On ‘Free’ Community Colleges

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Over on Facebook, my friends and I have had an interesting discussion on the elusive details of the President’s budget/SOTU proposal for ‘free’ community college education.

Because of a New Year’s resolution a few years ago, I rarely delve into long, drawn-out debates on Facebook. It’s usually not worth your time. But I made an exception here, in part because of the thoughtful insights from my friends (and a friend/former teacher!) and partly because I wanted to weigh in further.

Here’s my (lightly edited) rant:

Edward and Shawn, I agree with points you both make. The cost of ignorance is high and not everyone has the opportunity to attend a Jesuit school with great science teachers like Mr. Nolan. (Though the Jesuits are trying as hard as they can with the Cristo Rey model, which is phenomenal.)
 
I love community colleges. My grandfather was a professor at one, and my mother attended there before going to tOSU. I’m just opposed because I don’t think this level of involvement by the government is appropriate. It’s my libertarian side coming out.
 
Realistically, this has ~0% chance of passing Congress. The “Pay Go” rules don’t help because anyone who proposes it on the Democratic side will “pay for it” with a tax increase and not a cut, which is how the game is played in Congress these days.
 
If Obama / Congressional Democrats wanted to be clever, here’s how they’d structure it:
 
1.) You apply for this program and by doing so, you agree to forfeit your Pell Grants entirely.
 
2.) Under Pell Grants, you get up to 12 semesters (six years) worth of grants, which, under maximum level at max time before exhaustion represents a little under $35,000. Of course, not everyone qualifies for Pell Grants, or gets the full amount. But you could argue savings by doing this.
 
3.) Cynically, if you wanted to obtain a 4-year degree, then you’d likely go to the student loan market (effectively nationalized since 2010!) where the government could make the money back. (Though, they’ve already used the “profits” from that to defray the cost of Obamacare and it would be hard to count that twice.)
 
A friend of mine, an analyst type, observed that this would be among the cheaper proposals Obama has proposed, even though the costs would be in the tens of billions, according to some estimates.
 
Two states (and others I am sure) have tried “free college programs.” Their examples are instructive. (I still am weary about government involvement in this, but at the state level it is at least appropriate from a federalism perspective.)
 
Arizona, when I worked for Senator Kyl, had something called an AIMS scholarship. If you met certain requirements under their AIMS program — you got a full tuition waiver at in-state schools, provided you were accepted. Of course, the test was not terribly hard and lots of people qualified. Now, it covers 25%, and is renewable — subject to college-specific requirements — over the remaining three years.
 
It was poorly planned. And it was done by Republicans!
 
Tennessee has the “Tennessee Promise” program, a brainchild of their Republican governor, gives free community and technical college tuition (for 2 years) to high school graduates in the state. The program is funded by the lottery. The program, which I also think was poorly implemented as such measures often are, has seen 58k applicants. Double what they expected. They’re learning Freidman’s adage of “no such thing as a free lunch” despite being well-intentioned.
 
Details on Obama’s plan are still forthcoming, but right now we know you have to have a C+ average, these CC’s have to agree to certain stipulations about their programs and credit transferability, and some vague notions of “student outcomes.” The feds expect states to pick up 25% of the cost.
 
While I agree with Mr. Nolan about college/knowledge having an effect on real-world life outcomes, Shawn’s point about high school and those outcomes is also worth delving into. To paint with my partisan broad brush, Democrats only seem to be interested in spending more money, not reforming public education in meaningful ways. (Thanks, teachers’ unions!)
 
So, rather than improve the K-12 system, I think there is room to criticize this proposal as keeping the bad and just inflating the bar.
 
White House director Cecilia Muñoz told Politico that “Obama aims to make college ‘the norm in the same way high school is the norm now.'”
 
Depending on your partisan lens, this statement will be interpreted differently. I see this as what I alluded to earlier — education inflation rather than education reform.
 
Granted, we’re all wasting our time in a thought exercise because this has about the same chance of happening as anything in President Obama’s budgets. Budgets these days are a thought exercise in “how I’d like things to be, but obviously won’t be.”
 
This started the last two years of the Bush presidency, when Congress was controlled by Democrats. They became “Hope Documents” or “Wish Lists.” Even after Obama was elected, his budgets were never taken seriously by Congress because Congress was not serious about budgeting.
 
They quickly abandoned regular order and the normal appropriations process in favor of continuing resolutions and omnibus packages. A power grab by the leadership, disenfranchising moderate and oddball Democrats and castrating Republicans in the minority.
 
Presidential budgets have always been blueprints. Congress is under no obligation to consider them, but Presidents are still obligated by the law to churn them out. It used to make sense, but now it’s sort of a pointless partisan exercise.
 
Boehner tried to restore regular order when I went from the Senate to the House as a staffer. In that, he failed. McConnell has signaled he wants to try his hand at that, too.
 
I wish them luck and hope it succeeds, but I’m not optimistic.
Prospects for reforming K-12 education are equally dire, but then again, while I agree with conservatives on their reforms, I’m of the view that the federal government shouldn’t be involved in the first place on education, a position many conservatives share. Hard to argue that when you’re voting to essentially maintain some semblance of federal control over it, even if it is diminished.

 

GoPro for Journalists

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Last night, I went to the Charlie Hebdo vigil at the Newseum. I figured just by going I’d find something to write about.

I figured, this being America, somebody or some group would try and make the vigil something it wasn’t supposed to be. I was right.

On that frigid and windy Washington evening, I found that my trusty Olympus reporter’s recorder — powered by two AAA batteries that usually lasts for months — was out of juice. Other members of the press who weren’t with TV stations used their phones or recorders, which is fine. But I had my GoPro with me, and it was fully charged. (I wasn’t using the waterproof backing.)

I turned it on and held it in my hand, pointing it at whatever I wanted it to record. Even with the casing, I got good, transcribable audio and stills to use for my story.

With all of the CES coverage, I remembered that I was fascinated by the Polaroid Cube. It seems like a good product, but I already have a GoPro.

So, if you’re a member of the press — remember to keep a charged GoPro or Cube in your arsenal — it could be a life saver. Especially when (for D.C.) it’s cold as hell.

EconPop – The Economics of It’s A Wonderful Life

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It’s that time of year — time for Andrew Heaton to peel back the onion on the economics of one of my wife’s favorite films.

Things I’ve Learned About Having a Dog

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I’m three weeks in as a puppy owner. Here’s some of what I’ve learned to date.

People often say that getting a puppy is a gateway to having children. Perhaps it’s a gateway to children if you a masochist. One trip to PetSmart is not as horrifying as a trip to Babies “R” Us, but it is close.

The amount of bric-a-brac made for pets today is staggering, hilarious, and sort of depressing. I get that people love their dogs, but these type of stores cater to the casual dog owner and absolute weirdos.

The first order of business after getting your dog is to set up the collar, complete with custom bone-shaped name tag. Pet stores offer training classes, and the trainer on duty will corner you while the little engraving machine etches in the details. It’s a trap. If you don’t like being pressure-sold goods and services, order yours online.

Be sure to have enough bags for poop. You’d think your stash of grocery bags saved over the course of the month will be enough for a while, but you’d be wrong. It’ll be tapped dry within days.

The biodegradable (save the earth! free tibet!) bags sold at pet stores are kind of expensive. 100 for $5? Forget that noise. Do what I did and go to CostCo or the Restaurant Depot and get take-out bags. I got 1,000 for about $12 — about a fifth of the cost.

Likewise, in our efforts to save the earth, incandescent flashlights are now going out of style. We’re stuck with the new, supposedly improved LED flashlights that — like new car headlights — will blind you (or the dog) temporarily with the harnessed power of the sun when they make direct contact with your eyes. I’ve resorted to using a poop bag as a lantern of sorts, holding the flashlight in the bag (sans poop) as we walk around to mute its blinding glow.

Kongs are good for about a 10 minute distraction with puppies. Yes, they make puppy-sized Kongs, but their little mouths aren’t powerful enough to squeeze treats out of the toy. If they can’t get it out within a few minutes, they’ll lose interest — unlike destroying carpet. What do the carpet manufacturers know that dog toy makers do not?

In an effort to post fewer pictures of Gus on social media, lest I be a hypocrite for complaining about baby/engagement/wedding photos — I’ve set up a page here where you can see Gus if you’re not in D.C. and don’t want to volunteer to be a dog watcher.

Meet Gus

Meet our new Westie pup, Gus. He’ll be part of the family for the next 12-15 years, so get ready for our little handful!

Gus is short for “Angus.”

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The Debate on Police-Worn Body Cameras

Pay To Recline, Pay to Be Recline-Free

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In the latest round of First World Problems that receive way too much attention from the chattering classes, there’s the debate over the knee defender device and reclining in seats on airplanes. Naturally, given my penchant for devouring an amount of media and social media well above the average, I’ve seen people I know weigh in on the topic on both sides.

My colleague Mark Hemingway even was called out in the New York Times for his view that recliners are monsters. (To be fair, I, while tall, am not as tall as Mark is. And we all know where most tall people stand in this debate.)

I almost exclusively fly Southwest Airlines for obvious reasons — it’s the best airline in the world and anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong. Southwest is not nearly as guilty as its counterparts, both budget and mega carriers, who charge customers for what used to be randomly-assigned or luck-of-the-draw benefits. Like aisle seats, party row seats (remember those?), emergency exit row seats, and snacks. Some, like Spirit Airlines, charge you more to bring a carry on item, since it increases departure times and reduces time-in-air.

I don’t like flying United, not because I don’t respect their efficient ways of making profit from things (I do), but because I just enjoy Southwest airlines that much more. And their wifi always works for me. And I don’t get charged for wifi that doesn’t work. When flying United alone — my wife is #TeamUnited — I will opt to pay for a bigger seat. Because I am tall and I have what parents describe as “ants in my pants.”

I need room. And, I’m willing to pay to get that room.

Some find this concept abhorrent. (Usually they’re net neutrality proponent types whose sense of neutrality and “fairness” disappears when talking about bike lanes, bus rapid transit lanes, or car pool lanes.)

When it comes to short domestic flights, I’ll admit reclining is annoying. But it’s an annoyance I can deal with. On long-haul flights, pretty much everyone reclines and it’s not a problem.

We get it, you're not as tall as BuzzFeed's John Stanton.

We get it, you’re not as tall as BuzzFeed’s John Stanton.

Barro’s NYT piece opens with a nice discussion of economics, but he loses me at property rights. I don’t think a plane ticket is a guarantee of property rights, since the airline can pretty much move you around without your consent. (And, let’s not forget loud children, people who violate your space, and the “talkers.”) A ticket is sort of a guarantee to get from one place to another, except when it isn’t.

As such, I don’t agree with his contention that you should pay each other directly for reclining or not reclining. Or when he turns it into a war on tall people.

If this is such a problem that has requires a national debate (hint: it isn’t!) I have a solution that both sides will probably hate, which is why I’m inclined to think it’s a good one.

Here it is, in its simplicity: If you don’t care, you get a discount/pay normal price. If you do care, you pay.

Hot Pockets, US International Tax Law, and Corporate Inversions

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Here’s a recent appearance on One America News Network where I discuss the global economy, corporate inversions, and everyone’s favorite treat: Hot Pockets.

This Guy Isn’t Homeless, He’s Running for Governor

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I came across this video of California gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari living in Fresno, California on the streets for a week, trying to find work. I’ll admit I was skeptical that the 10-minute video would be compelling campaign advertising. I was wrong.

Kashkari has come from pretty much nowhere in the polls to be the Republican nominee in the California governor’s race. Just like he sort of came from nowhere to be Assistant Secretary of the Treasury under Presidents Bush and Obama, specifically charged with overseeing the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP. Not a popular job. Of course, to the far left he is a boogeyman because he worked at Goldman Sachs. To the far right, he’s a boogeyman because he helped administer, well, bailouts.

Elijah Cummings, an embattled Democratic congressman from Baltimore, asked at an oversight hearing whether or not he was a “chump:”

“Mr. Kashkari, in the neighborhood I grew up in, in the inner city of Baltimore, one of the things that you tried to do was make sure that you were not considered a chump … What really bothers me is all these other people who are lined up. They say, well, is Kashkari a chump?”

Kashkari apparently did not take that flogging very well.

Kashkari heads to a Home Depot to find work.

Kashkari heads to a Home Depot to find work.

Kashkari’s background, which I had not researched, surprised me a bit.

He’s from Akron, Ohio. He’s a Cleveland Browns fan with, according to the Plain Dealer, dogs named “Winslow and Newsome.” He went to Western Reserve Academy — a nice private school, but didn’t go to a top-tier college. He attended the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign to study engineering. (He got an undergrad degree and a master’s.)

It was only after he attended Wharton for his MBA that he went into finance, and followed Hank Paulson to the Treasury department.

Former Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi wrote a column about him with the headline: Bailout Architect Runs For California Governor; World Laughs. He joked “It seems Jerry Brown has become his own personal Dolph Lundgren.”

In the piece, he noted that Kashkari isolated himself in the woods after the flogging from Cummings, et. al., where he built a shed, chopped wood to lose weight, and helped with Hank Paulson’s book.

Taibbi concluded: “Anyway, having this guy run for public office is like a gift from the blogging gods. How funny will this get? Will this one go to 11? I’m taking the over.”

One nice campaign video does not a winning campaign make. (Kashkari has a few nice videos…) Then again, most politicians prefer to post pictures on Twitter showing “look, I’m eating Ramen Noodles in my well appointed Washington house” rather than go and live on the streets for a week.

I don’t know if a 10 minute YouTube video on poverty will convince Democrats dissatisfied with Gov. Brown to consider Kashkari as a recipient of their vote, but one thing’s for sure — Kashkari’s trip into the woods may be funny joke fodder for Matt Taibbi, but Neel Kashkari isn’t going to be anybody’s chump this go-around.

Watch the video here:

Update: Kashkari’s campaign is hurting for cash, nearly broke.

EconPop — The Economics of the Lego Movie

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As usual, Heaton delivers describing the movie my Lego doppelgänger is the star of: