The Higher Education Industrial Complex

The WSJ reports,

Colleges and universities have become one of the most effective lobbying forces in Washington, employing more lobbyists last year than any other industries except drug manufacturing and technology. . .

All that these noble, public-spirited institutions ever ask for is more money with no accountability. What could go wrong?

The failure of political efforts to require more accountability and transparency means that colleges continue to collect billions of dollars annually in student loans with few strings attached, including schools that don’t graduate many of their students and where loan defaults are high.

A lot of people will tell you that higher education is one of the industries that works pretty well in the U.S. all this crony capitalism notwithstanding, I suppose.

Steve Teles Defends Technocrats

He wrote,

greater responsiveness only increases the opportunities for concentrated interests to exert influence over the agencies that are supposed to regulate them. Perhaps ironically, it may be the case that only those regulatory agencies that are able to escape domination by politicians will be able to effectively pursue the goals that those same elected officials wrote into law back when the public was paying attention. Effectiveness, in short, may demand a significant degree of bureaucratic autonomy, rather than democratic control.

…Carpenter’s key insight is that bureaucrats themselves have the power not only to shirk or subvert their principals, but in some cases to guide or even dominate them. The canvas on which he explains how this is possible is the history of one of America’s most powerful agencies, the Food and Drug Administration.

Teles is reviewing a book by David Carpenter, in which the author argues that the FDA’s power stems from its reputation. Because the FDA is highly regarded, it can maintain its independence from Congress.

Teles sees that as a good thing. His model of politics is that there are fleeting demands for regulation, to which Congress responds by establishing an agency. However, once the spotlight is off and the actual regulatory process is underway, the more politically responsive the agency, the more likely it is that the agency will be manipulated by special interests. It is better for the agency to polish its reputation and sustain independent power.

In this model, what is it that limits an agency’s power?

In theory, the loss of reputation leads to a loss of power. When has this happened? The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has a terrible reputation, but it has at least as much responsibility as ever. Same with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently spilled chemicals into the Colorado River, and as far as I can tell it suffered no consequences.

Still, I think that it is fair to say that technocrats focus on their reputations. Bad publicity does attract Congressional attention, and perhaps that makes an agency less aggressive than it otherwise might be.

But reputation-protection, rent-seeking, can be costly. A place like the Fed selects for chairmen who write self-serving memoirs. The question is whether the focus on reputation leads to better behavior or mere image-polishing.

In the private sector, there is the same tension. Reputation can be earned, or it can be manipulated through public relations. But one hopes that the competitive process will eventually expose the manipulators and reward the good performers.

Steve Teles on Rent-seeking

He writes,

State regulation of doctors, Commodity Futures Trading Commission rules for derivatives, and local land-use planning decisions rarely if ever occur to citizens and policymakers as having anything to do with the larger social debate about inequality. If the case is made effectively — if policymakers do start seeing these diverse policies as part of a larger problem — then it would be possible to generate political conflict in arenas that are currently too quiet and uncontested. This happened in the 1970s and 1980s when policymakers connected regulatory capture in areas like trucking and airlines to widespread concern with inflation. It could happen again if policymakers across the spectrum start to believe that rent-seeking, in all its forms, is deeply implicated in the problem of inequality.

Pointer from Mark Thoma.

But are other progressives willing to concede that government intervention in markets has such adverse consequences?

Chris Edwards on Government Failure

He writes,

Consider Medicare. Under Parts A and B, the government pays doctors and hospitals a set fee for
each service provided. That encourages them to deliver unnecessary services because they make more money the more services they bill. As an example, investigations have found that doctors are ordering many unneeded drug tests for seniors.

I think that someone with an opposing viewpoint would say that even though government initiatives are not executed flawlessly and that adverse side effects do occur, the intentions of the programs are good and the positive outcomes are sufficient to outweigh the problems. As Edwards puts it,

It is true, however, that just because a federal policy creates unintended collateral damage does not automatically mean that the overall policy is a failure. Some federal interventions do generate higher benefits than costs. The important thing is that policymakers look beyond the intended effects of their programs and consider how people and businesses may respond in negative ways over the longer term.

As I see it, those of us who are concerned about government failure have to get over the following hurdles with those who disagree.

1. Lead them to think beyond the intention heuristic. “Support for education” sounds good, but that does not automatically justify every government program intended to improve education.

2. Scrutinize the actual design and execution of government programs, rather than assume that both are flawless.

3. Track the cost of government programs. This includes the direct cost paid by taxes, but it also includes the indirect cost of market distortions, including (as Edwards points out) the deadweight loss from taxation.

4. Take into account the organizational dynamics of government programs. That is, agencies and programs tend to persist well beyond the point where they have served a useful purpose.

5. Take into account the public choice aspect of government programs.

Even so, I still do not think that we will get very far. I think that the supporters of Obamacare are aware to some extent of the way that each of these issues has affected the program (perhaps not so much with issue 3). And yet they are very enthusiastic about Obamacare, and they insist that it is working.

A Case of Over-Supply

Steven J. Harper writes,

Amazingly (and perversely), law schools have been able to continue to raise tuition while producing nearly twice as many graduates as the job market has been able to absorb. How is this possible? Why hasn’t the market corrected itself? The answer is that, for a given school, the availability of federal loans for law students has no connection to their poor post-graduation employment outcomes.

Of course, outcomes do not matter when it comes to government support for higher education, or for home ownership. Intentions matter (“everyone needs access to higher education and to home ownership”). And what really matters is rent-seeking.

Kevin Williamson on Government Stagnation

He writes,

Social Security made sense in the context of 1935 demographics. It’s as obsolete as those suitcase-sized portables that Sandberg-Diment was scoffing at 50 years later. But we’re stuck with it, because there’s not much evolution in political programs. Government programs don’t die.

His point, which is obvious but ignored, is that markets evolve more rapidly than government. If you think of government programs as technology, they are hopelessly behind. We regulate communications using the FCC, which is 1930s regulatory technology. We address health care for the elderly with Medicare, which is 50-year-old technology.

In the private sector, when an enterprise becomes technologically obsolete, it falls by the wayside. In government, it gets larger.

I still like the idea of re-chartering regulatory agencies every three years.

Timothy Taylor on Nudging and Public Choice

He writes,

think about elected officials and regulators in the spirit of behavioral economics: they often lack self-control; have a difficult time evaluating complex situations; tend to stick with rules-of-thumb and default options rather than accept the cognitive and organizational costs of re-evaluating their positions; do not evaluate costs and benefits in a consistent way across different contexts; are not good at evaluating risks accurately, instead often respond to limited information and hype; and are overly averse to the risk of taking responsibility for decisions that might turn out poorly. This perspective must have widespread implications for decisions involving the complexities of the tax code or government budgets, policies affecting the workforce and the environment, openness to new sources of domestic and foreign competition, and foreign policy as well.

He is riffing off a paper by W. Kip Viscusi and Ted Gayer.

Housing Demand and Down Payment Requirements

Andreas Fuster and Basit Zafar write (note: WTP – “willingness to pay”),

we find that on average, WTP increases by about 15 percent when households can make a down payment as low as 5 percent of the purchase price instead of having to put down 20 percent. However, this average masks large differences in sensitivity across households. In fact, almost half the respondents do not change their WTP at all when the required down payment is lowered. On the other hand, many respondents increase their WTP very strongly in the second scenario with the lower down payment requirement. This is particularly true for respondents who are current renters (and often relatively less wealthy): their WTP on average increases by more than 40 percent. They also tend to choose lower down payment fractions than current owners; for instance, 59 percent of renters but only 36 percent of owners choose a down payment fraction of 10 percent or lower.

As Mark Thoma says, this is not a surprise. The question is whether this means that government policies to encourage lower down payments are a good idea. I think not, since it encourages a lot of speculative purchases of houses and makes house prices more volatile.

If you want periods in which people over-pay for housing to alternate with periods of retrenchment, then letting people buy with little or no money down is the way to go. If you want sensible policies to build wealth among households below the top of the income ladder, then you would subsidize saving. But that idea goes nowhere with the real estate lobby, which dictates policy in this area.

Medicaid, Obamacare, and Bootleggers

The abstract of a paper by Amy Finkelstein, Nathaniel Hendren, and Erzo F.P. Luttmer reads,

We develop a set of frameworks for valuing Medicaid and apply them to welfare analysis of the Oregon Health Insurance Experiment, a Medicaid expansion for low-income, uninsured adults that occurred via random assignment. Our baseline estimates of Medicaid’s welfare benefit to recipients per dollar of government spending range from about $0.2 to $0.4, depending on the framework, with at least two-fifths – and as much as four-fifths – of the value of Medicaid coming from a transfer component, as opposed to its ability to move resources across states of the world. In addition, we estimate that Medicaid generates a substantial transfer, of about $0.6 per dollar of government spending, to the providers of implicit insurance for the low-income uninsured. The economic incidence of these transfers is critical for assessing the social value of providing Medicaid to low-income adults relative to alternative redistributive policies.

In plain English, this says that most of the benefit in Medicaid goes to the supply side, not to the recipients. The recipients would be better off with cash. I am sure that the same holds true for food stamps, housing subsidies, mortgage subsidies, and so on.

In the Public Choice theory of regulation, the theory of Bootleggers and Baptists holds that regulation is supported by naive do-gooders (the Baptists) and private interests (the Bootleggers). But non-cash assistance programs also fit that model. The naive do-gooders want to subsidize food or health insurance or housing for the poor. These Baptists are cheerfully joined (and ultimately the policies are dominated) by the Bootleggeres, which in this case are the suppliers of food or health insurance or what have you.

Did you see how much the stock prices of health insurance companies and hospitals shot up after the Supreme Court refused to strike down the Obamacare subsidies for states without exchanges?

Concern with the term “public goods”

Frances Woolley writes,

in the US, as elsewhere, most public expenditure goes towards redistributive transfers, health and education. Table 2 shows
total government expenditures for 18 OECD countries. Most government expenditures go towards health (7 to 19 percent of government spending), education (7 to 15 percent), and ‘social protection’ programs that more directly redistribute income (19 to 45 percent).
The goods most often cited as public goods are unimportant in terms of overall government expenditure for OECD countries: defense accounts for 1 to 6 percent of spending; public order between 2 and 5 percent of spending.

Pointer from Bryan Caplan.

It is an interesting and wide-ranging essay, difficult to excerpt. Here is another:

substantial insights into the economics of non-rival goods can be gained from the analysis of clubs (for providing local goods that are non-rival but excludable), the theory of natural monopoly (for goods such as Microsoft office where there are substantial initial development costs but the additional cost of an extra Word user is (close to) zero), or the economics of information (for the development of new technologies or drugs, where the manufacture of the new drug may cost a dollar or two per user, making it close to non-rival but the drug development may cost millions). While it is interesting and useful to have a theory for the special sub-set of non-rival goods that happen to be non-excludable also, there too few such goods to justify the place such goods hold in the public economics curriculum

One point she is making is that we should not encourage students to think that the theory of public goods explains or describes the actual role of government.