I Bankrupted the USA, and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt

H.L. Mencken said, "democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard."

What we want, as recently revealed by our elected representatives, is to preserve and grow government spending at any cost. Well, perhaps not any cost. But certainly one specific cost:$20,000,000,000,000. That's roughly what the national debt will be by the end of President Obama's second term (double the figure compared to when he took office). For context, 20 trillion seconds equal 633,774 years — three times as long as Homo sapiens has existed. That's a lot of seconds … and a lot of dollars.

So what will we get for it? Well, as long as folks are still willing to lend us money we seem unlikely to ever be able to pay back, we'll get to preserve federal government programs that we apparently consider sacrosanct.

In education, the most sacrosanct of these is surely Head Start, a 47-year-old pre-school program for low-income children meant to close the racial and socio-economic gaps in student achievement. So it's interesting that on the Friday before Christmas, when many Americans including most of the media were otherwise occupied, the Department of Health and Human Services quietly uploaded a new study to its website. Well, not actually a new study. It had been completed months earlier and been given an official release date in October. But, you know how it is. It's unseemly to release a massive, high quality, randomized study showing the failure of a signature federal education program on the eve of an election. So its release was deferred until "not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse." In a nutshell: it says Head Start doesn't work.

Perhaps the last great federal spending program before the debt bubble bursts upon us in a year or a decade should be the printing of 315 million T-shirts with the caption: "I bankrupted the United States of America, and all I got was this lousy….” Except, of course, that program probably wouldn't work either.

This article originally appeared on Cato@Liberty.

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Andrew Coulson

Andrew J. Coulson is the director of Cato's Center for Educational Freedom. Previously, he was senior fellow in Education Policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. He serves on the Advisory Council of the E.G. West Centre for Market Solutions in Education at the University of Newcastle, UK, and has contributed to books published by the Fraser Institute and the Hoover Institution. He is author of Market Education: The Unknown History, the only book to address contemporary education policy questions by drawing on case studies from across the entire span of recorded human history. Coulson has written for academic journals, including the Journal of Research in the Teaching of English, the Journal of School Choice, and the Education Policy Analysis Archives and for newspapers such as the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and Canada's Globe and Mail. He has appeared on national television and radio. Coulson lives in Seattle, Washington.

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