Elizabeth Warren faces right-wing stooge: Here's who's quietly funding her top critic

Matthew Chingos of Brookings hates the senator's student loan plan. He's getting paid big time to do it (UPDATED)

Published June 11, 2014 11:44AM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Adam Hunger)
(Reuters/Adam Hunger)

Today, the Senate votes on Elizabeth Warren’s bill to refinance previously issued student loans to current rates, which would save borrowers $55 billion over 10 years. The bill is designed to play up a contrast between the two parties on student aid; it’s not going to pass. And ultimately we need to give young people a free or near-free public option for higher education, rather than modestly subsidize the indebtedness that causes delays in major purchases and harm to the economy. But you could certainly do worse than reducing the massive amount of money the government makes off student borrowers (and I don’t think you have to pay for it; an investment in higher ed pays off itself in the long run).

That’s not how Matthew Chingos of the Brookings Institution sees it. Since Sen. Warren entered public office last year, Chingos has been one of her most persistent critics on higher education issues, calling her proposals “embarrassingly bad” and “not as progressive as it seems.” Chingos, with his affiliation with a centrist think tank, often gets cited in the media as an objective source in the student loan debate.

However, it’s always worth following the money. And Chingos gives you that road map at his own website, where he lists eight research grants he has received, totaling $1.34 million in all, from four several conservative organizations. This includes $500,000 from the Lumina Foundation, which has close ties to Sallie Mae*, the corporation that stands to lose the most from Sen. Warren’s refinancing bill.

These don’t automatically disqualify Chingos from having views on higher education, but they should inform the debate. Media outlets that freely quote Chingos should disclose his ties to right-wing foundations instead of allowing him to escape with the façade of an objective profile at the Brookings Institution.

Chingos and his colleague Beth Akers began their attacks on Warren last year, when they fulminated against her proposal to temporarily reduce student loan rates to 0.75 percent, the same rate big banks get from the government. The parallel to bank lending was simply meant as a comparison to show what we prioritize in America, but Chingos, like other critics, took it literally, saying that Warren’s  “embarrassingly bad proposal … confuses market interest rates on long-term loans with the Federal Reserve’s discount window.” He added that Warren “does not reflect the administrative costs and default risk that increase the costs of the federal student loan program,” which is more a budgetary issue than a higher education one. Chingos and Akers’ disparagement got picked up by the Boston Globe, National Review, the New Republic and New York magazine, always cited to “researchers at the Brookings Institution.”

With this year’s proposal on refinancing prior student loans, Chingos and Akers were at it again. In March, they argued that the plan turns student loans into an entitlement, allowing for refinancing at “below-market rates.” That’s an odd way of putting it, because the refinancing would actually peg to the agreed-upon 3.86 percent interest rate for this year. And once again, the focus is on cost, hinting at a long-standing debate over how much the government makes off student loans.

The Congressional Budget Office projects hundreds of billions in profits to the government, but conservatives object to this, favoring a “fair value accounting” method that they claim includes the risk attached to the loans. But the Center for American Progress and former CBO director Robert Reischauer disagree, saying that fair value accounting adds phantom costs that never materialize, and that the government actually prices risk quite well (especially when you consider that borrowers can basically not escape student loan debt).

If you believe that the government yields record profits off of students, you may want to lower that level of exploitation. If you believe that the government has a right to that expropriation because, like a bank, they have to price the default risk, you would believe, as Chingos does, that relieving the student debt burden is irresponsible and costly, and that the profits “aren’t real.”

Once again, Chingos’ views were presented as non-partisan and objective by the likes of the Boston Globe and Washington Post. Yet a brief look at where Chingos secures his research funds raises questions about that objectivity. The research grants listed on Chingos’ curriculum vitae come from four sources: the Smith Richardson Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation and the Lumina Foundation.

The Smith Richardson Foundation, which gave Chingos $300,000 in grants to support education policy research, has supported right-wing causes for 40 years, including providing key funding to the American Enterprise Institute, a top conservative think tank, since the Reagan administration. The Spencer Foundation, from which Chingos received another $40,000, has similar conservative credentials.*

Chingos’ $500,000 in grants from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation supports research on “reforming public employee pensions.” Ex-Enron executive Arnold’s crusade to slash public pensions has been well-documented by David Sirota and others. Chingos has been a foot soldier in that war to manufacture a public pension crisis in order to strip public employees of promised benefits.

But the more troubling donation to Chingos’ research is the $500,000 grant from the Lumina Foundation, because of its ties to Sallie Mae, the nation’s largest provider of private student loans, and a leading student loan servicer through its subsidiary Navient. Lumina was created in 2000, when USA Group, then the largest administrator of private student loans, sold the bulk of its assets to Sallie Mae, and restructured the rest into a private foundation. The founding chairman of Sallie Mae became the founding chairman of the Lumina Foundation, and four directors of Lumina come from the Sallie Mae board.

Chingos and Lumina have multiple ties. He submitted a paper for the “Lumina Ideas Summit” this April. Lumina president and CEO Jamie Merisotis blurbed Chingos’ 2009 education policy book. And there’s the $500,000 in grant money.

Obviously, allowing student borrowers to refinance loans – especially refinancing private loans from Sallie Mae and transferring them to the federal government – would represent a hit to Sallie Mae’s bottom line. So having an “objective” policy analyst who has been paid half a million dollars by a foundation with such a close relationship to Sallie Mae should raise alarms.

The main issue here is one of disclosure. Chingos makes some decent points about higher education and student debt. He argues that the greatest benefit of the refinancing proposal goes to those with the most debt, which includes high-income individuals who took out graduate loans for law or medical school (the bill actually caps the amount of relief based on income, however). He also told the Washington Post that the $55 billion in savings on refinancing could instead go toward more Pell grants (which conveniently would protect Sallie Mae’s lucrative private loans).

These points should be part of the debate, but readers should also know where they come from. Policy researchers in general and the Brookings Institution in particular too often get away with failing to disclose where they get their money for their research. Just a couple of weeks ago I noted in Salon a Brookings project with JPMorgan Chase called the “Global Cities Initiative,” which similarly presents “objective” research that lines up with benefits to the mega-bank’s bottom line. This should all be out in the open, so people can judge the ideas fairly, with all relevant information available.

The entire network of think tanks, policy advisers and analysts running around Washington doesn’t get enough scrutiny, relative to their influence on legislation and debates. It has become another form of lobbying for corporations or wealthy ideologues to underwrite “independent” research and get their ideas into the policy bloodstream without fingerprints. Chingos represents a good example of this, and it needs to stop.

*Update, 6/11/14, 10:40 a.m.: In this story, I inadvertently confused the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation, where Chingos has not received support, with the Spencer Foundation, where he has. I regret the error. An official correction will be posted on our corrections page.

*Update, 6/13/14, 9:00 a.m.: Jamie P. Merisotis, president and CEO of Lumina Foundation, issued the following response:

"People who see a connection between Lumina Foundation and the student loan industry are looking back on a history that is long past.  Lumina was formed in 2000 when USA Group sold its operating assets to Sallie Mae.  Lumina’s current 12-member board of directors—former college presidents, and business and policy leaders—includes three former Sallie Mae board members.  None of those board members has had any connection to the student loan industry for more than a decade.

The Foundation has been an independent, nonpartisan organization since its formation.  Most of our grantees and partners do not work in the public policy realm and have no particular ideological or political perspective.  Many disagree with each other and run the gamut of perspectives, from the Center for American Progress to the New America Foundation to the American Enterprise Institute.

Lumina is singularly focused on increasing the proportion of Americans with high-quality degrees, certificates and other credentials to 60 percent by 2025. We undertake our work in a transparent fashion and our stated views on creating a student-centered, learning-focused system of higher education are all available on our web site at www.luminafoundation.org.

Our current work and future focus are aimed at ensuring that many more students can get into and through postsecondary learning environments, armed with skills and knowledge that will make them productive at work, and happier and more successful as citizens, family members and community leaders."

By David Dayen

David Dayen is a journalist who writes about economics and finance. He is the author of "Chain of Title: How Three Ordinary Americans Uncovered Wall Street’s Great Foreclosure Fraud," winner of the Studs and Ida Terkel Prize, and coauthor of the book "Fat Cat: The Steve Mnuchin Story." He is an investigative fellow with In These Times and contributes to the Intercept, the New Republic and the Los Angeles Times. His work has also appeared in the Nation, the American Prospect, Vice, the Huffington Post and more. He has been a guest on MSNBC, CNN, Bloomberg, Al Jazeera, CNBC, NPR and Pacifica Radio. He lives in Los Angeles.

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