Mike Konczal

Roosevelt Institute Fellow

Recent Posts by Mike Konczal

  • Should We Stop Referring to Student Loans as "Financial Aid"?

    Sep 14, 2012Mike Konczal

    Students who take out loans aren't receiving special favors. They're making financial transactions like any other.

    Do we make both a conceptual and analytical mistake when we refer to student loans as a form of "financial aid"? Should that term be something to be resisted? Demos' Tamara Draut brought up this point in a conversation recently, and I think it needs to be explored further, because it frames how we speak about student loans.

    Students who take out loans aren't receiving special favors. They're making financial transactions like any other.

    Do we make both a conceptual and analytical mistake when we refer to student loans as a form of "financial aid"? Should that term be something to be resisted? Demos' Tamara Draut brought up this point in a conversation recently, and I think it needs to be explored further, because it frames how we speak about student loans.

    The government records and documents student loans as a form of aid. Here's a list of the "amount of financial aid awarded to full-time, full-year undergraduates, by type and source of aid," and loans are listed right next to grants. When pundits say that "student aid" has exploded over the past decade, and argue that aid is driving increases in tuition, it disguises that the aid that has exploded is a signficant amount of debt for young people.

    I've taken out loans and received gifts. When I've signed up for, say, a car loan, I never went "oh you shouldn't have" afterwards, like when I've received a really nice birthday gift. I understood that the creditor wanted to lend me a certain amount of money at a certain rate, and I wanted to borrow it. Full stop. Unless the interest rate charged is purposely manipulated for some reason [1], there's no reason to think of this as aid at all.

    Student loans are an economic transaction, the same as if the government contracted out to build a bridge, or hired a person to serve in the military or police force or be a teacher. The money spent here isn't "aid." Hiring someone to build a bridge exchanges labor for cash. Student loans exchange cash now for cash later plus interest. Those student loans would be underprovided without the government, certainly, but in the same way that bridges and law enforcement and other goods would also be underprovided if they weren't done by government.

    I think this clarifies some of the issues and responses I'm seeing in the discussion about whether or not higher education is driven by increases in so-called "aid." Megan McArdle wrote in Newsweek, "In a normal market, prices would be constrained by the disposable income available to pay them. But we’ve bypassed those constraints by making subsidized student loans widely available." Let's leave aside the issue that the vision of education constrained by disposable income is Mitt Romney's vision that students should get "‘as much education as they can afford." There's a bigger issue.

    I'm not sure what "normal market" means here, but many kinds of markets, perhaps even all of them, aren't constrainted by disposable income. Major, long-term debt fuels all kinds of important purchases, from houses to cars to health care to big-ticket durable goods. Events like retirement or having kids are dictated by longer-term savings decisions. Much of your monthly spending, like your rent or your cell phone, is in a contract that stipulates some future payments must be made regardless of your disposable income. There's a reason economists talk about spending as influenced by lifetime incomes.

    Student loans are a way of mitigating a credit constraint, which is different than providing aid. Here it reflects not subsidized demand, but actual demand smoothed over a long time period. That's going to put a lot of demand into play. It shouldn't surprise us that demand is very high when credit constraints are removed. Higher education is one of the most important mechanisms of social and economic mobility we have, and it is also one of the primary ways we have for people to fully develop their talents and capabilities.

    If actual demand overwhelms the supply of the system, that's a problem of supply, not demand. And the obvious solution is to increase the supply. Throughout our country's history we've done that in landmark bills that do it through public provisoning paid for by taxation, bills like the Morrill Act and California Master Plan. Now, as that system is left to crumble, we are looking to the private, for-profit sector to fill that gap. I fear that will only exacerbate the cost problems we've seen so far, and the data is looking that way too

    But if not as a form of financial "aid," how should we refer to student loans?

    [1] There's a narrow, though important, question about whether or not student loans are a "subsidy" because their interest rates are too low or too high. The Department of Education found that (R-10) for ”Direct Loans, the overall weighted average subsidy rate was estimated to be -13.91 percent in FY 2011; that is, the overall program on average was projected to earn about 13.91 percent on each dollar of loans made, thereby providing savings to the Federal Government.” What's a good word for the opposite of a subsidy? Whatever it is, student loans are that. Others argue that there needs to be a higher discount rate used to calculate this, and then you would see a subsidy. Let's assume for this post that the interest rate is seen to be fair by all parties.

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    Young woman paying bills image via Shutterstock.com.

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  • Two Issues with Megan McArdle's Piece on Higher Education

    Sep 13, 2012Mike Konczal

    Megan McArdle has a new cover story at Newsweek, "Is College a Lousy Investment?"  Is the benefit worth it with rising costs? Several people have addressed the benefit part, particularly Dylan Matthew here and Reihan Salam here.

    Megan McArdle has a new cover story at Newsweek, "Is College a Lousy Investment?"  Is the benefit worth it with rising costs? Several people have addressed the benefit part, particularly Dylan Matthew here and Reihan Salam here.

    I have a piece about higher education that I'm really excited about coming out in the next few weeks with Aaron Bady for Dissent, so I don't want to spoil it. But for now, I think there are two important things to engage with in McArdle's piece. The costs part is important, because this will likely be the center-right argument going forward, and I think it has problems in an important way. McArdle:

    Vedder adds, “I look at the data, and I see college costs rising faster than inflation up to the mid-1980s by 1 percent a year. Now I see them rising 3 to 4 percent a year over inflation. What has happened? The federal government has started dropping money out of airplanes.” Aid has increased, subsidized loans have become available, and “the universities have gotten the money.” Economist Bryan Caplan, who is writing a book about education, agrees: “It’s a giant waste of resources that will continue as long as the subsidies continue.” [...]

    In a normal market, prices would be constrained by the disposable income available to pay them. But we’ve bypassed those constraints by making subsidized student loans widely available. No, not only making them available: telling college students that those loans are “good debt” that will enable them to make much more money later.

    This is based on something called the Bennett Hypothesis. In the 1980s Education Secretary William Bennett argued that increases in student aid largely just allowed colleges to raise their tuition, capturing all that money. If true, this would be the lowest hanging policy fruit imaginable: save money by not providing aid and lower tuition in the process.

    Sadly, there's no evidence for this argument. And I mean "no evidence" not like "there's significant debate" or "reasonable people disagree," but like this has been extensively studied and the general consensus is that it is not true. I spent some time going through this research and couldn't find anything conclusive, and requests from others writing on this haven't been helpful. This could likely be true as it relates to for-profit schools -- there's a study somewhere that indicates this -- which shouldn't suprise us, as for-profits exist to suck up federal subsidies by business design. But it doesn't appear to be true for the vast majority of higher education, and to whatever extent it could be true it isn't a major driver.

     Here's a big post by David L. Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, listing all the institutions that have investigated this. Among other studies and experts quoted, here's:

    “Regarding the relation between financial aid and tuition, the regression models found no associations between most of the aid packaging variables (federal grants, state grants, and loans) and changes in tuition in either the public or private not-for-profit sectors.”
     
    – U.S. Department of Education National Center for Education Statistics, Dec. 2001, Study of College Costs and Prices 1988-89 to 1997-98, Vol. 1
     
    “The Commission finds no evidence to suggest any relationship between the availability of Federal grants and the costs or prices in these institutions,” and “has found no conclusive evidence that loans have contributed to rising costs and prices.”
     
    – National Comission on the Cost of Higher Education, February 1998, Straight Talk about College Costs & Prices
     
    “After the change to the Stafford loan limits beginning in AY 2007-08, the price [of college] … increased at a rate generally consistent with prior years. [...] Overall, [previously conducted] analyses are descriptive and do not necessarily indicate a linkage between increases in the loan limits and changes in tuition or borrowing.”
     
    – Government Accountability Office, May 2011, Federal Student Loans: Patterns in Tuition, Enrollment, and Federal Stafford Loan Borrowing Up to the 2007-08 Loan Limit Increase
    This is important, because McArdle's argument allows her to make it seem like government action to provide for higher education is largely counterproductive. Rather than examining the decreasing support for higher education, the difficulty of finding "Baumol’s cost disease" in higher education, the growth of a "hybrid" design for our public education sector, the decrease in Pell grants relative to total college costs, the way that the for-profit industry is taking over for public institutions, or the issue of risk-shifting to the individuals and providing services out of fees instead of taxes - rather than it being a choice on how we provide the essential social good of higher education, and who benefits and who loses from those choices - McArdle can imply that if the government tried to make education more affordable it would backfire and just make the problem worse.
     
    This becomes even more of a problem with the second issue, the likely transmission mechanism. Just because aid goes up doesn't mean that prices must go up - the increases in food stamps haven't caused an equivalent increase in food prices. In a follow-up post to her article, she alludes to the microeconomic issue at play: "Vedder’s theory is that, as he put it, universities are raising tuition 'because they can'."
     
    In economics-speak, that means that the supply of higher education is inelastic relative to price. If that's the case, then the right course of action is for the government to provide more supply at a cheaper price; i.e., free higher education. JW Mason has argued that if supply is inelastic, "each dollar spent on grants to students reduces final tuition costs less than one for one, each dollar spent on subsidies to public institutions reduces tuition costs by more." Think of it as "the public option for higher education" argument, with the same motivations. This is not a new argument. in 1899, the president of Stanford argued that “if the State makes no provision for higher education there is no other agency on which we can depend to supply it.” That seems as relevant now, over 100 years later, as it did back then.
     

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  • New Article: On Paul Ryan's World of Welfare Capitalism

    Sep 13, 2012Mike Konczal

    I have a new article at The Nation with Bryce Covert titled How Paul Ryan Would Decimate the New Deal. "Ryan’s vision for reforming the social safety net can be explained in three verbs: he wants to block grant Medicaid, voucherize Medicare and privatize Social Security.

    I have a new article at The Nation with Bryce Covert titled How Paul Ryan Would Decimate the New Deal. "Ryan’s vision for reforming the social safety net can be explained in three verbs: he wants to block grant Medicaid, voucherize Medicare and privatize Social Security. Yes, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security would likely still exist, but those changes would mean a profound difference for the average person who receives government benefits over his or her lifetime."

    We walk through how a specific person would encounter these programs as they are administered currently and under Ryan's vision. We then talk about Gøsta Esping-Andersen's idea of "Worlds of Welfare Capitalism" and try to understand what a social-democratic welfare state would look like versus a classically liberal (read: libertarian) welfare state. We use that to formalize Ryan's vision as shredding the remaining social democratic parts of the New Deal and Great Society's welfare state and replacing them with a new, libertarian framework.

    I just had my mind blown from encountering Gøsta Esping-Andersen's work about six months ago. So even if you are tired of debates about Paul Ryan's budget from the blogosphere, this might be a helpful way to approach the topic from a new angle. Hope you check check out the new article!

     

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  • Guest Post at Business Insider: Animated Gifs and Monetary Policy

    Sep 11, 2012Mike Konczal

    I have a guest post up at Business Insider, which uses animated gifs to explain the current battle over monetary policy in the aftermath of the recent Jackson Hole conference. Hope you check it out.

    I have a guest post up at Business Insider, which uses animated gifs to explain the current battle over monetary policy in the aftermath of the recent Jackson Hole conference. Hope you check it out.

    It was inspired by a post where Joe Weisenthal responded to an animated gif of a baby throwing money out the window as a metaphor for QE by explaining, in detail, why it was wrong. I pointed out that you can only respond to an animated gif with more animated gifs - and then we realized we needed to corner the market on the no doubt soon to boom monetary policy animated gif industry.

    For reference, this Ann Friedman article on animated gifs is a great, and the whatshouldwecallme tumblr is a fun place to check out continuously updated animated gifs.

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  • The Chicago Teachers Union Strike Viewed From the Local Level

    Sep 10, 2012Mike Konczal

    As of 10 p.m. last night, the Chicago Teachers Union has gone on strike. Here is a webpage for why they are striking, complete with the one-page explanation and the 46-page one. Here's PCCC's summary.

    As of 10 p.m. last night, the Chicago Teachers Union has gone on strike. Here is a webpage for why they are striking, complete with the one-page explanation and the 46-page one. Here's PCCC's summary. Here's a local teacher explaining why he is on strike.

    As Bill Barclay at Dissent Magazine noted, there was a special bill passed last year that required 75 percent of teachers to vote -- with absentees counted as no votes! -- to strike. Stand For Children CEO Jonah Edelman said at the Aspen Ideas Festival that “the unions cannot strike in Chicago" because that requirement, only required of teachers, was so restrictive. Turns out that this strike got 90 percent of teachers (and 98 percent if you exclude the absentees).

    I reached out to two Chicago journalists and writers - Yana Kunichoff and Micah Uetricht - who are covering the situation locally to get their on-the-ground perspectives. A lightly edited transcript of the interview with each follows. I hope to have more coverage of this very important event in the days to follow.

    Mike Konczal: Please introduce yourself.

    Yana Kunichoff: My name is Yana Kunichoff. I'm a journalist for Truthout, which is a progressive online news magazine. I've written for a lot of independent media, where my focus has been immigration, investigative issues, and social justice activism. I've been living in Chicago for four years now.
     
    Why is a strike happening?
     
    YK: There are several layers to why this strike is happening. The shallowest, headline news one is because the Chicago Teachers' Union (CTU) and Chicago Public Schools (CPS) were not able to agree to a contract. A deeper reason is because this is one of the first times that an education public sector union has resisted and pushed back against the privatization and changes that have been happening in the education sector.
     
    Looking back at bills passed last year and before, they all narrowed what the teachers' union is allowed to strike over. On paper, the biggest questions are on merit pay and seniority rights. But there are all these other points. Rahm Emanuel said in his press conference after the strike was declared that the two points under debate "are not financial." The two big issues under debate, from Emanuel's point of view, are teacher evaluation and principals having the full ability to hire and fire teachers.
     
    What's it like for Democrats in Chicago?
     
    YK: I don't know how much I can speak to the battle in the Democratic Party. There's an interesting contradiction that exists in Chicago. If you are a liberal in Chicago you support Obama, but at the same time there's a possibility you support the union. I know people supporting the campaign that support the teachers' union, even though someone associated with the administration is trying to smash it.
     
    How is the Chicago community as a whole reacting?
     
    YK: Chicago is a pretty divided city, with neighborhoods divided by class. I spent today riding my bike around Latino, working-class neighborhoods -- Pilsen, Little Village, and North and South Lawndale. These are areas that aren't doing well in this economy.
     
    I'm seeing a lot of cars honking their horns, and police running their siren while they go by a school picket. The people that have to deal with the daily reality of school cutbacks, or mental health clinic shutdowns, or how'll they get home in winter with less public transit, the people who deal with austerity budgets, are in support of the teachers' strike.
     
    Chicago is becoming increasingly gentrified, though, with more people who don't rely so much on public services. I'm not sure what they think of the strikes yet.
     
    Most people will get their news from nationally-targeted coverage of the strike. As someone from Chicago, covering it locally, what would you like people to know?
     
    YK: The charter system is something that started in Chicago but has since been brought national. These kinds of policies that work against teachers aren't going to stay contained to one city. This trend will continue into other cities and states, especially where unions are weak. So this is where the fight is happening. When you are here on the ground, it feels like a strong line of opposition. Opposition to policies that aren't just national but international - think of places like Greece and the more general fights against austerity happening across Europe here.
    The national coverage will watch the specific contract terms, though they'll miss that 10 years from now, the specific, narrow terms will matter less than whether or not a union in an American city will have been successful in pushing back in this way. This is a fight over public resources, public jobs, and the idea of a public that isn't discussed by national media as if it exists. Will there be public schools as we understand them in 10 years?
     
    I also spoke with Michah Uetricht separately.
     
    Mike Konczal: Please introduce yourself.
     
    Micah Uetricht: I'm Micah Uetricht, and I'm an organizer for a group called Arise Chicago as well as a freelance writer. I've been covering the teachers' strike in Chicago from the ground.
     
    What is the core of this strike about?
     
    MU: Last night, at the conference announcing whether or not the teachers were going to go on strike, several reporters asked CTU President Karen Lewis and Vice President Jesse Sharkey about what the core issues were. Both repeatedly emphasized that there weren't one or two core issues but it was instead about the total package. The package included wages, compensation, and benefits, but also the vision of what school reform looks like. CTU started talking about school reform that actually makes schools work for kids.
     
    So there are traditional things that unions go on strike for, like wages and benefits, but also the bigger picture vision of what school reform is going to look like.
     
    What's the energy like covering this strike from the streets in Chicago?
     
    MU: I've been around a lot of strikes and labor actions, but this is totally like nothing I've seen before. I'm about five miles north of Chicago, and I've been on my bike going from actions to picket lines. Every public school I passed had crowds of 40, 50, 60 teachers. The energy is incredible. People were up at 5 in the morning to picket at their school, and then move to phone bank.  It's a big feat of organizing that CTU has pulled off.
     
    How is the Chicago community as a whole reacting?
     
    MU: The community support piece of the strike has also been incredible as far as I've seen. There's a lot of support from parents, community members and others. There's a group called Parents for Teachers that has been active, and a very vibrant Chicago Teacher Solidarity Campaign. Both have done an amazing job organizing before and during the strike.  People beyond the usual suspects are getting involved in this fight.
     
    The city has worked really hard to try and divide parents against teachers, painting teachers as overpaid and greedy and harming students. So I was expecting to see some hostility from people on the streets, but all morning long I saw no stories of negativity or hostility. I'm looking for signs that average Chicagoans are annoyed or angry, but I haven't seen any yet. People I've talked to haven't seen any yet either.
     
    Most people will get their news from nationally-targeted coverage of the strike. As someone from Chicago, covering it locally, what would you like people to know?
     
    MU: CTU is very vocal in saying that the Democratic Party in Chicago and Rahm Emanuel are not serving their interests. In Chicago the Democratic Party is the major party, and they are pushing this austerity agenda, and so a lot of the future of whether or not unions are afraid of calling out Democrats will be determined here.
     
    This is a fight over public sector workers, and we've seen that a lot over the past several years. We saw it in Wisconsin under Governor Walker, for instance. In that fight, the labor movement and the left in general made some serious missteps, and suffered a pretty crushing defeat with the law and the loss of the recall.
     
    In Chicago, I haven't seen anyone say this explicitly, but my sense is that they learned from that fight that you have to be in the streets to win these fights. The CTU is incredibly well organized, especially down at the rank-and-file level. That shows when you are wandering around Chicago today, where 40 or 50 people are on every line and more in the streets. The recent laws that push against public sector unions have forced them to organize the entire organization, keeping their membership involved the whole way, and it is paying off today.
     

    Note: This post has had slight edits of the transcript for clarification (4:24pm ET, 9/10/12).

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