Winning the angry-about-tuition vote

Higher education is going to be one of the sleeper issues of the 2016 campaign season. The reason is that voters are furious at rising tuition, particularly at public colleges and universities, where most students go. Millennials—who overwhelmingly supported Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 and are a must-win demographic for Democrats in 2016—are especially angry. Not surprisingly, Democratic presidential contenders are out front on the issue. Both Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley have released proposals for “debt-free college” at public universities, and word is that Hillary Clinton will follow suit. Republicans will at some point be forced to respond with ideas of their own.

The emergence of rising college tuition as a campaign issue will come as no surprise to longtime readers of the Washington Monthly. Ever since we first started publishing our alternative college rankings a decade ago, we’ve been arguing that America’s higher education system is headed for a reckoning—that its costs are unsustainable, that it lacks useful measures of quality, that it is grossly biased toward wealthy students, and that the dominant ranking system, provided by U.S. News & World Report, just makes things worse.

In this issue of the magazine, we offer our updated rankings for 2015, plus a fleet of stories that have a common theme, laid out in the introductory essay. To wit: the only way to lower college costs and improve quality is for the federal government, which covers a big chunk of the higher education sector’s budget, to be a more aggressive (and competent) regulator of the sector. Indeed, none of the Democrats’ “debt-free college” proposals will work without that. Read our coverage, and you’ll have a jump start on what will be a major campaign issue.

The lunch fast club

Washington journalists, at least those of a certain age, still work sources over lunch. I do too, on occasion. But the truth is, I’ve never really gotten into the whole Washington lunch scene. Part of the reason is cost. D.C. restaurants price their menus based on what the expense accounts of lobbying firms will bear, not those of small, low-budget magazines. But part of it is the peculiar rhythm of my appetite. I’m an early-to-rise guy, usually up by 6 a.m., and while I know I should have breakfast I don’t because I’m just not hungry. By midmorning, I’m ravenous. If I wait until noon or later to eat I get lightheaded. But asking someone to meet me for lunch at, say, 10:45 a.m. would be considered completely weird. So around that time I’m usually sitting by myself at Chipotle wolfing down a burrito bowl.

I wonder, though, if I’m really some kind of freak or just part of an untapped market. Ten percent of Americans skip breakfast, according to a 2011 survey. That suggests that there’s a substantial fraction of Washingtonians whose stomachs are growling by midmorning but who are too embarrassed to admit it, and hence don’t know that others are in the same boat. Maybe someone ought to design an app to help people like us find each other. Or maybe what’s needed is for a few innovative D.C. restaurateurs to make early lunch a “thing,” like brunch is, with a catchy name—“lunchfast”?—and half-price early-bird specials to fill otherwise empty tables. That sure would suit my stomach—and my budget.

The scandalization of bravery

Why are conservatives so obsessed with Benghazi? The conventional view is that they see it as a great weapon against Hillary Clinton, and that’s certainly true. Seven bipartisan inquiries, including one by the GOP-controlled House Intelligence Committee, have together debunked every single accusation that there was some kind of scandal associated with the attacks that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other U.S. staff members in Libya in 2012—for instance, that the administration issued a “stand down” order that kept U.S. military from sending in a rescue team. Yet an eighth investigation, by the Select Committee on Benghazi, grinds on.

In June, the committee spent a day grilling the journalist and former Clinton White House aide Sidney Blumenthal. The purported subject of the hearing was a series of emails about Benghazi that Blumenthal sent to Hillary Clinton, a personal friend, when she was secretary of state. The committee session quickly devolved into a political fishing expedition, with Republicans posing more than 160 questions about Blumenthal’s relationship and communications with the Clintons, more than fifty about the Clinton Foundation, and only four about security in Benghazi. The committee looks also to be the source behind the New York Times’ catastrophically inaccurate front-page story in July alleging a criminal referral to the Department of Justice about Clinton and her emails. The committee’s leader, Republican Representative Trey Gowdy, has said that the committee’s report won’t be completed until (surprise, surprise) 2016, in the middle of the presidential race. In the rich history of Washington scandal mongering, we have seen few investigations more cynical and nihilistic than this one.

Still, I don’t think naked political expediency sufficiently explains the bottomless well of outrage that Benghazi has stirred up among base Republican voters. To understand that, I think you have to go back to the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. Those who lived through that era can recall not just the nail-biting drama of those 444 days but also the sense of national effrontery—Ted Koppel’s famous nightly ABC News show about the crisis was tellingly entitled America Held Hostage.

The hostage crisis had three lasting effects. First, because it happened on Jimmy Carter’s watch, in the midst of a presidential race, and ended at the very moment Ronald Reagan was sworn into office, the crisis validated Republicans’ inner sense that they and only they could be trusted to protect America’s security. Second, the crisis turned the general subject of the safety of U.S. diplomats into a political and ideological issue in a way it never had been. In the eleven years prior to the hostage crisis, five U.S. ambassadors were murdered by militants and terrorists in places like Lebanon, Guatemala, and the Sudan. None of those losses, which occurred under presidents of both parties, was seen by the public or in Washington as a grievous insult to America generally, or through a partisan filter, or as evidence of systematic failure by the U.S. government requiring root-to-branch investigations with presumptions of perfidy at the top. Rather, they were treated the same way Chris Stevens’s murder (the first of a U.S. ambassador since 1979) should be seen: as brave diplomats killed in the line of duty.

The third effect of the hostage crisis was to make politicians and the State Department so paranoid about security that they turned U.S. embassies into fortresses and put tight restrictions on the movement of staff. This has certainly saved American lives. But it’s also made it much harder for our diplomats to do their jobs—a point that the foreign correspondent and former Washington Monthly editor Robert Worth made in the New York Times Magazine in 2012. As a foreign correspondent myself in the mid-1990s I remember senior U.S. foreign service officers expressing envy at my ability to travel to wherever the action was and interview people—an absolutely vital way of learning what’s happening on the ground that they could no longer do without heavy security, or, in many cases, at all. A reporter friend of mine in Sarajevo in 1995 who later served as a USAID officer in Pakistan used to complain to me that he felt like a prisoner in the embassy in Islamabad, unable, really, to do his job effectively.

Ambassadors make the calls on diplomatic security matters in their domains, so they have more leeway to decide where, when, and how they travel. But the pressure on them from their staffs and Washington not to take chances is intense.

Chris Stevens famously pushed back against that pressure in 2011 when, as U.S. envoy to Libya, he was the U.S. government’s main interlocutor to the rebels who ultimately overthrew Moammar Ghadhafi. Stevens, who spoke the Libyan dialect of Arabic, lived openly in Benghazi with minimal security. His actions during that period became legendary among U.S. diplomats. It was an act of patriotic bravery, repeated a year late when, as ambassador, he returned to Benghazi, knowing as well as anyone the poor security situation there. We need more Chris Stevenses in our diplomatic corps. The Republicans in Congress are doing everything they can to make sure we have fewer, even if that isn’t their intention.

K-12’s coming fiscal cliff

When our son, the second of our two kids, graduated from high school this past June, my wife and I realized that he wasn’t the only one making a transition. For us, two decades of intense involvement with the public school system was abruptly ending. No more dropping kids off at school every morning (my job). No more volunteering in the library (her job). No more parent-teacher conferences, football games, talent shows, art fairs, and spring fund-raisers with moon bounces. From now on, the only time we are likely to set foot in a public school is to vote.

My wife and I are later-stage Baby Boomers, born in 1958, near the generation’s peak birth year. So our various life milestones tend to have oversized ramifications. In this case, the ramification to worry about is that as our kids leave the nest and we move toward retirement, our generation’s support for the public schools will decline.

That’s certainly the historic pattern. Numerous studies show that as the proportion of the older people in a community increases, support for school bond issues and per-pupil spending decline. This is especially true among whites when the percentage of nonwhite students entering the schools grows, which is exactly what’s happening now.

Combine that with the fact that my late-boomer generation’s children are Millennials, who came of age in the ravaged post-Great Recession economy and are delaying marriage and families accordingly (our twenty-six-year-old daughter is smack in the middle of that demographic). It’ll be a while before the bulk of the Millennials have school-age kids of their own, and hence the extra incentive to invest their tax dollars in the system. This means that America may be headed toward a sort of educational fiscal cliff in which support for K-12 education drops for an extended period of time, at least among middle-class and affluent whites.

I can think of one possible countertrend. American suburbs, where most people live, are aging, and undeveloped land in those suburbs is disappearing. When that happens, home prices become more tied to the perceived quality of public schools, and spending on schools tends to go up, according to a study by Christian Hilber of the London School of Economics and Christopher Mayer of the Columbia Business School. If you oppose, as I do, encouraging endless expansion of the suburban fringe, and favor developing older, closer-in suburbs, here’s another reason to think we’re right: it’s good for the public schools.

Quit outsourcing junkets

One point this magazine has been hammering away at for a while is that the best way Congress can insulate itself from the influence of moneyed interests is to increase its own capacity to gather information independently, rather than rely on those same interests for such information. A good example of this are the trips lawmakers take overseas during recesses. Such trips can provide lawmakers with a crucial on-the-ground sense of what’s going on in countries where U.S. interests are engaged. They can also look to voters like subsidized vacations for elected officials (and sometimes they are). So Congress has developed what it considers a politically palatable workaround: let outside nonprofit groups pay for this “officially connected” travel, with elaborate rules to ensure transparency of the funding sources.

In 2013, ten lawmakers and their staffs visited Azerbaijan, a repressive, strategically located, oil-rich former Soviet republic not known as a glamorous getaway. Azerbaijan is exactly the kind of country we should want our elected officials to know something about. The trip was sponsored by five nonprofit groups with names like “the Turkic American Federation of Midwest.” It was later revealed that the nonprofits had been secret pass-throughs for a trip actually paid for by Azerbaijan’s state oil company, which was seeking relief from U.S. sanctions for an oil pipeline.

In late July, after a lengthy investigation, the House Ethics Committee cleared the congresspeople and their staff of any wrongdoing—an understandable ruling, since the same committee had preapproved the trip and there was no evidence that the lawmakers or their staff knew in advance about the secret funding scheme. But it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that the trip garnered a less than objective view of the situation in Azerbaijan, given who paid for it.

The frustrating thing is that the whole controversy could have been avoided had Congress—which, you’ll recall from your reading of the U.S. Constitution, has the power of the purse—simply paid the several hundred thousand dollars the trip cost with government funds. Instead, it allowed itself to get played by a foreign government, then commenced an elaborate internal investigation—including the perusal of nearly 190,000 pages of materials—which, if you added up the expense, probably cost as much or more than the trip itself.

“A catalog of horrors”

In the winter of 2013, a fellow Greek American friend of mine with good political connections asked if I wanted to interview Alexis Tsipras, head of the radical-left SYRIZA party and, my friend said, “probably the next prime minister of Greece.” I jumped at the chance, and my interview with Tsipras ran in our March/April 2013 issue.

Tsipras struck me as a nice guy: upbeat, articulate, nonchalant. I couldn’t find much to disagree with in what he had to say: that the regime of austerity that Greece’s European creditors had imposed was “madness” and would only prolong the country’s Depression-level economic suffering; that “Greece does need structural reforms and it needs them soon”; but that the European powers also need to reciprocate by negotiating “a further haircut to the debt and a moratorium on payment of the debt, so that we can … [help] the Greek economy recover and [allow] Greek citizens to live in dignity.”

In January of this year, Tsipras did become prime minister. Anyone who’s been reading the papers knows what happened next. A half a year of endless high-wire negotiations began, with Greece’s controversial finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, battling the creditors, led by Germany, who moved not an inch. In July, after a referendum on the latest draconian European offer in which Greek voters basically told the creditors to fuck off, Tsipras relented. Greece agreed to further tax increases, government pension cuts and reforms of Greece’s stifling business regulation, and privatization of government-owned assets like electric utilities, in return for another bailout package, virtually all the money from which will flow right back into European government banks.

Some of the reforms may, in the long run, benefit Greece. But there’s not even a pretense on either side that the deal (which as of this writing isn’t finalized) will do anything in the short to medium term to lift the Greek economy. Indeed, conditions in Greece are considerably worse than they were before Tsipras took over and deteriorating fast.

Did anything good come from SYRIZA’s quixotic efforts? Well, one of the creditors, the International Monetary Fund, is now saying that because it’s clear (as Tsipras has long maintained) that Greece cannot repay all its loans, the IMF won’t sign off on any deal that doesn’t include further debt relief. But the IMF was moving in that direction anyway.

I do think, however, that Greece’s resistance led to a substantial change in elite world opinion. Back in the spring, when I talked to friends—worldly, plugged-in, liberal-leaning people—their attitude was “Why can’t those Greeks get their house in order?” That was a fair reflection of how the story was being covered in the media, with most of the blame put on Greece for its (quite real) fiscal profligacy and chicanery and the erratic behavior of its negotiators. But over time, the coverage shifted. More and more stories emphasized the injustice of a German-led austerity regime that had failed for five years to work as advertised and was only eviscerating average Greeks (and possibly driving the country into the arms of Russia, which has dangled the possibility of aid).

Then, in July, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, admitted publicly what he’s long been saying privately: he wants Greece out of the euro. He didn’t get his way; France and Italy insisted Greece should be allowed to stay. But the terms of the deal Schäuble finally got Tsipras to agree to were shockingly severe; even Der Spiegel, Germany’s biggest newsmagazine, labeled them “a catalog of horrors.”

The deal is actually worse than the press has portrayed it. The Greek economy has long been dominated by a few dozen wealthy families, known as “the oligarchs.” They own the country’s major media outlets, control its politicians, and support the stifling business regulations that keep out competition and allow them to dominate government contracting. The oligarchs have long since moved much of their money out of Greece. But when the mandated privatizations begin, they will likely use those funds—currently safely ensconced in offshore or European banks—to buy government assets at fire-sale prices, thus increasing their grip on the country.

In the aftermath of the deal, Germany’s reputation has taken a well-deserved beating, and the elite press has been filled with speculation about whether this raw display of German power might eventually lead other countries, like France and Italy, who chafe under that power themselves, to leave the euro.

I lived in Germany for a year and am fond of the country and its people. But Tsipras made a point to me in his interview that, though it infuriates the German government, still holds true: “Back in 1953, under the London Debt Agreement, America asked European countries, including Greece, to agree to write off 60 percent of Germany’s debts from World War II and to put a moratorium on debt repayments. That was accepted as a solution. What we are asking from Germany is basically the same.”

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Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly. A former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, he is writing a book on America’s involvement in the Greek War of Independence.