November 25, 2023 Reading Time: 3 minutes

Here’s an easy A for politicians: To any economic problem you can name, the solution is job training and college.

People are out of work from foreign competition? Taxpayers should cover the cost of training the people who lost their jobs.

How can poor people earn a better living? Governments should pay for them to attend college.

Want to improve wages for women, or minorities, or whatever group you want? Job training and college are the obvious answer.

How are we going to make sure that we’re ready for the transition to the alleged knowledge economy of the future? You’re not going to believe this, but the survey says: job training and college.

How did job training and college become the Swiss Army Knife for all economic problems? By seeming to offer all benefits and no costs.

Most voters like the story, and few people dislike the solution. That beats the usual political math, in which taking a stance usually results in some people liking it and some not liking it. I would like my home state, Michigan, to cut the income tax rate, but I recognize that there are spending interests who don’t want the state to spend less. Even if lowering the income tax rate were immensely popular, the people who don’t want to cut taxes would put pressure on lawmakers.

This matters because the political system magnifies complaints. It is easy to complain, and some people complain a lot. Voters may broadly want a particular policy, but an elected official who tries to put that policy into law will hear from the few people who don’t want it.

Yet, job training and college programs go without even a small group of opponents.

Americans have always valued education. People have a generally positive view of job training and college, and few are going to complain about these programs. From the politician’s perspective, it’s all benefit. Without even a vocal minority of people against it, it lacks political costs. No one is going to get voted out of office over job training and college programs.

There are also politically important groups who stand to benefit when more money goes to job training and college. Colleges and universities love to collect more from taxpayers; doubly so when lawmakers don’t ask for much in return.

Job training is done by all sorts of other institutions: school districts, regional public school agencies, technical institutes, industrial associations, unions, nonprofits, and community colleges. Many states maintain job training agencies. All the players in this vast industry will praise lawmakers who do more to pay for their work.

That’s not including businesses that would happily turn in their receipts if taxpayers would cover their training expenses.

With no opponents and a diverse group of politically powerful supporters, job training and college become the preferred answer to every question. This is a bottomless well that politicians can go back to time and time again.

These political benefits, however, come with real fiscal costs. Money spent on one job training program is money not spent on parks, or prisons, or schools, or anything else legislators want to accomplish. Above all, this money could be going back to the taxpayers. Michigan spends billions on college and job training programs each year. Reclaiming the money taxpayers send to community colleges and universities alone would be enough to drop the state’s income tax to the lowest in the region.

While job training and college are always the political solution, no one seems to care about whether they actually solve the problems they are created to address. Are job training programs actually providing useful training to the people affected by foreign trade? Don’t ask lawmakers. They’d prefer that people give them credit for the intent and ignore questions about outcomes.

The political popularity of job training and college has led to a proliferation of costs and programs with little accountability. Every problem results in one more effort to do more job training and college. None of it assesses what is already done, or whether it works.

People ought to recognize that politicians use job training and college as the answer to every problem. If more of us raised our hands and asked questions about these programs, elected officials might care about whether the next program accomplishes anything.

James M. Hohman

James M. Hohman is the director of fiscal policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute in Midland, Mich.

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