Wednesday, February 25, 2009

College degrees for all

One of things I learned during the painful Bush years was that it's not worthwhile to have to sit through any lengthy speeches. There's way too much clapping. And while it is nice to have a president who avoids stumbling all over himself while reading the teleprompter, I'm sticking with my technique of simply reading the remarks on the Internet.

There's a lot in there with which a libertarian could take umbrage. Despite the calls to reduce the deficit, outside of a rollback of the empire--which I support, but don't believe will be forthcoming--it's hard to see whence Obama is going to trim the fat.

A bizarre shout out to Biden and a number of incorrect assertions aside, this statement may be my least favorite:

As soon as I took office, I asked this Congress to send me a recovery plan by President’s Day that would put people back to work and put money in their pockets. Not because I believe in bigger government – I don’t. Not because I’m not mindful of the massive debt we’ve inherited – I am. I called for action because the failure to do so would have cost more jobs and caused more hardships.

As Rich Lowry commented, "He’s trying to redefine extensive government activism as simple pragmatism, and if he succeeds, might well shift the center of American politics for a generation."

First, it's simply not true that failure to act is what costs and prolongs the depression. As Murray Rothbard points out in America's Great Depression, "The severe depression of 1921 was over so rapidly, for example, that Secretary of Commerce Hoover, despite his interventionist inclinations, was not able to convince President Harding to intervene rapidly enough; by the time Harding was persuaded to intervene, the depression was already over, and prosperity had arrived."

The Great Depression, on the contrary, was treated by government action; consequently, as Rothbard details copiously, an ordinary recession blossomed into a full scale depression. Indeed, Obama's remarks are eerily similar to those given by President Hoover near the close of his first term: "we might have done nothing. That would have been utter ruin. Instead we met the situation with proposals to private business and to Congress of the most gigantic program of economic defense and counterattack ever evolved in the history of the Republic. We put it into action. . . ."

Aside from the fact that the actions of the government will do precisely the opposite of what is intended, and thus more needless pain will be endured by the American people because of the folly of their leaders, Obama has slickly avoided having to answer for ballooning deficits despite plans to reduce them by half. Since we have to act, act we must, by spending money we don't have. In the unlikely event that the recession ends, he can not only claim credit, but it will be easy to avoid having to reduce spending, since in perceived economic good times, as we saw during the Bush years, no one gives two mites about deficit spending.

What I really wanted to discuss, however, was Obama's education plan. I'll intersperse my comments with his remarks as is my wont.

Right now, three-quarters of the fastest-growing occupations require more than a high school diploma. And yet, just over half of our citizens have that level of education. We have one of the highest high school dropout rates of any industrialized nation. And half of the students who begin college never finish.

Society certainly doesn't benefit from increasing its scores of high school flunkies, but there is nothing to prevent someone without a diploma from succeeding in this country, except for the fact that graduating is so preposterously easy that a lack of a high school education in many cases is merely another name for sloth. On the other hand, the women who reach the age of eighteen with a pair of kids in tow, or the men with extensive time in correction facilities, have more pressing affairs with which to concern themselves.

The problem is not that not enough people are attending college; the problem is that so many students receive utterly worthless degrees. I live with an exceptionally bright individual who works in retail, his bachelor degree aiding him slightly if at all. As this graph demonstrates, Americans are first in the world--and fourth per capita--when it comes to tertiary education. While the country would benefit immensely if more students graduating with degrees in, say, engineering or computer science, we accrue no similar benefit from a proliferation of degrees in the social sciences. To be sure, some good can come of the latter, but what makes this country run is not hordes of feminists with Womyn's Studies degrees.

Already, we have made an historic investment in education through the economic recovery plan. We have dramatically expanded early childhood education and will continue to improve its quality, because we know that the most formative learning comes in those first years of life. We have made college affordable for nearly seven million more students.

Anytime you hear the government insist that it will make something more affordable, that's an immediate sign to run directly in the opposite direction. When you subsidize something, you get more of it. Increasing student aid is a good way get more kids to attend college, but it has nothing to do with reducing the cost of education. More competition for fewer students could drive prices down, but Obama isn't advocating this.

This also shows a lack of originality on Obama's part, which may be one of the themes of the speech. I'm going to sound like a talking head if I insist that the whole Democrat platform can be boiled down to increased spending, but in this case, it's true. For years, we've tried to make education more affordable. If it isn't working, shouldn't we change strategies instead of just pushing down harder on the accelerator?

But we know that our schools don’t just need more resources. They need more reform.

Unless the plan is to eliminate the government monopoly on education, reform isn't possible. I'm willing to bet that a disproportionate number of engineers and programmers come from the home schooled ranks, but I somehow doubt this is in line with the Obama plan.

That is why this budget creates new incentives for teacher performance; pathways for advancement, and rewards for success.

The unions have always fought this, so I'm intrigued to see if this happens. It's a good idea actually; if we insist on good teachers, it behooves us to find a way to reward them.

And so tonight, I ask every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training. This can be community college or a four-year school; vocational training or an apprenticeship. But whatever the training may be, every American will need to get more than a high school diploma. And dropping out of high school is no longer an option. It’s not just quitting on yourself, it’s quitting on your country – and this country needs and values the talents of every American. That is why we will provide the support necessary for you to complete college and meet a new goal: by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.

There is something to be said, I suppose for hope and optimism, but we always seem to carry it too far. As Alexis de Tocqueville put it in Democracy in America, "Aristocratic nations are naturally too apt to narrow the scope of human perfectibility; democratic nations to expand it beyond compass." There is something to be said, I suppose for hope and optimism, but we always seem to carry it too far. Despite our ostensible equality before the law, it's simply not true that we all possess equal abilities or virtues. It makes no sense to insist that everyone attempt to continue schooling beyond twelve years. The insistence that everyone finish high school is one of the factors that destroyed the diploma of whatever value it once held. If we are not to do the same with the university degree, we need to encourage those who are not qualified from finding alternative educational or employment arrangements. Or we could simply dumb down the curriculum until a college degree becomes the new high school diploma. Then, a president, many years hence, will be able to urge everyone to attend graduate school--which of course we'll make affordable. Is it really necessary to put off meaningful employment for so long? Couldn't we try to do with a little less schooling?

The rhetoric is nice, but it looks like the current president is taking off where the former left off in our slow march back to serfdom.

1 comment:

Apollo Kioku said...

Or we could simply dumb down the curriculum until a college degree becomes the new high school diploma. Then, a president, many years hence, will be able to urge everyone to attend graduate school--which of course we'll make affordable.

This has already happened. Every job opportunity that floats my way requests applicants have a masters degree. By the time I have the "education" to qualify me for the kind of work I want to do, I'll be so far in debt that I'll need to get more education to get a better job to pay for the education... or something like that.

Purchasing the qualifications to work feels like a scam, and everyone is on board.