Oren Cass on Paul Ryan

He writes,

Ryan excludes Medicaid from his Opportunity Grants. But truly untangling the safety net requires disassembling Medicaid and allowing that funding to be reallocated, either to new healthcare programs or in some instances to different ends entirely. Our current allocation of spending across healthcare, housing, nutrition, training, etc. is an arbitrary artifact of separate legislative authorizations and bureaucracies evolving over decades. We should not be segmenting healthcare (which is as large as all the other buckets combined) as somehow untouchable, especially when it is not where someone in poverty would likely want to spend a marginal dollar.

I agree.

Cass also writes,

Ryan proposes reforms to the EITC that bring it closer to a wage subsidy (e.g., tying it directly to each paycheck), but for reasons unclear does not go the final step of simply replacing one with the other. More problematic, the expansion he proposes is small in both scope and scale – the result of funding it only through the cancellation of a potpourri of small programs and tax expenditures. For a work-incentives-led approach to be effective, funding to a wage subsidy needs to expand far more dramatically – ideally by reallocating it from existing anti-poverty programs that already go to those who work.

I agree with this criticism, also. But I share Cass’s overall take on Ryan’s proposals, which is that they are good reforms in an area much in need of reform.

Paul Ryan on Education Policy

Federal education spending tends to be concentrated on programs, such as Head Start, that are political sacred cows but notoriously ineffective. Ryan would replace these with block grants, presumably hoping that at least some states will spend the money more wisely. For higher education, Expanding Opportunity, Ryan writes,

The federal government offers 14 tax benefits for higher education; they cost over $36 billion in forgone revenue in fiscal year 2014. By their very nature, most of these tax benefits are ineffective for low-income families. Families must pay tuition before they file their tax returns, so these credits and deductions don’t help cash-strapped students. And research finds that some of these benefits have little effect on enrollment—most recipients would have enrolled without them. Even more disconcerting is that states take advantage of these benefits by spending less on higher education or student aid.68 So not only is the federal government shortchanging other priorities, but these tax benefits are making college more expensive for everyone.

But you can be sure that any attempt to change these programs will run into a hornet’s nest of demagoguery.

Turning to accreditation, he writes,

Building on the reforms offered by Senator Mike Lee of Utah, new accreditors would submit to the Department certification standards as well as reporting requirements, credit transfer plans, and outcome-based
standards. They would also be empowered to accredit specific, high-quality courses rather than just schools or programs. As a result, students would be able to build an online program of their own, the sum of which could add up to a fully accredited degree. David Bergeron and Steven Klinsky describe such a system in which “students who complete the preapproved, tuition-free MOOC and also pass the confirmatory [new accreditor’s] assessment would earn accredited course hours from [the accreditor] itself. Enough such courses in the right scope and sequence (say physics from MITx, poetry from Harvard, theology from Notre Dame and so on) could lead to a fully accredited . . .degree.”

Reihan Salam on the Tea Party

He writes,

Deep divisions notwithstanding, there are a number of principles that unite the movement. The most important is a devotion to subsidiarity, which holds that power should rest as close to ordinary people as possible.

Read the whole thing. He may be right in his description of leading politicians who claim allegiance to the Tea Party, but I do not think he describes the movement at a grass roots level. I think of it as ordinary Americans who are filled with resentment of Washington. They perceive that Washington takes care of its own, not them.

Failure Gets Rewarded

Reihan Salam writes,

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 way capitalism works, if a private firm fails its customers, it goes bankrupt and someone else takes over. (Crony capitalism does not work that way, of course. Instead, you get bailed out.) When a government organization fails its customers, it gets a huge budget increase.

I guess the idea of selling the VA facilities to the private sector and instead giving veterans money to shop around for the best available health care is just too silly to consider.

Politics and Policy

William Galston writes,

The document’s emphasis on the middle class is a thinly veiled repudiation of the Romney campaign, whose emphasis on “job creators” reduced the 2012 Republican convention to a gathering of the National Federation of Independent Businesses. As Sen. Mitch McConnell noted at a “Room to Grow” public event last week, Republicans must stop imagining that average Americans are anything like John Galt in Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged.” Few of them are entrepreneurs, let alone heroic individualists. Most of them are holding jobs or looking for them. A political party that doesn’t address their needs isn’t likely to get their votes.

Pointer from Reihan Salam.

Let me propose the following distinction between politics and policy. Politics is a set of gestures and poses that politicians use to win votes, either in elections or in Congress concerning legislation. Policy is what actually gets done.

The Obama team has been magnificent at executing gestures and poses and thereby winning votes. Their approach to policy appears to have been much more haphazard, with results that I imagine disappoint even many of their supporters.

My criticism of “Room to Grow” is that it while it purports to be a policy document, it is in fact a set of gestures and poses. I think that the way Galston and Salam discuss “Room to Grow” tends to confirm that. Rather than complain that these are just gestures and poses, they are willing to engage with the gestures and poses and ask how well they will work politically.

I seem to be the only one who cares whether there is a coherent, implementable policy agenda embedded in “Room to Grow.” Maybe it is premature to worry about that. If you don’t get the poses and gestures right, you won’t have the opportunity to implement anything. But I do not think you should come in as unprepared as the Obama Administration was to deal with actual policy.

RtG on the Safety Net

The chapter is by Scott Winship.

rather than instituting work-promoting reforms program-by-program, there is much to be said for consolidating them, thoughtfully modifying phase-out rates to transparently encourage people [to] move to work, and offering supports outside the confines of specific programs.

As part of SNEP, I have a somewhat specific proposal that attempts to do this. Winship refers a proposal by Oren Cass that sort of sounds like mine, but as I look closer the resemblance seems to go away. You can read Reihan Salam’s write-up from last year on the Cass proposal.

As an alternative, Winship writes,

Congressman Paul Ryan, who chairs the Budget Committee, has spoken favorably of the United Kingdom’s “universal credit.” Under this approach, various means-tested programs would again be consolidated, and benefits would be distributed to families as a single amount rather than through separate programs with their own applications procedures and bureaucracies. A universal credit may be designed with a single phase-out schedule as beneficiaries move into work

Yes. I need to find out more about the British experience, which I understand ran into a number of implementation snafus.

Again, I raise the issue of coherence. The big enchilada of means-tested programs is Medicaid. If you going to have a coherent policy document, then you need to decide whether or not Medicaid reform is going to consist of folding into a universal credit. Instead, the chapter on health care reform talks about a completely different approach to Medicaid.

I want to see a policy playbook, and that means that the ideas have to fit together. Relative to that expectation, RtG comes across to me like a bunch of vendors standing outside the ballpark, all shouting. “Tax credits!” Getcher health care reform here!” “Gotta have higher ed reform!”

SNEP and the EITC

Reihan Salam writes,

In theory, the EITC is a simple program. But in practice — and in particular from the vantage point of recipients — it’s opaque and complex. It’s almost surprising how much recipients did know about how their behavior related to the refund.

Salam’s piece has many useful links for what I am calling the Setting National Economic Priorities project. One of the project’s ideas is to introduce a standard “fade-out” rate of 20 percent for all means-tested programs in the safety net. A next step might be to consolidate all such programs into a single “flexdollar” benefit program, which I have described in previous posts.

My priors, which I think are supported by the research cited by Salam, is that trying to use a program like the EITC for social engineering is a mug’s game. I think that the flexdollar idea is a reasonable compromise between offering a pure cash benefit and trying to do fine-grained social engineering.

Immigration and Skills

Reihan Salam writes,

While only 6 percent of working-age native-born Americans do not have a high school diploma, the share of working-age immigrants without a high school diploma is over 25 percent. And though immigrants represent 16 percent of the U.S. workforce, they represent 44 percent of workers without a high school diploma.

Salam clearly sees it as a mistake that the U.S. encourages more low-skill immigration than high-skill immigration. However, this is not as obviously correct as it appears. One interesting question is how much the U.S. raises the productivity of low-skilled workers when they cross the border. If the answer is “a lot,” then the case for restricting low-skilled immigration is not particularly strong.

From the conservative point of view, the dire scenario is one in which low-skilled immigrants and their families ultimately consume more in government services than they produce. The libertarian answer would be “more immigration, less social welfare spending,” neither of which seem like popular policy positions at the moment.

Spending Our Accumulated Wealth: Who Decides?

Reihan Salam writes,

in trying to avoid a doom loop of oligarchy we instead wind up with a doom loop of technocracy, in which elite research universities grow ever larger and more powerful and non-profit organizations press for the expansion of a government that operates largely through private administrative proxies. This doom loop might move at an even faster clip than the doom loop of oligarchy, as non-profit organizations are tax-exempt, a fact that has had significant consequences for jurisdictions like New York city, where non-profit medical providers have been growing robustly. Imagine “profitable non-profits” that offer their employees lavish salaries, thus drawing talented workers away from firms engaging in productivity-enhancing business-model innovation, and devoting just as much of their effort to preserving and extending their privileges as they do to their ostensible social missions.

Consider three groups that might decide how to allocate large concentrations of wealth:

1. Private individuals and money managers, seeking the highest return.

2. Government officials.

3. Non-profits.

Progressives fear (1). Conservatives fear (2). Salam is saying that at some point we should start to worry about (3). He has a point.

Reihan Salam on Low-Wage Employers

He writes,

McDonald’s and other low-wage employers…are taking on a task that many American families and schools are failing to perform. To put it bluntly, McDonald’s is a company that hires large numbers of people with limited skills, many of whom are teenagers and young adults, and it introduces them to the ways of the workplace.

…Perhaps the employers who makes a risky bet on a raw employee, and who take the time and effort to train her, should be entitled to a small portion of her lifetime earnings as she moves on to more lucrative employment. That would create a powerful incentive for employers to devote real resources to building the skills of their workers.

At this point, the working title for my economic priorities project is “Setting National Economic Priorities.” “Setting National Priorities” makes a grandiose idea seem even grandioser. “Setting economic priorities,” which is another alternative, might not refer to economic policy at all.

I am currently most comfortable with the following three priority areas:

1. Improving labor supply and demand incentives for low-wage workers. Improving labor supply means making sure that the structure of means-tested benefits does not create high implicit marginal tax rates for low-wage workers. Improving labor demand means lowering the cost to employers of hiring low-wage workers, particularly health insurance mandates and payroll taxes. I think it also means removing barriers to entry in the education and health care industries. I think it also means reducing the economic friction caused by occupational licensing.

2. Reconfiguring for the 21st century the regulatory missions and mechanisms for dealing with industries that have undergone significant technological change. This includes telecommunications, medicine, the electric grid, and eventually probably should include air traffic and motor vehicles (because of drones and self-driving cars).

3. Reducing the risk of a fiscal train wreck. I suspect that bringing this risk down to what I would consider a reasonable level requires taking steps on Social Security and Medicare that are more radical than what is politically feasible. I would aim for more modest goals, such as indexing the eligibility age for both programs to longevity (hardly a modest goal from a political standpoint!) and developing budget reporting mechanisms (accrual accounting? stress testing?) that provide important information not currently used in the budget process.

Anyway, Reihan’s column fits in with (1).