The Corner

Elections

Hickenlooper Makes His Case, Poorly

Former governor John Hickenlooper (D, Colo.) at a news conference in his office at the capitol in Denver, December 19, 2013. (Rick Wilking/Reuters)

“The curious task of economics,” as F. A. Hayek famous put it, “is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”

John Hickenlooper, justifying his presidential campaign in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, is deep in the fatal conceit, writing: “To save capitalism, the government has to adjust it, as it has countless times in this nation’s history — from Teddy Roosevelt and the muckrakers to Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal.”

Hickenlooper is an expensively educated man (the Haverford School, undergraduate and graduate degrees from Wesleyan) but he seems to lack curiosity. Apparently, he has not asked himself how those earlier government efforts to “adjust capitalism” worked out. Many economists believe that the policies of the Roosevelt administration worsened the Great Depression rather than mitigating its effects; Social Security may be one of the federal government’s most popular programs, but it also is a major driver of long-term debt. Hickenlooper rightly laments the low savings rates among non-wealthy Americans, but he is either unwilling or unable to consider the dual role programs such as Social Security may play in discouraging savings by diverting more than 15 percent of a worker’s wages into a government pension scheme and medical entitlements. And he might do himself a favor and have a look at the cost and deficit projections used to sell those programs and see how that worked out.

He goes on to write that in order to help workers to earn more, government must

make obtaining necessary skills affordable. For too many Americans, getting the training they need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps is cost-prohibitive. More than 65% of Americans over 25 don’t have four-year degrees, and a high-school diploma is no longer enough. As president, I would make community college free for those who can’t afford it and expand apprenticeships and skills training programs dramatically.

Again, the incuriosity. Why is a high-school degree no longer sufficient — not only as work-force preparation but also, in many cases, as college preparation? We spend much, much more on education today (in real dollars per student) than we did in the past, but our results are in many ways inferior. Has Hickenlooper considered that the centralizing, state-dominated approach to K-12 education may have some unintended consequences — as may applying something more like that model to community colleges and other institutions of higher education? Wouldn’t it make more sense to reform K-12 rather than focus on college, which, as he notes, excludes two thirds of the rising work force?

Which government agency does he actually trust to choose which skills need to be developed and which apprenticeship programs are likely to prove effective? The Labor Department? The Department of Education? What, if anything, does the broad failure of government attempts at the same thing in the past — he is, after all, repeating a promise that has been made for decades — tell us about the likely failure or success of such programs in the future?

Hickenlooper apparently means to put himself in the “moderate” lane to the extent that doing so is comparable with creating trillions of dollars in new taxes and benefits. I would not bet very much on the efficacy of that strategy, especially for a candidate who checks all the wrong demographic boxes for the 2020 Democratic primary.

The Democrats are very much in need of a responsible, thoughtful, and sane candidate, and one out of three isn’t going to cut it.

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