The College Racket

Yes, we have a student-loan-debt crisis.  The problem has gotten much, much worse recently, and conservatives know that the heart of the problem is simple:  most people are lousy at fiscal planning.  We are lousy at saving:  Social Security exists because people will not save voluntarily, so does Medicare, so does every known form of insurance.  At the opposite extreme, we are lousy at spending:  the student loan phenomenon exists because people (the parents or the kids) will not turn down a 5-figure loan for college even though they understand that they might never be able to pay off the loan and they will be haunted to the grave (and beyond) by debt collectors.  People (parents or their kids) will borrow $200,000 for the kids to go to Princeton even though they know that Princeton probably won’t be worth the money and they won’t ever be able to repay the loans.  Student loans – especially to borrowers who do not have substantial credit – look and feel like free stuff.  Most people cannot resist the lure of free stuff.   Especially a “free” a college degree.

Once upon a time, lenders tried to be prudent in offering student loans.  But once the government started guaranteeing student loans and then moved on to taking over the student-loan business altogether, prudence vanished..  Once parents or their kid realized they could borrow the entire cost of room/board/tuition/expenses to go to the college of their choice, even in a situation where no sane lender would consider the applicant or his parents credit-worthy,  two predictable things happened:  (i) student-loan debt skyrocketed, and then (ii) college tuition (and other college expenses) skyrocketed.  The kids and their families paid less and less attention to tuition and other costs, because they wanted immediate gratification didn’t have the discipline to think-through the long-term implications of their behavior.  The colleges jumped on the opportunity to raise their prices; it is Econ 101 for a provider to keep raising prices as long as its customers let you get away with it.

So, what do the colleges do with all that newfound income, all those higher tuitions?  Same thing you or I would do:  they start spending it on things they like.  They pay more to the faculty, more to the administration, more for sports and other recreation, more for buildings, more for everything.  Each year they raise the tuition again, raise all the expenditures again, and claim, with a straight face, that they are barely breaking even – which is true, except they are breaking even at a way higher standard of living for themselves.

Examples?   We all have our anecdotes; mine, as a really senior senior-citizen, is pretty startling:  when I applied for admission to the University of Chicago Law School (then ranked #1 in the country), the tuition was $1,200 per year.  This year, tuition at U of C Law is $66,651, which is about 55 times as much!  On the other hand, the general U.S. cost of living today is only 7.8 times as much as it was when I went to law school.  Had tuition gone up only as much as the general cost of living, tuition at U of C Law today would be only about $9,500 per year, not $66,651.  The rest of the increase is entirely the result of the colleges realizing that they could raise their prices enormously without any meaningful diminution in the number of qualified applicants.

What is wrong with this picture?  Plenty: for sure, university faculty and administration are loving all of this, as they are now wallowing in money advanced to them by the feds in the form of loans to students and their families.   Of course a whole lot of those loans will never be fully repaid, and guess who bears the burden of that loss:  you, the taxpayer; the feds booked the loans as assets when they made them, but when the unpaid loans are written off, that just emerges as a charge against the revenue of the feds.  In other words, it becomes an add-on to our national debt; we, the citizens, bear the losses.  In essence, the federal student loan program is just another money-laundering operation, moving money from the general (tax-paying) population into the hands of people who work for the schools and people who got, in essence, a free college education. The universities repay nothing; the burden is entirely on the families – and, eventually, on the taxpayers.  The ultimate outcome bears a striking resemblance to what we would get if our public school system now included not just K-12 but college as well, even graduate schools.  In other words, we have nationalized our entire educational system.

Do we have a better educational system as a result?  On the evidence, hardly.  We have known, for some time, that our K-12 outcomes are mostly 3rd-world standard, nearly useless, except for the small fraction of our children who are lucky enough to get their kids into good neighborhoods (for K-12 grades) or good colleges.  (And of course even our elite colleges are increasingly becoming hideous exercises in teaching leftist propaganda, and not just in the social science courses; even in the STEM courses and colleges, the political stuff is ubiquitous if not totally stifling.)

Conclusion:  we have squandered billions (trillions?) on a policy of massive income-redistribution, moving money from the general public to favored classes of educators and administrators, outside contractors, and especially those fortunate enough to be admitted to the better colleges.  (Another scandal now in progress.)  Sure, the money all gets spent somewhere, but certainly not in areas where it could be most productive for our economy and our society.  The whole thing is a con, a scam, a racket.



Confronted by the disorienting possibility that one or more of my progeny might have gone over to the dark side, might have become actual Democrats, I feel the need to identify political matters on which I confess to being in sympathy with the opposition.

Forget about abortion, gay-wedding cakes, legalized pot, immigration, the president’s tweets, etc.  The fundamental difference between Democrats and Republicans is that Democrats love central planning and Republicans abhor it.  “Central planning” was the term used by conservative icon F. A. Hayek 75 years ago (in The Road To Serfdom) to describe the governmental model preferred by all leftists – be they Democrats,  Marxists, or anything in between. “Central” means government, and “planning” means anticipating everything that could ever happen and spelling-out how the government should reward the good stuff and penalize the bad.  To Hayek, central planning embodies the delusion that humans can be smart enough to anticipate and plan for everything, every detail. Many Republicans concur; like Hayek, they think central planning hinders economic growth and leads to an authoritarian state – despite ostensibly-free markets.  When a central planner finds a flaw in a regulation, he or she addresses it with additional regulation.

Central planning is implemented through Acts of Congress (“laws”), Executive Actions and Executive Orders of the president (“EOs”), or regulations (“regs”) issued by federal agencies.  Laws are often short, but regs are often way-longer, and when you add EOs, you can get to thousands of pages for major legislation.   Length is the identifying marker of central planning.  Exhibit A of the governance model that Democrats love and Republicans detest is the Dodd Frank law and its associated regs and EOs.  (See discussion at .)  The number of laws, regs, and EOs, and their volume, increased exponentially during the Obama presidency, and many conservative commentators think some of it, especially Dodd Frank, is both too long and bad policy and the cause of enormous compliance-costs.  One critic, writing for the Wall Street Journal, suggested an appealing, alternative approach to Dodd Frank that could be scribbled on the back of a dinner napkin: forget the hyper-regulating of banks, just raise the banks’ minimum capital-requirements and let the financial markets do their job of rewarding good banks and punishing bad ones; the object should not be to prevent bank failures but to prevent runs and crises and to avoid moral hazard.

America was founded by people who wanted the government off their backs, but today’s Democrats don’t want that; they depend on government.  Republicans claim they aren’t buying it, but they are kidding themselves.  First of all, all laws are inherently regulatory: laws tell you what you cannot do. It all depends on how complex, how detailed, how intrusive the regulating is.  In America, as in ancient Rome, by joining a nation-state you limit your freedom: you submit to its laws, even the ones you dislike.  America’s constitution and laws have never provided total freedom.

Secondly, Republicans don’t oppose all regulation; mainly,they oppose regulation that is inscrutable or unnecessary or just plain stupid, and regulation for which compliance is unreasonably burdensome or expensive. For sure, the president is not anti-regulation; compare the length of the USMCA (1,800 pages) to that of NAFTA (1,700 pages).  But Republicans wonder, why should government approval take so long and cost so much for any project that might have even the slightest potential-impact on our air, water, wildlife, or environment in general, regardless of cost/benefit trade-offs?  Why do you need a license to be a hair stylist when no license is required of business-consultants – whose job is often more demanding than the job of most lawyers and accountants?

Republicans are fine with protecting the public from unreasonable risks to life, limb, or property, or to the environment.  But they object to the selective use of the regulatory state for political purposes.  (See Lerner, Lois).   They understand that inappropriate regulation incents businesses to compete for government-favors rather than for customers, that it tends over time to retard economic growth and invite corruption, and that it is the hallmark of the authoritarian state. (See China, People’s Republic of.) Democrats counter that in the age of the microchip, where technology can race ahead faster than even an un-gridlocked Congress and a disinterested judiciary could, regulation-by-Congress-alone is an ingenuous model. They favor a dynamic approach, with the White House and an activist judiciary joining Congress on the regulating team.

This debate has roots.  Since Marx, leftists have believed that central-planning protects the little people from the greed and predation of the big shots.  Today’s Democrats add that in the 21st century, the price of our huge advances in science and technology is a scary increase in the hazards that the people – little people or big ones – face, in the workplace, in locales affected by the operation and waste-generation of our factories and refineries, everywhere.  The Left believes our social and environmental issues are so complex that they cry out for detailed specifics, not just general laws or constitutional principles.  They believe that without governmental regulation of individual and corporate behaviors, America would be a foul and brutish place – bad air, denuded forests, a degraded water table, polluted oceans, harmful climate-change, dangerous workplaces, discrimination and harassment based upon race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc.

Surprise:  Republicans kind-of accept most of that, even if they are loathe to admit it.The big exception is climate control: Republicans find it hard to take the Left seriously when it dreams about improving our planetary environment without any comparable commitment from China, the world’s worst polluter.  But most Republicans, with a gun to their head and no recording devices nearby, would admit that they agree with the Democrats on the hazards and risks of living in the 21st century, would concede that their objections have more to do with the techniques of the regulating than with its purpose.  In fact, most Republicans would probably acknowledge more readily than the Left that the age of the microchip presents certain issues that require detailed solutions – e.g., the growing concern over the growing exploitation of drone technology not just for commercial purposes but for terrorism or other malevolent purposes, which is not something that can be suitably addressed by the Constitution or our standard civil or criminal laws.

I think the Democrats do all citizens a favor by acting as stewards of our nation’s environment and natural resources and our quality-of-life.  Too many Republicans refuse to accept the fact that a completely de-regulated nation, despite the benefits of free-market competition, would be a nasty place to live in.  But I worry that the Left fails to grasp the fundamental principle that a centrally-planned economy will not grow as well as a less-regulated economy and will be prone to corruption and authoritarianism.  One wishes each side had a better understanding of the other side.


Upon the sad occasion of the death of Senator John McCain, I would like to re-examine the controversy provoked by this notorious comment by President Trump: “He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured.” There is little doubt that it ranks among the most unpopular, unsettling, and offensive things the president has ever said, which is saying something.  On the other hand, I submit that the president, in his inartful way, was trying to articulate a thought that is worth examining seriously: given a choice, he would rather celebrate than mourn.

9/11 was a tragedy, and while first-responders and others acted heroically, we mostly associate the event with the tragedy, not the heroism.  We mourn 9/11, we don’t celebrate it.  The same is true of the school shootings.  Memorial Day is a day for recollection and mourning of deaths, of tragedy, of the cost of war, and it is not a day of celebration, even though many of the deaths were heroic.  On the other hand, Independence Day, despite the casualties we endured in achieving independence as a nation, is the opposite, it is a day for recollection and celebration of heroism and triumph, of the magnificence of the founding of our country, and it is a fun day.  Everyone, and not just the president, recognizes the need for mourning but prefers the joy of celebration.

As should we all.  Yet judging from the proliferation of events that are legally designated as occasions for lowering the American flag to half-staff, not to mention the number of gas stations, big box stores, and homes that choose to lower their own flags on additional occasions, one gets the impression that this country enjoys wallowing in sorrow, even prefers it over taking some risks and acting aggressively to achieve a solution worthy of celebration.  (Sorry, Chicago, but as one who lived there for decades, I do not consider additional gun control laws to be aggressive or even useful.)  Mourning is no substitute for solutions.

A hero is one who saves others; a victim is one who was not saved. We celebrate our heroes; we mourn victims.  Senator McCain was a hero: his voluntarily joining the military and requesting active service in Viet Nam were heroic, and his behaving admirably in that terrible war was heroic.  As to whether he was heroic in refusing to accept release by the enemy unless his fellow-captives were released, there are conflicting views; there is no consensus on whether his resistance helped and inspired his comrades.  Being subjected to torture was gruesome and unimaginably painful, but his surviving the torture was not necessarily heroic, even though it was a demonstration of an extraordinary level of courage and self-discipline. Apparently McCain felt the same way, as he eventually broke under the torture and later stated that he considered his behavior completely unheroic.  For more on this see the James Carroll piece in the decidedly un-conservative New Yorker: .

Senator McCain was, by all accounts, a fine man, a patriotic man, a man of great honor.  He was born with the military version of a silver spoon in his mouth, born as the scion of a family that included two four-star naval officers, but he made it through the rigors of Annapolis and earned his commission. His lowly class rank suggests a distinctly un-heroic use of his gifts; indeed, there are reports that his poor rank owed much to his proclivity for the kind of sexuality for which the president has become infamous. But overall, his military record was excellent.

As a politician, McCain was highly successful.  Though his mother described him as a “scamp,” he preferred the more flattering “maverick,” and many of his conservative critics would side with his mother.  On policy issues, he was many Democrats’ favorite Republican, a status that would have made him a more-important figure in an earlier era (e.g., the Tip O’Neill era), when the policy-differences between the parties were less stark; there appeared to be little daylight between McCain’s policy preferences and, say, JFK’s.  But he had no business experience and apparently never mastered either Friedman-Hayek-Buckley or Alinsky-Krugman-Sanders; the senator was not built for the 2000s.  Sadly for Senator McCain, for all his efforts at political compromise during the years after 9/11, he came across as quixotic, weak on policy, and more of a gadfly or deal-breaker (a “scamp”) than a deal-maker. His vote against Obamacare reform appeared petty, based more on revenge than on policy.  His attempt to court the “Deplorables,” his selection of Sarah Palin to be his VP, was an awkward blunder. Once the Right had taken up  free markets, small government, and cuts in taxes and regulation, it had little further use for the McCains of the world (e.g., the Bush family, Flake, Kasich).  In the end, his mark was made as a naval officer and POW, not as a politician.

The president, like many others, wishes we did not have to lose our gallant military in faraway places – just as he no doubt wishes we could be done with school shootings and shootings on Chicago’s streets.  He, like the rest of us, would rather have more victories to celebrate and fewer losses to mourn.  But Memorial Day is enormously important, and John McCain was a courageous and heroic man, and President Trump should not have spoken as he did.




The Army v. Navy football game this year was a stirring experience and an evocative one.  It evoked further thoughts on two hot topics:  violence, and the national anthem.

Let’s start with the anthem.  Confession:  your host prefers classical music to rap but is resigned to having to live with the long odds against ever hearing another classical version of The Star Spangled banner.  For every stunning performance by a Renee Fleming (Super Bowl 2014-), a Marian Anderson (Eisenhower inauguration in 1957), or a Marilyn Horne (Clinton inauguration in 1993), or by the five service-academy choirs (2005 Super Bowl), there are hundreds, thousands, of public performances of another type, running the gamut from the treasonous (the Roseanne Barr butchery of the anthem at a baseball game in 1990, a performance that might have offended even Colin Kaepernick), to the OK performances by Lady Gaga or Kelly Clarkson or Beyonce’, and then to the very-popular Whitney Houston version at the 1991 Super Bowl, a performance that would have embarrassed Renee’ Fleming while possibly afflicting her with a temporary hearing-loss.

Which brings one to this year’s Army-Navy Game anthem, performed by the combined choirs of the two service academies:  fantastic, stirring, some of the best choral singing one has heard this side of the best professional choruses (e.g., the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Chorus).  An unadulterated version of the anthem:  original notes, original lyrics, classical harmonies, excellent voices, no gratuitous changes in tempo or slides toward the correct pitch.  Despite the massive differences in Americans’ musical tastes, it is hard to imagine that anyone, certainly no one with any sense of the patriotism that surrounds the Army Navy game, could have failed to be moved and inspired by the Army/Navy chorus.  On the other hand, it is equally hard to believe anyone could come away from the Whitney Houston version – or the Beyonce’ version, the Faith Hill version, the Dixie Chicks version, whatever – with the same sense of the importance of the game, the importance of the Army and the Navy, and the importance of our nation.  Entertained maybe, but not inspired.

Speaking of the importance of our nation: quick cut to Colin Kaepernick.  The non-franchised QB has been at pains to explain that he has nothing against our armed forces and that his only real objection to America is that blacks and other minorities are mistreated here.  He has talked specifically about mistreatment by the police, the court system, and – wait for it – the economy.  Well, he didn’t actually mention the economy, but just think about his most specific, most oft-repeated, demand:  “social justice.”  Now that he is into explaining himself, trying to assure us that actually he kind of likes America, he has settled on social injustice as his major complaint.  Bad choice.  Social justice is the central concept of communism, its most important goal.  Social justice was at the heart of virtually everything ever written by Karl Marx.  Social justice, apparently to Mr. Kaepernick as well as to Mr. Marx, is shorthand for equality of incomes and wealth.  Not clear whether Kaepernick wants everyone else to make as much as he has made as a pro football player, or rather wants his own income reduced to as little as everyone else makes, as in the Marxist model employed today in Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea, and other nations where communism rules.  Either way, the Kaepernick protest indicates a total disdain for the essential economic model on which America was founded and on which it still operates.  Kaepernick’s actions make it clear that he sees no reason to love or even respect his country.  How can one be convinced by his claim that he respects our military, given his avowed opposition to the very system the military is charged with the duty to defend and protect?   Sounds like he is saying he respects individual military personnel, but that he has no respect for their mission.  How does that equate to patriotism, to love of his country?  Answer:  it does not.

Now, about violence in football.  Most of us can recite the contemporary case against football:  too violent, too dangerous, and (at least for the southpaws among us) too hostile and aggressive and manly and warlike and uncivilized, etc.  Not enough like soccer or hiking or kayaking or yoga poses.  CENTCOM for the anti-football movement is the mental-health lobby, which fixates on concussions.

So, how do you feel about the Army/Navy game?  Are you opposed, or at least uninterested, because the game presents archetypal models of a type of social behavior you oppose?  Are you bothered by Navy jets buzzing the stadium, by the presence of the entire student body of each of the two military academies and their mass salute to the flag, by all those American flags being displayed, by a straight version of the national anthem rather than a version more indigenous to a rock concert or a topless night club, by cadets and midshippeople and fans who all stand at attention and salute the American flag?  Are you disappointed by the lack of flagrant violations of rules, choreographed celebrations of plays that do not even put points on the board, helmet-to-helmet collisions resulting in concussions, heated protests of every single officiating call that goes against your team, tackles that do not end when the whistle blows, etc.?   Annoyed that academy football resembles boxing more than it resembles MMA?  Well, then, Army/Navy is not for you.  The NFL should be right up your alley.

For this viewer, Army/Navy is about militancy and patriotism, it is about preparing warriors for battle in behalf of our country.  It is a special version of football, as it is both literal and directly-symbolic. There is an obvious reason why our military academies take their football so seriously, and it has been addressed successfully by thousands, maybe millions, of better and more-informed essayists than your host.  Football, more than any other sport, blends aggression with discipline, rewards violence committed with intent to defeat the opponent without violating the rules of engagement.  Army/Navy raises the stakes on football from entertainment to preparation for the defense of our nation.  Football is the best possible metaphor for war, better than even chess.   If you are one of those who are willing to threaten war but not to wage it, you probably are more interested in fantasy football than you are in actual football, and you probably are more interested in violent collisions than you are in good blocks and tackles.  I get it, but I do not want you in my foxhole or even my man-cave.


A thoughtful reader has asked, how can the religious baker execute certain designs but be allowed to refuse others?  Is it OK if you do custom designs that show stuff you agree with but refuse to do designs that show stuff you disagree with?

First, some hypothetical questions:  what if a customer requested a cake custom-decorated with a 3D representation of the infamous “Piss Christ” photograph (see  )?  What if a customer requested a custom cake depicting a priest and a nun copulating?  A cake depicting a headless president whose head is held aloft by a (you-know-what)?  Wouldn’t it be OK for the baker to refuse, in each of the three cases?

Answer:  Of course.  The focus belongs on the reason for the baker’s refusal of the customer’s request.  If the baker refused to bake a birthday cake for the birthday of a man he knew to be gay, even if the design was to contain no clues as to the man’s sexual orientation, that might have been illegal discrimination.  But if the baker balked because the request was for a cake that depicted or celebrated an act that the baker believed to be sinful under the teachings of his religion, that is different.  The reason for the baker’s refusal was not that the customer was gay, it was that the baker was unwilling to commit a sin, to abet the celebration of a gay marriage. The baker’s intent was not to discriminate, it was to follow his religion faithfully.

Granted, there are certain practices of certain religions that our culture regards as so repulsive, so barbaric, that religious belief cannot be a legitimate excuse for engaging in such practices in this country.  Certainly a refusal to assist in the celebration of a gay marriage is not in any way comparable to, say, committing an honor killing.