The devastating question that was asked of the vacuous Gary Hart during the 1984 Democratic primaries was "Where's the beef?" In that spirit, John Kerry could be asked today: "Where's the misery?"
Desperately trying to prove that economic conditions in a booming economy that has created nearly a million jobs in the past three months justify his dire Depression-era rhetoric, Kerry has crafted his own "misery index." The old misery index added the unemployment rate to the inflation rate. By that standard, President Bush is an economic genius on par with the great Bill Clinton (Bush's index is 8.7 percent, Clinton's was 8.5 percent in 1996). So, Kerry came up with a new formula for the index that doesn't include inflation but instead just those few items that happen to be getting much more expensive, most importantly rising college tuition.
"George Bush is pricing thousands of young people right out of the American dream," Kerry said in April. According to Kerry's campaign, "Rising tuitions often mean that students have to drop out and others cannot afford to come." The campaign touted a 13.4 percent tuition increase by Ohio State University for the 2004-2005 school year as yet more evidence of Bush's depredations against aspiring college students.
Put aside the fact that George Bush doesn't himself set the tuition at any universities. The entire premise of this line of Kerry attack is still mistaken. Almost no one pays official tuition rates, and college tuition has become more affordable in recent years, not less. A report in USA Today found that the amount students pay public universities has fallen by a third since 1998. "In fact," according to the paper, "today's students have enjoyed the greatest improvement in college affordability since the GI Bill provided benefits for returning World War II veterans."
One would think that this constitutes what the Kerry campaign welcomes only through gritted teeth -- good news. At public universities, students are paying roughly 27 percent of the official tuition price. Students pay more at private schools, but private tuition actually paid has gone up only 7 percent during the past five years, less than the 20 percent rise in the official price.
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