President Obama's Pathetic Scalpel

Mona Charen
Posted: Feb 18, 2011 12:01 AM
President Obama's Pathetic Scalpel

Well, now we have the answer to the question posed Nov. 2: Will President Obama, faced with an electorate infuriated by big government overreach, pivot as Bill Clinton did in 1995 and become a centrist? By offering a budget that adds a gob-smacking $8 trillion to the national debt over the next 10 years, the president has answered that question in the negative.

At his press conference, the president displayed all the classic symptoms of what could be called Liberal Obduracy Syndrome (or LOS). For Obama, every single appropriation in the monster we call a federal budget is precious -- so that he must approach it with "a scalpel, not a meat ax," as he once put it.

How some of us long for a meat ax!

Casting around for examples of blatantly, incontrovertibly virtuous uses of taxpayer money, Obama cited two: college loans and infant formula for poor children. "Are we only serious about education in the abstract, but when it's the concrete, we're not willing to put the money into it? If we're cutting infant formula to poor kids, is that who we are as a people?"

Oh, please. Since passage of the Higher Education Act in 1965 (those Great Society programs never went away; they just "growed" like Topsy), the federal government has spent billions on higher education. Though it is doubtful that the Founders ever conceived of a federal role in education at all, we've been lavishly funding students, colleges, and universities (over and above what the states spend) for decades. Between 2000 and 2008, federal aid to higher education jumped from $10 billion to $30 billion. And in 2009/2010, the federal government spent $41.3 billion on grant aid for undergraduate and graduate students.

You can make an argument that this spending represents an "investment" in the future of the country. But liberals never account for the distorting effects of government subsidies. Economist Richard Vedder, in "Going Broke by Degree," outlined the pattern:

"... America has gotten itself into a vicious cycle with respect to higher education financing that goes like this: In year 1, tuition goes up fairly substantially. Political pressures build to 'do something' about the increases. Congress expands guaranteed student loan programs to make education more affordable, in turn increasing the demand for education and allowing universities in year 2 ... to raise prices further. The result is a further expansion of student loan programs, state scholarship efforts, and other third-party funding."

And then, in turn, the rest of us are faced with ever-increasing tuition bills. I have a high school senior and have been visiting a number of colleges this year. All of them, public and private, are luxurious. Why not skip the college and just buy a country club membership for our kids? Outside of the sciences, the cost of providing an education basically consists of paying professors and administrators. And they've done very well over the past few decades (salaries have doubled since 1980). How they must chuckle whenever a politician demands that we "invest" in education.

As for Obama's invocation of baby formula for poor children -- he's a little behind the curve here. Most doctors and nutritionists have been insisting for years that mother's milk is best for babies. Still, some mothers cannot nurse. OK, let's imagine a federal program that subsidized formula only for poor women who cannot nurse. Would it look anything like the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program? Fully 51 percent of infants now get WIC funding, along with 25 percent of young children. Is a majority of infants in the United States poor? Since receiving benefits from one program does not disqualify you from another (quite the contrary), many of these recipients are also eligible for Food Stamps, free- or reduced-price school lunches, and so on.

This is not to be Scrooge, but merely to demonstrate that even the most heart-stirring of liberal programs -- formula for babies! -- has become bloated beyond reason and could easily be cut.

If it's true for infant formula and college aid, it is doubly and triply true for other programs. The Bush administration had a quaint idea -- evaluate the effectiveness of federal programs. They called it "Expect More." After examining 1,015 federal programs, they found that 193 were "effective." Of the remainder, 326 were "moderately effective," 297 were adequate, 26 were "ineffective," and 173 could not be judged at all because there were no metrics for evaluation.

So about 19 percent of programs were found to be working well. Most of them are probably superfluous anyway, but how about using that as a starting point for cutting? Count me among the 80 percenters.