60 Minutes FAIL: 10 Questions Scott Pelley Didn’t Ask Mitt Romney But Should Have

On last night’s broadcast of 60 Minutes, in place of the hard-hitting interview that viewers might have expected for a presidential candidate (something more along the lines of, say, Steve Kroft’s righteous pummeling of President Obama, which aired later in the broadcast), audiences were instead treated to a nothing-to-see-here talking-point-a-thon in which Scott Pelley not only allowed Mitt Romney to weasel out of every one of the (very few) hard questions he actually asked but also missed numerous opportunities to try to get the candidate to talk about some of the most serious (and legitimate) voter concerns regarding this campaign.

Here, then, is my list of

10 Questions Scott Pelley Didn’t Ask Mitt Romney But Should Have:

1. Gov. Romney, you say that

the President’s decision not to meet with Bibi Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel, when the prime minister is here for the United Nations session, I think, is a mistake and it sends a message throughout the — the Middle East that somehow we distance ourselves from our friends and I think the exact opposite approach is what’s necessary.

Let’s talk about the Mideast policy you unveiled at that Florida fundraiser last May, which became public thanks to Mother Jones and the “47%” video. That policy, as you articulated it in the video, seems to be based on your belief that the Palestinians have “no interest whatsoever in establishing peace and that the pathway to peace is almost unthinkable to accomplish.” Here is what you proposed:

So what you do is, you say, you move things along the best way you can. You hope for some degree of stability, but you recognize that this is going to remain an unsolved problem. We live with that in China and Taiwan. All right, we have a potentially volatile situation, but we sort of live with it, and we kick the ball down the field and hope that ultimately, somehow, something will happen and resolve it.

What kind of message do you think your characterization of the Palestinians might send, especially in the context of the comments you made in Jerusalem last July, suggesting that their culture is inferior, comments that many Palestinians and others found offensive, and what message do you think your plan — essentially to do nothing to try to work for peace in the region — might send throughout the Middle East?

2. Gov. Romney, many Americans are concerned about your response to the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on the anniversary of 9/11, which took the lives of Ambassador Chris Stevens, along with members of his staff and security detail. Even some prominent members of your own party have suggested that your reaction was an ill-advised rush to judgment about a volatile international situation about which you did not have all the facts. How would you reassure voters who think your response raises questions about your ability to serve as commander-in-chief?

3. What would you say to voters who perceive your response to the attack on Ambassador Stevens and his staff in Benghazi, namely that you expressed no apparent grief or regret about the tragic loss of life of individuals in service to our country even when you had the opportunity to clarify your remarks the next day, once you did have all the information, as exploiting a national tragedy as a way to try to earn political points?

4. Are you aware that most of the 47% of Americans you identified in the Mother Jones video as paying no taxes, the ones you said you could never get to “take personal responsibility and care for their lives,” are working people who are not exempt from payroll taxes, and that therefore many of them are actually taxed at a higher rate than you are?

5. Since the very small minority of Americans who pay “no income tax” are families living in poverty, low-income seniors who have paid all their lives into the system that now supports them, and active duty soldiers deployed to combat zones, would you like to take an opportunity now to reconsider your description of these Americans as people

who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.

6-9. Suggested follow-ups to this exchange:

PELLEY: The tax rate for everyone in your plan would go down.

ROMNEY: That’s right.

PELLEY: But because you’re going to limit exemptions and deductions, everybody’s going to essentially be paying the same taxes.

ROMNEY: That’s right. Middle-income people will probably see a little break, because there’ll be no tax on their savings.

6. Are you saying that you’re going to cut capital gains taxes on middle-income people? Do you understand that most middle-income people do not have any capital gains?

7. Are you aware that most middle-income families are not able to amass enough in savings for the interest on it to amount to anything and that therefore a tax cut on that interest would mean nothing to most middle-income people?

8. When you say that “middle-income people” are likely “to see a little break,” are you still talking about those earning $200,000-250,000, as you defined “middle income” last week?

9. You seem to be saying that the effect of your tax reform would be net neutral. If that is true, what exactly is the point of it?

10. Why won’t you release your damn tax returns?

University of I’ve-Got-Mine

In a recent post, I set out to discuss a proposal by the University of Chicago economist Luigi Zingales that advocated equity financing of higher education, which he outlined in a June 2012 New York Times op-ed, but reconsidered that project when I realized that Zingales’s political connections, including his close association with GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, made for a more interesting story, especially in light of the author’s coyness with respect to his political motivations, about which the Times article and accompanying author bio are silent. In making his pitch for equity funding of higher education, he presents himself strictly as a professor and an economist, situating his authority and credibility on the topic entirely in that context. He is of course a professor of economics, but there is no question that his position is also very much informed by his political affiliations, which he does not disclose. As my own position is also political, I have no objection to hearing out the positions of others who come to their beliefs by way of their politics, including when theirs are different from mine. But I think it is important to be forthright about political orientation and values if we intend a healthy debate, and Zingales was not at all forthright in those respects in his presentation to readers.

In this post, I revisit the op-ed, but not because I think his idea deserves to be taken seriously. It doesn’t. Zingales has established precisely zero credibility for one of his central claims, in which he attributes the decreasing affordability of higher education to “crony capitalism,” which he further claims enriches professors at the expense of “everyone else.” As I discussed previously, his unwillingness or inability to acknowledge that the overwhelming majority of professors in the U.S. are not pulling down anywhere near as much bank as he is seems disingenuous. As I also observed, his credibility is further challenged by an impressive tolerance for cognitive dissonance that enables him to give bestie Paul Ryan and his family a pass despite their extensive record of self-enrichment via federal generosity, which I guess is somehow not “crony capitalism” but rather just good old-fashioned free-market capitalism the way God intended.

Rather, I have reconsidered because that op-ed was read and taken seriously by a lot of people, meaning that it has become part of the mainstream of public discourse on the very real problem of college affordability for American students, and especially because it is a fine example of what is so incredibly wrong with the assumptions that inform a lot of that discourse.

Zingales proposes that “Investors could finance students’ education with equity rather than debt. In exchange for their capital, the investors would receive a fraction of a student’s future income — or, even better, a fraction of the increase in her income that derives from college attendance.” According to the author, “Equity contracts would diversify the risk of failure, with highly compensated superstars helping to finance the educations of less successful college graduates,” although it is not at all clear how that would work.

He further claims that the contracts will somehow “avoid pushing graduates into lucrative jobs just to pay off debt,” which sounds great in theory, but I don’t think it could possibly be true in practice. I don’t see how such an arrangement wouldn’t push graduates toward “lucrative jobs,” including by initially pushing them towards undergraduate majors that are considered more likely to lead to such jobs. I doubt Dr. Zingales is naive enough to believe otherwise, and since he provides no evidence to support his claim, I suspect that he is being disingenuous, especially when he adds this part:

Most important, these contracts would provide financiers with an incentive to counsel students wisely, as financiers would profit from good educational investments and lose from bad onesThis would create more informed demand for the schools, exerting pressure on them to contain costs and improve quality.

Leaving aside for now the suggestion that improved quality is somehow a logical result to expect from budget cuts, I am wondering what “good educational investments” that would result in “profit” for the “financiers” might look like. The specifics are left to our collective imagination. But the focus of media attention to the topic suggests that the operative definition of a good educational investment is one that maximizes future earnings in relation to tuition investment, on the assumption that a good investment is definable in exclusively economic — and exclusively individual — terms.

One influential study of “return on investment” (ROI) conducted by PayScale (a company that collects and analyzes salary and other career-related data) ranked 853 U.S. colleges and universities according to the extent to which “what you pay to attend” is worth “what you get back in lifetime earnings.” You probably won’t be surprised to find that of the top 20 schools with the highest ROIs, all but two are private, six are Ivies, and the total tuition at all but three tops $200K. Apparently even that astronomical tuition investment is totally worth it because of the “projected net return on investment” over 30 years: $800K for the #20 college on the list (Rensselaer Polytechnic) and over $1M for the institutions ranked 1-9.

Thankfully, as of course we all know, the playing field for admission even to elite universities is completely level, and so there is no object whatsoever for any student who would like to attend a high-ROI institution. (Alevei![1]

There is also the role of undergraduate major in calculating ROI. U.S. News recommends “College Majors with the Best Return on Investment,” and Fortune reveals “The 15 College Majors with the Biggest Payoffs.” Kiplinger offers a helpful list of the “Worst College Majors for Your Career” and Time outlines the “20 Best- and Worst-Paid College Majors.” The “best ROI” majors include (pre-)medicine, engineering (looks like any kind will do), economics, finance, or anything that leads to a career in the pharmaceutical industry. Selecting one of these financially promising majors, according one expert, will justify going to a more expensive school” because “there’s more job opportunities” and these jobs “pay better.”

So, is majoring in philosophy (Kiplinger‘s 4th “worst major”) at Stanford (4th highest institutional ROI) a good educational investment or a bad one? Can a high-ROI school compensate for a low-ROI major, or vice versa? Is it still a good investment to pursue a high-ROI major, like electrical engineering (5th “best major”), even if it’s at a low-ROI institution?

And which is the better investment: $200K in tuition for an anthropology major (#1 “worst major”) at a high-ROI institution or at a lower-ROI university at half or even a third of the cost? Will equity financiers want to invest in anthropology majors at all? Might their “wise counsel” include discouraging students from pursuing low-ROI majors? Should anthropology and all other low-ROI majors then be reserved exclusively for those students who can pay their own way?

Will financiers support students who want to attend higher-cost high-ROI institutions if they pursue low-ROI majors? Will they support students at low-ROI colleges at all? Is a low-ROI major and/or attendance at a low-ROI institution a bad investment? Is it a better investment not to go to school at all?

Zingales doesn’t address these issues, not a surprise since he never even gets around to defining “good educational investments” beyond announcing that “financiers would profit” from them and “lose from bad ones.” But it does seem like a free-market guy like him would be totally down with the ROI-rankings game. By the way, his own institution offers “far above median” faculty salaries and enjoys considerable renown, despite its less-than-stellar institutional ROI ranking (#78).

And while Zingales offers no evidence for his claim that somehow equity financing will “avoid pushing graduates into lucrative jobs just to pay off debt,” the framing of his proposal in relation to the investor’s incentive for profit suggests that in the system he envisions, the “wise counsel” of the “financiers who would profit from good educational investments” may well steer students toward high-ROI majors if not compel high-ROI major selection as a condition of funding.

I would love for this to be nothing more than some slippery-slope paranoia on my part, but I don’t think it is. For one thing, there is just no evidence that Zingales’s formulation assumes any kind of educational or cultural value beyond the individual ROI model for the student and “profit” for the “financier.” For another, the ubiquity of ROI as the central assumption of recent public discourse on the topic of the value of higher education suggests that it is not. And for yet another, programs that tie eligibility to very specific kinds of “educational investments” are already part of the discussion. For example, the Amazon Career Choice Program for warehouse employees of the behemoth online bookseller (and everything-else seller) is, according to its FAQ page, “unlike traditional tuition reimbursement programs” in that they “exclusively fund education only in areas that are well-paying and in high demand.” (Those are my italics, but it was not my idea to use “exclusively” and “only” redundantly. Thanks to my low-ROI undergraduate major, today I can easily recognize such graceless syntactic constructions, and the satisfaction I take in doing so is what they pay me with instead of money.)

But none of this quite gets at the real problems with the discourse in general and the Zingales proposal in particular, one of which is this: There is no cultural consensus that students will make the best educational decisions when they base those decisions primarily (if not solely) on the basis of expected individual financial ROI. Should we accept that assumption as a logical guiding principle for any serious discussion of higher education? The case has not been made convincingly or really at all that this kind of thinking is the wisest course for our society, and I have a pretty strong suspicion that it is not. [2]

And speaking of unconvincing arguments, Zingales insists that despite how all this looks, what he is advocating “is not a modern form of indentured servitude.” In his pre-emptive defense against the charge, which he is right to anticipate, he reveals another problematic ideological stance that has gone mostly (but not entirely) unchallenged in the wider public debate of whether college is “worth it.” Zingales says that what he is proposing is not indentured servitude but rather

a voluntary form of taxation, one that would make only the beneficiaries of a college education — not all taxpayers — pay for the costs of it.

I could not agree more that the beneficiaries of a college education should absolutely be paying for it. Where Zingales and I disagree is in our respective understandings of who the beneficiaries really are.

The problem is not that we have a system in which those who are not “the beneficiaries” of higher education are somehow the ones paying for it. The problem is that too many of the beneficiaries are not paying anywhere near enough for it, too many of them resent what little they do pay, and too many of them would like to pay even less.

This is at least in part because a lot of people honestly don’t see themselves as beneficiaries of the education of other people, which I have to agree is a logical conclusion in the context of the dominant ideology that informs popular opinion on the topic of higher ed, which is (say it with me) that it is all about individual financial ROI. In that context, why would people see themselves as beneficiaries of any education but their own?

But they are. We all are. That a whole lot more people benefit from the education of a single individual than merely the individual and that these benefits are cumulative and span generations is indisputable. We are incredibly fortunate to live in a mostly safe, mostly civilized, and relatively prosperous society with extraordinary rights and resources that are foundational for anyone who wants to build anything. That Americans have achieved so much that is truly extraordinary — think moon-landing extraordinary, Internet extraordinary — is a direct result of the high cultural value that we the people have placed on education in general and higher education in particular, in which we have invested accordingly. In this sense, and I want to make clear that I think this is the sense that matters most, higher education is not merely or even primarily an investment in an individual.

But somehow the idea that it is has become a powerful cultural assumption. Yes, the individual benefit of a college education is undeniable, but it makes no sense to assume (or to try to dictate) that it is valuable only in terms of the financial return to the individual (and to the “financier” who pays for it). What an incredibly cynical, short-sighted, and unimaginative view that is.

Imagine what our society might look like if Americans had always thought that way. Imagine a United States with no G.I. bill, no Claiborne Pell, no cultural tradition of education as a public good. How many valuable advances and innovations in the sciences, technology, medicine, and yes, the arts and the humanities, would never have happened if only affluent people could access a quality university education, if the only higher education open to most Americans was training to be good little worker bees in jobs that are some billionaire’s idea of what is best for us?

The debt that a student takes on is all too individual, but the benefit of that individual’s education is collective. And until we can find a better way to make higher education more affordable and more accessible, we ought to be working harder to support individuals for whom student loans are the only option, even the ones who don’t opt for high-ROI majors and those for whom high-ROI institutions are out of reach. Students who choose alternatives to financial self-enrichment, who choose to pursue work in areas that make life worth living not only for themselves but also for others — and that includes pre-school teachersartistsanthropologists, and philosophers, as well as doctors and engineers — are good educational investments even if “financiers” don’t ever recoup a dime of “profit” off them.

I guess it’s easy to blame the student debt crisis on college students and graduates and professors and administrators, or to propose a funding scheme like Zingales’s that does nothing to address the real causes of increasing college unaffordability, starting with the national disgrace that is the systematic public divestment from state universities. I guess that’s easier than taking on the devastating consequences of student-loan debt on individuals and on the U.S. economy in any meaningful way.

It is hard not to be discouraged at the moment, especially given the possibility that the nation might elect a smirking, dishonest presidential candidate whose idea of fiscal responsibility is disparaging poor people and stashing millions in overseas accounts to avoid paying his taxes. And never mind his equally dishonest, free-marketeer, I-built-that running mate, whose own accumulation of wealth via government subsidies entitles him to a description so many times stronger than hypocrite that even this low-ROI English major can’t think of one that rises to the occasion.

But I hope that the cynical ideology that an educational investment is (and ought to be) an individual thing, that the point of education is an exclusively individual benefit, that the benefit can only be measured as a return on investment that can be counted only in dollars, and that any notion of a “greater good” is socialism and therefore bad does not discourage and even prevent people from pursuing educational goals that aren’t an obvious fast track to generating big revenue for themselves (and “profit” for their “financiers”). The last thing we need in this country is to continue to celebrate and reward the ideology of greed that has gotten us into so many of the messes that we are collectively in today. If we allow that ideology to continue to define our education policy, it is not going to be a win for most of us.


Notes:

[1] Of course it is not at all clear that factors that have nothing to do with quality of education, such as the socioeconomic privilege and social advantages that many high-institutional-ROI students and alumni enjoy, can be ruled out as significant influences on a high-ranking institution’s ROI. That is, such a return may not be a function of the institution itself but rather reflective of the relative privilege of the students most likely to be admitted. On a related note, see Thomas Edsall’s March 2012 New York Times article “The Reproduction of Privilege,” which  identifies “anti-democratic trends” in the admissions policies of the “most competitive” colleges, many of which are of course also high-ROI institutions.

[2] And don’t even get me started on how all this institutional ROI business does absolutely nothing to address the highly problematic role of elite colleges and universities in perpetuating social inequality. In discussions of ROI, that function goes completely unremarked even though it a key feature of what makes a high-ROI institution such a “good educational investment” in the first place. These institutions actually exacerbate the class divide, as Thomas Edsall observes in “The Reproduction of Privilege,” cited in Note 1 and linked again here.

Hard-Working Americans Like You

It’s been an amusing week around chez Alevei, especially since Mr. Alevei has somehow ended up on the mailing list for the Republican National Committee, perhaps thanks to a family member or two who still think his politics may be worth trying to salvage. Most exciting of all, he is now therefore eligible to participate in the RNC 2012 Presidential Issues Survey, which has just arrived in the mail, along with a nice note From the Desk of Mitt Romney, cheerily dated “Monday Morning,” that opens with the salutation, “Dear Fellow Republican.” Because the envelope is marked “urgent,” Mr. Alevei of course felt that he had no choice but to give it his immediate attention.

Gov. Romney writes that he and his “friends at the Republican National Committee” are interested in finding out “what hard-working Americans” like Mr. Alevei “want this campaign to be about.” In addition to his “honest, thoughtful answers” to the survey questions, which “will help guide our blueprint to victory” (yes, that is really what it says, guide our blueprint), naturally Gov. Romney “would appreciate” Mr. Alevei’s “financial support as well.”

Also tucked into the envelope is a longer letter from RNC chair (and “obvious anagram”¹) Reince Priebus filled with the usual underlining of important points. You know, like “Make no mistake: the very future of our nation will be determined by the outcome of the 2012 election,” and “Barack Obama is hoping his constant demagoguery, blustery partisan rhetoric, billion dollar war chest and hundreds of millions of dollars from his Big Union Bosses will buy him another term.² We cannot allow that to happen.” That kind of thing.

One thing both letters have in common is their insistence on how truly valuable Mr. Alevei’s thoughts and feelings “on the major issues of the day” really are to the RNC. As Mr. Priebus explains, “The experience you bring to the table is critical to our Party’s success.”

You see, Mr. Alevei has been “chosen to participate in this Survey,” writes Mr. Priebus, because of his “active political involvement and steadfast commitment to the Republican Party” in his “area.” And in his note, Gov. Romney identifies Mr. Alevei as “one of our country’s most active Republicans.”

All this has led me to wonder whether Mr. Alevei has been engaging in political activities about which I am somehow unaware. That seems unlikely, so I am left with the exciting possibility that a long-haired pro-choice civil libertarian who supports same-sex marriage and is married to a Jewish liberal feminist university professor who works for the state may actually be the RNC’s best hope for “active” and “steadfast” support for their idiotic Romney/Ryan ticket come November. (Yes, I do have a rich fantasy life, but alevei.)


 Notes:

1. The brilliant and hilarious Esquire political writer Charles Pierce came up with that one in this August 7 post.

2. I’ve said it before, more than once, actually, but these people are truly and utterly without shame.

Calling the Kettle Crony, Part 2: Charles Koch

If you’ve been here before, you might remember that in my previous post, I said that I had been starting to think that Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney “truly take the absolute effing cake when it comes to astonishingly shameless hypocrisy on the topic of Crony Capitalism and How It Is Destroying America” but that it is possible that I have since been proven wrong.

That’s right; I thought I had it all figured out, but then former Michigan governor and present-day bad-ass brainiac Jennifer Granholm, host of The War Room on Current TV, had to go and post a link on her Facebook page last Friday to an August 16 op-ed that exposes Rep. Ryan and Gov. Romney for the amateurs they are.

That op-ed, “Why We Fight for Economic Freedom,” has left me with no choice but to reconsider my earlier statement because of the very real possibility that the title of Absolute Effing Cake-Taker When It Comes to Astonishingly Shameless Hypocrisy on the Topic of Crony Capitalism and How It Is Destroying America might perhaps be more appropriately awarded to its author. He is none other than that Quintessential Crony Capitalist Hypocrite himself, Charles Koch. (Yes, he’s one of those Kochs.)

Granholm and the Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs discussed Mr. Koch’s op-ed on the August 17 edition of War Room (video here). I have not yet watched, mostly because I was afraid they’d use up all the good lines and I’d have nothing left to write about, but I am sure it will be well worth my time and yours.

Mr. Koch’s op-ed was published on Newsmax, and I am reluctant to link to it directly because of my conviction that no one should ever have to visit Newsmax for any reason. If you’re not familiar with Newsmax, the best comparison I can come up with to try to describe it is to say that it’s kind of the Weekly World News of political, um, journalism. It’s also kind of like the Onion, except it’s not funny, and it is bankrolled and run, respectively, by two Clinton-era miscreants: billionaire nutjob Richard “Arkansas Project” Scaife and Christopher “OMG Hillary Killed Vince Foster!” Ruddy.

Anyway, despite my reservations, here is the link to the op-ed. You’ve been warned.

The squeamish should please note that I will excerpt generously, so they will not miss much if they opt not to give Newsmax the satisfaction of a page view. While charges of cherry-picking could conceivably be leveled, I have to point out in my defense that there is pretty much not one single word in the entire piece that isn’t an unbelievable sack of disingenuous, self-righteous, hypocritical malarkey, with the possible inclusion (as Mary McCarthy once famously put it) of “and” and “the.” The whole thing is nothing but cherries.

I have to start with a quick spoiler alert: Koch never actually identifies the “we” in the title (“Why We Fight for Economic Freedom”). The text of the 800-word op-ed contains ten occurrences of “I” and only one of “we” apart from the title. We (meaning us, or everyone who has a perfectly good day to ruin by actually reading it) are left to infer that he probably means himself and his conjoined twin brother, David, to whom he is attached at the wallet and at the basal ganglia.

This seems to be the guiding principle of the op-ed, its thesis, the reason “Why We Fight”:

I want my legacy to be greater freedom, greater prosperity and a better way of life for my family, our employees and all Americans. And I wish the same for every nation on earth.

Except for public employees in Wisconsin. Those commies can go suck it. Except for this commie, the one my dad, Fred “I Heart John Birch” Koch, liked to kick it with back in the 1930s.

OK, I added that last part.

(But see “Joe Stalin Made Me Rich, But I’m Really a Free Market Patriot,” by Theo Spencer, linked here, and “Kennedy’s Death Is Used as Gimmick to Recruit New John Birch Members,” linked here, by the legendary and controversial journalist Drew Pearson, who is not to be confused with this guy. In December 1963, Pearson reported that Mr. Fred Koch and several other like-minded “disgruntled tycoons” were behind full-page ads in the Washington Post and the New York Times claiming that JFK was “a martyr to communism,” despite their pre-assassination charges that President Kennedy was “consorting with communism.” Pearson notes that Mr. Koch the elder “built 15 refineries in Russia,” which he suggests “would appear to put him more in favor of coexistence [with the USSR] than the late JFK.” After listing the names of those who paid for the ads, he concludes: “These are the men who are using Kennedy’s death to campaign for new members to the John Birch Society.”)

Let’s move now to some context so that we can be sure everyone is up to speed on the clear and present dangers to Charles Koch’s Economic Freedom, which he must therefore Fight For, because as he urgently reminds us in the op-ed, “Nations with the greatest degree of economic freedom tend to have citizens who are much better off in every way.”

This is probably going to seem like a digression because the threat to Mr. Koch’s Economic Freedom may not be immediately obvious from the following example, but let me assure you that this is a Deadly Serious topic about which I would not joke nor from which I would even dare to digress. Anyway. As I was about to say, in this Politico article from May 2012, “GOP Groups Plan Record $1B Blitz,” Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei report that

Republican super PACs and other outside groups shaped by a loose network of prominent conservatives – including Karl Rove, the Koch brothers and Tom Donohue of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce – plan to spend roughly $1 billion on November’s elections for the White House and control of Congress, according to officials familiar with the groups’ internal operations.

That total includes previously undisclosed plans for newly aggressive spending by the Koch brothers, who are steering funding to build sophisticated, county-by-county operations in key states. POLITICO has learned that Koch-related organizations plan to spend about $400 million ahead of the 2012 elections – twice what they had been expected to commit.

Just the spending linked to the Koch network is more than the $370 million that John McCain raised for his entire presidential campaign four years ago. And the $1 billion total surpasses the $750 million that Barack Obama, one of the most prolific fundraisers ever, collected for his 2008 campaign.

As you can see, then, Allen and VandeHei spell out in no uncertain terms just how grave the threat to Charles Koch’s Economic Freedom really is. It should be obvious to everyone now that this threat is so dire that Mr. Koch is left with no choice but to spend $400 million dollars on the 2012 presidential and congressional campaigns. I mean, just imagine how much more he would be able to spend to make sure that the White House and Congress are fully staffed with people for whom restoring and protecting his Economic Freedom is Job One if he weren’t so brutally oppressed by the appalling lack of Economic Freedom under which he currently chafes.

As Mr. Koch notes in his op-ed,

No centralized government, no matter how big, how smart or how powerful, can effectively and efficiently control much of society in a beneficial way. On the contrary, big governments are inherently inefficient and harmful. And yet, the tendency of our own government here in the U.S. has been to grow bigger and bigger, controlling more and more. This is why America keeps dropping in the annual ranking of economic freedom.

While this statement might sound kind of ridiculously paranoid and delusional, please note that only a real giver and true mensch would selflessly give away the kind of money that he and his brother are putting into the 2012 elections, which I probably don’t need to remind you is something he is doing for no other reason than to help select staff for an organization he believes is “inherently inefficient and harmful.” That takes a truly generous heart, not to mention a complete and total lack of acquaintance with the concept of irony.

Elsewhere in his op-ed, Mr. Koch invokes Karl Marx and toilet-paper rationing (really), and he rightly calls out the “far too many legislative proposals that would subsidize one form of energy over another,” which he — rightly again — sees as interfering with Economic Freedom for All Americans. But I have to admit that I found that part a little confusing. I thought guys like him were usually OK with subsidizing one form of energy over another, as long as the “one form of energy” isn’t renewable, and Mr. Koch does in fact confirm this by railing on about wind energy subsidies, which he considers an “obvious example” of the ways in which support for renewable energy is at odds with Economic Freedom for All Americans.

In his defense, he could be legitimately unaware that the oil industry is heavily subsidized in the United States and in the rest of the world. (See, for example, “U.S. Fossil-Fuel Subsidies Twice That of Renewables” and “Fossil Fuel Subsidies Six Times More Than Renewable Energy.”). We are talking about someone who may be getting most of his information from Newsmax, after all, so how exactly would you expect him to know about documentable things that really happen in the actual world? He has been very busy Fighting for Economic Freedom for All Americans, including You People, so he obviously has more important things to do than inform himself appropriately and behave accordingly. Fighting for the Economic Freedom of All Americans is a big job. Take it easy on the guy already. Sheesh.

So it is entirely possible that while he was busy Fighting for the Economic Freedom of All Americans, Mr. Koch might have missed “World Energy Outlook 2011,” a report issued by the International Energy Agency in November of last year. According to the report:

Fossil-fuel subsidies as presently constituted tend to be regressive, disproportionately benefiting higher income groups that can afford higher levels of fuel consumption. Cutting the payments would also help tackle climate change. Eliminating subsidies by 2020 would cut global energy demand by 3.9 percent in that year, the equivalent of 600 million tons of oil. The savings would rise to 4.8 percent by 2035.

But do you think Charles Koch, champion of the Economic Freedom of All Americans, has time to worry his pretty little head about disproportionate benefits going to higher income groups or the negative impact of oil subsidies on climate change? Please. Of course he doesn’t. What part of Fighting for Economic Freedom do You People not understand? We are talking about Freedom for All Americans, for God’s sake, and that literally means All Americans, from Paul Ryan to Mitt Romney to the Koch brothers themselves. And even that does not begin to consider their many dependents.

Yes, that’s right: their dependents. You People really have no idea how many mouths those poor Kochs have to feed, do you? Well, know this: Koch Industries has no fewer than 172 members of Congress to support during the 2012 election cycle! That support has already totaled $1,677,301 so far this year, not counting anything they have spent since July 1. And before you start trying to say they probably only support Republicans, you should please note that a staggering one percent of their contributions went to Democrats, one of them being Paul Ryan’s cousin-in-law.

We’re talking about total contributions of over $13 million — and that is just what they gave to individual congressional candidates — since 1990. But Mr. Koch makes it crystal clear that he expects absolutely nothing in return! I mean, you tell me if this sounds like a guy who expects anything from the government:

Repeatedly asking for government help undermines the foundations of society by destroying initiative and responsibility. It is also a fatal blow to efficiency and corrupts the political process.

And he should know!

Speaking of what an awesome giver Mr. Koch is, have I mentioned that Koch Industries spent over $8 million last year to lobby Congress on oil and gas industry issues, plus another $5.3 million so far in 2012? What, you think Congress is going to lobby itself? Fighting for Economic Freedom for All Americans is very, very expensive!

But a smart business leader like Mr. Koch is not going to spend all his money in one place. He and his brother also invest heavily in the job-creating climate-change-denial industry, which as you know occupies a critical front in the Fight for Economic Freedom for All Americans. Just to take one example of their considerable generosity: The Kochs are key bankrollers of our friends at the Manhattan Institute, particularly when it comes to supporting that organization’s tireless work to disseminate propaganda on behalf of the fossil-fuel industries. I hope you don’t think that continually having to try to contradict every legitimate climate scientist on the planet Earth, including ingrates like this guy, comes cheap. It doesn’t.

And neither does getting their messages of urgent disentruthfulness out to the public. Even though it all functions in the service of — that’s right: Economic Freedom for All Americans — maintaining that level of projectile anti-intellectualism is itself the very opposite of free. In fact, according to the tree-hugging hippies at Greenpeace, Koch Industries spent over $61 million between 1997 and 2010 to support the Manhattan Institute and other think tanks that traffic in environmental Newspeak. And according to ThinkProgress, “Koch Industries outspends Exxon Mobil on climate and clean energy disinformation.”

Mr. Koch also helpfully demonstrates in his op-ed that it is not only altruistic billionaire mensches like himself who want the kind of Economic Freedom that cannot possibly thrive in a nation with a big control-freak government, which of course is what has always stood in the way of America‘s world leadership in anything that matters. He does this by quoting a millionaire mensch, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who you might not realize was totally on the same page as Mr. Koch in his suspicion and condemnation of big government. As Mr. Koch reminds us,

It was President Franklin Roosevelt who said: “Continued dependence on [government support] induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.”

Who knew FDR was such a free-market free spirit? Knowing how busy Mr. Koch is, though, I wonder whether he ever got around to reading President Roosevelt’s 1935 State of the Union address, the source of the quote, in its entirety. Earlier in the speech, the president had this to say:

We find our population suffering from old inequalities, little changed by past sporadic remedies. In spite of our efforts and in spite of our talk we have not weeded out the overprivileged and we have not effectively lifted up the underprivileged. Both of these manifestations of injustice have retarded happiness. No wise man has any intention of destroying what is known as the “profit motive,” because by the profit motive we mean the right by work to earn a decent livelihood for ourselves and our families.

We have, however, a clear mandate from the people, that Americans must forswear that conception of the acquisition of wealth which, through excessive profits, creates undue private power over private affairs and, to our misfortune, over public affairs as well. In building toward this end we do not destroy ambition, nor do we seek to divide our wealth into equal shares on stated occasions. We continue to recognize the greater ability of some to earn more than others. But we do assert that the ambition of the individual to obtain for him and his a proper security, a reasonable leisure, and a decent living throughout life is an ambition to be preferred to the appetite for great wealth and great power.

I recall to your attention my message to the Congress last June in which I said, “Among our objectives I place the security of the men, women, and children of the Nation first.” That remains our first and continuing task: and in a very real sense every major legislative enactment of this Congress should be a component part of it.

I have no idea why Mr. Koch would have left that part out because it sounds like exactly the same thing as Fighting for Economic Freedom for All Americans.

And here’s where the president seems to have been going with that whole “subtle destroyer of the human spirit” thing (again quoting from the 1935 SOTU):

I am not willing that the vitality of our people be further sapped by the giving of cash, of market baskets, of a few hours of weekly work cutting grass, raking leaves, or picking up papers in the public parks. We must preserve not only the bodies of the unemployed from destitution but also their self-respect, their self-reliance, and courage and determination. This decision brings me to the problem of what the Government should do with approximately 5,000,000 unemployed now on the relief rolls.

About one million and a half of these belong to the group which in the past was dependent upon local welfare efforts. Most of them are unable for one reason or another to maintain themselves independently – for the most part, through no fault of their own. Such people, in the days before the great depression, were cared for by local effort – by States, by counties, by towns, by cities, by churches, and by private welfare agencies. It is my thought that in the future they must be cared for as they were before. I stand ready, through my own personal efforts and through the public influence of the office that I hold, to help these local agencies to get the means necessary to assume this burden.

The security legislation which I shall propose to the Congress will, I am confident, be of assistance to local effort in the care of this type of cases. Local responsibility can and will be resumed, for, after all, common sense tells us that the wealth necessary for this task existed and still exists in the local community, and the dictates of sound administration require that this responsibility be in the first instance a local one.

There are, however, an additional three and one-half million employable people who are on relief. With them the problem is different and the responsibility is different. This group was the victim of a Nation-wide depression caused by conditions which were not local but national. The Federal Government is the only governmental agency with sufficient power and credit to meet this situation. We have assumed this task, and we shall not shrink form it in the future. It is a duty dictated by every intelligent consideration of national policy to ask you to make it possible for the United States to give employment to all of these three-and-a-half million people now on relief, pending their absorption in a rising tide of private employment.

It is my thought that, with the exception of certain of the normal public building operations of the Government, all emergency public works shall be united in a single new and greatly enlarged plan.

I know all this probably makes it look like Mr. Koch deliberately misrepresents what President Roosevelt actually said in an utterly shameless, dishonest, and despicable way. But I am sure that is not the case. I am sure there is a plausible explanation for how Mr. Koch could have misunderstood the president’s speech to the extent that he seems to think it meant the exact opposite of what it actually says.But there is something Mr. Koch says in the article that he and I definitely agree on:

Today, many governments give special treatment to a favored few businesses that eagerly accept those favors. This is the essence of cronyism.

He could not be more on the money on this one. And when Charles Koch defines “the essence of cronysim” (which he really does in all kinds of ways), he is obviously speaking from experience. For instance, Koch Supply & Trading was selected by the Bush Administration in 2002 “to provide approximately 8 million barrels of crude oil to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve,” according to this Department of Energy press release. And Reuters reported in a February 2011 article titled “Koch Brothers Positioned To Be Big Winners If Keystone XL Pipeline Is Approved,” that

Koch Industries is already responsible for close to 25 percent of the oil sands crude that is imported into the United States, and is well-positioned to benefit from increasing Canadian oil imports.

A Koch Industries operation in Calgary, Alberta, called Flint Hills Resources Canada LP, supplies about 250,000 barrels of tar sands oil a day to a heavy oil refinery in Minnesota, also owned by the Koch brothers.

Flint Hills Resources Canada also operates a crude oil terminal in Hardisty, Alberta, the starting point of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.

The company’s website says it is “among Canada’s largest crude oil purchasers, shippers and exporters.” Koch Industries also owns Koch Exploration Canada, L.P., an oil sands-focused exploration company also based in Calgary that acquires, develops and trades petroleum properties.

In sum, perhaps I am being too cynical in my adorable little outrage over the facts that not only can a handful of extraordinarily wealthy people essentially buy elections out from under 240 million eligible voters who helped to subsidize their wealth in the first place but that they are somehow also able — publicly, and completely and utterly without shame — to work themselves up into a righteous lather as if they are somehow the victims in all this and the rest of us just need to understand what it takes to Fight for Economic Freedom for All Americans. If they become even more obscenely “overprivileged” in the process, well, that’s their reward for Fighting the Good Fight for All Americans, just as God and FDR intended.

And if they want to buy an election because they’re pissed off at the president for standing in the way of their next not at all crony-capitalistic government windfall? Well, they should go right ahead! This is America! And in the America that Mr. Koch envisions, where Economic Freedom will one day ring for All Americans, we will all someday be just as free as he is now to buy whatever kind of political system we want, too. And if there is no way most of us will ever be able to afford to do that, well, the free market will have spoken and it doesn’t want to hear any backtalk from the likes of You People.

Finally, Mr. Koch leaves us with this ominous observation:

In a system without economic freedom, the wealthiest are the tyrants who make people’s lives miserable.

Tell me about it.

Calling the Kettle Crony, Part 1: Mitt Romney

As I wrote last week, getting your head around the idea of GOP vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) as even remotely credible on the topic of calling out “crony capitalism” requires a superhuman tolerance for cognitive dissonance or an extraordinary sense of humor or both.

Specifically, I suggested that the very idea of Rep. Ryan’s endorsement of A Capitalism for the People: Recapturing the Lost Genius of American Prosperity, a new book decrying “crony capitalism” by the University of Chicago economist and self-proclaimed drain on the economy Luigi Zingales, is kind of a ridiculous, hypocritical outrage that really ought to be hilarious but isn’t because of what Rep. Ryan’s power and influence could potentially mean for actual people who are not Paul Ryan or Luigi Zingales.

As I hope I made clear in that post, this is by no means to suggest that Rep. Ryan is not an expert in crony capitalism. Of course he is. [1] That’s part of what makes him such a great match for his running mate, Governor Mitt Romney.

The campaign, including a Republican primary season that I hope I never have to try to convince any sane person to believe actually happened, has been a long, brutal slog for the governor, and over the course of it, one thing that has become increasingly obvious to everyone is that the many gifts and blessings bestowed upon the presumptive GOP presidential nominee by his creator do not include a sense of humor. And yet even knowing that, I am still able to find it remarkable that in the course of deploying one of his favorite general-election campaign tactics — righteously accusing President Obama of crony capitalism (claims that have earned him four Pinocchios — reserved for “whoppers” — from the Washington Post‘s Fact Checker column) — Gov. Romney somehow manages to do it every single time with an impressively straight face. My mom sometimes says, “I never get too old not to be disappointed by people,” and I guess I have to say I hear that.

To be fair, though, everyone in the world who is not Kristi Yamaguchi knows perfectly well that Gov. Romney is well acquainted with crony capitalism, so at least theoretically, goes the logic, he should be able to recognize it when he sees it. And, speaking of Kristi Yamaguchi, Wayne Barrett reported in the Daily Beast in May that

one circle of Romney donors [is] tied to a tainted Olympic contractor who has given more than a million dollars in campaign donations. After being granted immunity by prosecutors, the contractor, Sead Dizdarevic, admitted making $131,000 in cash payments to Romney’s predecessors. The cash was used, at least in part, to subsidize the IOC gifts. Yet it was Romney, not his indicted predecessors, who awarded Dizdarevic the hospitality deal that’s made him the ticket king of the Olympics to this day.

David Simmons also testified in the 2003 federal trial of Romney’s predecessors, in a case that was ultimately dismissed. But unlike Dizdarevic, Simmons pleaded guilty to a federal tax misdemeanor as part of a cooperation agreement that allowed him to avoid a multi-count felony indictment.

According to the Salt Lake Tribune, the guilty plea was connected to Simmons giving a fake job to John Kim, the son of a critical IOC member, to qualify him for a sham visa, and then submitting fraudulent tax and immigration filings to cover up the alleged conspiracy.

Since that time, Simmons and his family have given more than $317,000 to Romney and affiliated campaigns, and business associates of the family have added nearly $160,000 more. Simmons and his wife, Melinda, donated $32,100 themselves, going back to 2006.

The stories of the many interesting maneuvers that Mitt Romney had no choice but to finesse if he was going to succeed in his important mission to make Kristi’s Olympic dreams come true in Salt Lake City are many, various, and complex, so I encourage you to read Barrett’s meticulously researched article in its entirety.

In the meantime, while we are on the topic of astonishing hypocrisy, let’s remember back to Gov. Romney’s February 2012 op-ed in the Detroit News, in which he called the U.S. auto industry bailout “crony capitalism on a grand scale.” As if that bit of evidence of his astounding lack of self-awareness weren’t sufficiently spit-take inducing, Mitt “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” Romney really brought his A game when he announced in May 2012 that he is now prepared to “take a lot of credit for the fact that this industry’s come back.”

Of course, this probably sounds completely insane to any normal person, so let me explain. What you may not realize is that opposing the bailout in November 2008 and then calling it “crony capitalism” in February 2012 is absolutely what saved the auto industry and with it approximately one million jobs. [2]

The liberal media is of course withholding the credit that Gov. Romney “will take a lot of,” thank you very much, for no other reason than to help his political enemies. So don’t believe all that stuff the Washington Post reported in May 2012 in their pitiful lamestream-media attempt to debunk the governor’s not-even-joking claim that he is responsible for saving the auto industry. The Post — if that is its real name — would have us believe its outlandish claim that

Many independent analysts have concluded that taking the approach recommended by Romney would not have worked in late 2008, simply because the credit markets were so frozen that a bankruptcy [which Romney advocated] was not a viable option.

The Post is also guilty of relying on sources who have little experience with or understanding of the industry, such as former GM executive Bob Lutz, who also rejected Gov. Romney’s bid for credit. (“What these people always deliberately forget is there was no money,” Lutz said, because of the meltdown of the global credit market. “Nobody had any money.”)

And don’t believe Reuters, either. They reported in February that Lutz, a Republican, was “infuriated” by Romney’s charge of crony capitalism. “This is the lie that gets told again and again and again — government intervention wasn’t necessary, that this was creeping socialism, that Obama wants to take over or give a sweetheart deal to the unions,” he said. Lutz also dismissed Romney’s claim that “we didn’t need the government and this could have been a privately run bankruptcy with the normal Chapter 11” as “fiction.” [3]

But can you blame Mitt Romney, a man who wouldn’t have an elevator in his garage or a dancing horse that gets him tax breaks worth $77K a year if he didn’t get pretty much everything he wants in this life, for thinking he can have this auto-bailout things both ways, too?

So, let me quickly summarize here, because I can see how this might all be a little confusing: For Mitt Romney, the auto bailout is nothing less than a disaster for the industry and an egregious example of the worst kind of crony capitalism that saved a lot of jobs for which we should all thank Mitt Romney. Everybody clear now? Good.

As I was working on this post, I was starting to think that Rep. Ryan and Gov. Romney truly take the absolute effing cake when it comes to astonishingly shameless hypocrisy on the topic of Crony Capitalism and How It Is Destroying America.

But it turns out I was wrong about that. An op-ed that recently came to my attention suggests that the title of Absolute Effing Cake-Taker When It Comes to Astonishingly Shameless Hypocrisy on the Topic of Crony Capitalism and How It Is Destroying America would perhaps be more appropriately awarded to its author.

More on that in Calling the Kettle Crony, part 2, coming later this week. File it under “I never get too old not to be disappointed by people.”

Notes:

1. If you didn’t have time to follow the links in last week’s post, allow me to direct you again to some of the credentials that qualify him. Particularly noteworthy are Joe Romm’s article, “Paul Ryan And His Family To Benefit From The $45 Billion In Subsidies For Big Oil In His Budget,” and Bob King’s “Koch brothers have Paul Ryan’s back,” as well as “Ryan Family Financially Benefits from the Health Insurance Industry,” by Tara Culp-Ressler, and “Ryan’s Shrewd Budget Payday,” by Daniel Stone.

2. Here’s Gov. Romney in February 2008:

If General Motors, Ford and Chrysler get the bailout that their chief executives asked for yesterday, you can kiss the American automotive industry goodbye. It won’t go overnight, but its demise will be virtually guaranteed.

Now here he is in February 2012:

The president tells us that without his intervention things in Detroit would be worse. I believe that without his intervention things there would be better.

And finally May 2012:

My own view, by the way, was that the auto companies needed to go through bankruptcy before government help. And frankly, that’s finally what the president did. He finally took them through bankruptcy. That was the right course I argued for from the very beginning. It was the UAW [United Auto Workers] and the president that delayed the idea of bankruptcy. I pushed the idea of a managed bankruptcy and finally when that was done, and help was given, the companies got back on their feet. So I’ll take a lot of credit for the fact that this industry’s come back.

3. According to the Post, the bipartisan Congressional Oversight Panel had this to say at the end of 2008:

The circumstances in the global credit markets in November and December 2008 were unlike any the financial markets had seen in decades. U.S. domestic credit markets were frozen in the wake of the Lehman bankruptcy, and international sources of funding were extremely limited. Bankruptcy with reorganization of the two auto companies using private DIP [debtor in possession] financing did not appear to be an option by late fall 2008, leaving liquidation of the firms as the more likely course of action absent a government rescue.

The Post also reported that President George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers projected in December 2008 that

the direct costs of American automakers failing and laying off their workers in the near term would result in a more than 1 percent reduction in real GDP [gross domestic product] growth and about 1.1 million workers losing their jobs, including workers for automotive suppliers and dealers.

The Companies They Keep

On Crony Capitalism, Partisan Hackery, and Higher Education

The economist Luigi Zingales published an interesting op-ed in the New York Times on June 13 titled “The College Graduate as Collateral,” in which he proposes a financial aid program in which venture capitalists would finance college attendance for students who can’t afford to pay for it themselves. “In exchange for their capital,” Zingales writes, “the investors would receive a fraction of a student’s future income,” which would be collected on behalf of the investor by the IRS. After my initial reaction (i.e. what could possibly go wrong? ), I decided to give what he’s suggesting a little more consideration because heaven knows we need some creative alternatives ASAP for helping non-affluent students pay for college without the risk of indebting themselves (and/or their loved ones) for the rest of their lives.

Zingales, the Robert C. McCormack Professor of Entrepreneurship and Finance and David G. Booth Faculty Fellow at the University of Chicago, is critical of the “crony capitalism” that he (rightly) sees as driving the U.S. economy into the ground and threatening democracy in this country in the process. In June, he published a new book on that topic, A Capitalism for the People: Recapturing the Lost Genius of American Prosperity (Basic Books, 2012). The equity-financing idea he discusses in the op-ed as a means for paying for college is explored in greater detail in the book. (Reviews here and here. Fairly generous preview here.)

Time out here to say that what I initially planned as no more than a minor digression at this stage of the post, which was going to be about the ways that we as a society fund and value higher education, ended up as a total derail. In my defense, there is no question in my mind that really all this stuff is ultimately about the same kind of thing.

Anyway, when I saw that A Capitalism for the People, a book whose central argument is (as Zingales puts it in an interview with the Independent) that “Entrenched big business interests are taking the country over, while lobbyists and political insiders make millions from their personal connections to an ever-expanding federal government,” has been endorsed by 2012 Republican vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan, well, it just turned out to be the kind of information that I could not possibly deal with in the brief aside I had initially planned for it.

Ryan’s endorsement of A Capitalism for the People is interesting on oh so many levels. For one thing, just in case anyone had any question about it, the endorsement answers unequivocally that Ryan is in fact a man for whom irony, if it is not completely dead, is in a deep, deep coma or at the very least an ongoing drunken stupor. It would be a cliché to say that Ryan invented crony capitalism — for one thing, he’s a young guy and it has been around for a long time — but his activities as a member of Congress suggest that he is certainly an enthusiastic and capable student of the genre. And the guy on whom he has recently staked his own fortune (Oh, not literally, of course, ha ha. You can rest assured that he’ll keep making tons of money no matter what happens in November) is no slouch, either. They are a wonderful team for representing a party whose astonishing hypocrisy has yet to find anything close to its bounds.

Here is Ryan’s blurb for the book:

In A Capitalism for the People, Luigi Zingales exposes the pernicious collusion of big business and big government — offering the sharp analytical perspective of a world-renowned economist and the unique personal perspective of an immigrant living the American Dream. This must-read for policymakers and citizens alike serves as a lucid call to action for rediscovering what makes America exceptional. Oh, wait, did Luigi say something else besides ‘an ever-expanding federal government’? Sorry, I was busy trying to destroy Medicare as we know it. LOL!

OK, I added that last part.

But seriously, don’t let the Paul Ryan Stamp of Approval stop you from checking out A Capitalism for the People. Might as well know what we’re dealing with here, although I can definitely empathize with any reluctance you might be feeling if your mother raised you as mine did, i.e. to understand the extent to which we are all judged by the company we keep.

Anyway, I have heard that Ryan actually does read (which as we all know is not a prerequisite for the job of vice presidential candidate), so he might actually have read A Capitalism for the People. If he did, my hat is off to whatever mad skillz he would have had to muster in order to negotiate like the champ he is the cognitive dissonance that any normal human being in his position would experience in response to an actual critique of crony capitalism. It’s probably a lot easier if you think of “crony capitalism” as something that people like Barack Obama engage in. (Republicans, by contrast, create synergies in smart public-private partnerships. See the difference? You’re welcome.)

But back to Zingales. After reading few of his articles in the mainstream press in addition to the Times piece, I decided to hear him out on his idea for equity financing of higher ed. While my survey of his work is far from exhaustive, on the basis of what I read, I figured I would let him slide and give him the benefit of the doubt and not immediately write him off as one of those “let ’em eat indentured servitude” types who can’t wait to dismantle the public funding of higher education or public education in general or public everything else or all of the above. But his association with Paul Ryan is obviously troubling, as is his affiliation with the Manhattan Institute, the conservative think tank that published A Capitalism for the People and for which Zingales serves as a contributing editor for the Institute’s City Journal (alongside such luminaries as the former New York Times reporter and Iraq war propagandist Judith “the aspens are turning” Miller). The Manhattan Institute even has its very own Center for the American University (CAU), so they can concentrate on this kind of thing full time. And just today, the CAU proclaimed that “Ryan’s Plan Is Good for Higher Ed,” which might give you an idea of where they’re coming from.

Which brings us to the June 2011 article that Zingales published in the City Journal, “The GOP’s Strongest Candidate,” which concludes thusly:

Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan says that he’s not running, and I assume he means it, but the GOP clearly needs a candidate more like Ryan than like Mitt Romney, currently the party’s leading candidate and a favorite of the establishment. A candidate in Ryan’s mold, from the Jack Kemp tradition of libertarian conservatives who helped make the GOP great, would be a strong believer in free markets who is not beholden to the bailout-addicted big-business establishment. This kind of candidate, if the GOP could only find him, could win in 2012 and help get the nation’s economy back on track.

Oh, if they could only find him! But you probably see the problem here: He doesn’t exist. That’s why they can’t find him.

I will concede that Paul Ryan meets the criteria for “a candidate in Ryan’s mold,” but that’s as far as I would be willing to go. However, I would be happy to dispute any claim or even a polite suggestion that a candidate in that “mold” (and perhaps especially including Ryan himself) is somehow something other than “beholden to the bailout-addicted big-business establishment,” because come on.

What, you want evidence? OK. How about this: In another June 2011 article (published just one day after Zingales’s “Ryan, Ryan, he’s our man!” City Journal column excerpted above), Newsweek White House reporter Daniel Stone explains “Ryan’s Shrewd Budget Payday” for us:

When House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan unveiled the GOP blueprint for cutting government spending, he asked Americans to make sacrifices on everything from Medicare to education, while preserving lucrative tax subsidies for the booming oil, mining and energy industries.

This sure looks like it could be an example of beholden-ness. But no! It turns out that this part of Ryan’s proposed budget has absolutely nothing! to do with doing any favors for Big Oil. As Stone reveals, it is just about a man trying to provide for his family, like anyone would do!

It turns out a constituency within his own personal investments stood to benefit from those tax breaks, Newsweek and The Daily Beast have learned. The financial disclosure report Ryan filed with Congress last month and made public this week shows he and his wife, Janna, own stakes in four family companies that lease land in Texas and Oklahoma to the very energy companies that benefit from the tax subsidies in Ryan’s budget plan.

[….]

Aside from the land-lease income, Ryan could also personally benefit from the package of subsidies and incentives he has fought to protect. According to a report from the Joint Committee on Taxation, Ryan himself would be eligible to recover money from the government for investments the four family companies might make in such things as machines and maintenance if they didn’t pan out on the properties and failed to generate revenue.

See? He wasn’t trying to help the oil companies in any way ! So take that, haters.

(And I am sure I don’t have to point out that having his investments guaranteed by the federal government should in no way be taken as an endorsement of “big government!” By that I mean it shouldn’t be taken as an endorsement of the kind of “big government” that might help other people’s families.)

But wait. Stone has more:

Ryan’s office says the congressman wasn’t thinking about himself or the oil companies that lease his land when he drafted the budget blueprint that extended the energy tax breaks. “These are properties that Congressman Ryan married into*,” spokesman Kevin Seifert said. “It’s not something he has a lot of control over.”

(*Editor’s note : Back in the olden days, they used to call that kind of thing “sleeping your way to the top.” I mean, that’s what they would have called it if a woman did it. LOL!)

But now I’m confused. Not thinking about oil companies? Not trying to provide for his family? Who was he thinking about, then? I mean, we’re talking about a hugely expensive provision that ought to have been an easy target in a proposed budget that slashes pretty much everything else. So are we to believe that it just sort of happened, miraculously and serendipitously, without any kind of thought or planning or intent, that the oil subsidies somehow escaped becoming one of Rep. Ryan’s tough choices ?

Yes! That’s right! It is just a lucky, happy coincidence that sparing these enormous tax breaks for the oil, mining, and other energy industries (as long as they aren’t green) would just accidentally happen to result in the continuation of lucrative benefits to the budget’s author and several industries to which he is no way beholden! Alevei!

So I have to say, this all leaves me with some questions about Zingales’s judgment. And now that I have a better idea about the kinds of characters with whom he associates, it is much more clear to me why in the Times op-ed that this post was originally going to be about, he had to go and resort to a completely bogus and unoriginal party-line characterization of career academics (a group which, as he does point out, includes himself, although there is more to say about that and I will say a bunch of it below).

And who could be more credible than an actual professor when it comes to helping to disseminate the kinds of facepalminducing stereotypes of professors in which some on the right seem to delight in trafficking?

Specifically, Zingales does this by suggesting that student financial aid in the form of Pell grants (direct aid to students that does not have to be paid back) and subsidies that support federally guaranteed student loans (by keeping interest rates relatively low — although I’d like to introduce you to mine sometime — and paying the interest as it accrues on behalf of students while they are still in school) constitutes “an undue subsidy for the producers (universities)” that results in “the creation of a privileged class (professors like me) at the expense of everybody else (students and taxpayers).”

You know, because professors are exempt from federal taxes! (Wait, you didn’t know that?) And we are a completely distinct class of citizens from students because we were never students ourselves! (Pay no attention to all those diplomas we had to get in order to get hired by a university.) And we never needed financial aid! And even if we did, none of us are still paying back our student loans! And even if we are, it’s not like any of us have been paying them back for 10 years and have already paid back twice what we borrowed in the first place and still aren’t there yet!

Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, Zingales and that “privileged class” of professors.

In the AAUP’s 2012 survey of faculty salaries at 1,251 U.S. colleges and universities, Zingales’s employer, the University of Chicago, ties with Columbia University for the #2 spot in the rankings of Average Faculty Salaries by institution for 2011-12. (Harvard edged ’em out for the #1 spot by just $600 at the full-professor rank. That’s gotta hurt.) The AAUP reports the average salary for full professors (Zingales’s rank) at Chicago as $197,800, which if you have ever met any professors, you probably will not be surprised to learn (or maybe you will be, I don’t know anymore) is enough to earn Chicago the enviable designation of “far above median,” reserved for institutions whose faculty salaries are in the 99th percentile nationwide.

I hope it is obvious from this that not all professors are “professors like” Zingales when it comes to their earnings and that most professors (i.e. the 99% of all U.S. professors who are not at institutions with salaries that are “far above median”) are in fact not at all like him in terms of salary or membership in the “privileged class” in which he correctly acknowledges his own position.

And let’s make it clear that I am making the case for his unique privilege among faculty members in the U.S. solely on the basis of the published median at his rank at Chicago, meaning that I am not factoring in the additional earnings that Zingales enjoys as compensation for his professional activities outside the university, which also serve to differentiate him from most of the rest of us. Additionally, I am also not factoring in his status as the holder at Chicago of a named chair as well as a named fellowship (“named” indicating that these positions are funded by endowments) — as I mentioned above, he is the Robert C. McCormack Professor of Entrepreneurship and Finance and David G. Booth Faculty Fellow — which suggests that his salary is likely to be greater than the median for full professors at his institution, most of whom presumably do not hold an endowed chair or fellowship, let alone one of each.

In the AAUP analysis, faculty salaries at Western Michigan University, the very fine state university where I am a faculty member, are classified as “far below median” for all academic ranks, including mine: associate professor. Associate professor salaries at WMU are in the 18th percentile, which even an English major like I was can easily see is indeed “far below median” (We’re #339! We’re #339!) and which is of course to say that

The average associate professor at 82% of U.S. colleges and universities earns more than the average associate professor at Western Michigan University.

(I highlighted that because seriously.)

So you’ll have to forgive me for thinking that it is really something for Zingales to imply that professors in general are central to the budget problems associated with higher education (rising tuition costs, increasing student debt) because we are pulling down so much bank, which please. I mean, it is really something if that is in fact what he’s saying. His phrase — “a privileged class (professors like me)” — is ambiguous as to whether he means that most or all professors are “like” him by virtue of our simply being professors, or whether he means to designate specifically and exclusively the few who are “like” him by virtue of their high salaries (by academic standards, anyway), which are actually quite rare in a profession in which salaries are overall relatively ungenerous when you consider that an expert with a doctoral degree at the absolute top of their game and the height of their career is considered to earn “far above median” with an annual salary that doesn’t even crack $200K.

Still, within the academic world, as in most of the rest of the world, $200K is one hell of a lot of money, so if what he means is that we’re all in it with him by virtue of our simply being professors, then it’s a pretty disingenuous statement, since 99% of us will never get anywhere near the mythic “far above median” world that he enjoys. Even if he does not mean to imply that his extremely privileged situation is even remotely like the average experience of postsecondary faculty nationwide — and the AAUP numbers and I can both tell you it is not — that is a distinction that is going to be lost on a lot of his readers. (“After all,” he says, “how can we scholars criticize crony capitalism when we benefit from it?” We scholars. Even a lot of professors who aren’t far above median –professors like me are scholars.) It would be kind of adorable if so many people didn’t already believe that we’re all pulling down six figures and working maybe two hours a week and didn’t already resent the living hell out of us for it. As prolific and celebrated a writer as this guy seems to be, he could have easily avoided that kind of ambiguity if he’d wanted to.

Zingales calls higher education “the least competitive and most subsidized industry of all.” As an example of that, he notes that “Nearly eight million students received Pell grants in 2010, costing $28 billion.” He does not mention that the maximum award is $5,500 for an individual student in an academic year or that the average award in 2011-12 was $3,711. Given that tuition and fees at public universities are usually in the neighborhood of about $10,000 [1] per year for in-state students (a figure that does not include room and board, estimated at about another $10K annually by several of the schools whose cost data I consulted on this topic), the Pell grant program may be costly, but the grants don’t go very far when we’re talking about actual students. As Thomas B. Edsall recently pointed out, “In 1979-80, the maximum Pell Grant covered 99 percent of the cost of a community college, 77 percent at a public four-year college and 36 percent at a private four-year college. By 2010-11, these percentages had dropped to 62, 36 and 15 percent respectively.”

(Zingales also doesn’t mention that if his favorite not-beholden strong believer in free markets had his way, the Pell problem would be even worse, as Richard Kogan and Kelsey Merrick report in their April 2012 analysis, “President’s Budget Would Reduce Pell Grant Shortfall; Ryan Budget Would Nearly Triple It.”)

And Zingales asserts that “Just as subsidies for homeownership have increased the price of houses, so have education subsidies contributed to the soaring price of college. Between 1977 and 2009 the real average cost of university tuition more than doubled.” That sounds a lot like what I read yesterday in the Chronicle of Higher Education, which reports that “Mr. Ryan has been vocal in saying he thinks that increasing federal student aid enables institutions to continue to raise tuition.”

So, is Zingales Ryan’s point man on higher ed? You know what? I actually don’t care whether he is in any official way or not. It’s just the same old partisan hackery whether Zingales is an official campaign surrogate or not, only in this case it’s dressed up as intellectual discourse and as such it represents a less-than-transparent attempt to legitimize Ryan’s appalling budget proposal and his candidacy. No thanks.

For that reason, I decline to engage in an analysis of the relative merit of his proposal for equity financing of higher education, although my original intent was to take his proposal in good faith and engage with it accordingly. There is no question that my position on this topic is political, so I don’t have a problem with his position also being political. The difference is that I do not pretend mine isn’t. [2]

If you would like to read more on the equity-funding idea, please check out Matt Yglesias‘s far more concise take on what’s wrong with the proposition than mine would have been.

To close, I am going to turn things over to another economist, one whose judgment of character and command of the issues as they affect most Americans who are not wealthy has in my view a lot more to recommend it. Dr. Paul Krugman has this to say about Zingales’s golden boy:

Like Bush in 2000, Ryan has a completely undeserved reputation in the media as a bluff, honest guy, in Ryan’s case supplemented by a reputation as a serious policy wonk. None of this has any basis in reality; Ryan’s much-touted plan, far from being a real solution, relies crucially on stuff that is just pulled out of thin air — huge revenue increases from closing unspecified loopholes, huge spending cuts achieved in ways not mentioned.

Read Krugman’s whole article. It’s good.

To summarize: Some guys who have got theirs don’t want anyone else to have what they have. You’ll have to forgive me for getting tricked temporarily into thinking that there might actually be something new and worth talking about in Zingales’s op-ed. But no. Nothing to see here.


[1] The $10K figure is an approximation made on the basis of published tuition and fee schedules at nine state universities in various regions of the country surveyed for this post. The numbers in parentheses given for each school on the list below represent the total tuition and fees for one academic year (not including summer) and do not include costs for books and supplies, room and board, other living expenses, or any additional fees that may be required for particular majors or programs of study.

Arizona State University, Tempe ($9,724)

The University of Georgia, Athens ($9,842)

The University of Iowa, Iowa City ($8,057)

Kansas State University, Manhattan ($7,195)

The University of Maine, Orono ($10,594)

Rutgers University (NJ), New Brunswick ($13,073)

The University of South Carolina, Columbia ($10,488)

Washington State University, Pullman ($11,386)

Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo ($9,138)

[2] Here in its entirety is the information about Zingales that accompanies “The College Graduate as Collateral,” his June 13 New York Times op-ed:

Luigi Zingales, a professor of entrepreneurship and finance at the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago, is the author of “A Capitalism for the People: Recapturing the Lost Genius of American Prosperity.”