If you aren’t aware, Obama’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Shaun Donovan, graced our fair campus with his presence this afternoon. According to UNC’s Office of Federal Affairs (did anyone know we even had one of those?), the purpose of the visit was “to provide an opportunity for Carolina stakeholders to engage a member of the Obama Administration and to better understand some of their policies.” Sadly, the event resembled something closer to a campaign event (and a rather poor one at that).
I think what was most disappointing was simply the quality of the questions students asked during the Q&A. The first one was “In your dealings with President Obama, what have you found to be his best quality?” And it was simply downhill from there. Now, if this man was addressing a group of third graders, that question might have been appropriate (maybe), but among a group of college students and academics it’s simply absurd. Consider the situation. Here you are, a college student (or professor, or whatever), with an opportunity to discuss anything, from the anemic job market, the depressed housing market, a rapidly nuclearizing Iran, a debt-to-GDP ratio north of 100%, or the impeding collapse of the post-World War II world order, and you essentially ask, “Why is the President soooooo awesome?” I think this little episode perfectly encapsulates what is wrong with American higher education today. Instead of thinking critically about events around it, the academy is so radically self-absorbed and out of touch and so obsessed with its own ideology, it’s simply laughable. Is this really all that the best and brightest of North Carolina is capable of? Maybe it was a fluke, or maybe some rogue from Duke snuck in, but it was kind of embarrassing.
Secretary Donovan, when he wasn’t answering inane questions from the audience, also did a fair amount of pontificating. Apparently, the administration is convinced that we can educate ourselves out of this recession. If only we spend (a lot) more on higher education and push as many people as we can through the system, we’ll all be happy again. Color me a skeptic, but the plan he described, where the federal government subsidizes education through new tax credits, etc., guarantees low-interest loans for all comers, and then requires those borrowers to make only bare minimum payments on those loans, seems awfully similar to American housing policy circa 2008 (which incidentally, HUD bears a lot of responsibility for). I suppose if the idea is to create a giant education bubble, such that when it pops, everyone forgets about the housing problem because the education bubble is so much bigger, then this is a great idea. But if the idea is to generate genuine economic growth, this is certainly not the way to go.
And what’s a State of the Union talk without some mention of trains? Aren’t those things amazing? If only we had more of them, those pesky Chinese wouldn’t even be able to touch us. Actually, the best part of the Secretary’s little speech was when he was talking about China’s impressive infrastructure and how the Chinese are just light-years ahead of us in this regard. He clearly has no idea what he’s talking about. If he did know what he was talking about, he would know that, even in the (very crowded and polluted) major cities (i.e. places like Beijing), you can’t drink the tap water or flush toilet paper because the sewer systems are so old and so out of date. He would also know that electricity is also a problem, and that you actually have to buy surge protectors to insulate your electronic goods from regular power surges. Indeed, even China’s much lauded trains aren’t much to write home about. When they’re not falling off bridges, many of China’s trains are (very) overcrowded, smelly, and generally a very hellish experience. And their highway system isn’t anywhere nearly as well developed as ours. Now, don’t get me wrong, China’s quite a charming place, but the U.S. is definitely winning the infrastructure game.
There was also a fair amount of green energy hype. The Secretary informed us that while there might be a few Solyndras along the way (who doesn’t mind a little government corruption after all), we can’t expect the government to make the right choice every time when it comes to deciding which business to support. This, of course, is the whole point! The government can’t make these decisions, because they are infinitely complicated and not something that some bureaucrat hiding in the basement of a federal building can make. Such choices are properly left to the market, which is a better evaluator of risk and profit than the government will ever be. When the government tries to make these decisions, you end up with Solyndra. Solyndra isn’t merely a side effect of government intervention in the market, it is its natural conclusion.
All in all, this event was pretty disappointing. The questions were childish, and we got the same old, same old from the administration. It’s simply too bad that what could have been a really interesting event on the future direction of the country devolved into a Why Barack Obama is the Greatest Thing Since Baked Bread event.