Commentary Magazine


Posts For: August 30, 2013

Are Too Many People Going to College?

I know that punditocracy is not democracy, but can I vote for abandoning the slogan “too many people are going to college”?

Let’s start with the optics. I am sure I am not the only Jewish man in his mid-forties who grew up in a family and extended family that deeply valued attending college and made sacrifices to do so. This was not because the president told them to, or even just because they thought it was essential to earn a decent living, but because they thought that education was not only a path to material advantages, but also part of a good life. My mother, who as a legal secretary earned a better wage than some college graduates, always regretted not finishing at Brooklyn College, and communicated to me the value of the few books she held on to from her college days. What I am trying to suggest is that “too many people are going to college” is a slogan to break a mother’s heart.

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I know that punditocracy is not democracy, but can I vote for abandoning the slogan “too many people are going to college”?

Let’s start with the optics. I am sure I am not the only Jewish man in his mid-forties who grew up in a family and extended family that deeply valued attending college and made sacrifices to do so. This was not because the president told them to, or even just because they thought it was essential to earn a decent living, but because they thought that education was not only a path to material advantages, but also part of a good life. My mother, who as a legal secretary earned a better wage than some college graduates, always regretted not finishing at Brooklyn College, and communicated to me the value of the few books she held on to from her college days. What I am trying to suggest is that “too many people are going to college” is a slogan to break a mother’s heart.

But it’s also not demonstrable. Richard Vedder has argued that this “too many” is a simple observation about supply and demand. “Thirty percent of the adult population has college degrees . . . . The Department of Labor tells us that only 20% or so of jobs require college degrees.” But the Department of Labor’s figures, as Vedder has conceded before, do not explain why the premium employers pay to degree holders has persisted in the face of such an oversupply.

So he retreats into the position that “supply creates its own demand.” Because employers now are blessed with a large pool of degree-holding applicants, they use college degrees as a screening device even for jobs that do not require one. Regardless of whether they learned anything in college or not, degree holders on average “have higher levels of cognitive skills” and “relatively high levels of motivation and discipline developed before attending college.” Vedder laments that the courts have made it difficult for employers to subject potential employees to other screening tests. Employers fear being slapped with a “disparate impact” lawsuit, so they rely on college degrees.

But as Dylan Matthews has proposed in a recent piece, even if the possession of a college degree were no more than a signal of qualities that predated a student’s entry into college, we would want more of our children to have one. Vedder’s argument proves at most that if we lived in a different world than the one we presently occupy, one in which more employers were listening to Vedder and clamoring to replace the college degree with their own screening tests, then too many people would be going to college.

Matthews also links to evidence that not only average but also so-called “marginal” students “may not gain as much as average students, but . . . still gain substantially in many cases.” In attempting to dismiss Matthews, one critic has huffed that to say “college is always worth it is a gross oversimplification of the question.” It will surprise no one to learn that Matthews doesn’t say that college is always worth it. Indeed, I am not sure anyone has ever said that college is always worth it. But establishing that college is not always worth it is a far cry from establishing that too many people are going to college.

A more powerful argument, which Vedder also makes, is that when even 6-year graduation rates are relatively low, going to college is a risk for many students, and one does poor, underprepared students no favors by encouraging them to take on substantial debt and incur the cost of lost wages in the hope that they will beat the odds and finish. That’s true, and Vedder and his allies do everyone a valuable service by drawing attention to it. Still, there is some evidence (cited here) that low-income students underestimate rather than overestimate the potential returns of a college education. And William Bowen has argued that many students “elect . . . not to borrow modest sums needed to finish degree programs in a timely way.” There is no question that some students who attend college are very unlikely to succeed there, and that they should not be encouraged to borrow to attend, but that does not mean that too many people are attending college or that too many opt to borrow.

To return to the family and extended family in which I grew up, I think they would have listened with interest and concern to the evidence that too many students are unprepared for college. I think they also would have listened with interest and concern to the evidence that some colleges are doing a poor job of educating their students, though they would have found Vedder’s observation that students unable “to go to Harvard, Yale, Princeton or even Hopkins, are more liable to get bartending jobs” a bit snotty. But I think they would have been suspicious of the claim that “too many people are going to college.” They may have thought it referred to people like us.

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About That Special Relationship

Some are fretting about whether the special relationship that has bound the United States and the United Kingdom since World War II has been damaged by the House of Common’s vote against British participation in Syria and Prime Minister’s David Cameron’s decision to accept the Commons’ verdict. The New York Times’ Roger Cohen, who has been writing from the UK for some time now, says in his column today that “Britain’s decision not to stand with the United States, its closest ally, in possible military action to punish the Syrian regime for a deadly chemical weapons attack marks a watershed moment that leaves the ‘special relationship’ in search of meaning and Britain in search of its role in the world.” Cohen’s column, rarely praised by COMMENTARY, is spot on.

Britain’s capitulation to war-weary public opinion is foremost a personal defeat for Cameron—the first prime minister to lose a vote on going to war since 1782—ironically, when Great Britain was at war with the United States. There are mitigating circumstances, of course. Cameron rushed the vote unnecessarily. He lost by only 13 votes, which could not have happened had it not been for an internal Tory Party revolt. Additionally, the public debate was short. Another week and the UN inspectors’ report might have changed things. At this point, no one quite knows the mission and goals of intervention. So Cameron’s decision to heed the call of Parliament and sit this one out may easily be interpreted as a transient problem, suggesting he needs to work on his communication skills, party unity, and overall popularity.

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Some are fretting about whether the special relationship that has bound the United States and the United Kingdom since World War II has been damaged by the House of Common’s vote against British participation in Syria and Prime Minister’s David Cameron’s decision to accept the Commons’ verdict. The New York Times’ Roger Cohen, who has been writing from the UK for some time now, says in his column today that “Britain’s decision not to stand with the United States, its closest ally, in possible military action to punish the Syrian regime for a deadly chemical weapons attack marks a watershed moment that leaves the ‘special relationship’ in search of meaning and Britain in search of its role in the world.” Cohen’s column, rarely praised by COMMENTARY, is spot on.

Britain’s capitulation to war-weary public opinion is foremost a personal defeat for Cameron—the first prime minister to lose a vote on going to war since 1782—ironically, when Great Britain was at war with the United States. There are mitigating circumstances, of course. Cameron rushed the vote unnecessarily. He lost by only 13 votes, which could not have happened had it not been for an internal Tory Party revolt. Additionally, the public debate was short. Another week and the UN inspectors’ report might have changed things. At this point, no one quite knows the mission and goals of intervention. So Cameron’s decision to heed the call of Parliament and sit this one out may easily be interpreted as a transient problem, suggesting he needs to work on his communication skills, party unity, and overall popularity.

But there is a deeper problem that goes beyond Cameron or the vote. Consider that Ed Miliband, the current British Labour Party leader, has repeatedly indicated that he wants any action against Syria to be squarely placed under international law—meaning some sort of UN umbrella. Miliband not only seems unconcerned that yesterday’s humiliation of the prime minister handed a spectacular propaganda victory to Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad; he knows full well that making a Syrian intervention dependent on a non-existent UN path means giving a green light to Assad to continue his butchery.

Miliband, in other words, wants Britain to commit itself to a pointless act of endless diplomacy designed to stall rather than facilitate military action. That is not what allies do. It is all reminiscent of French President Jacques Chirac and his Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin’s effort to undermine President Bush when he was seeking a second UN resolution to go to war against Saddam Hussein. Should Cameron soon exit the political scene—something he might consider after losing such a fateful policy vote—his successor will move Britain further away from the days when it could be counted on as the bedrock of transatlantic relations. 

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The Me, Myself, and I President

With Barack Obama, it’s always all about him.

Asked at his early August press conference why there has been so little progress in getting the perpetrators of the Benghazi massacre after eleven months, Obama replied, that these things can take time and added by way of example that “I didn’t get Bin Laden in eleven months.” Obama, of course, was in the White House that day, playing cards.  It was Navy Seals who put their lives on the line as they stormed the house in Abbottabad and “got” Bin Laden.  (Can you imagine the mockery the media would have rained down on George W. Bush had he ever used such a construction? Bush, of course, a modest man, would never have said any such thing.)

Now Obama is planning a response to the gas attack by the Syrian government against its own people. Again, it’s all about him. Had Obama last year not indulged his bad habit of speaking when  he should be quiet and announced with little apparent thought that the use of chemical weapons would be a red line that must not be crossed, no one thinks we would now be about to attack Syria.

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With Barack Obama, it’s always all about him.

Asked at his early August press conference why there has been so little progress in getting the perpetrators of the Benghazi massacre after eleven months, Obama replied, that these things can take time and added by way of example that “I didn’t get Bin Laden in eleven months.” Obama, of course, was in the White House that day, playing cards.  It was Navy Seals who put their lives on the line as they stormed the house in Abbottabad and “got” Bin Laden.  (Can you imagine the mockery the media would have rained down on George W. Bush had he ever used such a construction? Bush, of course, a modest man, would never have said any such thing.)

Now Obama is planning a response to the gas attack by the Syrian government against its own people. Again, it’s all about him. Had Obama last year not indulged his bad habit of speaking when  he should be quiet and announced with little apparent thought that the use of chemical weapons would be a red line that must not be crossed, no one thinks we would now be about to attack Syria.

But, having casually made the red line remark, he is stuck with it and his credibility (or what little is left of it in international affairs) is clearly on the line. If he let’s Bashar al-Assad get away with his chemical attack unscathed, no one will believe a word Obama says in the future.

But his base fears and loathes American power,  so, as Jonathan noted on Wednesday, the Obama administration has been leaking like a sieve to reassure supporters that any attack will be minimal. The fact that he is, inescapably, also reassuring the Assad regime (and even instructing it how to further minimize damage)  is, evidently, neither here nor there. His relations with his base are what’s important. 

Today, The Hill is reporting the latest leak, one that completely gives away the game, quoting a “U.S. official” that “the White House is seeking a strike on Syria ‘just muscular enough not to get mocked.’”  Whether the strike does any good (or does ill, for that matter) doesn’t matter. The risk that Obama might be mocked is all that counts.

History will not treat this man kindly.

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Obama Has the Authority to Act on Syria

The British Parliament’s refusal to support action in Syria, even in principle, means that if President Obama does decide to act, he will be, in some sense, acting even more “unilaterally” than President Bush did in Iraq. Bush, after all, had the support of our second-oldest and closest ally—that would be the United Kingdom. He had numerous UN resolutions he could point to which Saddam Hussein had violated, even if, then as now, the UN has not been willing to authorize the use of military force to uphold international law. And he had overwhelming support in both houses of Congress for resolutions authorizing him to use military force.

Obama has none of those things. As a result many Republicans are lambasting him for supposedly unlawful use of force by an imperial chief executive. Not so. Obama’s use of force in Syria may be unwise—we will have to see about that—but it is certainly not unlawful. As the law professor John Yoo notes, the Founders gave Congress the power to “declare” war but gave the commander-in-chief the power to “engage” in war. The distinction may seem arcane but it means that presidents have ample executive authority to conduct hostilities, at least on a limited basis, without immediate authorization from Congress.

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The British Parliament’s refusal to support action in Syria, even in principle, means that if President Obama does decide to act, he will be, in some sense, acting even more “unilaterally” than President Bush did in Iraq. Bush, after all, had the support of our second-oldest and closest ally—that would be the United Kingdom. He had numerous UN resolutions he could point to which Saddam Hussein had violated, even if, then as now, the UN has not been willing to authorize the use of military force to uphold international law. And he had overwhelming support in both houses of Congress for resolutions authorizing him to use military force.

Obama has none of those things. As a result many Republicans are lambasting him for supposedly unlawful use of force by an imperial chief executive. Not so. Obama’s use of force in Syria may be unwise—we will have to see about that—but it is certainly not unlawful. As the law professor John Yoo notes, the Founders gave Congress the power to “declare” war but gave the commander-in-chief the power to “engage” in war. The distinction may seem arcane but it means that presidents have ample executive authority to conduct hostilities, at least on a limited basis, without immediate authorization from Congress.

This is not a new development. As I argued in my book The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power (which is coming out in a revised edition in 2014), presidents have been employing military force on their own authority ever since the early days of the Republic to fight Barbary pirates, Indian tribes, and other perceived menaces. More recently this power has been utilized by numerous presidents of both parties, whether it was Ford rescuing the USS Mayaguez crew in 1975, Carter trying to free the hostages in Iran in 1980, Reagan sending a peacekeeping mission to Lebanon in 1983 and bombing Libya in 1986), Bush the elder sending military forces to Somalia in 1992, Clinton bombing al-Qaeda camps in 1998, or Obama bombing Libya in 2011.

As a practical matter there is no necessity for the president to get a formal authorization from Congress to use force on a limited basis. (Obviously it’s a different matter if a major war is in the offing.) Getting such authorization is still a good idea, however, if it’s practical to do so, not least because it will help inoculate the president to some limited extent if things go wrong. (I stress limited extent—most members of Congress quickly forgot they had ever ratified the invasion of Iraq.) It is a matter of prudential calculation, then, whether President Obama should seek Congress’s blessing before the use of force in Syria, which turns on whether such blessing is likely to be forthcoming.

I would hope that it is, because there is an important international norm against the use of weapons of mass destruction which needs to be upheld. I hope most Republicans can see that even if Labour and Tory “Little Englanders” (the British version of isolationists) did not.

Instead of trying to block the president, Republicans would be well advised to push him to make the looming military action in Syria more wide-ranging and strategically significant than news accounts currently depict. Obama vows to send a “shot across the bow” of the Assad regime with cruise missiles. He would be better advised to use air power in cooperation with ground action by vetted rebel forces to cripple and ultimately bring down Assad’s regime, making impossible further atrocities such as the use of chemical weapons last week.

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