Archives: 09/2008

The Fraudulence of Bureaucratic ‘Accountability’

Most education policy analysts, most politicians in both parties, and both presidential candidates have expressed their support for bureaucratic “accountability” in education — the belief that government-imposed testing regimes can signficantly improve the quality of American education. They persist in this belief despite the fact that U.S. academic achievement has stagnated or declined both before and after the passage of No Child Left Behind, the signature legislation of accountability gurus.

Perhaps what is needed is a visceral example of WHY government-mandated testing has proven to be of such dubious worth. For example, this Charleston, SC school’s meteoric test score gains over the past five years have all but vanished in a single year after the administration and grading of students’ tests were taken out of the hands of school officials.

True accountability is not achieved when the quality of a child’s education is measured by a single set of government tests. It is achieved when parents are free to choose from among a variety of competing, mininally regulated schools.

“Law and Order” — YouTube Version

My colleague David Boaz posted here a few months ago with a memorable reminder of what “law and order” means. Discussing a pair of Virginia Supreme Court cases that overturned drug convictions premised on searches conducted without sufficient suspicion, he said:

Advocates of liberty and limited government should not concede the concept of “law and order” to those who engage in “excessive use of police powers.” Those who actually believe in law and order would hold police and prosecutors, as well as criminal suspects, to the rule of law; and that seems to be what the Virginia Supreme Court did.

I was reminded of this when I came across this video of a law-and-order type encountering Customs and Border Patrol agents as he attempted to drive on State Route 86 in Arizona. It’s as exciting to watch as any TV show.

Teachers Union Leader Joins School Choice Group

Ron Matus of the St. Petersburg Times writes that Florida’s school choice movement has a couple of new recruits: former teachers union leader Doug Tuthill and former St. Petersburg Times editorial writer Jon East — both erstwhile critics of the state’s education tax credit program. The two have just signed on as the new president and new communications director, respectively, of the Florida School Choice Fund. The Fund accepts taxpayers’ donations and then offers tuition assistance to low income families who want to send their children to private schools. The taxpayers making the donations can then claim dollar-for-dollar credits against state taxes.

As noted twice before on this blog in just the past several months, the times they are a changin’. Support for private school choice was once a thoroughly partisan affair, and seen in some quarters as a threat to the ideals of public education. That is becoming less and less the case. Sooner or later, educational freedom will reign in this country.

For now, there are still politicians who send their own children to private schools while opposing programs that would bring that same choice within reach of lower-income families. Perhaps, in the long run, they may be forgiven by posterity. In the medium term, though, they are likely to pay a price at the ballot box.

You’ll Get Served

Tonight Barack Obama and John McCain will appear together in New York to “discuss in depth their views on service and civic engagement in the post-9/11 era” in a primetime forum hosted by ServiceNation, “a dynamic new coalition of 110 organizations that has a collective reach of some 100 million Americans and is dedicated to strengthening our democracy and solving problems through civic engagement and service.” 

According to their website, bethechangeinc.org, ServiceNation does not support mandatory national service. Their model is a dramatically expanded version of the subsidized volunteerism so popular on both sides of the political aisle. (For Cato work on federal national service programs and proposals, go here.)

Starting Inauguration Day 2009 — and culminating on next year’s 9/11 anniversary — they’ll be pushing their “advocacy campaign for national service legislation.” Among the proposals they favor: “Expanding service on college campuses. Placing 1 million Americans per year in full- and part-time stipended national service by 2020.” As the website states: “This policy agenda proposes meaningful opportunities for service at every key life stage, and for every socioeconomic group, from kindergarten through the post-retirement years.”

One wonders what sort of useful “service” five-year-olds can perform in between playtime and naptime. But the point, apparently, is that “these proposals will help instill a culture of service at an early age and provide opportunities for Americans to continue serving throughout their lifetimes.”

As tonight’s event demonstrates, both parties link the call for national service to the tragedy of September 11th. At last month’s Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency, Pastor Rick Warren asked both candidates “what do you think is the greatest moral failure of America?”  McCain’s answer was especially interesting.  Was it slavery?  Indian removal?  Japanese internment?  Nope: 

I think America’s greatest moral failure has been… throughout our existence, perhaps we have not devoted ourselves to causes greater than our self-interest, although we’ve been at the best at it of everybody in the world.

McCain continued with a backhanded dig at President Bush’s post-9/11 advice to Americans to “Do your business around the country. Fly and enjoy America’s great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida.” McCain told Warren:

I think after 9/11, my friends, instead of telling people to go shopping or take a trip, we should have told Americans to join the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, the military, expand our volunteers, expand what you’re doing — (APPLAUSE) — expand what you’re doing, expand the current missions that you are doing, that you are carrying out here in America and throughout the world, in Rwanda. And I hope we have a chance to talk about that later on.

In an October 2001 Washington Monthly article, McCain displayed what Matt Welch has called his “essentially militaristic conception of citizenship.” He praised City Year, an AmeriCorps initiative operating in 13 cities: “City Year members wear uniforms, work in teams, learn public speaking skills, and gather together for daily calisthenics, often in highly public places such as in front of city hall.” He also endorsed the National Civilian Community Corps, “a service program consciously structured along military lines,” in which enrollees “not only wear uniforms and work in teams… but actually live together in barracks on former military bases.” McCain calls for expanding these two initiatives and “spread[ing] their group-cohesion techniques to other AmeriCorps programs.” But perhaps we can take heart in McCain’s grudging admission that “it is not currently politically practicable to revive the draft.”

In any event, it’s good that ServiceNation is encouraging people to help their neighbors out. But why does that effort have to culminate in federal legislation? All too many people, Left and Right, seem to buy into David Brooks’s notion that “ultimately, national purpose can only find its voice in Washington.” According to that mindset, if a barn-raising takes place without a federal subsidy, it’s like it hasn’t really happened at all.

Few of us will want to argue with noble sentiments like Obama’s (or was it God’s?) injunction to act as our “brother’s keeper” or McCain’s call to serve “a cause greater than our self interest.” But it’s hard to see how any of this is their — or the government’s — business.

Americans help each other out in myriad ways everyday without expecting a government paycheck or the seal of approval from a newly minted bureaucracy. But when Americans perform charitable works outside the state, it’s awfully hard for politicians to take credit for their service.

DoJ Trustbusters to Attack Google?

C|Net’s Charles Cooper reports today that Department of Justice trustbusters are considering a comprehensive antitrust attack on Google.

Sources who have provided testimony to the government say a departmental debate revolves around whether antitrust regulators should challenge Google’s proposed revenue-sharing deal with Yahoo, or go for the whole enchilada–and haul Google into court on broader charges related to its dominance in search advertising.

C|Net’s Declan McCullagh speculated earlier this week about how Google would fare under an Obama administration:

[Obama’s] technology campaign platform pledges to “reinvigorate antitrust enforcement” and “step up review of merger activity.” He complained to the American Antitrust Institute that “the current administration has what may be the weakest record of antitrust enforcement of any administration in the last half century.” If the Bush administration’s current antitrust probe of Google, coupled with this week’s apparent threat of a federal lawsuit, amounts to a “weak” record, imagine what antitrust true believers in an Obama administration might do. (A three-way split of Google into search, applications, and display ads, anyone?)

I’m not sure whether structural separation is on Google’s near-term horizon, but Washington, D.C.’s parasite economy will make its move.

$1 Trillion Budget Deficit by 2017?

The Congressional Budget Office released new figures on the federal budget yesterday, which show that the deficit will peak in 2009 at $438 billion and decline thereafter. But budget watchers and CBO economists know that these “baseline” projections don’t describe actual budget realities.

So I constructed a “business as usual” scenario for revenues and spending to get a sense of the fiscal picture that the next president will actually face. The figure illustrates that it will be much easier being the president who enters office in 2009 than the one who enters office in 2013.

The revenue line in the figure assumes that all current tax cuts are extended and the alternative minimum tax is indexed for inflation. Extended tax cuts include income tax rates, dividends, capital gains, child credit, death tax, expiring business breaks, and other items.

The spending line assumes that discretionary spending rises as fast as GDP, the number of troops in Iraq and Afganistan is reduced to 30,000 by 2011, and Medicare payments to physicians are not cut back after 2010 as under the baseline. These adjustments are based on CBO data. I also estimate the extra federal interest costs of these assumptions.

The results indicate that the federal deficit would be held roughly constant as a share of GDP until 2012, mainly because of the optimistic draw-down of troops abroad. But after 2012, spending explodes as entitlement programs continue a long-term expansion under a no-reform scenario.

Federal revenues will remain roughly constant at a bit less than the long-term average of about 18 percent of GDP. Revenues dip in the first few years as corporate tax revenues fall, but then commence a slow and steady rise as real bracket creep pushes people into higher income tax brackets.

In the chart, the revenue line is quite flat, but the spending line begins a rapid ascent after 2012, making it clear that the federal fiscal problem is caused by overspending, not a shortage of tax revenues. 

Under the scenario shown in the figure, the federal budget deficit will hit $1 trillion in 2017 and $1.1 trillion in 2018, which will represent 5 percent of GDP that year. The president coming into office in 2013 will be forced to take major actions to stem the tide of red ink.

The open question is whether the president extering office in 2009 will muddle his way through without spending reforms–as he could probably get away with–or whether he carves a new path and finally tackles the out-of-control spending machine in Washington.

Bob Samuelson Joins the Anti-Universal Coverage Club

In this morning’s Washington Post, columnist Bob Samuelson earns himself a membership in the Anti-Universal Coverage Club:

At the Democratic National Convention, Sen. Ted Kennedy echoed the view of many that health care is a “right” that demands universal insurance. This completely understandable view is, I think, utterly wrong. Take note, Barack Obama and John McCain.

The central health-care problem is not improving coverage. It’s controlling costs.

Welcome, Bob.  Here’s your fez.

You can keep current on the Anti-Universal Coverage Club by clicking here.