Stick with me on this one…
Politically, I’m a believer in what I’d call Bernoullian politics. Bernoulli’s principle, oversimplified, says that if air passes over two sides of an object at different speeds, the pressure exerted on those sides is uneven. It’s part of why planes fly: the curved upper half of the wing disturbs the the circulation of airflow, while less so on the flatter bottom half. That is, pressure at the top and bottom are different. Increase that difference enough (get the plane going fast enough), and a sixty-four-ton 747 can fly.
So, I like to apply that metaphor to politics and economics, with issues, events, and time standing in for wings, pressure, and velocity. Let’s put it like this. When things are steady over time on one side of an issue and convoluted over time on the other, the steady side will always push the issue the direction it wants to go. Likewise, when things seem certain on one side of an economic decision and unsettled on the other, a person’s decision will tend to have a bias toward the certain-seeming side, whether that’s a good thing or not.
On economic issues, here’s real-world example from today’s New York Times: “Rising College Costs Pose Test for Obama on Education Policies”.
Americans believe college degrees are a prerequisite for personal and national success, and over time, that becomes more and more strongly believed, almost as if time is accelerating because the belief is more and more self-reinforced. The issue (access to a college degree) now has pro-college policies on one side (for example, gov’t subsidized loans) that are way more fixed than swirly arguments about whether college is worth the total cost. So, the issue — the wing in our metaphor — moves in the pro-college direction.
Problem is, always moving in a pro-college direction leaves colleges themselves with little incentive to lower costs. If college is a prerequisite for success, then all the things that make college “better” — newer dorms, star faculty, wired classrooms, football teams with national TV exposure, academic scholarships — are believed to be necessarily good things, no matter the cost. Students and their families will pay anything.
It’s essentially a ruinous version of supply and demand. Price is set at the intersection of supply and demand. But when demand is absolute, somehow someone will provide the supply, in this case colleges providing every feature asked for and lenders+government providing the financing. Supply will keep trying to reach that non-negotiable demand, meaning price keeps going up.
The President’s policies — indeed, our financing-education policies going back to the G.I. Bill — are focused on making college more affordable, for more people, with the goal of getting everyone a college degree, because an educated population is good for the country. Here’s where Bernoulli comes in. Colleges don’t set out to raise tuition. But why wouldn’t they raise tuition when there’s so much less pressure on the low-cost side of the airplane wing? If a family used to be able to afford $10,000/year tuition with no government help, and the government says, “Good news, with our new grant program, we’ll give you $10,000″, what motivation does a school have to not raise tuition to $20,000?
(This is the same debate with the mortgage interest deduction. Being able to subtract your mortgage interest from your taxes is supposed to mean it’s easier to afford a house. But it makes it easier to afford a house. All it does is give a clear incentive for sellers to raise the price of their property, because the buyer can afford more.)
And just like health care costs, each effort to make it more affordable lessens the pressure on one side of the issue, giving the steady, stronger pressure (cost) the chance to move the issue.
That’s on the economics side. Bernoullian politics, meanwhile, are why I’ll be voting for President Obama on November 6. Like others, I have little idea what his priorities actually are for a second term — and even less of what Mitt Romney’s are. But when it comes to issues I care about — especially that we’re delusional about intergenerational, George Jeffersonian economic mobility and equality of opportunity…that the American Dream happens in Denmark three times as often as in America, that it happens twice as often in Canada — the current President is more likely to push Congress to support policies that, in turn, lift the plane toward the American Dream than Governor Romney is. The President won’t (and can’t) do it in a too-fast way, but he also won’t allow a stall.
But back on the economics side, I’m glad Paul Ryan has made it easier to discuss entitlements. The quality of the discussion isn’t any good, but the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem, and we’re closer to that than we were four years ago, or even four months ago. What concerns me, taking the Bernoulli’s principle-as-flight metaphor to its conclusion, is that at some point, flying faster and faster — in our case, time passing as we do nothing — eventually either puts so much pressure on the wing that it snaps or so disturbs the airflow that the entire aerodynamic system breaks down, the plane’s belly flips to the front, and the whole thing disintegrates. It’s what will happen in higher education without a controlled deceleration that takes upward pressure off costs: at some point, and suddenly, the wings snap as parents of 17-year-olds share the conclusion that a four-year degree isn’t worth the cost, or all of higher ed stalls as a quorum of employers share the conclusion that colleges aren’t delivering them qualified employees who aren’t already saddled with debt, that it will be cheaper to train employees themselves.
I admit it’s a messy metaphor. But I always think of it when I ask myself why I still support the President. I feel there’s just the right balance of pressure there to keep our plane rising, if slowly. A Romney presidency doesn’t seem like it could resist the pressure coming from the far right, even if Romney in his heart is a moderate (but, again, how are we to know?). Bernoulli’s principle tells me Romney would snap our wings.