Dave's Daily Dose 5/31/2022
Ben Sasse (R-NE) gets this week’s “Close, But No Cigar” Award for his take on higher-ed reform. It’s amazing how he can demonstrate some tangential understanding that the college accreditation commissions operate like cartels, while also being naïve enough to think that “competition” could defeat or co-opt them.
For what it’s worth, Sasse is a former university president. Just because he’s positioning himself today at the extreme progressive end (of higher-ed reform) relative to his fellow cartel members, doesn’t mean he can’t share their blind spots about themselves.
In Leah Stokes’ “Short Circuiting Policy”, she reflects that regulatory capture is only ever defeated when the capturers are caught flat-footed. They accede to some activist policy demand that they don’t fully understand, and it materially weakens them while empowering their activist challengers.
But the capturers also have a habit of regrouping and striking back, hard. Most defeats prove to only be temporary setbacks. And while Stokes doesn’t really notice this, my personal hypothesis is that the common thread between the defeats that “stick” is that the initial policy demand tends to ensconce a new player1 who has the resources to oppose the capturers. Think how the Obama stimulus more or less accidentally gave Tesla the start it needed to mount a credible electric challenge to the ICE automobile industry.
This is in direct opposition to Sasse and Stokes’ obsession with plucky bottom-up activism winning the final victory. Sorry folks, but absent a Horseman of Leveling, that just doesn’t happen. Humanity needs a much bigger game-changer than people power in terms of the political technology necessary to mitigate our species’ innate psychological vulnerability to zero-sum politics.
Anyways, what this tells me is that the best play is to bring in a new player — a ringer! — to defeat the cartels. I’ve got my own ideas about that, but setting aside wonk-on-wonk slap-fighting, I think it’s pretty clear that mere competition isn’t enough to get the job done. And although we here at the Discourse hold Matt Yglesias to be correct when he says that (paraphrasing) “most good policy is the result of a very slow and very boring process”, there’s also the truth that a well-calculated “Revised Stokesian” campaign to find our ringer2 can help accelerate that process.
Maybe Sasse isn’t an idiot. His proposals, while actually rather radical, are also Slow Boring-style reforms. But they’re only going to get so far. Even if he got his whole wishlist enacted tomorrow, we’d most likely just have a slightly less virulent set of higher-ed incumbents two decades from now. People would have an easier time navigating what was still an absurdly high-cost system.
At the end of the day, my own prescriptions don’t have to sit as directly in opposition to Sasse’s as my diagnosis does. It’s not a zero-sum choice between “do his thing” and “do my thing”; as long as we’re maintaining the cover of Stokes’ “fog of enactment”, it shouldn’t be too hard to slip into a Secret Congress bill. But in our current era of filibuster abuse at the end stages of the two-party doom loop, there’s a lot of competition for those slots coming from The Groups to turn the bill into a proverbial Christmas tree. So it’s disheartening to see someone like Sasse be so off-the-mark at the diagnosis level, because when you’re as obsessed as he is with narrow conceptions of reform and “innovation”3, it’s easy for The Groups to swoop in and corner you into their own myopically-defined pet requests.
To that particular arena.
If you were too lazy to click through, I think our best bet is to re-privatize higher-ed financing into an “equity” model that basically resembles Income Based Repayment For All. The new ringer is a special class of Wall Street banks.
My hunch is that the accreditation cartels can be fooled into accepting IBR4A, since it doesn’t seem like it hurts them at first glance — they still get their money tomorrow and the day after that, right? But once the banks start pouring in to capitalize
His word, not mine.