Archives: 10/2006

Counsel of Sanity

If someone asked you to play Russian roulette and told you that you had only a 6 percent chance of not shooting yourself, would you play? Not if you were sane. Yet that’s exactly what some conservatives, led by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, are asking people to do with their children’s education.

On National Review Online today, writing in reply to a piece I had there last week, Fordham vice president Michael Petrilli argues that I was foolish to assert that standards set by government are doomed to failure, and that school choice is the only way to get meaningful standards and accountability in education.

Sure, he says, choice is valuable – critical, even – but so too is government standard-setting and measuring. “In order for any market to work effectively, consumers need good information,” he writes. “If we want to know whether schools actually ‘add value’ to their students, we need rigorous tests tied to meaningful academic standards, plus a sophisticated ‘value added’ analysis system – the whole standards-based reform kit-and-caboodle.”

Really? Consumers need government to set the standards and tell them whether the things they buy work? Is that really how the unwashed masses find good cars, fast computers, clothes that fit, newspapers to read, companies to deliver packages on time, and so on?

Of course not! Consumers are able to get a seemingly infinite array of excellent goods and services because the market assures it.

For one thing, suppliers of goods and services have to offer items that consumers want or they’ll eventually go out of business. But that’s just the beginning. In a free market, most people don’t have to know very much about the products they want in order to get something excellent because experts, such as those at Consumer Reports, Auto Week, PC Magazine, and so on, make money by evaluating the products for them. Plus, of course, consumers can talk to friends and neighbors about their experiences with different products and service providers, as well as use their own experiences, to inform their choices.

Unfortunately, their inability to understand how market standards and accountability work is not the most astonishing thing about Petrilli and other conservatives’ sudden faith in federal education standards. No, the most astonishing thing is that they are well aware of big government’s constant failures, but call for federal standards anyway.

Here’s Petrilli on the state standards movement: “Unfortunately, most states have botched standards-based reform by setting the bar too low.”

Here he is on No Child Left Behind: “The [low standards] problem is aggravated by No Child Left Behind, which demands that all students reach ‘proficiency’ by 2014 but lets states define ‘proficiency’ to their low levels. Hence, NCLB has created a race to the bottom.”

How about the voluntary national standards we tried in the mid-1990s? Here’s Diane Ravitch – who yes, I know, supports national standards – in Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform: “The abortive attempt to create national standards revealed the deep fissures within academic fields, as well as the wide gap between avant-garde thinkers in the academic world and the general public.”

By Petrilli and Co.’s own accounts, it is obvious that the track record of government standards-setting has been pathetic. What’s to blame? Politics, pure and simple. Invariably, the people who would be held accountable by high standards – teachers, administrators, and education bureaucrats – have fought ferociously to keep standards as low as possible, while parents have been ignored. It’s no wonder: Because their very livelihoods depend on maintaining the status quo, education special interests spend oodles of time and money on lobbying and political campaigns, while parents, who have to worry about their own jobs, children, and countless other concerns, can’t possibly mount strong and sustained political efforts to get the standards they want.

Given history and political reality, Petrilli and other like-minded conservatives have very few government standards successes to hang their hats on. Indeed, that’s why they’ve had to ask the country to play 6 percent roulette: “Of course, getting national standards and tests right is no small feat,” Petrilli acknowledges. “But McCluskey is wrong to insist that it cannot be done. After all, California, Massachusetts, and Indiana managed to develop excellent standards over the past decade. If it can happen in Sacramento or Boston, it could happen in Washington, D.C., too.”

So, because three out of fifty states have gotten standards right, we should gamble on the feds getting them right, too, and give Washington the authority to set the standards for every public school in America? That’s crazy.

Maybe if we tweak Petrilli’s statement, its insanity will be more clear: “Getting national standards and tests right is no small feat. And McCluskey is right to insist that it almost certainly can’t be done. After all, Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas – and the list goes on - haven’t managed to develop excellent standards over the past decade. If it can’t happen in Montgomery or Juneau, it probably won’t happen in D.C., either.”

Looked at that way, Petrilli’s reliance on the success of three states to justify national standards is a little frightening. And, it turns out, even the three successes are at best cautionary tales: California only improved its standards after it had adopted disastrous ones that dumped it into the bottom of all states academically. Massachusetts’ standards are under constant political threat and could easily be dismantled. Finally, no matter how good Indiana’s standards are, between 2002 and 2005 the share of Hoosier 4th graders scoring at or above “proficient” on the National Assessment of Educational Progress reading exam dropped from 33 to 30 percent, and 8th graders at or above proficient fell from 32 to 28 percent.

In his op-ed today, Petrilli says I offered “counsel of defeat” last week when I told conservatives to give up on national standards and get back to fighting for school choice. In light of political reality, it is clear that he is wrong. Mine was not counsel of defeat – it was counsel of sanity.

Dust in the Wind

For those of you still under the impression that federal environmental regulators are sober-minded professionals who cooly and reasonably guide regulatory policy in the public interest with both emotional detatchment and common sense, I offer you this story, which reports that farmers will now be required to control the amount of dust kicked up from their fields.

Iowa Senator Charles Grassley was quick to tag the rule profoundly “idiotic.” While I agree, it’s hard to muster much sympathy for farmers given the economic assault they have launched on non-farmers via federal and state ethanol subsidies and consumption mandates. So in this case, I root for mutually assured destruction.

White Coats Über Alles

Last week, a group of scientists announced the formation of a new coalition – Scientists and Engineers for America (SEFA) – to campaign for politicians “who respect evidence and understand the importance of using scientific and engineering advice in making public policy.” While the group professes to be nonpartisan, “the group will discuss the impact the Bush Administration’s science and technology policies have had in their fields and the need for voters to consider the science and technology policies by candidates in this year’s mid-term elections.”

I imagine that most people would agree that, in the words of SEFA, “Scientists and engineers have a right, indeed an obligation, to enter the political debate when the nation’s leaders systematically ignore scientific evidence and analysis, put ideological interests ahead of scientific truths, suppress valid scientific evidence and harass and threaten scientists for speaking honestly about their research.” But there’s more than a whiff of the sentiment here that Americans should just shut up and let the guys in the white coats run the country.

What irks me about the increasing bossiness of the self-appointed guardians of “science” is the lack of humility about their own profession.

First, there is disagreement among scientists about many of the issues they are concerned about – like global warming – and it’s not clear even to scientists exactly what is going on in the atmosphere. Assertions to the contrary are simply dishonest.

Second, scientists of all people should know that scientific truth is not determined by a show of hands. Theories stand or fall on hard data and evidence, not majority votes within politicized professional bodies. Virtually every single thing that the scientific “consensus” believes today was once a fringe minority perspective. Would we ever have arrived at our present intellectual location had minority dissenters been run out of town on a rail or burned at their professional stake? Scientific theories demand criticism to fulfill their promise. Scientists should welcome a public “kicking of the tires” and not try to punish those who engage in it.

Third, scientists might be able to better inform society about the facts of various matters, but they should not be allowed to dictate to society how it deals with those facts. The judgment of scientists regarding the proper trade-offs between this or that set of policy options is no better than yours or mine. In short, they have a lot less to contribute to the policy world than many people apparently think.

Finally, asking scientists to settle our policy problems for us inevitably politicizes science and corrupts the entire endeavor.

So to SEFA, I say “zip it.”

War and Terrorist Recruitment

On first reading, I could have sworn Andrew Coulson was saying that it’s cheating to point out that the Iraq War is defeating its own stated purposes. The recent National Intelligence Estimate doesn’t matter because “efforts to create a free and democratic Iraq are ongoing — the war is still in progress”? Well, efforts may still be ongoing three years and 2,500 more dead soldiers hence; just when will it be permissible to point out that the Iraq war has given Al Qaeda a recruitment boost?

The second time through, my reading comprehension improved, and now I take Andrew to be objecting to something like the following syllogism:

If a campaign in the war on terror increases terrorist recruitment while that campaign is ongoing, the campaign has failed.

War X has increased terrorist recruitment.

Therefore, War X has failed.

OK, if that’s the argument on offer from “antiwar liberals,” then I agree that it’s a faulty one. You could use it to condemn the war in Afghanistan, which, I think on balance probably improved American security despite perhaps enhancing terrorist recruitment. And it doesn’t do the work it needs to do to refute the case for war with Iraq. After all, if Iraq turns into something that passes for a liberal democracy, and if that in turn causes a reverse domino effect in the Middle East, transforming other autocracies in the region into (relatively) free and open societies, and if that in turn dampens the terrorist threat by replacing hatred with hope–then the short-term costs in terms of enhanced terrorist recruitment will turn out to have been worth it.

And I guess that’s right. But if the mere description of that Rube-Goldbergesque chain of causation doesn’t make you skeptical about whether the benefits are ever going to outweigh the costs, I don’t know what will. After all, it’s really, really hard to turn societies into liberal democracies through military nation-building, especially when those societies, like Iraq, are poor, violently heterogeneous, resource-cursed, and lack an independent middle class. But the liberal part of creating liberal democracies—the part that we don’t know how to do—may be essential if you can’t be talked out of embarking on this sort of mad enterprise. Because given popular support for Hamas, Hezbollah, and Muqtada al-Sadr in the Arab world, expanded suffrage all by itself may well make the problem worse.

Call it hindsight bias if you want, but it seems to me that the Wolfowitzian case for the Iraq war was never a promising bet. Even supposing the federal government had the world-transforming competence to reliably create liberal democracies by force of arms, I’m still not sure how that solves the terrorism problem. There was always something odd about conservatives jumping from “they hate us because we’re free” to “if we make them free, then they won’t hate us.” What was the evidence for that proposition? Even advanced liberal democracies produce terror threats.

But whether or not it was a bad bet from the start, it certainly looks like a losing proposition now, with violence raging across Iraq and no clear sign of the democratic future promised by the administration. Given all that as a backdrop, is it possible that antiwar liberals aren’t making the simplistic “recruitment up/war bad” argument that Andrew attributes to them? Isn’t it possible that they’re saying “given that the war is enhancing terrorist recruitment—and that there is no plausible account of how it’s going to dampen terrorist recruitment in the future—the Iraq War is a failure”? They may be leaving the parenthetical unstated, but perhaps they can be excused for doing so, given current events in Iraq and the failure of the war’s remaining defenders to construct anything like a convincing case for how this is all going to make us safer in the end.

The case that the benefits of the war aren’t coming has been clearly and abundantly made. By now it’s fairly well understood. If opponents of the Iraq War don’t feel the need to restate that case each and every time they point to things like the NIE, it seems to me less an error of logic than a sense that one shouldn’t belabor the obvious.

Privacy vs. Justice

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court denied Dr. Bernard Rottschaefer’s appeal for a new trial, an appeal based on clear, post-conviction evidence that the prosecution’s star witness lied under oath.

That’s unfortunate, but expected.

A woman named Jennifer Riggle testified in the criminal trial that Dr. Rottschaefer gave her OxyContin and Xanax prescriptions in exchange for oral sex. Her testimony took a hit when, after the trial, her boyfriend was released from prison, and produced dozens of letters in which Riggle admitted to him that she had made up the oral sex stories and lied under oath in exchange for leniency with respect to her own drug charges. Despite those dozens of letters, the U.S. attorney who prosecuted Rottschaefer – Mary Beth Buchanan – refused to drop or lessen the charges against him, and to date has also refused to pursue perjury charges against her star witness.

But the case isn’t over just yet. The four other women who testified at Dr. Rottschaefer’s trial have since launched civil suits against him, and all of them have given testimony during discovery that directly contradicts their testimony at trial.

The civil trial’s discovery process revealed that one woman was getting from another doctor the same medication Dr. Rottschaefer was convicted of prescribing to her – at several times the dosage Dr. Rottschaefer was prescribing. That doctor was not prosecuted, casting some doubt on the prosecution’s claim that Rottschaefer had no “legitimate medical” rationale to prescribe the medications. Others testified that they did, in fact, have some ailments that would necessitate the prescscriptions Dr. Rotschaefer was writing.

None of this came out during the criminal trial. Taken together, the testimony of these women shows a clear case of doctor-shopping and deception, and shows that Dr. Rottschaefer – like so many of the doctors the DEA has brought down – was guilty at worst of being a poor judge of character. Hardly the kind of thing for which you put someone away for 25 years.

It’s also clear that all of these women were facing their own drug charges, charges that were reduced based on their testimony against Dr. Rottschaefer.

One particularly outrageous aspect of these cases is the way HIPAA’s privacy provisions tie the hands of defense attorneys. We’re only now finding out about these women’s histories with other doctors because defense attorneys were prevented by HIPAA from knowing of or viewing their medical records. The prosecution was free to make spurious claims to the jury – claims they knew or should have known were inaccurate – but the defense couldn’t look over the very medical records that would have rebutted many those spurious charges.

Of course, if the prosecution knew of potentially exculpatory evidence – that is, their witnesses’ dealings with other doctors – and didn’t disclose it to the defense, Ms. Buchanan’s office might soon be forced to answer some difficult questions about prosecutorial misconduct.

Medical privacy is important, of course. But if the DEA is going to continue to go after these doctors with charges that hinge on the medical histories of some of their witnesses, defendant doctors ought to be able to peruse those histories for evidence that could help prove their innocence.

Wanted: An Excuse to Stop Hurting the Economy

From the Washington Post online: a synopsis of the speech given yesterday by U.S. Trade representative Susan Schwab. In that speech, which I heard, Ambassador Schwab made it clear that the U.S. was not going to offer any more cuts to agricultural subsidies as part of the Doha round of trade negotiations under the auspicies of the WTO. According to her, a “bold” offer on subsidies didn’t elicit the desired response (i.e., an offer from the European Union of further cuts to agricultural tariffs) when it was tried last October. So we shouldn’t expect anything from the U.S. soon, and certainly not before the mid-terms.

To her credit, and this was not reported in the Post article, Ambassador Schwab did admit that unilateral liberalization of trade barriers and subsidies is in America’s best interests, but she went on to say that the administration needed “an excuse” for taking that step. Apparently the significant burden on taxpayers and consumers from the current trade policy is not a large enough reason to liberalize trade.

The negotiation-via-press-release approach is not working, and Ambassador Schwab referred to the “quiet conversations” that were going on among trade ministers to try to revive the round. She gave absolutely no clue on how the talks went with EU trade commissioner Peter Mandelson when he visited Washington DC last week, except to say that the talks were “healthy.” Boy, would I like to have been a fly on that wall.

One last comment on Ambassador Schwab’s speech: her belief in a “critical mass” of bipartisan support for free trade is, I think, misguided. I can’t see the Democrats, should they take control of the House(s), giving the Bush adminstration any wins on trade. That leaves us with the original deadline of July 2007 (when the current trade promotion authority expires) for any Doha deal to come to fruition.

Are Californians Stupid? We’ll Soon Find Out

A month or so from now, we’ll get a chance to measure the IQ of voters everywhere in the form of several ballot initiatives. The most telling will be California’s Proposition 87, which proposes to tax the hell out of California oil production as a means of reducing gasoline prices. This, of course, is utter madness, but California has more than its share of economic illiterates, so it’s got a fighting chance.

An op-ed I co-wrote on the matter was published today in the Orange County Register. For more on this sort of unhinged nonsense, check out a study we wrote earlier this year on oil profits, price gouging, and the relative competitiveness of transportation fuel markets.

Despite all the crackpot economic gibberish thrown around Washington over the summer, Congress somehow managed to avoid signing off on anything near as stupid as Prop. 87. Let’s hope Golden State voters are at least the equal of our otherwise brain-dead federal legislators.