The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.

Bob Corker, Ron Johnson, and Jeff Sessions Were Right about the VA


The Senate passed a bill yesterday to reform the Veterans Health Administration: It would fund the opening of new hospitals and the hiring of new doctors, offer more ways to keep VA bureaucrats accountable, do some other random grab-bag spending (in-state tuition for vets!), and, lastly, expand coverage for vets to get care outside the VA when necessary.

Congress could reasonably expect that the bill they were voting on would be very expensive, but they didn’t know just how expensive until . . . the Senate was basically already voting on the bill. Yesterday, the Congressional Budget Office announced that it believes the bill will cost $35 billion over three years, ramping up to as much as $50 billion a year if its programs are made permanent. As, of course, they will be, meaning that this is an absolutely gigantic expansion of the VA. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget points out that over ten years of full implementation, the VA expansion, by the CBO’s numbers, could be even bigger than the system’s current budget:

Now, as the CBO noted, their score of the VA bill is highly uncertain. All budget projections are unreliable, of course. And this one is especially so: The CBO admits they have little idea how vets will respond to the policy changes (one of the big increases in costs, they predict, will come from vets getting care at VA hospitals for which they used to go elsewhere because of supply constraints and wait times). The score is also just of the “give vets more access to non-VA care” portion of the bill, not its other spending — though that’s less of a problem since the Republican House should plan to strip out basically everything except for that.

But the fact that this gigantic price tag was delivered around 4 p.m. yesterday, when the Senate voted around 4:30, is reason enough to slow down and reconsider just what they’re about to pass. Only three senators agreed, unfortunately, all Republicans: Bob Corker of Tennessee, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, and Jeff Sessions of Alabama.

They deserve great credit for questioning the wisdom of passing what could become a gigantic new entitlement — that wasn’t paid for in any way, because it was passed as an “emergency” budgetary measure. The VA scandals demand an immediate response, of course, but the Senate bill isn’t necessary to execute it: President Obama has already ordered that the VA expand the coverage it offers outside the system for vets waiting for care. No program like this should be passed as an emergency measure. Fixing the VA’s problems, such as they are, may require lots and lots of money — and maybe the Senate wasn’t voting to spend quite as much money as the CBO just said. But any congressman with any respect whatsoever for the concept of fiscal responsibility — not deficit hawks, just anyone concerned with how much we spend and on what — should want Congress to take time to study this issue (as, indeed, the House is planning to).

Yet Corker, Johnson, and Sessions are getting blasted anyway by the traditional vets’ groups, who have never met a VA spending or expansion bill they didn’t like. The VFW:

As encouraging as the pending legislation is came [sic] three no votes from Republican Sens. Bob Corker (Tenn.), Ron Johnson (Wis.) and Jeff Sessions (Ala.), because they put dollars and cents above the interests of the nation’s veterans.

“There is a cost of going to war that includes taking care of those who come home wounded, ill and injured, and if these three senators have determined that we can’t afford to properly care for our veterans, then they should seek employment elsewhere!” exclaimed VFW National Commander William A. Thien.

“This is a national crisis that must be fixed, period,” he said. “This is about saving lives, restoring faith, and honoring a nations’ commitment to her veterans, and the VFW fully expects every member of Congress to support the final bill, because I can guarantee you that the price veterans paid in their own blood far exceeds any price tag some members of Congress want to proclaim is too high.

This kind of outrage, for one, ignores the senators opposing the bill weren’t even necessarily proclaiming the price to be too high — they were primarily objecting that it was irresponsible to pass it quickly and without paying for it. Of course, the price might in fact be too high: The sacrifices vets have made are incalculable but the benefits we provide to them aren’t, and shouldn’t be, unlimited. They deserve the care they’re promised, but the price at which that comes isn’t irrelevant. Almost every member of Congress, bowing to the political pressure on this issue, is basically pretending it is.

The VFW expressed hope that the House and Senate will go to conference on the bills they’ve passed, iron out the differences, and send the legislation to the president’s desk immediately. This isn’t good policy, but it’s par for the course with the VA, as Yuval has explained: Groups that represent vets, like almost any special-interest group, can be quite well-intentioned but can’t reliably distinguish between their institutional interests and the actual best interests of the people they’re supposed to represent.

Representative Jeff Miller (R., Fla.), chairman of the un-glamorous Veterans Affairs Committee, has suggested he’s not going to bow to vets’ groups – the House will, at the very least, find a way to pay for the provisions they want to pass. In doing so, as NR’s editors recommend today, they should strip out a lot of the unnecessary spending in the Senate bill, do further study on whether this is going to encourage vets to get more care from the VA, and focus solely on fixing the system, not expanding it. (Indeed, if we want the system to work well, there’s actually a case for curtailing eligibility so that vets get the very best care for their service-related injuries. Democrats, the VFW, etc. consistently want to expand eligibility.)

Here Are the States Whose Economies Grew and Shrunk in 2013


The Bureau of Economic Analysis released the following chart showing how the size of each state’s economy changed in 2013 — winners in blue, losers in yellow:

Now, this isn’t per-capita income growth — a lot of the changes in the size of various states’ economies is due to shifts in population. Nonetheless, in part, people move where the jobs are. And it’s fairly clear where the U.S. economic recovery is really happening, viewed on a regional basis: western natural-resource states (note the Angola of the Great Plains, North Dakota, growing at a 9.7 percent clip for the whole year). Meanwhile, the West Coast isn’t doing as badly as some might have you believe, say, California is doing. And a few innovative red states are also looking good: Indiana compares well with neighbor Illinois, and North Carolina, in the midst of a conservative-governance revolution, is one of the brighest spots in the southeast. (Another, West Virginia, is home to some natural-gas development.)



If College Is a Great Investment, There Wouldn’t Be a Student Debt Crisis


Calling the situation an “outrage,” President Obama announced on Monday that the student-debt burden is too high, and he proposed new regulations that would cap payments on older loans at 10 percent of income.

In the same speech, the president called higher education “the single best investment that you can make in yourselves and your future,” and later referred to it twice as “a smart investment.” But how that can be true if students are now drowning in debt?

There appear to be two incompatible narratives about higher education in the U.S. We are told that it is vital to encourage young people to attend college because the lifetime payoff far exceeds the cost of tuition and lost work years. At the same time, we are also told that students are struggling to service the loans they took out to pay for college, and they desperately need debt relief if they ever hope to get above water. These claims cannot both be true. If college had been a good investment for the students who took out loans, then there would be no student-debt crisis. Student-loan recipients would be paying off their loans with the income from their well-paying jobs.

Perhaps the debt problem is exaggerated, as most “outrages” in politics tend to be. But it’s another indication that the college-for-all mentality is not a harmless fantasy — real damage can occur, in the form of financial distress, when young people are encouraged to pursue higher education that doesn’t fit their abilities and interests.

The president’s actions implicitly acknowledge that college has not been a good investment for many people. Federal student loans are already subsidized with billions of taxpayer dollars every year. In addition to proposing new regulations, the president also endorsed Senator Elizabeth Warren’s bill that would allow students to refinance their federal loans at lower rates, at a cost of an additional $58 billion over ten years. If college is such a great deal, why are all of these new subsidies necessary?

Fortunately, it’s no longer just curmudgeons on the libertarian right who are arguing against college-for-all. Dean Baker of the left-leaning Center for Economic and Policy Research has pointed out that skipping college can be a reasonable decision for young people who do not anticipate a payoff. And when a recent piece at the New York Times’ Upshot highlighted the income gap between college grads and non-grads, Vox’s Matt Yglesias took the journalist to task for not adequately considering the underlying differences between each group. If this represents a new current of rational thinking about higher education, the president is swimming against it.

The Top Issue for Hispanic Voters Is Not Immigration


There is no conservative consensus on immigration policy. Among reform conservatives, however, there is a shared conviction that embracing comprehensive immigration reform is not a political panacea for the right. Last week, Ramesh Ponnuru observed that while “the establishment assumes that the party’s most fundamental problem is its position on immigration and social issues, and the resulting perception that it is intolerant,” reform conservatives believe that the fundamental problem is a domestic policy agenda that is not sufficiently responsive to the interests and concerns of low- and middle-income households, and the resulting perception that the GOP is the party of the rich. A more narrowly-tailored version of the establishment view on immigration is that conservatives must embrace comprehensive immigration reform to appeal to achieve political succes as Latino voters come to represent a larger share of the electorate. This is a widely-held belief that Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics has thoroughly dismantled, on the grounds that Republicans could fare well politically even if they win only a modest share of the Latino vote, provided they win a larger share of the non-Hispanic white vote, and that the chief determinant of Latino political preferences will be the socioeconomic standing of Latino voters. Using the Partisan Voting Index (PVI), a measure of the extent to which a given constituency varies from the national average, Trende finds that Latino voters were more Republican relative to the country as a whole in the presidential election of 2012 than they were in the presidential elections of 1972, 1976, 1984, 1988, and 1996.

None of this is to suggest that conservatives can’t or shouldn’t do more to woo Latino voters. Yet in pursuit of this goal, they’d be wise to follow the course laid out by the reformists and not the establishment. The Pew Research Center has found that core domestic policy issues like education and jobs and the economy are considerably more important to Latino voters than immigration policy:

In 2013, some 57% of Hispanic registered voters called education an “extremely important” issue facing the nation today. That’s compared with jobs and the economy (52%) and health care (43%). Just 32% said immigration.

Since 2007, about one-third of Hispanic registered voters have called immigration an “extremely important” issue to them personally. Even among Hispanic immigrants, the share was 35% in 2012.

While about seven-in-ten of all Latinos in 2013 said it was important for Congress to pass significant new immigration legislation that year, the share who said so was higher among immigrants (80%) than among the U.S. born (57%). Among the general public, 49% of U.S. adults said so when asked the same question in February.

In some respects, Hispanics’ focus on education as a top issue makes sense. In 2010, Hispanics had the highest birth rates—80 births per 1,000 women of childbearing age, compared with 64 for blacks, 59 for whites and 56 for Asians. Fully one-in-three (33%) Hispanics are school age (under 18), compared with one-in-five (20%) whites.

The economy has been another top issue among Hispanics, who said the recession hit them harder than other groups. Among Hispanics in 2012, the economy and jobs (54%) ranked about as high as education (55%) as an issue “extremely important” to them personally. The unemployment rate among Hispanics peaked at 12.3% in 2010, compared with 8.9% among non-Hispanics. The unemployment rate for Hispanics has steadily fallen since then (8.9% in 2013), but remains above pre-recession levels (4.9% in 2006).

While reform conservatives tend not to emphasize the ways in which their prescriptions might appeal to various ethnocultural constituencies, their emphasis on improving the quality and the productivity of K-12 and higher education and on easing the economic burdens associated with child-rearing seem to be tailor-made for Latino voters with children in the home.

Re: Vox-splaining the VA


A few weeks ago, I criticized Vox for doing a poor job of reporting on the Veterans Affairs scandal — not explaining that the issues were clearly systemic and missing the point that the clear problem with the VA, the crucial context, is that it’s very hard to align incentives in a government bureaucracy and avoid a situation where patients’ needs are ignored in favor of bureaucratic interests. I do think their coverage of the scandal remained woeful for a while — which is a big disappointment, since this was a perfect example of a complicated story where people need help understanding the underlying issues and policy details so they don’t have to rely on politicians’ posturing comments — but reporter German Lopez finally has explained that, yes, the problems with the VA are system (as was obvious from the very first investigative reporting on the topic) and they can largely be blamed on bad incentives (as was obvious immediately to anyone with an understanding of public-choice economics). 

How did Vox finally figure this out? Well, the conclusion became inescapable when the department’s audit of itself, a new version of which was released Monday, reached it. Thousands of vets, with victims almost everywhere in the system, are kept waiting for care because the department, rather than responding to their needs, invented ways to game its metrics and make it harder for vets to access or even schedule care.


Are Poor Countries and Rich Countries Exactly Alike? No, They’re Not.


Earlier this week, I wrote a column for Slate making the case for work requirements for able-bodied recipients of cash welfare, and more broadly for making a distinction between those women and men who do what they can, consistent with their skill level and life circumstances, to support themselves and those who do not. My premise, drawing on Amy Wax’s work on “conditional reciprocity,” is that while society ought to do everything it can to help those who are doing what they can close the gap between what they are capable of earning and what they need to maintain a decent standard of living, society’s obligation is not as great for those who choose not to work despite having the ability to do so. I believe in this idea of conditional reciprocity even if it entails devoting more resources to anti-poverty efforts than if we simply disbursed funds to all individuals, regardless of whether or not they work or are seeking work consistent with their abilities. Suffice it to say, my moralistic argument was not universally embraced.

Yet I should note that there is an evidence-based case for what I call “no-strings-attached” money. It happens that this case rests upon outcomes in the world’s most impoverished countries. Dylan Matthews of Vox helpfully brings this evidence to light, yet he also conflates two quite different issues:

As solutions to global poverty go, “just give poor people money” is pretty rock solid. A recent randomized trial found that Kenyans who received no-strings attached cash from the charity GiveDirectly built more assets, bought more goods, were less hungry, and were all-around happier than those who didn’t get cash.

But voters and politicians generally prefer giving people specific goods — like housing, food, or health care — rather than plain old cash, for fear that the cash might get misused by unscrupulous poor people. Maybe the recipients will just blow the cash drinking! This particular concern comes up both in domestic and global poverty conversations; Fox News is obsessed with the possibility of people using federal government benefits like food stamps to buy fancy seafood or hang out at strip clubs, but mainstream global development experts often express these concerns too. As Paul Niehaus, the founder of GiveDirectly, once put it, “It is pretty ironic the number of conversations I have had with development people about the poor and their drinking—over drinks.”

The trouble is that there is a big difference between the conditions that give rise to poverty in a domestic context, where brute survival is not generally at stake, and in a global context, where it is. My argument rested in large part on the legitimacy of the welfare state. Work requirements for the able-bodied poor help ensure that the beneficiaries of public assistance are perceived as deserving. This matters in societies in which a broad base of employed middle-income taxpayers help finance transfers. It matters less in societies in which transfers are largely funded by outsiders, via government-to-government transfers from affluent countries, or through the exploitation of point-source natural resources, like oil and gas. As Nicholas Eubank has observed, historians of state formation in early modern Europe have long seen the rise of the representative state as the result of a compromise between autocratic governments that needs tax revenues to finance military conflict and other endeavors and citizens who were only willing to consent to taxation in exchange for greater responsiveness from the state. The government of Somaliland, a state that is not recognized as sovereign by the international community, is, unlike many extremely poor countries, almost entirely dependent on local tax revenues, and so, according to Eubank, it has had little choice but to develop inclusive, representative, and accountable political institutions.

In weak states that aren’t funded by local tax revenues, the “legitimacy” question doesn’t arise in the same way, particularly when it comes to the disbursement of public assistance. The communities that benefit from direct assistance aren’t divided between those who fund direct assistance, and who work, and those who benefit from it, and who might or might not work. Rather, it is more common that the funds are coming from outside of the community, and virtually everyone “works,” albeit in the informal sector. That said, norms around “conditional reciprocity” do indeed obtain in many poor societies — but these norms operate through the kin-based social networks that the dominant mode of social organization in traditional societies. Modern societies, in contrast, are dominated by non-kin-based social networks, and the most successful states, or rather the states that do the best job of cultivating solidarity among citizens, appear to be, and this is my subjective judgment, those that build in norms of conditional reciprocity into their institutions.

Why Energy Innovation Needs Room to Grow


It’s been gratifying to see lots of people engage with Room to Grow, the new collection of policy essays from the YG Network, where I’m an advisor. Recently, there’s been some discussion of Adam J. White’s chapter on energy policy. A number of critics, including Matt Yglesias of the new liberal news site Vox, have taken White to task for failing to address climate change in his discussion of energy policy. Yglesias writes:

They don’t mount an argument that the scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming is mistaken. They don’t mount an argument that despite the scientific consensus, inaction is nonetheless the right policy. They don’t mention it at all. Not even as something their political opponents wrongly care about.

The thought process that ended with this approach is easy enough to understand. Whether climate change is a massive conspiracy orchestrated by Al Gore, 99 percent of scientists, and a dazzling array of foreign governments or a genuine problem is hotly debated inside the conservative movement. Whether or not fossil-fuel producers should be hampered in their activities by regulatory concern about pollution, by contrast, is not controversial. For smart, up-and-coming conservatives to mention climate change, they would have to pick a side on the controversial issue. Do they sound like rubes by siding with the conspiracy theorists, or do they alienate the rubes by acknowledging the basic facts and the coming up with some other reason to favor inaction?

The optimal choice is not to choose.

This is all very stimulating. But as White points out, he does address climate change, albeit briefly:

My paper highlights the most contentious greenhouse gas issue in the fracking debate: fugitive methane emissions. On that point I discuss the recent study, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, putting the methane debate in context and finding that it does not pose a great risk of exacerbating climate change. And I also quote White House energy and climate adviser John Podesta, who urges that natural gas development is key to the Administration’s goal of “moving toward a clean-energy future.”

White acknowledges, however, that he doesn’t center his discussion on climate change, as his chapter was first and foremost about how energy policy impacts the well-being of middle-income U.S. households. Why might that be the case? It helps to understand that from the beginning, the reform conservative project has rested on the idea that conservative elected officials, particularly at the national level, haven’t been sufficiently responsive to the interests and concerns of their constituents, including their conservative constituents. And so we have called for crafting an agenda that is more responsive, as Ramesh Ponnuru, who played an important part in the Room to Grow effort, explains:

The establishment assumes that the party’s most fundamental problem is its position on immigration and social issues, and the resulting perception that it is intolerant. The reformists believe that the deeper problem is the party’s economic agenda, and the resulting perception that it is indifferent to the interests of most people. And so while some of us want to enact the kind of immigration legislation that has passed the Senate and some of us do not, none of us believe that enactment would go a long way toward fixing what ails the Republican party.

At least some members of the establishment also believe that GOP opposition to cap-and-trade makes Republicans look short-sighted and foolish, and the wince at the criticism that it represents nothing more than crass political opportunism. (A related argument is that conservative skepticism about whether or not anthropogenic climate change is a real phenomenon is damaging to the right, and in this regard, I’m far more sympathetic to the establishment view.) But Republican opposition to cap-and-trade, and support for the vigorous development of domestic hydrocarbon resources, is actually very responsive to the views of the constituents represented by conservative lawmakers. As of last September, for example, 84 percent of self-identified Republicans supported building the Keystone XL pipeline, a proxy for some of the larger issues surrounding energy policy.

Yglesias’s critique reflects a misunderstanding of what Room to Grow is trying to accomplish. There is plenty of room for conservatives to address climate change. Room to Grow, however, seeks to craft a new, more responsive approach to domestic policy, and White’s (correct) assessment is that middle-income voters are primarily concerned with energy prices, and so measures designed to address rising energy prices, via supply-side reforms, were the focus of his chapter.

As it happens, I think there is plenty for conservatives to say about energy policy as it relates to climate change. My new column for Reuters Opinion does just that, and I draw on Jim Manzi’s recent analysis of the EPA’s new power plant regulation proposal. Jim, along with Oren Cass and Samuel Thernstrom of the indispensable Energy Innovation Reform Project, is one of the most articulate conservative proponents of what I call a “technology-first” strategy, and I channel them both in the column. Jim reminds readers that in 2007, he called on conservatives to both embrace the scientific consensus that anthropogenic climate change is a real phenomenon (a view still held by only a minority of GOP voters) and to strongly oppose new carbon taxes in favor of public investment in basic technological research designed to deliver energy breakthroughs that private entrepreneurs could then exploit. And in the years that followed, it is this playbook that has helped decarbonize the U.S. economy:

Suppose I told you that I believed that America could within a decade develop a new green-energy technology that could lead us to have the fastest rate of reduction in CO2 emissions of any major country in the world, and permanently reduce absolute emissions such that we never again emitted what we did in the 2005 baseline year? And further, instead of this requiring us to trade-off emissions reductions against the costs of lower economic growth, that this technology would increase economic growth, and add jobs, because of greater productivity? And it was able to radically reduce our reliance on overseas sources of energy so much that North America could be practically self-sufficient for energy? And it was a proprietary American technology that would provide competitive advantage to our manufacturing industries, and would itself become a significant source of exports?

This sounds like a fairy tale. But in fact, this is precisely what has happened in the seven years since I wrote that article. America has created a technology-driven energy revolution, in a manner that has been orthogonal to the whole policy debate in Washington. It is the classic entrepreneurial response to the question “Do you want A or B?”  Invent C. 

It was not done through some Ayn Randish Private Sector Good, Government Bad morality tale. But the story of how this happened (which I reviewed in National Affairs this spring) should make clear that the role of the government in this area should be very different than what the Obama administration and its allies believe. 

There are many, many issues that Room to Grow doesn’t address, the most important of which, in my view, are housing policy and immigration, areas where there is considerable disagreement among conservatives. Yet Room to Grow is best understood as the start of an ongoing effort to craft policies that are responsive to the interests of low- and middle-income voters and that will help revitalize the American economy. Energy policy is going to be an important part of this effort, and we will have more to say about it.

One of the energy policy ideas I’m most excited about is Robert Zubrin’s call for shifting America’s transportation system from its current reliance on gasoline as a fuel to methanol. William Ahlgren has similarly touted the benefits of a “dual-fuel strategy,” in which methanol would play a crucial role. The “methanol solution,” as Zubrin calls it, offers economic, strategic, and environmental benefits, and it appears to be a good example of the kind of win-win, technology-first strategy we ought to pursue. If methanol is such an attractive fuel, why haven’t entrepreneurs driven a shift from gasoline to methanol? As Zubrin explains, one of the biggest obstacles has been the EPA. Eliminating the regulatory hurdles would in itself do much to fuel a methanol boom. The goal is not to dictate choices regarding energy choices. Rather, it is to invest in basic research and to allow commercially competitive technologies the “room to grow” they need to flourish.

Are Immigrants Really More Likely to Become Silicon Valley Tycoons?


Over at the AEI blog last week, James Pethokoukis extolled immigrant entrepreneurship by referencing the following chart:

But does the chart really demonstrate “the importance of immigration to the U.S. economy,” as Pethokoukis writes? Not exactly.

To start, a more accurate headline for the chart would be “60% of Top 25 Tech Companies Have a 1st or 2nd Generation Co-founder.” Since most of the companies listed have multiple founders, that’s not especially impressive. Facebook, for example, had five co-founders by most accounts, but the chart lists only one (Eduardo Saverin) as an immigrant. There are lots of immigrants and children of immigrants living in the U.S. — we’d expect many to be involved in the tech industry even if their average skill level was no different from the native population’s.

To assess immigrant entrepreneurship, it would be better to know the percentage of all the co-founders in the companies listed above who were first- or second-generation immigrants. After spending some time with Wikipedia, I came up with a rough estimate of 36 percent.** For context, about 25 percent of all adults in the U.S. are first- or second-generation immigrants. So there’s probably a greater likelihood for immigrants and their children to be successful entrepreneurs, but it’s not the vast over-representation implied by the chart.

And even to the extent that brilliant, tech-savvy immigrants and their children are boosting our economy, that is a case for high-skill immigration, not for immigration in general. Unfortunately, it’s common practice for immigration enthusiasts to cite the contributions of high-skill immigrants as justification for the mass immigration of primarily low-skill workers.

Exhibit A: One of the chart’s data sources is a corporate group called “Partnership for a New American Economy.” Its list of principles includes an amnesty for illegal immigrants and easier recruitment of “seasonal” workers. How many of those immigrants will become Silicon Valley entrepreneurs? The chart’s other data source is the National Foundation for American Policy, a think tank that supports amnesty, guest workers, birthright citizenship, and extended-family reunification — all policies that bring substantial numbers of low-skill immigrants, but not many captains of industry.

Immigration of all types carries both benefits and costs, but the policy trade-offs are much different for high-skill workers than for low-skill ones. Confounding the two leads to a less informed discussion.

** Obviously, this twenty-minutes-with-Wikipedia methodology is going to be imprecise, and educated guesses were sometimes employed when a co-founder’s immigration status could not be verified. I did detect some irregularities in the chart — it’s quite a stretch, for example, to call Jeff Bezos a second-generation Cuban. His stepfather was a Cuban immigrant.

Student Debt Reform vs. Higher Education Reform


I very much enjoyed Amir Sufi and Atif Mian’s new book House of Debt, and I’ve been meaning to write about it at greater length. In conversations with friends and colleagues, however, I’ve encountered many objections to their central thesis concerning the central role of household indebtedness to the weakness of the current U.S. economic recovery, which Daniel Akst ably summarizes in his Wall Street Journal review, and to the practicality of some of their forward-looking prescriptions. Yet many of their prescriptions strike me as enormously appealing, including their call for indexing student debt obligations to the state of the labor market, which they’ve discussed in the Washington Post:

Inflexible student-debt contracts place an unfair burden on young Americans. This flaw could be addressed by indexing federal student loans to the unemployment rate new graduates face.

For example, the government might use the average unemployment rate of recent graduates in normal, non-recessionary years — which a variety of estimates suggest is around 6 percent — as a benchmark. In any year when that average is higher, the government could automatically and permanently lower graduating students’ principal balance by, say, 5 percent for every percentage point that the average is above the benchmark. In this example, a student who owed $10,000 upon graduation in 2009 — when the average unemployment rate for recent graduates was 18 percent — would see a reduction in the principal balance of $6,000. A formula like this would ensure that students who graduate into the worst job markets would get the most debt relief.

This kind of contract is better because it shares the risk associated with economic downturns. And because it gives these graduates more buying power, it would address the government’s charge to stabilize the economy.

One virtue of this approach is that unlike debt reforms that peg interest payments contingent to income, like those proposed by the Obama administration, it eliminates the risk that graduates will seek to minimize their interest payments by taking lower-paying jobs. The thornier question is how interest payments would vary. As Sufi and Mian note, the deterioration of the labor market for recent graduates deteriorated dramatically between the fall of 2007 and 2009, with the unemployment rate among the previous spring’s college graduates rising from 8.5 percent to almost 18 percent. It seems reasonable to reduce interest payments for members of the class of 2009. But what if the magnitude of the deterioration in the labor market were smaller, and how might members of the class of 2007 react — particularly if they find themselves unemployed or underemployed?

Ultimately, the best way forward on student loan reform is to improve the productivity and quality of post-secondary education through greater competition and transparency, as Andrew Kelly recommends, to restrain cost growth, and perhaps even to drive cost reductions. Similarly, Kelly suggests that higher education institutions bear some responsibility for student loan defaults. Defenders of the status quo often insist that this will lead higher education institutions to become more selective, thus expanding the ranks of the underserved. Given the costs of pursuing this more selective strategy (the share of students who need remedial education is quite high and those who don’t need it are relatively well-served already), it seems more likely that higher education institutions will be forced to improve their advising, to steer undergraduates away from programs they are unlikely to successfully complete, and which are unlikely to lead to remunerative employment. While Kelly’s playbook doesn’t speak directly to the specific problem Mian and Sufi identify (inflexible debt contracts), it speaks to a larger problem: if graduates are struggling to bear their student debt obligations, they’ve been failed by their higher education institutions, which turned out to be more expensive than they were worth. Rather than “solve” the debt problem by subsidizing student loan debt more generously, we’d do well to solve it by increasing the value of higher education. The appalling lack of transparency around the educational and labor market outcomes for graduates of specific higher education institutions is a big part of the problem.

All of this is to say that while I’m not opposed to Sufi and Mian’s proposal, and while it is certainly superior to recent proposals from President Obama and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, I think we can do better.

Instead of Spending More Federal Money on Roads, Let’s Spend Less


According to Joshua Schank, president and chief executive of the Eno Center for Transportation, the chief barrier to improving the quality of the U.S. transportation system is a lack of federal funding, and so Schank calls for reducing reliance on user fees and instead devoting a larger share of federal revenues to transportation and transportation planning. Though it’s not fair to say that this is the worst idea I’ve ever heard, I do think it’s a pretty bad one, for a variety of reasons.

First, federal transportation funding is already moving away from reliance on user fees to general revenues, as Schank acknowledges. His real concern is that the federal government doesn’t spend enough on infrastructure. But U.S. public investment in infrastructure (averaging 3.3 percent of GDP from 2001 to 2011) is at the higher end of the range for affluent market democracies (from 2 percent to 3.5 percent), and the Federal Highway Administration has found that the quality of U.S. highways has been improving since 2007. This is not to suggest that the quality of the U.S. transportation can’t be improved, or that we surpass other developed countries on that front. Rather, it is not obvious that a substantial increase in federal funding should be our option of first resort.

Second, the U.S. is notorious for overspending on infrastructure. Schank correctly observes that total driving has stagnated and that more than 80 percent of Americans live in metropolitan regions, and he frets that overreliance on the gas tax, a declining revenue source, locks us into an overemphasis on highways at the expense of other transportation modes, which is entirely reasonable. Yet U.S. construction costs, for large-scale road and mass transit projects, are far higher than in developed Europe and Asia, including in countries with stringent labor market and environmental regulations. There is good reason to believe that simply embracing international best practices would greatly reduce the need for increased expenditures.

Fourth, Schank makes reference to the “economically beneficial concept of congestion pricing,” yet he neglects to add that if the U.S. were to embrace congestion pricing in a meaningful way, infrastructure maintenance costs would fall, as the CBO found in 2009. Instead of focusing on the need for more federal funding, Schank ought to instead focus on encouraging the use of value-based pricing throughout the transportation system, as Tyler Duvall and Clifford Winston have argued. Vehicles miled traveled taxes (VMT), for example, can ensure that even as vehicles grow more fuel-efficient, user fees can still capture the extent to which vehicles cause wear-and-tear on roads. Robert Atkinson has proposed requiring heavy trucks to pay a new VMT, which would replace all other taxes paid by trucks.

Fifth, relying on general revenues and not user fees undermines spending discipline. Matthew Kahn and David Levinson have proposed directing existing gas tax revenues to maintaining existing roads and bridges while funding new highway infrastructure through a Federal Highway Bank (FHB), which would offer loans to state governments that propose projects that meet demanding performance criteria and that demonstrate their ability to repay the loan through the use of value-based pricing and new tax revenues deriving from increased land values and economic activity. As an alternative, the U.S. could embrace the strategy outlined by Rohit Aggarwalla, who has called for ending the federal gas tax and greatly reducing the federal role in surface transportation, giving state governments the autonomy they need to pursue the transportation projects best suited to their needs.

Sixth, there are strong precedents for improving transportation quality by depoliticizing the financing of transportation by handing over authority to public road enterprises. In Australia and New Zealand, transportation is managed by publicly regulated, self-financing corporate entities. And according to David Levinson, the result is a higher level of customer satisfaction and productivity-enhancing innovation than we see in the U.S., despite our relatively high level of spending.

Before we leap to spending more money — Schank actually suggests devoting 10 percent of income tax revenue at a time when the population is aging, revenue levels remain depressed, and a new health entitlement has been established — we ought to at least consider proven methods of delivering better infrastructure for less money.

A Response to Michael Hiltzik on Reforming SSI


I recently participated in a vitally important project that produced the YG Network’s new reformocon policy book, Room to Grow. I contributed a chapter on antipoverty policy, in which I made the case for work-promoting reforms to means-tested programs and a voucher-based early childhood program. My not-so-secret agenda is encouraging conservatives to develop a robust upward mobility program. Indeed, all of the reformocons in the book have the not-so-secret agenda of moving conservative policy in a direction that offers more help to the poor and middle class without abandoning conservative principles and while promoting market-leveraging solutions.

But L.A. Times columnist Michael Hiltzik can see right through all that to the “contempt for the underprivileged — especially the disabled” that my co-contributors and I bear. He uses his latest column not only to shine a light on my cruelty, but to expose Robert Stein’s nefarious plan to give middle-class families tax cuts for its real goal: making people have kids to support their retirement, so that senior entitlements can be abolished, or something. Even The New Republic’s Danny Vinik is exposed as “desperate” for thinking the book has “valid” ideas. Oooo . . . kayyyy . . .

Let me take a moment to defend my own contribution against Hiltzik’s unhinged critique, which substitutes righteous indignation for solid evidence. I’ll stick to the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program here and save the rest for another post. SSI serves poor elderly, blind, and disabled children and adults. I argue in my essay that families have increasingly tried to receive SSI benefits for their children rather than the less generous and less open-ended benefits from the main cash assistance program for poor families with kids. States have encouraged these efforts for their own reasons, as I will discuss below. The result is that the beneficial work-promoting reforms to welfare that have been implemented over the last 20 years have failed to help these families. In fact, many of these SSI kids graduate right onto the adult SSI rolls when they become adults, which will hamper their upward mobility as young adults and beyond.

Hiltzik says my claim that “[i]ncreasingly, families seek and obtain disability status for children with comparatively minor (and often dubious) learning disabilities or behavioral problems” in order to receive SSI benefits is a “fact-free assertion retailed by a succession of appallingly lazy new reporters and repeatedly debunked by disability experts.” Well, glad it’s not just me!

He concedes that I actually cite some research, specifically a book by Cornell economist Richard Burkhauser and Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco economist Mary Daly, both of them “disability experts.” The problem, Hiltzik says, is that he “couldn’t find any statement in that study that children on disability characteristically had only ‘minor’ or ‘dubious’ impairments.” A Google Books search confirms that “dubious” does not appear in the book, while “minor” appears once on page 33 in an unrelated context. Of course, those words are mine, not the book’s, which is why there are no quotation marks around them in my essay. But the point I make and attribute to Burkhauser and Daly is theirs in Chapter 6 of the book. I’d encourage Hiltzik to reach out to Burkhauser, who I count as a friend, if he thinks I’m misattributing the point. And I’d encourage him to review the chapter if he wants their empirical case.

Hiltzik says that by themselves, learning disabilities and behavioral problems don’t qualify kids for SSI “as any expert” could have told me. That would be a devastating rebuttal had I argued that they did. In theory, parents of children with these problems have to show “marked and severe” functional limitations and that the condition is likely to persist for at least a year (or to kill them, and of course, there are income and asset requirements). The questions for anyone interested in SSI policy — as opposed to feeling good about one’s pure-heartedness — are these: (1) whether the share of children with learning disabilities and behavioral problems has increased in a way that suggests that children with relatively minor impairments increasingly receive SSI instead of less generous cash assistance, and (2) whether this is a problem for those children.

Here is a chart that took me about 15 minutes to create, using data from the Social Security Administration’s SSI Annual Statistical Report and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services data compiled by the respected nonpartisan group Child Trends:


In 1990 there was one child on SSI for every 25 on Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), the primary welfare program for poor families. By 2010, there was one child on SSI for every 2.7 children on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the post-1996 version of AFDC.

Keep reading this post . . .

What America Can Learn from Japanese Housing Policy


Recently, Stephen Smith highlighted the permissiveness of local land-use regulation in Japan, and particularly in Tokyo, where builders in the city’s 23 innermost wards began construction on almost 110,000 new housing units in 2012. By way of contrast, England, home to 53 million of Britain’s 23 million people, had a mere 115,000 housing starts that same year. The New York metropolitan area, with a population more than twice as high as inner Tokyo, issued a mere 27,000 housing units, and the number of housing starts was smaller still. While the Japanese economy is heavily-regulated in some domains, like retail and agriculture, it takes a laissez-faire approach to urban land use. Smith attributes Japan’s free urban housing markets to the fact that land use is regulated at the national level rather than the local level. “The general rule in land use politics,” according to Smith, “seems to be that the more local the level of decision-making, the less density is allowed.” In the U.S., where zoning is primarily a local responsibility, there is “a deep-seated antipathy toward density” while in Toronto, where urban land use is primarily controlled by the provincial government of Ontario, cities are under pressure to allow more growth in the center of town. One consequence of Tokyo’s bias in favor of building is that while rents in New York city have soared over the last decade, rents in Tokyo have actually fallen, albeit slightly, over the same interval.

Is there any American city that is getting housing right? Houston, a sprawling city that’s been getting denser as development restrictions limiting multi-unit apartment buildings have come crashing down, appears to be getting there.

Quick Thought on Job Destruction and Job Creation


Are we being too pessimistic about the future labor market prospects of human workers in a world in which the pace of automation is accelerating? I tend to think that the answer is yes, provided we allow for the emergence of new business models that give rise to new modes of consumption, which in turn will create new opportunities for human endeavor. This is why, as Brink Lindsey often argues, most recently in an interview with Jim Pethokoukis, deregulation is more important than ever: regulatory accumulation stymies the trial-and-error emergence of new business models, which in turn drives productivity growth as successful new business models spread and older models either adapt to successfully compete or fade away. The classic example of job-creating innovation is the rise of the automobile. Though automobiles displaced a wide array of other transportation technologies, it gave rise to a new universe of economic opportunities as new business models emerged around it. The rise of the smartphone has stimulated new business models and new modes of consumption, and as software eats the world, the pace of small-scale, incremental improvements to the consumer experience has picked up considerably. To some extent, however, software-enabled services are able to improve the consumer experience at a rapid clip because they are spared the friction of having to constantly train and retrain a less- or semi-skilled consumer-facing workforce, hence the anxieties about the future of work.

Farhad Manjoo offered an illuminating discussion of these larger issues in a column on Instacart, a new grocery delivery service that eschews warehouses and fleets of trucks (think of AmazonFresh, FreshDirect, and Peapod) in favor of a peer-to-peer model in which customers hire “personal shoppers” to shop for them at local grocery stores and then deliver the groceries to their home with their own automobiles. Brilliantly, Instacart doesn’t pit itself against existing brick-and-mortar grocery stores. If anything, it is their ally in their efforts to compete with services like AmazonFresh, which aim to displace brick-and-mortar grocery stores by offering lower prices or greater convenience, and which cut their costs by locating their warehouses in relatively low-cost areas, spending less on lighting than grocery stores that aim to create an inviting environment, etc. The Instacart insight is that there is a large market of affluent, price-insensitive customers who are disinclined to wait several hours for their AmazonFresh delivery, and who are happy to pay a substantial mark-up for speed, convenience, and variety. And the fact that Instacart doesn’t have the same upfront start-up costs as AmazonFresh et al. means that it can spread to new markets faster, bringing to mind the concept of “big-bang disruption.” It could be that what we thought was the wave of the future — all groceries will be delivered from huge warehouses on the outskirts of cities — will wind up as just one of many niches in a diverse grocery economy. This in turn has implications for the labor market, as Manjoo writes:

Instacart’s success suggests that rather than simply automate workers out of their jobs, technology might create new labor opportunities for people who haven’t acquired formal credentials or skills in an economy where low- and medium-skilled workers face a bleak outlook. Like the ride-sharing service Uber, Instacart creates work by connecting affluent customers who have more money than time with part-time workers who have the opposite problem — lots of time, not enough money.

To his credit, Manjoo provides a contrary view, and he coaxes a telling observation from Instacart’s 27-year-old founder, Apoorva Mehta:

Lawrence F. Katz, an economist at Harvard who studies technology and labor, offered a few reasons to stifle excessive optimism about Instacart’s model. First, technology may yet one day render Instacart’s shoppers obsolete. Drones could pick our groceries, after all.

Another possibility, he said, is that wages will be bid down as more people compete to become Instacart shoppers. Or, as the company’s software becomes more sophisticated, it could squeeze more efficiency out of workers; they may end up doing more work and not earn any more money for it.

A third problem is the lack of job security and benefits, which were once considered standard features of middle-class jobs. But Mr. Mehta says he doesn’t see that shifting. “The advantage to this model is that you choose your own hours,” he said. More corporate control over work habits “is something that would drive a lot of people away. The independent contractor model — I’m not sure that’s going to change.”

Katz raises the familiar anxiety, which is that the jobs created by innovative technologies will soon fall to the next round of innovative technologies. It is also true, however, that Katz’s scenario implies a world in which the cost of drone technology has plummeted, thus reducing the cost of a wide array of goods and services that now depend on expensive infrastructure and labor. If excessive optimism about Instacart’s model is misplaced, it is misplaced because we’re not being optimistic enough about future advances in drone technology, which have the potential to greatly increase real or effective income even as they depress wages for those who compete with drones. (The deeper concern is that wealth in this world will accrue to the owners of the drones, or the underlying intellectual property embedded within them.)

Mehta, meanwhile, speaks to how workers might adapt to this new environment. Many of Instacart’s personal shoppers are, according to Manjoo, college students and middle-aged mothers looking for flexible work. One wonders if jobs like being a personal shopper for Instacart might work because they are compatible with a lifelong learning, in which people continuously upgrade their skills.

Elsewhere, Matt MacFarland reports that, according to data provided by Uber, the median wage for UberX drivers working at least 40 hours a week in is $90,766 a year in New York city and $74,191 in San Francisco $74,191. The problem, however, is that as MacFarland goes on to observe in the next paragraph, the numbers provided by Uber don’t factor in the costs of owning and operating a vehicle, including fuel costs. Among the UberX drivers I’ve encountered, I’m told of the ways in which Uber’s consumer-friendly practices, including its openness to steady increases in the supply of drivers, have squeezed net income over time, and so my sense is that MacFarland is offering too sanguine a picture, at least with regards to take-home pay. In New York city, UberX has a minimum fare of $12, a base fare of $6, and a charge of $0.75 per minute at speeds of less than 11 miles per hour and $3 per mile at speeds above 11 miles per hour. The vehicles Uber has approved for use for its UberX program tend to be fairly fuel efficient, yet one assumes that drivers are driving quite a lot to earn a substantial amount, and much of this driving is between pick-ups. One of the many reasons some drivers prefer to drive for Uber than for traditional taxi companies is that payment is guaranteed, and so drivers don’t face the risk of being stiffed after traveling to a peripheral locale. Yet this also means that there is an increased risk that you’ll be driving with an empty vehicle for some stretch of time. None of this is to suggest that driving for UberX is a bad deal. Yet if the median wage reported by Uber for its New York city and San Francisco UberX drivers were close to their net income, I suspect that we’d see a much larger and faster exodus of workers from traditional taxi services to UberX.

It has been widely-reported that Uber intends to move to self-driving vehicles as quickly as it can, which tends to reinforce Katz’s point. As Stephen Smith of Next City has observed, however, it will be a long time before self-driving cars can successfully navigate densely-populated cities, as the very fact that they are safe for pedestrians suggests that they will be crippled by routine jaywalking. And just as Instacart demonstrated that AmazonFresh wasn’t the last word in business model innovation in the grocery space, one can imagine new labor-intensive business models emerging as drivers are let go. In his New York Times Magazine article on the use of technology in public spaces, Mark Oppenheimer reported “that people like hanging out in public more than they used to, and those who most like hanging out are people using their phones.” Technology appears to have made public spaces more inviting, which in turn has created new opportunities for vendors, buskers, and others who make money by attracting a crowd.

In the latest issue of City Journal, John McGinnis, a professor at Northwestern Law School, describes how advances in machine intelligence “will create new competition in the legal profession and reduce the incomes of many lawyers.” And his conclusion tentatively suggests that the ultimate result of this development might be “a decline in lawyers’ social influence”:

Since the birth of the modern regulatory state and social democracy, lawyers have had incentives to increase and revise legislative mandates; they became the technocrats of regulation and redistribution. The more a nation intervenes in the free market, the more in compliance costs and transfer payments that lawyers can expect to receive. As a result, lawyers don’t tend to be strong proponents of economic liberty or even of a stable rule of law. Their interest frequently lies in legal complexity and the uncertainty it brings.

The decline of lawyers may therefore prove a boon to the rule of law and to market norms. Computational innovators benefit from capitalism’s process of creative destruction; their new applications transform industry after industry. Their success lies with a stable rule of law and relatively light regulation. True, once successful, innovators become incumbents and may seek to use government to hamstring new entrants. But the dynamism of technological acceleration will make it difficult even for big government to hold back waves of new “disruptions.”

So we come full circle. If, as Brink Lindsey suggests, regulatory accumulation limits our ability to respond creatively to technological change, the wave of creative destruction that is already transforming the legal industry might make us better able to navigate the larger current.


Bill de Blasio’s War on Welfare Reform


Heather Mac Donald reports on how the de Blasio administration is dismantling welfare reform in New York city. Steve Banks, the new head of the Human Resources Administration, has, among other things, eliminated the requirement that able-bodied adults without children look for work in exchange for SNAP benefits, allowed welfare recipients to count college attendance as work for the purposes of meeting federal welfare requirements, and abandoned the city’s efforts to ensure that immigrants don’t become dependent on welfare. While most observers believe that New York city has been one of America’s welfare reform success stories, Banks believes that the city’s enforcement of work requirements has artificially limited the number of welfare recipients, and so he is looking to relax work requirements in various ways. He is also allowing applicants for SNAP benefits to “self-attest” to their housing expenses, thus making it easier for households to defraud the government.

Last month, Robert Doar, Banks’ predecessor as head of New York city’s Human Resources Administration and now a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, shared ten welfare reform lessons drawn from his experience. And it seems that Banks is violating almost all of Doar’s tenets. Among other things, Doar warned that people will always try “to get over”:

“To get over” is a very New York expression meaning to steal – usually from government and usually to obtain benefits that one isn’t entitled to. There’s no better opportunity for it than welfare programs. Turning a blind eye to the potential for fraud and abuse is naïve. An agency like HRA can have the most capable and unimpeachable top leaders, but these welfare programs are huge and involve millions of transactions and thousands of workers and recipients. The opportunities to take a little here and a little there are all over the place. During my seven years at HRA, we had scandals involving child-care centers that had no children, welfare workers who gave themselves food-stamp benefits, nonprofit employment-services providers who billed for phony job placements, and health-care programs that never filled out required paperwork for thousands of clients. I recruited and hired a former federal prosecutor and nationally renowned expert in Medicaid fraud to serve as our agency’s chief integrity officer and gave him wide latitude to improve all of our protections against abuse, and I was still worried.

The vast majority of expenditures in welfare programs are consistent with program rules and not fraudulent. But the overall size of the spending is so great that even a 5 percent error rate is significant. And, more important, taxpayers have a right to expect that spending on programs be managed properly. To be sure that our entire agency was focused on fraud detection, we set an annual goal of more than $600 million in cost avoidance and recoveries from anti-fraud efforts.

Rather interestingly, Banks seems to think that making it easier “to get over” is a noble cause. Whether or not you believe that fraud is pervasive, the perception that fraud is pervasive undermines support for welfare, wage subsidies, and work supports. Moreover, New York city is a diverse jurisdiction, in which the foreign-born share of the population is 37 percent. Not all immigrants, including lawful immigrants, are socialized into believing that local government is “us” rather than “them.” Implicit in Banks’ philosophy is the notion that we create a sense of “us” by, for example, being more generous and permissive. Another view, however, is that for many immigrants, it seems harmless “to get over” when the consequences aren’t clear and visible. If you know that underreporting income will mean that you will secure a benefit for your own family members, why wouldn’t you do it? You wouldn’t do it out of a sense of obligation to abide by the rules. Yet this sense of obligation is created when those who set the policies in question project that they too are serious about enforcing the rules. By making it difficult “to get over,” you are teaching beneficiaries that the local government takes the logic of conditional reciprocity seriously, and you are also teaching taxpayers that their contributions are being taken seriously as well. This focus on enforcement is central to the legitimacy of the welfare system, and it is deeply unwise to undermine it.

With this in mind, Doar explained why Bloomberg’s HRA sought to keep immigrants from becoming “public charges”:

There is one aspect of the immigration process that was intended to discourage welfare use by non-citizens. It is known as the “sponsor recovery” process. Many legal immigrants seeking citizenship are required to submit a form signed by an American citizen who is sponsoring them, and that form clearly states that should the person being sponsored receive welfare benefits, the government agency providing those benefits may recover the cost of assistance from the sponsor. I know of very few welfare agencies that have actually enforced this provision — except New York City’s.

During 2013, we sought to recover expenditures from sponsors of immigrants who had received cash welfare as single adults, a form of welfare that is mostly paid for using city funds. In less than a year, we collected more than $600,000 from sponsors just by asking that they make good on their promise.

According to Mac Donald, the de Blasio administration is literally returning this money to sponsors, as if asking them to take responsibility for sponsoring immigrants who can’t support themselves was a grave injustice.

Under Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, for all their faults, New York city’s government made a real effort to encourage work, even when doing so meant making substantial investments in support services. The de Blasio administration seems determined to reverse this progress, and all New Yorkers will suffer as a result.

The Shrinking Economy


It appears that the economy shrank in the first quarter of 2014. When we measure the size of the economy by tallying up expenditures, i.e., when the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) calculates GDP(E), the usual method, we find that the economy shrank at a 1 percent annual rate. When we measure its size by tallying up all of the income earned by workers, etc., i.e., when the BEA calculates GDP(I), we find that it shrank at a 2.3 percent annual rate. And as Matt Yglesias reminds us, GDP(I) has a better track record when it comes to measuring short-term fluctuations.

There are many reasons as to why the economy fared so poorly, the bitterly cold winter among them. The BEA, per Matt Zeitlin of BuzzFeed, cited “lower exports, a decrease in new inventories of goods made by private companies, a decrease in new nonresidential buildings, and less state and local government spending” as the culprits. Lower exports can be attributed to sluggish growth outside of the U.S., yet it has at least something to do with our dysfunctional corporate tax system, as is the case with depressed business investment that (presumably) contributed to the decrease in new nonresidential buildings. Less state and local spending, meanwhile, reflects the ongoing weakness of local economies, and perhaps, if we’re lucky, a sober assessment of the long-term liabilities facing state and local governments. The federal government is not directly responsible for the overall growth rate of the American economy, regardless of what politicians claim. It does, however, play a large role in creating the conditions for business enterprises to invest and grow. And it’s not doing its job well.

Accusations of Ideological Reasoning For Thee But Not For Me


Linda Greenhouse accuses the conservative Justices of pursuing an ideological agenda. I leave the Supreme Court beat to Ed Whelan and Ramesh Ponnuru, but I’ll briefly share a thought from a smart friend, which he kindly sent over email:

Suppose there’s a universe of judicial candidates who don’t care about politics at all, and just want to pursue their high-minded philosophies on the bench. And suppose that Presidents and Senators are increasingly polarized, with judicial nominations an increasingly important area of political commitment. Would it be any wonder that these polarized Presidents and Senators would end up picking the candidates whose high-minded philosophies produce outcomes they like? So how can we infer that the judges are the ones who are too political, simply because we don’t like the outcomes they produce?”

He also adds that if you really want to accuse to the conservative Justices of being “political,” the more plausible claim would be that they have been insufficiently extreme in applying their originalism, as they are allowing their political preference for the status quo trump their ideological convictions. There is more to say about Greenhouse’s op-ed, but I will leave that to my better-informed colleagues.

New AEI Paper: Almost Every State Pays Its Employees More than the Private Sector Does


Are state workers overpaid or underpaid? Andrew Biggs and I have been asked that question a lot in the years since we started analyzing public-sector compensation. But the truth is that there is no single answer to the question. States vary enormously in how they pay their workers, so giving aggregate estimates hides more information than it reveals. That’s why Andrew and I just released a new American Enterprise Institute working paper that measures the generosity of public-sector compensation in each of the 50 states.

The chart below compares the combined wages and benefits of state (not local) employees with comparable private-sector workers. The most generous state is Connecticut, which pays its public employees 42 percent more than private-sector workers who have similar skills. The stingiest state is Virginia, where public employees are paid 6 percent less.

An obvious take-away from the chart is that most states do pay a compensation premium to their workers, although only a minority have what we classify as a “large” (11 percent to 20 percent premium) or “very large” (20+ percent) premium. The premiums tend to be highest in northeastern states such as Connecticut, New York, and Pennsylvania, as well as in public-sector-union strongholds such as California and Illinois. States paying a tiny premium or penalty tend to be clustered in the South and Midwest, though there are several individual exceptions. Perhaps not surprisingly, the states where public-sector compensation became a major political issue — Ohio, Wisconsin, California, Rhode Island, etc. — pay some of the highest premiums.

There’s much, much more in the working paper for those who are interested in the details. The paper is 87 pages long, and the appendix is probably the most comprehensive discussion of technical and corollary issues ever put together on this topic.

One of these related issues is the need for “compensating differentials” in jobs that are especially stressful or demanding. A coal miner, for example, commands a higher salary than a similarly educated worker with a desk job. But the compensation differences in the chart above are based strictly on wages and benefits for workers with comparable skills. Could there be systematic differences in work conditions between the public and private sectors that affect the comparison? More specifically, could state government jobs be more unpleasant in some way that justifies the generally greater compensation they offer?

The short answer is no. The single most important difference in public and private job characteristics is job security. We found that, after controlling for skills, government employees had greater job security than their private-sector counterparts in every state. There is no state in the union where employment with the government does not confer extra protection from being fired or laid off. That protection has a value, and we attempted to quantify it in one section of the paper.

What about other work conditions? We could not detect any major differences. The chart below displays results from a survey conducted by the International Social Survey Program (ISSP). Reponses are expressed on a one-to-five scale, with five designating strong agreement with the statement:

U.S. public employees are more likely to state that their jobs are secure, interesting, helpful to other people and to society, not physically arduous, and skill-building. However, public employees also say that their jobs offer fewer opportunities to work independently and involve greater stress. There is no statistical difference between sectors in the reported danger of jobs.

Together with other evidence we discuss in the paper, the ISSP data indicate that we should not expect work conditions other than job security to play a major role, positive or negative, in setting pay for government employees. We hope this is the kind of evidence that will be useful to state policymakers as they consider how to set compensation for public employees. 

Room to Grow Is About Creating Room to Grow: A Reply to William Galston


William Galston has written one of the better, more thoughtful replies to Room to Grow, the new collection from the YG Network, and he views the larger conservative reform project sympathetically, having been “a member of the gang of insurgents who prepared the way for Bill Clinton’s presidency.” Yet Galston concludes that Room to Grow doesn’t go far enough in challenging conservative orthodoxy. (In a similar vein, E.J. Dionne, writing for Democracy Journal, essentially argues that reform conservatives ought to embrace the power of prescriptive, centralizing, technocratic administration, and that reform conservatives are unserious to the extent that they do not embrace liberal assumptions regarding income and wealth inequality.) Galston sees a symmetry between the orthodox liberalism he and other Democratic centrists confronted in the 1970s and 1980s, and which he argued against in favor of a more market-oriented, but still fundamentally technocratic and broadly egalitarian, politics.

Reform conservatives, in contrast, don’t see conservative orthodoxy in the same unfavorable light. The problem is not that conservatives are wrong about the economic damage that can be done by excessively high marginal tax rates or burdensome regulation. Rather, it is that conservatives have tended to neglect new issues that have arisen as our economy has struggled to adapt to technological progress and a globalized division of labor, and as family patterns have changed in response to growing gaps in labor market and educational outcomes between women and men, particularly among those raised in the bottom half of the household income distribution. We’ve been sticking to the same intellectual turf, leaving other domains largely untouched. The major ideological coalitions can either contest a given policy domain or they can concede it, leaving one of the ideological coalitions to take ownership. Conservatives have tended to gravitate to “hard” policy areas, like taxes and regulation and defense and national security policy, while neglecting “soft” policy areas, like the governance of community colleges or teacher compensation of long-term care. Yet as Arnold Kling and Nick Schulz have argued, health and education are “the new commanding heights.” These domains are absolutely central to the workings of the affluent market economies, and ceding the argument about how the health and education sectp should work is to cede the domains that matter most. This is the reason why the Room to Grow chapters by James Capretta on expanding access to affordable coverage, Rick Hess on expanding educational choices and raising school quality, and Andrew Kelly on providing all students with high-quality post-secondary educational options, have drawn so much attention in conservative circles. These are areas that conservative policymakers have tended to neglect, and these chapters offer an attractive roadmap.

To some extent, I think that Galston simply misunderstands what Room to Grow is trying to accomplish. It does not represent a comprehensive diagnosis of the challenges facing low- and middle-income U.S. households or of the sources of our labor market challenges. According to Galston, James Pethokoukis’s arguments concerning the declining “competitive intensity” of the American private sector fail to explain why “today’s innovations produce a small number of high-skill jobs in the headquarters of U.S. firms, millions of assembly jobs overseas and very little in between for the American middle class.” And it’s true that Pethokoukis didn’t center his analysis on this point. He did, however, draw on and cite the work of Clayton Christensen, who has explicitly argued that declining business formation accounts for much of the decline in job creation as it has limited the rise of new “empowering innovations,” which create new consumption and give rise to new economic ecosystems. He also cites Ashwin Parameswaran, who has offered a compelling theory of how declining competitive intensity, a product of excessive cronyist regulation and a broken financial system, contributes to technological unemployment. While Pethokoukis leaves the diagnosis to Christensen and Parameswaran, he calls for a new approach to regulation and intellectual property and a revamped financial system designed to facilitate the rise of new business models. That is, Pethokoukis doesn’t offer a chapter-and-verse guide to the job-creating innovations we need. He offers thoughts on how lawmakers can create “room to grow” by reforming a dysfunctional regulatory landscape that limits it.

One thing that is missing in Room to Grow is a clear statement on the importance of its title. We’ve all heard politicians reference “growing the economy,” or “growing the pie.” But this is the wrong metaphor. As Keith Hennessey has argued, the pie metaphor brings to mind a central decision-maker that determines the size of the pie and even growth that can be sliced up in zero-sum fashion. A flower garden, in contrast, contains many different flowers with different individual characteristics and different needs. The responsibility of the gardener is to ensure that all flowers are well-watered, that pests are contained, and that some flowers aren’t growing at the expense of others, but not to guarantee that all flowers, regardless of individual characteristics, grow at the same rate. Drawing on the flower garden metaphor, Hennessey writes:

The principal economic challenges are to maximize the growth potential of the entire economy/garden and to maximize the opportunities for those individuals/flowers struggling to succeed/grow. And just as a gardener should spend more time tending to the parts of his garden that are struggling, policymakers should devote greater effort to maximizing opportunities for those at the bottom of the income distribution to improve their lot. In the long run this means things like improving elementary and secondary education, expanding free trade, and reducing the growth burden of regulations, government spending, and debt. In the short run it means getting the incentives right so that those on means-tested government assistance don’t face exorbitant marginal effective tax rates from poorly designed income phase-outs.

The reform conservative thesis is not that federal government isn’t solving the economic problems facing the middle class, as Galston might put it, because conservatives don’t believe that the federal government can solve the problems facing the middle class. Rather, reform conservatives believe that government is failing to give the institutions between individuals and the federal government the room they need to grow, to flourish, and to solve problems as they arise. The economic problems facing the middle class in 2014 are different from those the middle class faced in 1984, yet they are also different from the problems the middle class faced five years ago and the problems the middle class will face in five years. If we left it to federal lawmakers to solve these changing and evolving problems, many of which are problems created by affluence and past success, our society would be crippled. We need to cultivate the problem-solving capacities of all of these institutions, and we need to facilitate the rise of new institutional forms, including new private enterprises offering innovative business models, new schools offering new instructional models, and new medical providers that can better meet the needs of a diverse population. Yuval Levin’s essay on the conservative governing vision lays this idea out very clearly, and it is the idea that liberal critics have the hardest time grasping. The “solutions” are not going to be created by people like the wonks who’ve contributed chapters to Room to Grow. They’re going to be created at the ground-level, in tune with the needs of living, breathing, changing communities. In Rick Hess’s chapter, he quotes Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander:

Senator Alexander, a former U.S. Secretary of Education, has observed that “Washington can’t create good jobs, and Washington can’t create good schools. What Washington can do, though, is shape an environment in which businesses and entrepreneurs can create jobs. It can do the same thing in education, by creating an environment in which teachers, parents, and communities can build better schools.”

That is, Washington can help create room to grow. Suffice it to say, if you believe that the family and religious and civic organizations are oppressive institutions, that business model innovation is more of a threat than an opportunity, that state and local governments are incorrigibly racist, and that only the power of the federal government can save us from ourselves, you won’t find this vision attractive. But reform conservatives, like all conservatives, have faith in these intermediate institutions, and they believe that freeing and empowering them, and allowing for the creation of new institutions to address to new problems, is far better than mandating centralized solutions informed by a top-down view.

The Detroit Demolition Report Needs to Be Demolished


Bulldozed by 1950s/1960s urban-renewal nostalgia, the Detroit Blight Removal Task Force’s demolition report proposes spending $850 million to demolish more than 40,000 dilapidated buildings and, later on, another billion dollars to demolish abandoned factories. The planners, having failed with the Great Society’s utopian Detroit Model Cities program a half-century ago, seek a Sheldon Silver–style scraped landscape, a grim urban-renewal variation on Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village.

The plan is all about spending money without making choices. Its map (click to enlarge above), outlines in black the areas targeted as highest priority for blight intervention — but these are nowhere near the areas that are hanging on or coming back. Despite the city’s many troubles, the vibrant Woodward Avenue corridor (subject of a New York Times 36 Hours travel piece) has a concentration of great early-20th-century architecture and amenities, including the Detroit Institute of Arts (better known as a pawn in the city’s bankruptcy than for its first-rate collections), nationally respected Wayne State University, and sports stadiums. Dan Gilbert has moved his Quicken Loans company downtown and is investing heavily in the corridor.

The Woodward Avenue corridor and downtown are shown in gray on the map, as are the attractive neighborhoods running south of East Jefferson Avenue to the Detroit River, and some neighborhoods along Eight Mile Road of Eminem fame, which is the city’s northern border adjoining prosperous Oakland County. Removing blight on either side of the Woodward Avenue corridor, in the neighborhoods surrounding Wayne State, and east of the Chrysler Freeway (I-75) off Eight Mile Road would cut land-assemblage costs adjacent to places where people want to be right now, encouraging private investment. This would also permit housing construction for people trapped in the prairies off East Jefferson, allowing them to relocate closer to shopping and jobs.

The Detroit Blight Removal Task Force is having none of it. The Task Force itself is a form of urban blight, and needs to be demolished.

The Missing Case Against Reparations


I must admit that when I picked up Ta-Nehisi Coates’s piece on reparations, I expected to read a defense of reparations. Reparations, for the uninitiated, are payments made to compensate black Americans for slavery and related crimes. West Germany paid some form of reparations to Jewish victims of the Holocaust, and Coates wants America to implement something similar today.

Yet Coates scarcely reaches the question of reparations in his long, emotionally harrowing essay. His piece is less an affirmative case for a single policy than it is a survey of American racism. There’s talk of slavery and Jim Crow, of semi-recent policies that forced people into ghettos, and of very recent predatory lending practices. There’s no talk, however, of what to do now, how reparations would help, or why we ought to focus on settling an old score instead of charting a new course. Read his essay, and your heart will certainly break for the victims of our nation’s greatest sins. But it must be said: breaking hearts is far easier than healing them.

Part of the problem is that Coates cherry-picks data to score emotional points instead of carefully building an argument for reparations. Take his discussion of the importance of slave labor to the American economy. Here, Coates emphasizes that our national wealth was built on the backs of slaves: Cotton was the nation’s biggest export, he writes, and slaves—worth more than $3 billion—were the wealthy’s most valuable capital good. Coates’s numbers aren’t exactly wrong (though the $3 billion figure is certainly controversial), but their selective use obscures the very complicated role of slavery in the American economy. Yes, cotton was America’s primary export before the Civil War, but America wasn’t an export-driven economy in the mid-nineteenth century—it was an industrialization-driven economy. Last year, “automotive vehicles, parts, and engines” was the largest category of American exports, yet I’m sure this hardly consoles the good people of Detroit. Now, as in 1850, America’s largest export says little about the industries that drive its economy. This is why macroeconomists focus so much on GDP: it’s actually useful.

The truth is considerably more complicated than Coates is willing to acknowledge. He makes no mention of the 75 percent of the southern white population that didn’t own slaves, their wages so depressed by slave labor that they lived in arguably the most unequal society in world history—with slave owners earning a median of $23,000 per year while other whites fetched about $1,500. Nor does he cite the North’s two-to-one advantage in per capita income, evidence of its superiority in every economic pursuit that didn’t require enslaved workers. There’s no mention of the literature showing that slave labor sustained the Southern economy but also retarded it. How can we decide whether reparations are due, or which portion of American society should pay them, without untangling this economic story?

Yet there’s a bigger problem here than selective use of data: Coates’s economic point, even if rock-solid, doesn’t actually advance his thesis. If reparations must be paid, the imperative to do so changes little if slaves contributed a little less (or more) to GDP. Coates’s one-sided foray into economic history accomplishes nothing save, perhaps, inducing an emotional response: slavery was even worse than the reader thought.

His last paragraph makes the same move. After considering the victims of predatory lending (people who, by the way, later won a lawsuit), Coates notes that of all the recently vacant houses in Baltimore, 71 percent are in majority-black neighborhoods. The implication here is that banks unfairly targeted black people for foreclosure. Baltimore is 63 percent black, though. So this is largely demographics, not racism, at work. Coates again scores an emotional point. But if his goal is to show America owes reparations, then barely disproportionate vacancy statistics and a successful multimillion-dollar lawsuit by black homeowners don’t support his argument.

The great tragedy here is that Coates has no apparent interest in discussing what black America needs most—a next step. Coates passes on the difficult practical questions: “But if the practicalities, not the justice, of reparations are the true sticking point, there has for some time been the beginnings of a solution.” Pushing reparations without considering logistics is a bit like pushing space flight without considering engineering, but even if you allow Coates this evasion on the specifics, he leaves you grasping: what might actually help people?

When the piece does venture in this direction, the analysis falters. Coates considers the possibility that culture might play some role only to dismiss it out of hand: “[this] thread is as old as black politics itself. It is also wrong.” Never mind that Nigerian-Americans consistently outperform both non-immigrant blacks and whites on a host of measures; racism is the only thing that matters. Then Coates assails “the myth … that fatherhood is the great antidote to all that ails black people.” Few think that fatherhood is a panacea, but the objective evidence tells us that it certainly helps. Instead of engaging this evidence, Coates retreats to more anecdotes.

His essay, of course, still has value as a reminder of the lingering effects of discrimination. For instance, given what we know about concentrated poverty—that it breeds hopelessness and isolation—the existence of state-sanctioned ghettos should inspire new ways of thinking about integrating America’s inner-cities. Perhaps we could limit the number of Section 8 vouchers awarded for a given geographic region to ensure that the urban poor don’t cluster, or perhaps we should think even more seriously about the relocation voucher, a brainchild of Michael Strain. And since we’re living in a world where fatherhood does matter, perhaps it’s time for conservatives to get serious about the fact that black fathers are more likely than white ones to be ripped from their families for marijuana possession.

I don’t think I’d call these measures reparations. They’re just good ideas—ideas that might promote the equal opportunity that forms the bedrock of our social contract. I could go for a lot more of those ideas. Maybe the next essay I read about reparations will have them.


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