Daniels Is Proving Just How Bad Colleges (and People) Are at Controlling Costs

Mitch Daniels took over the presidency of Purdue University in 2013. They have yet to have a tuition increase on his watch. That, quite frankly, is remarkable in the world of higher ed and, perhaps, even unimaginable in a world in which annual tuition increases are a given. For more details, I refer you to this Inside Higher Ed story.

I’m particularly fond of the Daniels story because he’s proving me right. And everyone likes to be proved right.

Since becoming intimately familiar with the world of higher ed, when preparing for and then occupying the presidency of a college, I’ve contended that annual increases in the cost of a college education were not inevitable, as many claim, but were, in part, the product of gross mismanagement, namely, the pathetic inability of college trustees, administrators, and faculty to control their costs. Stated differently, higher ed is smothering in waste, inefficiencies, and extravagant spending.

They get away with it because students and their parents are willing to pay the ever-rising prices, in tuition, fees, and room and board, and are willing to go into debt to finance these purchases. Moreover, thanks in part to the cartel called the accreditation system, the competition isn’t there to constrain price increases, as it is in many other industries. But that doesn’t make it right or without consequences.

One of the consequences is student-loan debt, which is now in the neighborhood of $4 trillion. Not that most college trustees, administrators, and faculty care. They don’t. If they did, Daniels would have more company in his campaign against out-of-control spending. And Purdue wouldn’t be alone in holding the line on tuition increases for seven straight years.

Colleges and universities mismanage resources on so many levels. But, of course, they’re not alone. Their bad habits are shared by other nonprofits and governmental agencies — organizations that are not accountable to investors. But it’s not that all for-profit organizations excel in this regard. They don’t. Many of them do a poor job of controlling expenses, too. But, overall, they do a far superior job than their nonprofit relatives.

It will be harder for other colleges and universities to peddle their excuses now that Daniels and Purdue have shined the spotlight on them. Yet I don’t expect much to change for most institutions. They’ll continue to increase prices every year.

There’s only one thing that will bring about change, and that’s competition and consumer awareness. If and when students stop enrolling because there are better values to be had elsewhere, then and only then will boards of trustees hire administrators with the skills and guts to act in the best interests of the students.

But there’s a bigger lesson to be learned here, Vera, for what we see in the world of higher ed and organizations generally, we also see play out in the world of household finances. Continue reading

The Transformation of a Government into a (Bankrupt) Bank and Insurance Company

The U.S. Government now holds over 30 percent of all consumer debt. When you add in all the federal mortgage guarantees, it’s clear that our national government has slowly but surely become one huge bank underwriting the leveraging of its citizens’ balance sheets.

But, of course, that’s not all. The national government also is one humongous insurance company. It’s called Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

I’m not suggesting this role the national government plays in financing and insuring its population is bad. Or good. That’s for you to decide. But it certainly is dramatically different — from what it was 100 years ago, that is.

You might ask, How can the government afford all of this? After all, many borrowers default on their student loans, meaning the government (more precisely, its taxpayers) have to absorb those losses. Plus, the social safety net programs run at a large deficit, which will grow exponentially over the next few decades as baby boomers retire and put unimaginable strain on the Social Security and Medicare systems. So how indeed does the government afford to keep these programs alive?

It’s simple: it borrows. How ironic that the country’s largest bank and insurance company also is one of the world’s largest debtors.

And who does it borrow from? Lots of lenders, including real banks, insurance companies, pension funds, endowments, individuals and a host of countries, the largest being China.

But surely there must be a limit to what constitutes prudent borrowing, you might ask. History tells us there is. More specifically, history tells us that once a country’s debt exceeds 90 percent of its GDP, the debt becomes a drag on growth. Well, ours has or will soon exceed those levels, meaning that it’s likely we’ll grow slower than our potential and that our standard of living will suffer.

That shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. But, for reasons I don’t fully comprehend, we’ve decided to take from our children and their children so we can have more today. That tells you something about our character, I suppose.

The other thing that can happen — and which may be happening now — is that the debtor nation’s currency can become less valuable. If that happens, inflation can ensue, further eroding purchasing power and the debtor nation’s standard of living. Given how the U.S.’s currency has been reacting lately (somewhat akin to an emerging market country’s currency, which, of course, isn’t good), it’s possible we’re beginning to see that erosion accelerate. But we still have a ways to go before it becomes a problem. The concern, however, is that these things can unravel quickly. And when they do, it will be too late to reverse the effects.

All and all, it’s a troubling development, this transformation of our national government into a bank/insurance company. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been so bad if we had decided to bear a larger portion of the costs as they were incurred. But we didn’t. Instead, we decided to put the bill on our national credit card. While cutting taxes for the wealthy. Surely, over the long term this is a disaster in the making.

It might be a good time to convert some of those savings to renminbi.

The Thing American Exports that Trump Is Failing to Mention

In this whole discussion about tariffs, President Trump makes it sound like America’s trade deficit is larger than it is. Failing to mention the other exports serves his purpose. But people need to consider the entire picture, not only the partial one that’s designed to win Mr. Trump votes in the Rust Belt.

When looking at the entire picture, a couple of things jump off the canvas at me. First, there are service exports that aren’t included in the picture painted by Mr. Trump. For instance, America exports a tremendous amount of educational services to foreigners, which brings lots and lots of money into the States from those countries. I don’t have the numbers, but they’re huge. And, frankly, they’ve saved jobs at many schools, colleges, and universities, as well as at book publishing companies and other collateral industries. Education is just one example. America exports quite a few other services, too.

Second, American exports trillions and trillions of U.S. Treasury notes and bonds. In fact, China is the largest purchaser of such debt, with Japan also being a major purchaser. The fact of the matter is, someone has to buy them, and if the foreigners didn’t, we’d have to buy them domestically. And consider what that would mean:

  • fewer buyers
  • higher interest rates

In other words, we’d be paying more and having to save more, too. Savings would come out of current consumption, which means less need for products and services, which in turn means fewer jobs. And higher interest rates would mean higher mortgage expense, fewer cars purchased, etc.

It’s fair to debate trade. And to consider whether a country should protect certain industries, like America has protected farmers for decades (for some reason, Mr. Trump apparently thinks that’s “fair”). But if you’re going to debate it, then at least consider the entire picture.

The lesson here, Vera, is that you’ve got to think for yourself and not allow yourself to be spoon fed by a politician or any other person who has a vested interest in a particular position or outcome. In other words, you just can’t trust people to tell you the whole story.

You Get To Keep Your Stupid Red Hat Though

Josh Brown recently tweeted:

If they get this through, in its current form, will mark the complete and final takeover of America by corporations. You get to keep your stupid red hat though.

They’re getting it through. Not in its original form, but pretty close. Close enough to represent “the complete and final takeover by America by corporations.” But at least everyone gets to keep their stupid red hats.

The new tax law will result in a massive transfer of wealth to corporations and their shareholders from ordinary citizens and their progeny. If you’re fortunate enough to own financial assets, you may be one of the winners (provided you don’t live in a Blue State and you’re wealthy enough not to have earned income). If you don’t own a substantial amount of financial assets, then you and your kids are screwed. Especially your kids. And their kids. Any temporary benefits working and middle class people will realize from these cuts are likely to be offset by higher interest rates, a weaker dollar, future cuts to the Social Security and Medicare programs, and escalating health care and education expenses.

The national deficit will balloon as the result of this new law, which means your descendants will be inheriting an even larger debt burden, further eroding their standard of living. I guess people think we can simply add this to our tab and never have to pay it off. Or perhaps they’re just not thinking.

America’s tab of public and consumer debt already tops $40 trillion, including:

  • $20.5 trillion of federal government debt;
  • $14.6 trillion of residential mortgage debt;
  • $1.5 trillion of student debt;
  • $1.2 trillion of state government debt;
  • $1.1 trillion of auto loan debt;
  • $1.0 trillion of credit card debt; and
  • a staggering amount of unquantified debt represented by unfunded public pensions and entitlement programs (the present value of unfunded entitlements has been estimated to be $49 trillion).

The outgoing Fed chair, Janet Yellen recently said, “I would simply say that I am very worried about the sustainability of the U.S. debt trajectory. It’s the type of thing that should keep people awake at night.”

Up at night?! No one in this White House and none of the Republicans in Congress seems to be losing any sleep. To the contrary, they’re not troubled in the least; in fact, they’re content to make the situation worse, just so they can give more money to their wealthy donors (and themselves and their own families).

This decision to give huge tax cuts to corporations that are already highly profitable, awash in cash and valued at high multiples by the market, and to massively cut wealthy people’s taxes, convinces me more than ever that few people care about the future. Apparently, today is all that matters. Our children and grandchildren are the forgotten ones in all of this. Such parental narcissism is, quite frankly, disgusting. So much for being concerned about the seventh generation.

Former Reagan budget director David Stockman hit the nail on the head:

At the end of the day, the GOP tax bill boils down to borrowing more than $1 trillion from the American public in order to pay higher dividends to wealthy private stockholders.

Another stalwart Republican, Steve Schmidt, who managed the 2008 presidential campaign for his party, wrote:

This tax bill demonstrates, once again, the total collapse of all and any rigor around the policy making process in the GOP congress. It is built on a foundation of lies. It adds more than a trillion to the debt. No real conservative should vote for this.

A foundation of lies indeed. Pennsylvania Avenue and the streets around the Republican controlled Congress are rivers of lies these days. So much for draining the swamp. It’s worse than ever. The only thing that still surprises me is the number of people who are willing to believe the lies, including those who will be most hurt by the lies. Gullibility seem to know no bounds.

Back to Josh Brown, a Wall Street type (financial adviser and CNBC regular) whom I quoted at the outset. Brown wrote the following the morning after the Senate passed the tax cut bill. As usual, Josh gets it right.

There’s a possibility that last night’s preliminary step toward final legislation will take the number one issue facing America and balloon it into Rubenesque proportions. Economic inequality, which largely drove voters to lose their minds and cotton to candidates like Bernie Sanders and Trump, could explode over the next few years as a result of fiscal stimulus targeted almost precisely at the part of the economy that doesn’t need it. The fact that the people who do need the most help could end up paying for that is perhaps the sickest, most cruelly ironic joke that’s ever been told.

Unless you believe in magic, which I don’t. And remember, I’m speaking here against my own immediate self-interest. I’m not stupid and this isn’t virtue signaling – I genuinely believe the economy is better when participation is broader and not as concentrated as it’s been. Obama attempted to solve this but he failed. Trump is not even trying. He’d sign anything brought to his desk at this point, just to say he did it.

Indeed, this bill will exacerbate wealth inequity, further hurting the very people who have placed their hopes in Mr. Trump. It is, as Josh writes, “perhaps the sickest, most cruelly ironic joke that’s ever been told.”

And now watch: I guarantee you the Republicans will be coming for your Social Security and Medicare.

The events surrounding this new bill further convince me of the power of propaganda (as if I didn’t know). And of the dangers of slick charlatans and demagogues and people’s willingness to embrace them if conditions are right. And of the dangers of willful ignorance.

But it is what it is. At least I get to keep my Pittsburgh Pirates cap. And I don’t have to wear one of those stupid red hats.

What About the Seventh Generation?

“If we choose to live beyond our means, our children will have to live below theirs.” – David Kelly, JPMorgan, November 27, 2017 weekly podcast

I’m not sure I’ve heard anyone put it any better than Dr. Kelly in this week’s podcast.

The U.S., like much of the developed world, is in fact choosing to live beyond its means. And the tax cuts currently being bantered about in Congress would only exacerbate the situation, with the high levels of deficit spending being used to fund them.

I am reminded of this particular provision of the Constitution of the great Iroquois nation:

In all of your deliberations in the Confederate Council, in your efforts at law making, in all your official acts, self-interest shall be cast into oblivion. Cast not over your shoulder behind you the warnings of the nephews and nieces should they chide you for any error or wrong you may do, but return to the way of the Great Law which is just and right. Look and listen for the welfare of the whole people and have always in view not only the past and present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground – the unborn of the future Nation.

“Have always in view … the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground.”

One of their chiefs added:

We are looking ahead, as is one of the first mandates given us as chiefs, to make sure and to make every decision that we make relate to the welfare and well-being of the seventh generation to come. … What about the seventh generation? Where are you taking them? What will they have?

As a grandfather, I am particularly attuned to the interests of our future generations. I am concerned about your generation, Vera, and those of your children and grandchildren.

It pains me to see my generation act so selfishly — so callously towards future generations. We take from your and your parents’ generations so we can live above our means today. We dig our financial hole deeper every day and remain willfully blind and ignorant to the implications of our decisions on future generations. And we continue to elect members of Congress and presidents who cater to our selfish desires. We are a nation with leaders who know not what leadership truly means but, instead, patronize and act only out of self interest.

Europeans thought native Americans were savages. Yet some of them — people who inhabited this land of ours long before the ships from Europe arrived — were concerned with the seventh generation.

Perhaps we need to reconsider what it means to be civilized.

Turning Black Friday White

Many people are shopping today. Data show that some of them haven’t yet paid off the bills from last year’s shopping binges. But it won’t stop them from shopping more.

In the short-term, this is good for the economy and, by extension, for the rest of us. The long-term is a different story. But, as Americans are prone to do, we’ll deal with that if and when it becomes a problem.

I don’t need anything and I don’t know anyone who does, so I won’t be shopping today. It occurred to me, however, that that’s a problem. Why don’t I know anyone who needs anything?

Perhaps I know too few people. Or perhaps my sphere of personal interactions is too small.

I don’t feel the need to shop, but I do feel like I should have to shop. I feel like I should know someone who needs something.

In general, I think we’re either givers or takers. Most of us aren’t one or the other entirely; we’re a mixture of both. I have seen, however, people who seem to be 100 percent takers. I don’t find them to be attractive and have no desire to emulate them. But perhaps I’m more like them than I care to admit.

What I’ve learned over the course of my life is giving matters. It helps keep us grounded. It helps us maintain proper perspective. It nourishes our souls and makes us better people.

I used to think staying away from the stores was a good thing. That not spending was meritorious. But I’m no longer so sure.

When Debts Are Fun, and When They Aren’t

“Some debts are fun when you are acquiring them. But none are fun when you set about retiring them.” – Ogden Nash

I don’t mean to beat a dead horse to death, Vera. But I know you’re going to be bombarded with people, banks, credit card companies, stores and others encouraging you to borrow. And making it really easy for you to borrow.

Why wait when you can have it now? And you can have it all!

That’s the message. What you’ll never hear, however, is anything about the pain of paying it back (retiring the debt). And of not having enough savings to become financially independent and enjoying the freedom that comes from that.

Borrowing has come to be the American way. I’m not really sure why. But I am sure that excessive debt — and, in particular, the incurrence of huge amounts of unproductive debt — have caused all kinds of problems for people, companies, and local and state governments.

Yet we seem never to tire of debt. In fact, we borrow even more.

Oh, well, I suppose you’ll figure out what’s best for you. Just try to remember Mr. Nash’s point when you’re considering whether to get into debt: there is nothing fun about repaying loans.

That’s not to say that all debt is bad. Indeed, debt for productive uses can be good. Debt that yields a robust debt-income stream can be good.

But much of the debt incurred doesn’t. Paying that back will hurt the most.