Though he now seems likely to be distracted by the mess in Syria – the consequence of several years of principled procrastination – President Obama has spent much of August on a strategically-timed campaign aimed at the problem of soaring college education costs.
I use the word “campaign” because – as is typical with political campaigns – the President was far more specific about describing the problem than he was about solving it.
Being the month when students prepare to return to campus – and when new freshmen begin their undergraduate lives – August provided an ideal opportunity for the President to hit the trail, campaign style, deploring rising college costs.
Campaigning 101, you might say.
This makes sense for an administration which never really evolved beyond the campaign and, thus, is more comfortable pointing out problems than fixing them. The President picked a time when college costs, including the many hidden costs which coincide with the fully-packed SUV, parental tears, and the awkward last hugs of that first trip to campus, are very much on the minds of American families.
The veteran campaigners on Mr. Obama’s staff arranged a series of rallies at which he could talk to large, star-struck crowds of college kids – or high school kids preparing to apply to colleges – about wanting to reduce these costs.
It really didn’t matter that the President had no credible plan.
And it certainly didn’t matter that there’s a logical inconsistency between the President’s goal of making college education available to even more young Americans, while simultaneously trying to rein in rising costs; which, of course, amounts to saying, “Let’s increase demand and bring the costs down at the same time.
That might get high marks in Campaigning 101, but not in Economics 101.
Still, it would be wrong to come down too hard on this President. America’s approach to what we quaintly term “higher education” has been unrealistic for decades now, since Vietnam, really, under both Republicans and Democrats.
Regardless of which party is in power, the policy has been to subsidize college education for ever-growing numbers of young people.
That brings us to Politics 101.
First, obviously, middle-class and working-class parents are dead serious about sending their kids to college – and they’re grateful to any politician willing to help them pay the resulting bills.
That’s why state governments provide financial assistance – largely in the form of discount “in-state” tuition rates and tax-free education savings plans. Both are ways of buying middle-class and working-class votes with the voters’ own money.
That’s also why Congress keeps expanding the Federal government’s out-of-control policy of lending money, at low interest, to anyone who manages to finagle getting into college.
But it’s not just parents who love financial aid programs. Even more important are the kids themselves.
Most newly-minted college freshmen are eighteen-year-olds – which is to say, they are also brand-new voters with no established party loyalties.
And, just like automobile manufacturers and brewers of malt beverages, political parties know that a brand loyalty established in the late teens will likely endure for decades, if not a lifetime.
What better way to win the hearts and votes of young Americans than by helping them pay for college now?
And, if their loyalties falter over the years, what better way to regain them than by passing a series of “fix-it” bills holding down interest rates – or forgiving part of their student loans?
Oldest trick in the book.
Plus, there’s this additional advantage to tuition assistance and college loan programs. They introduce young voters – in a big way – to the grand American tradition of spending now and paying later.
Again, that’s an old, time-honored bipartisan tradition. Buy now, pay later is how Democrats fund social programs.
It’s how Republicans finance tax cuts for the rich.
It’s how both parties buy the support of the real estate and housing industries.
It’s how both parties finance their wars.
Really, it’s how both parties – and the whole American business and political establishment – rationalize our continuing failure to address global climate change.
Pollute now, pay later.
And it’s why the United States – which used to profit by being the world’s biggest lender – has gradually transformed itself into the world’s biggest borrower.
Our college loan programs are an ideal way of acquainting yet another generation of young Americans with the seductive logic of deficit finance.
But, of course, this sort of thing can’t go on forever.
The hard reality is that we spend too much money sending too many eighteen-year-olds to college.
Indeed, because we make loans available to anyone who gets into college – for as long as they stay in college – we’re subsidizing a lot of bad decisions by young people who aren’t yet serious about learning, while raising the demand and thus, the costs, for those students who are.