Archives: 04/2008

Better Weak than Worse

Yesterday, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings proposed a slew of regulatory changes to the No Child Left Behind Act she said would throw “families lifelines—and empower educators to create dramatic improvement.”

Reading over the proposals, one is thoroughly underwhelmed because, as is typical for federal education involvement, they’re big on paper compliance while leaving more space than exists between Mercury and Pluto for states and districts to avoid real “accountability.” Almost all the new regs rely on terms open to wide interpretation like “close scrutiny” or “significantly more rigorous,” and even if they were specific, they’d be very hard to enforce, especially if they proved politically unpopular.

This said, we are better off with the toothless regs the administration is offering than a counter proposal put forth by House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel. According to Congressional Quarterly, Emanuel said “we need bolder steps to make sure that Americans can compete. We should mandate a year of post-high school education for every American, while providing the necessary financial help. And we should institute a national policy…to suspend the driver’s licenses of teens who drop out.”

I guess things could actually be a lot worse than more regulations that no one is likely to follow. We could get laws that make everyone stay in our failing schools one year longer, and takes the keys from those who just want out.

Campaign Finance Reform Meets Kurt Vonnegut

This morning, as Pennsylvania Democrats went to the polls in the last large primary before their nominating convention, the Supreme Court heard the latest challenge to the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law: Davis v. FEC, in which Cato filed an amicus brief, questions the “Millionaires’ Amendment,” which attempts to discourage candidates for election to Congress from spending more than $350,000 from their own personal funds. It penalizes campaign spending above that threshold by enhacing the political speech of the self-financing candidate’s opponent through increased contribution limits and unlimited coordinated party expenditures. This penalty unconstitutionally chills candidates from engaging in protected political speech beyond that personal funds ceiling, and does so without serving any governmental interest that the Supreme Court has recognized. The penalty doesn’t even prevent the “corruption” that was the rationale for McCain-Feingold, because there is no threat of quid pro quo from a candidates’s expenditure of her own funds. And the Court has expressly rejected “leveling the playing field” of financial resources as an interest sufficient to justofy the infringement of First Amendment rights. Ultimately, the “Millionaires’ Amendment” is nothing more than an incumbency protection mechanism designed by Congress for its own benefit.

Based on this morning’s argument, I think the Court will issue a narrow decision striking down the Millionaires’ Amendment based on the disclosure burden, with separate concurrences on broader First Amendment grounds. The most interesting questioning, not unexpectedly, came from Justice Scalia, who, evoked the reductio ad absurdum of the “leveling” provision (which reminded me of the old Vonnegut story about equality run amock, Harrison Bergeron): “What if one candidate is more eloquent than the other one? You make him talk with pebbles in his mouth?”

Note: John Samples and I visited Capitol Hill yesterday to give a public briefing on the law and policy of self-funded campaigns.

No District for Fishermen

The Washington Examiner reports on how carefully your taxpayer dollars are spent by both federal and local governments:

The District of Columbia has agreed to pay $1.75 million to head off a lawsuit alleging that the city bilked the federal government out of money to educate children who didn’t exist, The Examiner has learned.

For decades, District schools took in millions of dollars in grants to educate the children of migrant farmworkers and fishermen. But, as first reported by The Examiner in August, a 2005 audit discovered there were no such children in the system.

Government Involvement Should Be Expelled

On Friday, I went to see Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, the new Ben Stein movie about a perceived Darwinist conspiracy to crush Intelligent Design and its adherents. Of course, I went to the film because of public schooling’s tendency to amplify conflicts over hot-button issues such as ID, and no, the fact that going helped me to fulfill a life-long Ebert-wannabe dream of watching movies for “work” really had nothing to do with it. Honestly.

So what does Expelled have to say about the problem of public schooling—including public higher education—forcing all taxpayers to pay for schools which only those who can exert the most political power will ultimately control?

Not much, at least not directly. Stein and company seek to portray a Darwinist conspiracy throughout all of science, whether practiced in settings public or private, secular, or even religious. So, for instance, at the beginning of the film Stein meets with several presumptive victims of ruthless Darwinist orthodoxy, a group that got drummed out of institutions ranging from the very public Iowa State University, to private, Baptist, Baylor University, for their ID thoughts. The problem of government choosing which science to promote is touched on—one pro-ID interviewee mentions getting locked out of National Academy of Sciences grants—but barely.

Despite this inattention to the government-science nexus, there is a useful public policy lesson that can be teased out of the film. Expelled’s climax—the Luke-Darth Vader showdown, if you will—shows Stein grilling noted atheist and God Delusion author Richard Dawkins on whether he believes in a god and how he thinks life on Earth originated. The former exchange comes across as pure time-filler as Stein hectors Dawkins about whether he believes in a litany of deities and to each one Dawkins replies in the negative. The latter bit, however, shows Dawkins conceding that there is no firm conclusion about how life on earth—the very first cell—originated. It exemplifies a simple truth: There are still big, open questions in the study of human origins, just as there are mammoth open questions in all fields of science.

So what does this mean? It means that in our huge ignorance no supreme human power—no government—should ever declare one unproven answer completely unworthy and another officially correct. It means government should not demand that one unproven answer be taught in schools (though as I’ve written that is impossible as long as government runs schools), nor should it decide for all taxpayers what broad research will get funded and what won’t. Not only does that tend to put all our eggs in a single scientific basket that might turn out to have a gaping hole in the bottom, it too often makes political, not scientific, considerations supreme. Indeed, it has been politicization of science that has often allowed questionable scientific theories to survive.

But does this mean we should force all schools to teach about, and governments to fund, alternatives to evolution, like Intelligent Design, or for that matter such dubious fields as alchemy, or divining-rod theory? Of course not! Some scientific theories have much more merit—and supporting evidence—than others. But it must be scientists, along with voluntary, private backers, and parents and college students with free educational choice, who decide what science is good enough to learn and fund. In other words, it must be “natural” scientific selection—not selection driven by politics, or the slickest, most rabble-rousing documentary—that determines which theories live, and which die.

Message to Hillary: Americans Still Make Lots of Things

This presidential campaign has featured more than its share of misleading statements about trade and manufacturing. Nowhere has that been more on display than when the two Democratic candidates have been hustling for votes in what used to be the nation’s industrial heartland of Ohio and Pennsylvania.

On the eve of today’s crucial Pennsylvania primary, here is how the Boston Globe described a scene at a Hillary Clinton event in the western side of the state:

“We need to still be a manufacturing nation,” she said at a rally in downtown Pittsburgh yesterday, as a woman in the crowd shouted “Right on!” “I don’t think a country that doesn’t make things can remain strong and vibrant and leading in the global economy.”

Right on? Not exactly. Implied in Clinton’s remark is that manufacturing has been in decline and that we are in danger of becoming a nation “that doesn’t make things.”

One huge problem with her statement is that manufacturing output in the United States has continued to EXPAND in recent decades. According to the Federal Reserve Board, America’s factories produced 30 percent more in real output in 2007 than a decade earlier and three times more than in the 1960s.

And just what sort of things do Americans make? According to the U.S. Commerce Department, in 2006 U.S. factories produced:

• 4,522 complete civil aircraft and 12,299 complete civil aircraft engines.
• 87 million metric tons of raw steel and 113 million tons of shipped steel products.
• 11,260,300 cars and light trucks.
• 26,925,715 million computers (digital, analog, hybrid, and other).
• 11,966,177 household refrigerators and refrigerator-freezers.
• 9,993,990 washing machines.
• 7,654,882 water heaters (electric and non-electric).
• 7,402,333 dishwashing machines.
• 6,004,765 household gas and electric ranges.
• 1,399,938 clothes dryers.
• 1.93 billion square yards of carpet and rugs.
• 11.4 million short tons of chlorine gas, 8.9 million tons of sodium hydroxide, 4.7 million tons of hydrochloric acid, and another 2.6 million tons of commercial aluminum sulfate, sodium sulfate, finished sodium bicarbonate, and sodium chlorate.
• 1,537.7 million gallons of paints and allied products at $13.60 a gallon.
• $127 billion worth of pharmaceutical preparations (except biologicals).

The real beef of the Democratic candidates and their union allies is that all that stuff was made with fewer unionized workers than in years past. We can make more and better things with fewer workers because of soaring productivity.

Please remind me what’s so bad about that.

When Provider Networks Go Global

According to HealthLeaders Media:

South Carolina-based Companion Global Healthcare added three Singapore hospitals to its network. The deal now allows Americans access to medical and surgical services at ParkwayHealth operated hospitals at pre-negotiated, in-network rates lower than those of U.S. hospitals…

David Williams, consultant and cofounder of MedPharma Partners LLC[, notes,] “It may be a bit of a wake-up call to the local hospitals in South Carolina, putting them on notice that they are facing a broader set of competitors.”

More than one million members of Blue Cross Blue Shield and BlueChoice HealthPlan of South Carolina now have access to the three Singapore hospitals—Mount Elizabeth, Gleneagles, and East Shore—at preferred network rates. The hospitals are accredited by the Joint Commission International, the affiliate of The Joint Commission.

Competition is healthy.  (You know what?  That’s catchy.)

Albany Sweeps Up

As other states contemplate cutting spending growth in light of slowing revenue growth, New York State recently passed a $122 billion budget for 2008-2009. Coming nearly 5 percent higher than last fiscal year’s spending plan, the budget relies on $1.5 billion in higher taxes and fees, including a near-doubling of the state’s cigarette tax rate. The increased taxes will fund, among other programs, a record-breaking $1.75 billion increase in school aid. But it’s doubtful the state will even raise that money because higher taxes will just generate an even larger black market in cigarettes.

Despite this stunning increase in spending, the state is still using creative techniques to balance the last budget. According to a recent Times Union article, the Paterson administration “swept” $100 million from various special accounts to supplement general revenues. But the funds in the dedicated accounts are raised through user fees and slated for specific programs, not for the general spending whims of policymakers;

For instance, more than $1 million was swept from the Animal Population Control account, which is fueled from $3 surcharges on dog licenses, $25 Love Your Pet license plates and other funds from pet lovers. It is supposed to go to spaying programs.

Beyond the fact that Albany should not be in the spaying business to begin with, there appears to be dishonesty in budgeting if Albany creates new programs, overcharges “fees” to accumulate surpluses in various dedicated accounts and then “sweeps” the funds into the black-hole that is the general fund budget. It comes as no surprise several of these user fees were increased in the 2008-2009 budget. With spending on an unsustainable upward path, much more sweeping is yet to come.