at job migration tied to firm relocation. The idea is to test the theory that Texas is "poaching" companies from California thanks to its anti-business climate, and it seems pretty clear that this just isn't happening in numbers large enough to be noticeable.

There are lots of other things to say about this, including the number of new startup firms in each state, where existing firms choose to expand, and so forth. Those would be interesting things to look at, but for another day. This is strictly a look at the supposed poaching phenomenon.

The New York Times Needs to do a Better Job of Explaining Its Epic Hillary Clinton Screw-Up

| Fri Jul. 31, 2015 10:27 AM EDT

As you probably know, the New York Times screwed up epically last week by publishing a story claiming that Hillary Clinton was the target of a criminal probe over the mishandling of classified information in her private email system. In the end, virtually everything about the story turned out to be wrong. Clinton was not a target. The referral was not criminal. The emails in question had not been classified at the time Clinton saw them. When the dust settled, it appeared that the whole thing was little more than a squabble between State and CIA over whether certain emails that State is releasing to the public should or shouldn't be classified. In other words, just your garden-variety bureaucratic dispute. Hardly worth a blurb on A17, let alone a screaming headline on the front page.

The Clinton campaign has now officially asked the Times to account for how it could have bollixed this story so badly. Here are the most interesting paragraphs:

Times' editors have attempted to explain these errors by claiming the fault for the misreporting resided with a Justice Department official whom other news outlets cited as confirming the Times' report after the fact. This suggestion does not add up. It is our understanding that this Justice Department official was not the original source of the Times' tip. Moreover, notwithstanding the official's inaccurate characterization of the referral as criminal in nature, this official does not appear to have told the Times that Mrs. Clinton was the target of that referral, as the paper falsely reported in its original story.

This raises the question of what other sources the Times may have relied on for its initial report. It clearly was not either of the referring officials — that is, the Inspectors General of either the State Department or intelligence agencies — since the Times' sources apparently lacked firsthand knowledge of the referral documents. It also seems unlikely the source could have been anyone affiliated with those offices, as it defies logic that anyone so closely involved could have so severely garbled the description of the referral.

Yes indeedy. Who was the person who first tipped off the Times reporters? And does that source still deserve anonymity? Clinton's letter seems to be pretty clearly implying that it might have been Trey Gowdy or someone on his staff, who are currently running the Benghazi investigation that's recently morphed into a Hillary Clinton witch hunt. Apparently they knew about this DOJ referral a day before the Times story ran, so maybe they're the ones who passed along the garbled version.

The Clinton campaign can't say that, of course, since they have no proof. Neither do I. But it sure seems to be the plain implication of their response. Pretty clearly, someone who didn't have direct access to the referral—but knew of its existence—was the original source, and it's a pretty good guess that this source was someone unfriendly to Clinton. In other words, someone whose word shouldn't have been accepted without the most stringent due diligence.

But when you get oppo research, it's a pretty good bet that others are getting it too. So you have to publish quickly if you want to be first. But that's not all: you also have to be pretty willing to accept dirt on Hillary Clinton at face value and you have to care more about being first than being right. The authors of the story, Michael Schmidt and Matt Apuzzo, really ought to address these issues in public at a press conference. After all, the press loves press conferences, right?

Why Has Maine Turned Into Crackpot Central?

| Fri Jul. 31, 2015 9:48 AM EDT

Yesterday, Steve Benen got me up to date on the latest lunacy from Maine Gov. Paul LePage. A few weeks ago, LePage decided to ignore a bunch of bills he didn't like, figuring he would "pocket veto" them by simply withholding his signature. Unfortunately, he didn't understand how the Maine constitution works, which means that all the bills became law. So now he says he just won't enforce any of them. Uh huh.

Next, a private school hired Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves, a man LePage especially loathes, so he told the school to either fire Eves or else they'd lose their state money. Unless Maine law is truly extraordinary, this is so blatantly illegal that only someone completely out of control would even try it. Unsurprisingly, Eves is suing LePage, and this is LePage's defense:

The Tea Party governor hasn’t actually denied the allegations, and neither have LePage’s allies. The Maine Republican did argue this morning, however, that when he threatened the school it was comparable to LePage intervening in a domestic-violence dispute.

“It’s just like one time when I stepped in … when a man was beating his wife,” the governor said. “Should have I stepped in? Legally, no. But I did. And I’m not embarrassed about doing it.”

Um, what? This is Sarah-Palin quality gibberish. And it's hardly the first sign that LePage isn't playing with a full deck. (You can find much, much more like this with any old Google search.) So here's what I don't get. It's one thing to elect the guy once. But how did he manage to get reelected last year? It's not because it was a 3-way race. He won 48 percent of the vote and probably would have won even without a third-party spoiler. But by then his lunacy should have been obvious to all. Are Maine residents really that attracted to kooks? Did the Democratic candidate threaten to outlaw lobster rolls? Or what? What the hell is going on up in Maine?

For a Week, Walter Palmer Is the Worst Human Being Ever in History

| Thu Jul. 30, 2015 5:11 PM EDT

Max Fisher argues that the social media jihad against Walter Palmer, the Minnesota dentist who killed Cecil the lion, is wildly out of control:

Web users uncovered Palmer's personal information, including about his family, and published it online. They went after his business, a private dental practice, posting thousands of negative reviews on Yelp and other sites. The practice has since shut down. Users also went after professional websites that host his profile, leading the sites to remove his information. On Twitter and on his practice's public Facebook page, people made threats of physical violence.

....Maybe you loved Cecil the lion, and believe that Palmer deserves all of this suffering. Maybe you believe that his family and employees also deserve to have their livelihoods threatened. But even if you believe that this particular mob made the correct decision in both identifying the targets and meting out punishments, the way its members reached these decisions — arbitrarily, based on what they thought would feel good to punish — should worry you.

Social media is, famously, decentralized. With a few exceptions, this means that every individual blast at Palmer is just that: one person getting something off their chest. The problem is that there's no governor on a decentralized attack like this, no one leading the charge. That means it can easily spiral into a lynch mob regardless of whether anyone meant it to in the first place.

But mob justice, Fisher says perceptively, "is not primarily about punishing the crime or the criminal, but rather about indulging the outrage of the mob and its thirst for vengeance. Sometimes that leads the mob to target people who perhaps legitimately deserve punishment, but typically it does not. And there is no reason to expect it to. That's not what mobs are about." That's right. Too often, mob justice is flatly misdirected, and even when it's not, it's frequently far out of proportion to the offense.

Before the internet, for example, if a university student said something stupid, it would cause a few days of distress among a smallish group of people. Lesson learned. Young people say dumb things all the time. Today, if the student is unlucky, it becomes a social media virus. Within a few days the entire world knows about it and the student is a pariah. This is far out of proportion to the offense. And it's even worse, as Fisher says, when the outrage is misdirected completely, as in the case of Sunil Tripathi's family, which was terrorized for weeks after the Boston bombing by a mob convinced he had been a part of the plot—which supposedly explained why he had gone missing. But it turned out that his absence was actually explained by something else: he had committed suicide.

Maybe Walter Palmer deserves what he's gotten, maybe he doesn't. But I doubt the internet mob actually cares. It's just a spectacle, and when they get bored they'll train their sights on whatever the next shiny object is. Maybe it's somebody or something that deserves the spotlight. Maybe it's not. Who cares, right? I mean, have you seen the asshole in that video?

In the end, I suppose this is yet another plea to tone down the volume on outrage culture, which has lately defined the internet more than either porn or cat videos. It's what I used to jokingly call the "death penalty for parking tickets" problem. Unfortunately, it's not so much of a joke anymore, because it turns out that Andy Warhol was wrong. Everybody doesn't get 15 minutes of fame these days. Instead, each week some randomly chosen schmo gets an onslaught of withering, life-destroying shame—whether they deserve it or not. It's not really an improvement.