College affordability

When considering education policy, we face a dilemma regarding affordability. Many of us believe that it’s important to make college accessible to all people who are qualified to be admitted to a university. This is critical for growing or even maintaining the middle class in this country. Thus we have programs like grants and student loans.

Yet the availability of these funds provides little incentive for colleges to control costs. Over the years, college costs have skyrocketed as has student debt.

Some conservatives might argue that we shouldn’t be subsidizing college at all, but few agree with this line of thinking. America became great in large part due to our massive investments in higher education. The GI Bill helped to fuel the massive growth of the middle class following WWII.

So we need to continue to promote college education and help poor and middle class kids with affordability, but we need to inject some common sense controls into the system as well.

The Obama Administration is trying to address the problem, using some of the same incentives that were used to spur reform and innovation with their Race to the Top program for K-12 school systems.

President Obama is proposing a financial aid overhaul that for the first time would tie colleges’ eligibility for campus-based aid programs — Perkins loans, work-study jobs and supplemental grants for low-income students — to the institutions’ success in improving affordability and value for students, administration officials said.

Under the plan, which the president is expected to outline on Friday morning in a speech at the University of Michigan, the amount available for Perkins loans would grow to $8 billion, from the current $1 billion. The president also wants to create a $1 billion grant competition, along the lines of the Race for the Top program for elementary and secondary education, to reward states that take action to keep college costs down, and a separate $55 million competition for individual colleges to increase their value and efficiency.

The administration also wants to give families clearer information about costs and quality, by requiring colleges and universities to offer a “shopping sheet” that makes it easier to compare financial aid packages and — for the first time — compiling post-graduate earning and employment information to give students a better sense of what awaits them.

Many universities won’t be happy about this, particularly at a time when states are cutting back on education budgets. Yet the slavish devotion to more buildings and other expenses needs to stop. Having incentives to provide real value to students will change the calculation for university presidents and trustees.

Also, the notion of a shopping sheet is very important, as many college kids and their parents are clueless about the notion of costs vs benefits. There’s nothing wrong with a liberal arts degree, particularly if you have thoughts of going to grad school, but leaving undergrad with $120,000 worth of debt for an English degree is economic suicide. If kids start seeing the real costs as they vary from school to school, they will be more inclined to consider cost as a part of their decision on where to go to school. This of course is part of a larger problem where most Americans have very poor financial literacy, so these types of comparisons will encourage them to consider costs by giving them tools to make easy comparisons. As a part of that, college students will then be more likely to at least consider the economic value of their college major as well.

Given the current political environment, I won’t hold my breath on seeing the Republicans work with President Obama on any topic, even something like this that should be supported by both parties. Conservatives and liberals can argue about the size of government, both both should be working tirelessly to make government and its programs work better.

The wildly successful auto industry bailout

Chrysler announced today that it is repaying $7.5 billion to the U.S. government years ahead of schedule. Meanwhile, GM has announced it will hire thousands of new workers in the U.S. after a successful IPO.

The bailout of the U.S. auto industry in 2009 by the Obama administration was very unpopular, but it will go down as one of the shrewdest decisions of President Obama. Letting GM and Chrysler go through a bankruptcy liquidation would have killed thousands of jobs and possibly turned the recession into a depression. Thousands of auto suppliers would have been insolvent immediately, thus creating even more job losses.

Most on the right, including presidential candidates Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney, opposed bailing out the auto companies. Mitt Romney even penned an op-ed arguing that we should let Detroit go bankrupt. They look like fools now, and the Democrats just released a preview of how this issue will be highlighted in the 2012 campaign, particularly in the Midwest.

Political malpractice

Tim Kaine, Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, speaks during their summer meeting in St. Louis on August 20, 2010. St. Louis is in the running for the 2012 Democratic Presidential Convention. UPI/Bill Greenblatt

The issue of Senate recruitment is in the news again, as Jim Webb decides to retire and the Democrats are now praying that Tim Kaine will enter the race for Senate in Virginia. We’ll see if President Obama can convince him, but as Ezra Klein points out, this administration has been very bad in the area of Senate recruitments.

But the White House hasn’t always taken the recruitment of challengers that seriously. In 2008, they brought Iowa’s Tom Vilsack, Arizona’s Janet Napolitano, Kansas’s Kathleen Sebelius, and Colorado’s Ken Salazar into the administration. The payoff? They almost lost Salazar’s Senate seat and Democrats had to find weaker candidates in Iowa, Arizona, and Kansas. It stands, to me, as the administration’s single most baffling set of political decisions. There were plenty of other people capable of running the various cabinet agencies. There were no other people capable of replacing the threat Vilsack would have posed to Chuck Grassley or that Napolitano would’ve posed to John McCain, and thus no one who could’ve done as much to convince them that cooperating a bit on initiatives like health-care reform would be in their interest. Similarly, Sebelius was the only Democrat in Kansas who even had a chance of winning the state’s open Senate seat. Why pull her to Washington in a different capacity?

I think the Obama administration has been unfairly attcked by many on the left, but when it comes to politics after the 2008 election, this administration clearly made some huge mistakes. It’s stunning when one considers that Rham Emanuel was helping to run things.

Frankly, I think the Obama team got way overconfident in the political situation immediately after the 2008 election. They knew they had tough fights ahead, but they had such big majorities they probably felt they didn’t have to worry to much about a handful of Senate seats.

That proved to be a disaster. McCain would have been vulnerable against Napolitano, particularly after he swung way to the right in the primary. Grassley was also vulnerable in Iowa. They plucked some of their best candidates, and none of them are critical in their current roles.

Hopefully they have learned their lesson and they will push Kaine hard to run in Virginia.

The unbearable lightness of Peggy Noonan

I enjoy reading Peggy Noonan because she’s never shy about her point of view. She also writes beautifully.

That said, for every great column, she produces at least two clunkers. Today’s column, with the subtitle of “The unbearable lightness of Obama’s administration,” is particularly bizarre. Here’s the introduction.

He is willowy when people yearn for solid, reed-like where they hope for substantial, a bright older brother when they want Papa, cool where they probably prefer warmth. All of which may or may not hurt Barack Obama in time. Lincoln was rawboned, prone to the blues and freakishly tall, with a new-grown beard that refused to become an assertion and remained, for four years, a mere and constant follicular attempt. And he did OK.

Such impressions—coolness, slightness—can come to matter only if they capture or express some larger or more meaningful truth. At the moment they connect, for me, to something insubstantial and weightless in the administration’s economic pronouncements and policies. The president seems everywhere and nowhere, not fully focused on the matters at hand. He’s trying to keep up with the news cycle with less and less to say. “I am angry” about AIG’s bonuses. The administration seems buffeted, ad hoc. Policy seems makeshift, provisional. James K. Galbraith captures some of this in The Washington Monthly: “The president has an economic program. But there is, so far, no clear statement of the thinking behind the program.”

What a jumbled mess. She sounds like all those journalists who were lecturing Obama early in the campaign that he had no chance of winning if he stayed calm and refused to go negative on Hillary.

She asserts there’s “something insubstantial and weightless in the administration’s economic pronouncements and policies,” when liberals and conservatives recognize that Barack Obama has proposed the most daring and ambitious budget of our generation. Conservatives hate the budget for that very reason – Obama wants to fundamentally change how we meet the challenges of health care, energy and education. Somehow, Peggy Noonan has missed all that, getting distracted by the daily Washington soap opera that plays out on cable TV.

Barack Obama is trying to put out a bonfire cause by years of irresponsible behavior in Washington and on Wall Street. His critics are howling that he hasn’t snapped his fingers and slayed this economic monster with a silver bullet. The bottom line is this – Obama and Bernanke have put together a sensible package of programs that just might get us out of this mess. Of course, Ms. Noonan has nothing to say about the actual substance.

She isn’t comfortable with Obama’s style, probably because she’s been in Washington so long she can’t process anything other than the scripted nonsense of previous administrations. She shouldn’t confuse message discipline with sound policy. Obama is selling his policies on his terms, and he refuses to treat the American people like idiots. Critics might quip that he comes across as “professorial,” but many Americans appreciate a President who doesn’t try to turn every policy proposal into a dumbed-down soundbite.

Gates and Obama getting ready for big cuts in weapons systems

News about the Obama administrations plans for cuts in weapons systems is starting to leak out.

Two defense officials who were not authorized to speak publicly said Gates will announce up to a half-dozen major weapons cancellations later this month. Candidates include a new Navy destroyer, the Air Force’s F-22 fighter jet, and Army ground-combat vehicles, the officials said.

More cuts are planned for later this year after a review that could lead to reductions in programs such as aircraft carriers and nuclear arms, the officials said.

As a former CIA director with strong Republican credentials, Gates is prepared to use his credibility to help Obama overcome the expected outcry from conservatives. And after a lifetime in the national security arena, working in eight administrations, the 65-year-old Gates is also ready to counter the defense companies and throngs of retired generals and other lobbyists who are gearing up to protect their pet projects.

“He has earned a great deal of credibility over the past two years, both inside and outside the Pentagon, and now he is prepared to use it to lead the department in a new direction and bring about the changes he believes are necessary to protect the nation’s security,” said Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary.

Gates is not the first secretary to try to change military priorities. His predecessor, Donald H. Rumsfeld, sought to retool the military but succeeded in cancelling only one major project, an Army artillery system.

Former vice president Dick Cheney’s efforts as defense chief under the first President Bush, meanwhile, are cited as a case study in the resistance of the military, defense industry, and Capitol Hill. Cheney canceled the Marine Corps’ troubled V-22 Osprey aircraft not once, but four times, only to see Congress reverse the decision.

The article highlights the difficulties Gates and Obama will face as they try to cancel these unnecessary and ridiculously expensive programs. This time we’re in the middle of a financial crisis, and Republicans have been howling about spending, so now Obama will be able to turn the tables on them.

Here’s more information on the F-22.

Gates’ first showdown looms with a $350 million–a–pop fighter jet. He has to decide by March 1 whether to add more F-22 Raptor fighters to the 183 purchased by the Bush Administration. For years, the Air Force has wanted to double the fleet, while Gates has made clear that he thinks 183 is sufficient. A month ago, some Air Force officials were saying privately that maybe 60 more F-22s would suffice. The Pentagon’s acquisition boss, John Young, recently detailed why more F-22s might be a poor investment. The F-22s that exist are ready to fly only 62% of the time and haven’t met most of their performance goals. “The airplane is proving very expensive to operate, not seeing the mission-capable rates we expected, and it’s complex to maintain,” Young said. Besides, he added, the Air Force plans on spending $8 billion to upgrade most of the F-22s it already has.

We can’t afford to spend more money here.

Stimulus money goes to community health centers

More jobs and better health care.

President Barack Obama has been vague about details of his healthcare reform efforts, but he provided a hint on Monday of one direction he could take — community health centers.

As he announced the nominations of his two top health executives, Obama highlighted the allocation of $155 million to 126 community health centers as part of the $787 billion economic stimulus package.

“These health centers will expand access to care by helping people in need — many with no health insurance — obtain access to comprehensive primary and preventive health care services,” Obama told a news conference.

“That helps relieve the burden on emergency rooms across the country, which have become primary care clinics for too many who lack coverage — often at taxpayer expense.”

The Health and Human Services Department said the money would create 5,500 new jobs and help provide health care to an estimated 750,000 low-income Americans.

Gary Pickens, chief research officer for the Healthcare business of Thomson Reuters, a division of Thomson Reuters Corp, agreed the centers relieve overburdened hospitals.

“Hospitals currently have overcrowded emergency departments and would probably prefer to see care given in more appropriate settings for conditions that don’t require hospitalization,” Pickens said in a telephone interview.

This addresses one of the most pressing problems facing our health care system. Emergency rooms are overcrowded, as too many Americans without health insurance rely on them for care. Community health centers can help handle many of these cases, and they provide better care as they are organized to handle primary health services as opposed to emergencies.

More money is on the way.

“Over the next two years, a total of $2 billion in Recovery Act funding will be invested in Community Health Centers to support renovations and repairs, investments in health information technology, and critically needed health care services,” HHS said in a statement.

These are the types of “investments” that contribute to the common good. It attacks the inefficiencies in the current system while improving the quality of care.

Do Republicans really want to oppose Sebelius over abortion?

This might be a case of CNN predicting a fight that won’t take place, but conservatives and Republicans are crazy if they pick this fight now.

Analysts suspected that Obama would face a battle over abortion if and when he makes a nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court, but religious conservatives could use Sebelius as a warm-up for the seemingly inevitable fight.

Calling Sebelius an “enemy of the unborn,” Catholic League President Bill Donohue said the Kansas governor’s nomination is particularly disturbing because the health and human services secretary is one of the few members of the administration who can directly affect abortion policy.

“Sebelius’ support for abortion is so far off the charts that she has been publicly criticized by the last three archbishops of Kansas City,” Donohue said in a statement. Video Watch why filling the Cabinet post is urgent task »

The liberal group Catholics United has come to Sebelius’ defense, saying the Kansas governor has taken several steps to lower the abortion rate in her state. The group also has posted excerpts of a 2006 speech in which Sebelius said she opposed abortion.

“My Catholic faith teaches me that all life is sacred, and personally I believe abortion is wrong,” she said then. “However, I disagree with the suggestion that criminalizing women and their doctors is an effective means of achieving the goal of reducing the number of abortions in our nation.”

In May, Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, said that Sebelius’ stance on abortion had “grave spiritual and moral consequences.” He asked that Sebelius no longer receive Communion until she repudiated her stance and made a “worthy sacramental confession.”

Naumann was reacting to Sebelius’ veto of state Senate Bill 389 and the subsequent House version, titled the Comprehensive Abortion Reform Act, either of which would have tightened abortion regulations in Kansas.

In shooting down SB 389 in April, Sebelius wrote that the bill was problematic because it included no exceptions for pregnancies that endanger a woman’s life and it allowed for individuals to seek court orders preventing a woman from obtaining an abortion, even if the procedure was necessary to save her life.

“I am concerned that the bill is likely unconstitutional, or even worse, endangers the lives of women,” Sebelius said in a statement.

She further said that Kansas had striven to lower its abortion rates through adoption incentives, extended health services for pregnant women, sex education and support services for families.

Another lightning rod for Sebelius is a 2007 reception she held for Dr. George Tiller at the governor’s mansion in Topeka. Tiller, who specializes in late-term abortions and who once received the National Abortion Federation’s highest honor, is presently facing charges relating to his practice.

Last month, a district judge denied a motion to dismiss the case, meaning Tiller will go to trial on 19 misdemeanor counts relating to how he procured second opinions for late-term abortions, according to The Wichita Eagle.

Though Sebelius is dogged by many on the religious right, GOP Sens. Sam Brownback and Pat Roberts of Kansas seem willing to give her a pass on her stance on abortion.

Brownback, who sought the GOP presidential nomination and is one of the leading anti-abortion voices in the Senate, recently released a statement with Roberts, congratulating Sebelius and expressing an eagerness to work with their fellow Kansan on health issues.

The reactions from Brownback and Roberts suggest that cooler heads will prevail, and that we won’t get a sideshow on abortion at a time when both sides will be debating health care reform.

Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius to lead HHS

I’m a little disappointed with this pick. She will be excellent at HHS, and health care reform is very important, but Sebelius had a real chance of winning a Senate seat in Kansas in 2010 if she decided to run. This probably means the Democrats are pretty confident of getting over 60 without her, and taking Kansas would probably happen only if the Dems win in a rout.

Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius yesterday accepted President Obama’s request to become his secretary of health and human services, stepping into a central role in the new administration’s ambitious effort to overhaul the nation’s health-care system.

Sebelius’s nomination comes just days before the White House is scheduled to convene a summit on health reform, an early step in the president’s bold plan to vastly expand the reach of the health-care system. A formal announcement of her nomination is scheduled for tomorrow.

The summit, which is expected to be the first in a series of open meetings across the country, is intended to spotlight the challenges presented by the nation’s balkanized health-care system — including soaring costs and gaping holes in coverage. It is also aimed at rallying public support for an overhaul certain to draw ideological and industry opposition. The health session, similar to last week’s “fiscal responsibility” summit, will open with remarks by Obama. Participants will then split into working groups led by administration officials.

In his budget proposal unveiled last week, Obama set aside $634 billion for a new reserve fund that over the next decade would serve as a substantial down payment on the cost of moving the country closer to universal health-care coverage. About 46 million Americans lack coverage, a number likely to grow as the economic downturn puts more people out of work.

Now that she’s nominated, however, I expect her to be a respected and competent voice behind the push for health care reform.

Cutting Cold-War weapons systems

When Barack Obama kept Robert Gates as Defense Secretary, most liberals were disappointed, and the news media focused on how this might impact Obama’s decisions regarding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

While those issues are certainly important, Obama and Gates will be embarking on a mission to radically change the way the United States purchases military equipment.

But if you are a defense contractor who has enjoyed a decade of bottomless Pentagon funding, it was Gates’ comments about a struggle much closer to home that are keeping you up at night. “The spigot of defense spending that opened on 9/11 is closing,” he said. “With two major campaigns ongoing, the economic crisis and resulting budget pressures will force hard choices on this department.”

Gates, the U.S.’s 22nd Defense Secretary, has declared a low-key war against the military services and the way they develop and buy the weapons they use to defend the nation. Up until now, he has done that mostly by jawboning: The U.S. can’t “eliminate national-security risks through higher defense budgets, to do everything and buy everything,” Gates says in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs. That futile quest has led to weapons that “have grown ever more baroque, have become ever more costly, are taking longer to build and are being fielded in ever dwindling quantities.”

But his war of words is about to become very real. As he prepares a budget for next year, Gates must decide the fate of a number of fantastically expensive weapons programs the military services say they need. He can’t fund them all–and might be wise to take a knife to them all. In this, Gates has little choice: the military’s annual budget has finished growing, and the billions it once imagined it might spend on future weapons have evaporated. So cuts–and big ones–are coming, and Gates will be the man who makes them.

Though Gates was hired by George W. Bush to clean up the mismanaged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gates’ greatest legacy may come in what he calls a “strategic reshaping” that better outfits the U.S. military to wage coming wars. Future weapons buys must “be driven more by the actual capabilities of potential adversaries,” Gates told Congress a few weeks ago, “and less by what is technologically feasible given unlimited time and resources.” Pentagon procurement, he said, is plagued by a “risk-averse culture, a litigious process, parochial interests, excessive and changing requirements, budget churn and instability and sometimes adversarial relationships within the Department of Defense.”

With the release today of Barack Obama’s budget outline, we’re seeing that Obama and Gates are serious about these changes. You’re also hearing Obama talk about how we can’t afford any more “Cold War” weapons systems.

The articles linked above is worth a read. It discusses specific weapons systems, and the stunning costs associated with systems that we no longer need and may be obsolete in a world where inexpensive drones can do the job of piloted planes.

This will not be an easy fight. The problem is that Congress often overrides the needs and requests of the military. Many conservative Senators will scream about wasteful spending, but then they will defend grossly expensive weapons systems if it affects jobs in their districts. Democrats do the same thing.

Based on the “Cold War” rhetoric, it looks like Obama is ready for a fight. He should bring along enough Democrats, especially if they have to choose between health care and these weapons systems.

Fiscal reponsibility summit

I’m listening to Obama’s remarks as he closes his Fiscal Responsibility Summit, and it’s rather stunning to see an interactive session that includes the President, and other leaders of our government like John McCain and Steny Hoyer. It was particularly interesting to hear John McCain speak and be supportive of the Obama Administration’s goal to get control of the military procurement process.

When looking at the list of attendees, it seems clear that Obama is serious about his goal to address the serious fiscal issues facing this nation. We are wasting billions of dollars with an inefficient health care system and wasteful weapons programs.

There seems to be some consensus on the potential of cutting corporate tax rates in exchange for closing loopholes.

Coupled with Obama’s aggressive, and honest, budget proposal, this might help generate some serious momentum for fiscal discipline.

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