From David Brooks's column today in the New York Times:
The United States spends far more on education than any other nation, with paltry results. It spends far more on health care, again, with paltry results. It spends so much on poverty programs that if we just took that money and handed poor people checks, we would virtually eliminate poverty overnight. In the progressive era, the task was to build programs; today the task is to reform existing ones.
I agree with the spirit of those remarks, but there are a few points worth mentioning. First, American higher education, for all its faults, is still almost certainly the best in the world, and when China or anywhere else wants to educate its best students, they come here to Caltech and MIT and the big state universities and even the Ivy League schools. Second, while our results on health care are poor in terms of life expectancy, they are better when it comes to life expectancy if you have cancer or heart disease or some other serious ailment. Just as in higher education, when some Saudi king or Asian billionaire who can afford to be treated anywhere in the world wants the best medical care, they often choose to come to a hospital in New York or Texas or California or Massachusetts. So while I certainly agree with Mr. Brooks that government spending in the education and health care sectors has led to less-than-stellar results in primary and secondary education and in aspects of health care, the distinctions are worth making.