Biden’s Fourth-Grade Economics
How to justify unaffordable and inefficient stimulus
October 22, 2011 6:00 A.M. Mark Steyn
In one of those inspired innovations designed to keep American classrooms on the cutting edge of educational excellence, the administration has been sending Joe Biden out to talk to schoolchildren. Last week, it was the fourth grade at Alexander B. Goode Elementary School in York, Pa., that found itself on the receiving end of the vice president’s wisdom:
Here in this school, your school, you’ve had a lot of teachers who used to work here, but because there’s no money for them in the city, they’re not working. And so what happens is, when that occurs, each of the teachers that stays have more kids to teach. And they don’t get to spend as much time with you as they did when your classes were smaller. We think the federal government in Washington, D.C., should say to the cities and states, look, we’re going to give you some money so that you can hire back all those people. And the way we’re going to do it, we’re going to ask people who have a lot of money to pay just a little bit more in taxes.
Who knew it was that easy?
So let’s see if I follow the vice president’s thinking:
The school laid off these teachers because “there’s no money for them in the city.” That’s true. York City School District is broke. It has a $14 million budget deficit.
So instead Washington, D.C., is going to “give you some money” to hire these teachers back.
So, unlike York, Pa., presumably Washington, D.C., has “money for them”?
No, not technically. Washington, D.C., is also broke — way broker than York City School District. In fact, the government of the United States is broker than any entity has ever been in the history of the planet. Officially, Washington has to return 15,000,000,000,000 dollars just to get back to having nothing at all. And that 15,000,000,000,000 dollars is a very lowball figure that conveniently ignores another $100 trillion in unfunded liabilities that the government, unlike private businesses, is able to keep off the books.
So how come the Brokest Jurisdiction in History is able to “give you some money” to hire back those teachers that had to be laid off?
No problem, says the vice president. We’re going to “ask” people who have “a lot of money” to “pay just a little bit more” in taxes.
Where are these people? Evidently, not in York, Pa. But they’re out there somewhere. Who has “a lot of money”? According to President Obama, if your combined household income is over $250,000 a year you have “a lot of money.” Back in March, my National Review colleague Kevin Williamson pointed out that, in order to balance the budget of the United States, you would have to increase the taxes of people earning more than $250,000 a year by $500,000 a year.
Okay, okay, maybe that 250K definition of “bloated plutocrat” is a bit off. After all, the quarter-mil-a-year category includes not only bankers and other mustache-twirling robber barons, but also at least 50 school superintendents in the State of New York and many other mustache-twirling selfless public servants.
So how about people earning a million dollars a year? That’s “a lot of money” by anybody’s definition. As Kevin Williamson also pointed out, to balance the budget of the United States on the backs of millionaires you would have to increase the taxes of those earning more than 1 million a year by 6 million a year.
Not only is there “no money in the city” of York, Pa., and no money in Washington, D.C., there’s no money anywhere else in America — not for spending on the Obama/Biden scale. Come to that, there’s no money anywhere on the planet: Last year, John Kitchen of the U.S. Treasury and Menzie Chinn of the University of Wisconsin published a study called “Financing U.S. Debt: Is There Enough Money in the World — and At What Cost?”
Don’t worry, it’s a book with a happy ending! U.S.-government spending is sustainable as long as by 2020 the rest of the planet is willing to sink 19 percent of its GDP into U.S. Treasury debt. And why wouldn’t they? After all, if you’re a Chinese politburo member or a Saudi prince or a Russian kleptocrat or a Somali pirate and you switched on CNN International and chanced to catch Joe Biden’s Fourth Grade Economics class, why wouldn’t you cheerily dump a fifth of your GDP into a business model with such a bright future?
Since 1970, public-school employment has increased ten times faster than public-school enrollment. In 2008, the United States spent more per student on K–12 education than any other developed nation except Switzerland — and at least the Swiss have something to show for it. In 2008, York City School District spent $12,691 per pupil — or about a third more than the Swiss. Slovakia’s total per-student cost is less than York City’s current per-student deficit — and the Slovak kids beat the United States at mathematics, which may explain why their budget arithmetic still has a passing acquaintanceship with reality. As in so many other areas of American life, the problem is not the lack of money but the fact that so much of the money is utterly wasted.
But that’s no reason not to waste even more! So the president spent last week touring around in his weaponized Canadian bus telling Americans that Republicans were blocking plans to “put teachers back in the classroom.” Well, where are they now? Not every schoolmarm is down at the Occupy Wall Street drum circle, is she? No, indeed. And in that respect York City is a most instructive example: Five years ago (the most recent breakdown I have), the district had 440 teachers but 295 administrative and support staff. If you’re thinking that sounds a little out of whack, that just shows what a dummy you are: For every three teachers we “put back in the classroom,” we need to hire two bureaucrats to put back in the bureaucracy to fill in the paperwork to access the federal funds to put teachers back in the classroom. One day it will be three educrats for every two teachers, and the system will operate even more effectively.
It’s just about possible to foresee, say, Iceland or Ireland getting its spending under control. But, when a nation of 300 million people presumes to determine grade-school hiring and almost everything else through an ever more centralized bureaucracy, you’re setting yourself up for waste on a scale unknown to history. For example, under the Obama “stimulus,” U.S. taxpayers gave a $529 million loan guarantee to the company Fisker to build their Karma electric car. At a factory in Finland.
If you’re wondering how giving half a billion dollars to a Finnish factory stimulates the U.S. economy, well, what’s a lousy half-bil in a multi-trillion-dollar sinkhole? Besides, in the 2009 global rankings, Finnish schoolkids placed sixth in math, third in reading, and second in science, while suffering under the burden of a per-student budget half that of York City. By comparison, America placed 17th in reading, 23rd in science, and 31st in math. So the good news is that, by using U.S.-government money to fund a factory in Finland, Fisker may be able to hire workers smart enough to figure out how to build an unwanted electric car that doesn’t lose its entire U.S.-taxpayer investment.
In a sane world, Joe Biden’s remarks would be greeted by derisive laughter, even by fourth graders. Certainly by Finnish fourth graders.