Barack Obama entered the presidency in 2009 promising a post-partisan, reform-minded approach to education, and many education reformers at first gave him the benefit of the doubt. But looking back on his record seven years later, it is clear that, not only has he failed to live up to his promises, he has poisoned a well of bipartisan support for education reform. His administration's excessive faith in federal regulation, lack of time for the niceties of federalism, and contempt for critics all undercut promising ideas and weakened the coalition for meaningful reform.
The federal student-loan system is badly broken. It exposes many borrowers to grave risks while wasting large sums of money on poorly targeted interest subsidies and contributing to misaligned incentives through badly designed loan-forgiveness programs. Liberals would address these problems by shifting more costs to federal taxpayers. Conservatives should instead advance reforms that change the incentives for borrowers and, more importantly, colleges.
The last few years have seen a dramatic increase in the number of hospital mergers. These have left antitrust regulators struggling to balance two competing demands: the need to prevent mergers that might substantially lessen competition, and the need to allow mergers that promise major potential benefits, like lower consumer costs and faster innovation. Hospitals therefore offer a particularly clarifying instance of the larger challenge of pro-competitive regulation, and allow us to appreciate the daunting task of keeping markets free and open.
Recent years have seen a dramatic weakening of the United States Congress relative to both of the other branches of the federal government, but especially the executive. The Congress has been very much complicit in its own diminution, as members have sought to evade responsibility and avoid hard choices. But Congress must now take the lead in reversing this dangerous trend — remedying decades of neglect and bad decisions that have enfeebled the first branch while empowering the second.
Control of Congress alone does not allow a party to run Washington, but it does provide the majority with some powerful tools. Among the least appreciated of these is the power to run congressional hearings. As one of the only avenues for independent congressional action, hearings offer a valuable political resource for the majority party in Congress. But to take full advantage of them, the majority party needs to understand the history, import, potential, and pitfalls of the congressional hearing.
Critics of inequality usually see it as an inherent consequence of capitalism and look to government action to remedy it. But inequality is often also driven by government itself — and especially by the use of public power to further enrich and empower the already rich and powerful. Such cronyism, or regressive rent-seeking, is endemic in America today, and combatting it is a cause that should unite liberals and conservatives.
Our constitutional system, and specifically its separation of powers, was premised on the founders' conception of the nature of man, and it was the progressive movement's rejection of this conception of man that led to the rise of the administrative state that now effectively rules over us. To reclaim the constitutional order, we must wrest power back from the administrative state; doing so will require us to come to terms with its roots and foundations.
During the Obama years, the American left has repeatedly insisted that "corporations are not people," and that assertions about the freedom of speech or of religion with regard to corporations are incoherent and dishonest. But that is not how our legal and constitutional tradition has approached the question of corporate personhood. By considering that tradition, we can see both why today's progressives have it wrong, and why getting it right is crucially important.
Fifty years ago this fall, a new quarterly journal called The Public Interest published its first issue. In the decades that followed, the PI and its stable of writers would transform American public life. With the benefit of hindsight, that first issue is striking for its vulnerability to the very illusions and false hopes the PI would in time be known for shattering. It turns out the journal's editors and writers had to first learn what they would later teach the world, and that some of their greatest contributions to America's self-understanding were in part a kind of self-criticism.