Free Markets, Free People

Daily Archives: May 15, 2011


Observations: The QandO Podcast for 15 May 11

In this podcast, Bruce, Michael, and Dale discuss the Indiana Supreme Court’s Ruling on the 4th Amendment, and this week’s political stories.

The direct link to the podcast can be found here.

Observations

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Is there a student loan bubble?

You might have read one of the increasingly frequent stories (like this solid essay in n+1) about a student loan bubble.  The basics:

  • College is widely believed to be the ticket to success.  Degree-holders are more likely to be employed and they make more income than non-holders.
  • Many people tried to take refuge from a lousy job market by going to college, and the recession also pinched state budgets, forcing schools to raise tuition.
  • Consequently, the amount of student loan debt has exploded toward $1 trillion, eclipsing even consumer credit.  Since student loan debt is impossible to discharge even in bankruptcy, it was widely considered safe for lenders, and was securitized much in the same fashion as mortgages.
  • As punishing as the rules for paying student loans are, those saddled with the debt have been unable to pay—many fresh graduates aren’t competitive candidates for still-scarce jobs.  Only 40% of student loans are being actively repaid.  So lenders are starting to pull out.

Over the longer term, the growth in college costs has far outpaced inflation for decades (“Since 1978, the price of tuition at US colleges has increased over 900 percent, 650 points above inflation”), while the added-income value of those degrees has not grown at nearly the same pace.  The oft-quoted statistic that college graduates make $1 million more over a lifetime is misleading (it doesn’t take into account years of foregone income, for one thing), and there’s reason to suspect that much of the real discrepancy is due to correlation: students who have what it takes to pass through the filter of college admissions and stick it out are likely the kind of people who would make more money over their lifetimes anyway.

But is that enough to call it a bubble?

First, no one can really walk away from student loan debt like they can walk away from a mortgage, so many currently nonperforming loans can be expected to perform again when employment picks up.

Second, even if many people lose faith that a college degree is worth the price, tens of millions of kids have been groomed for college from a young age, and it’s true that employers still use college degrees as a significant signal of value.

That faith is unlikely to collapse overnight, and even if it did, it would take time for businesses to adjust.  Employers would have to start signaling a greater interest in other factors that prospective employees could substitute for accredited colleges.

Even entry-level jobs have college-educated competition, so how is a young adult to invest his time and credit, other than jumping on the subsidized college bandwagon?

  • Take a risk on going unemployed for a stretch?
  • Work for free?  (He’d still have to compete with college students.)  Aside from internships, working for less than the minimum wage to establish one’s value as an employee is generally prohibited.
  • Try to convince employers that alternative forms of study are as valuable as college experience?

These are luxuries many can’t afford.  There are federal guarantees for college money, but the closest thing a young adult can get to a subsidy for entrepreneurship or job hunting is the welfare state safety net if he fails.  The college path is blazed, even if it is the scenic route.

So for now, the lack of alternatives will help ensure there’s no big “pop” but a few marginal shifts:

  • Young adults will try to attend cheaper schools, work through college, and take on less debt.
  • Creditors will be less generous with student loans while repayment rates remain low.
  • And colleges will get by on less money than they planned to have.

As much as we need greater competition in postsecondary education, and better alternatives for young adults to build and signal their value, no student loan “bubble” will do the job.  It isn’t a bubble if the air has nowhere to escape.


Obama finally figures it out–plans to fast track oil drilling in Alaska

The irony, of course, is inescapable.  Democrats, seeking answers to why gas prices were so high, spent the week grilling oil company CEOs and attempting to make “Big Oil” the scapegoat (btw, their “profits” are not the reason for high gas prices and cutting out their tax breaks won’t bring them down) … again.  And, we’ve had two years worth of the administration throwing roadblock after roadblock in front of oil companies trying to get permits to drill in the Gulf (so many months of delay, in fact, that most of the rigs idled have moved elsewhere in the world).

Now, suddenly, as November 2012 begins to creep inexorably closer, Barack Obama discovers the need for speed in exploiting oil and gas domestically – something we could be well into already if his administration hadn’t decided to essentially halt everything.

The broad energy plan, coming as gas prices continue to rise, would also fast-track environmental assessment of petroleum exploration elsewhere.

Yes, we now have an administration that, after two years of doing everything in its power to discourage oil companies, now claiming it suddenly “gets it?”  Sorry if I’m not buying yet.  After all,  with the other hand, it pursues removing tax breaks in a capital intensive and competitive business sector that would discourage many oil producers from working here.   More Hyde than Jekyll. To skip to another metaphor, how much of this is the usual smoke and mirrors show?

There are politics and there is reality, and one of the things I’ve learned since this administration has been in office is to take everything they say with a huge grain of salt and wait until you actually see something happening before you believe it.

I’m glad that’s the plan.  But until I see this administration walking the walk, not just talking the talk, I’ll reserve any approbation for that moment.  And then it will be muted given the “policy” the administration has pursued until now.

OK, I’m metaphored out – over to you.

~McQ

Twitter: @McQandO