Archives: September, 2008

Obama Touts Failed Federal Program

Senator Obama launched a major education counter-offensive today, in a speech laying out his vision for the future of American schooling. Calling for a renewal of the public school system to “meet the challenges of a new time,” Obama held up the National Defense Education Act of 1958 as a model for what he has in mind. He told the Dayton, Ohio crowd that “Eisenhower doubled federal investment in education after the Soviets beat us to space. That’s the kind of leadership we must show today.”

The trouble is, the NDEA was an expensive failure. Congress’ goal was to improve achievement in math and science following the Soviet Union’s launch of the Satellite Sputnik. There are no nationally representative science results from the time, but high school mathematics performance actually fell in the eight years following passage of the law, according to national norm studies conducted by the College Board, which administers the SAT and PSAT (see figure below). By 1983, math scores had still not returned to the level they had been at before the NDEA was passed.

Math Scores, National Norm PSAT Studies
(11th graders), 1955 to 1983

 national norm studies '55 to '83

(Source: College Board data reported in Charles Murray and Richard J. Herrnstein, “What’s Really Behind the SAT-Score Decline,” Public Interest, no. 106 (Winter 1992): 32-56.)

Either the Senator’s advisors were unaware of the NDEA’s disappointing results, or they offered it as a model despite them. Neither scenario inspires confidence in the future of federal education policy under an Obama presidency.

More on the results of federal education interventions like NDEA below the fold….

Could the decline be the result of more kids taking the test? No. Each time the test was administered by the College Board, it was to a random, nationally representative sample of all 11th graders.

Could the NDEA and subsequent federal programs have just taken a long time to work, ultimately resulting in a sustained improvement in performance in math and science? No. The Long Term Trend tests of the National Assessment of Educational Progress become available around 1970. Here’s what they show:

NAEP Long-Term Trends Results
(17-year-olds), 1969–70 to 2003–04

NAEP long term trends

[Sources: SOURCES: Rebecca Moran and Anthony D. Lutkus, NAEP 2004 Trends in Academic Progress: Three Decades of Student Performance in Reading and Mathematics (Washington: U.S. Department of Education, 2005), p. 17; Jay R. Campbell, Catherine M. Hombo, and John Mazzeo, NAEP 1999 Trends in Academic Progress: Three Decades of Student Performance (Washington: U.S. Department of Education, 2000), p. 9.]

Could the problem be that federal, state, and local governments have not spent enough on programs like NDEA and its successors? No. Here’s the inflation adjusted history of public school revenues, in 2008 dollars:

spending history

[Sources: Thomas Snyder, Sally Dillow, and Charlene Hoffman, Digest of Education Statistics 2007 (Washington: U.S. Department of Education, 2008), Table 162. Missing values linearly interpolated. Historical consumer price index inflation factors from http://oregonstate.edu/cla/polisci/faculty-research/sahr/sahr.htm.]

There is simply no getting around the fact that Barack Obama has hitched his ed policy wagon to an expensive failure. Caveat voter.

Cult of the Presidency in National Review

Claremont Institute fellow Michael M. Uhlmann has a dismissive review of The Cult of the Presidency in the current issue of National Review: “It’s Not Just the Executive,” September 15, 2008. (Here it is if you get NR Digital, otherwise it’s available in the print edition). It seems to me that the review largely consists of inaccurate characterizations, unsupported assertions, and non sequiturs. But hey, I’m the author, and understandably biased, so check it out and judge for yourself.

Uhlmann writes that “The bulk of Healy’s book is devoted to various sins, offenses and negligences of the Bush administration.” That’s a bizarre statement, given that the book has nine chapters and an introduction, and only three of those chapters cover GWB’s tenure. In fact, the “bulk of the book” is devoted to demonstrating that, as I write in Chapter Two, “the problems of the modern presidency did not begin when George W. Bush emerged victorious from 2000’s seemingly interminable Battle of the Chads” and that–despite what some on the Left seem to believe–those problems will not vanish in January 2009 when he heads back to the ranch to cut brush.

The book is a history of the presidency’s transformation from the important, but constitutionally limited office the Framers designed to an extraconstitutional monstrosity charged with moving the masses and saving the world. But by beginning his review with a discussion of “unhinged” Bush critics, and mischaracterizing the book’s contents, Uhlmann has undoubtedly left NR readers with the impression that The Cult of the Presidency is yet another partisan screed against the current administration.  Move along, nothing to see here.

That’s a shame, because conservatives could surely benefit from reexamining their decades-long affinity for strong presidencies.

There’s nothing particularly conservative about investing vast unchecked power in the hands of whichever professional politician manages to claw his way to the top in a modern presidential contest. As Russell Kirk put it, “Knowing human nature for a mixture of good and evil, the conservative does not put his trust in mere benevolence. Constitutional restrictions, political checks and balances, adequate enforcement of the laws, the old intricate web of restraints upon will and appetite—these the conservative approves as instruments of freedom and order.” And if principled reasons aren’t good enough, the fact that Republicans, let alone conservative Republicans, are unlikely to dominate the electoral college in the coming decades ought–like the prospect of a hanging–to concentrate the mind somewhat.

Uhlmann is willing to concede that the Bush administration’s claims of uncheckable authority over the detention and treatment of terrorist suspects “entail arguable legal propositions.” Which is gracious of him. But he provides very little argument for his view that the Framers envisioned a president with anything like the powers the current president–or others before him–have claimed. What arguments he provides often consist of offering innocuous and uncontroversial historical claims about 18th-century Americans’ views of executive power–as if those claims establish that the modern presidency is the constitutional presidency. In each case, he falls a few premises short of a syllogism.

Yes, the Federalist suggests, as Uhlmann notes, that “legislative excess is the danger chiefly to be guarded against in a republic.” But that was so, as Madison explains in No. 48, because the government the Constitution envisioned would be fundamentally different from one in which “numerous and extensive prerogatives are placed in the hands of a hereditary monarch.” Legislative power was more to be feared precisely because under the American Constitution “the executive magistracy is carefully limited, both in the extent and the duration of its power.”

Yes, the Framers sought to avoid some of the mistakes made in some of “the state constitutions adopted between 1776 and 1787” and to create a relatively vigorous and independent executive. But there’s quite a distance between that fact and the current administration’s claims that Congress cannot restrain the president from ordering torture and that the president has the power to permanently imprison American citizens without charges or legal process. (Uhlmann treats these issues at greater length in an extensive essay on presidential powers in a recent edition of the Claremont Review, in which, it seems to me, the verbiage-to-evidence ratio is also fairly high.)

Then there’s Uhlmann’s painfully obvious argument that “It’s Not Just the Executive” that’s a problem in our modern welfare-warfare state. Well, yes. It’s not clear who Uhlmann’s arguing with when he points out “the size and arbitrariness of government in general” are intertwined with concerns about a powerful presidency, and that the growth of presidential power would not have been possible without the collaboration of Congress and the judiciary. I make the same points repeatedly and at length throughout the book.

But the book focuses on the presidency because the president has become the focal point of Americans’ dangerously unrealistic expectations about what government can deliver, at home and abroad. As the political scientist Theodore Lowi explained (and as I discuss in the book), the post-New Deal state pledged itself to the constant delivery of goods and benefits, with the public looking most of all to the president to meet the key test of the new regime’s legitimacy: “service delivery.” The emerging “Second Republic of the United States” was one in which, as Lowi sums up, “the system of government had become an inverted pyramid, with everything coming to rest on a presidential pinpoint.”

So the presidency is important. It merits special attention, perhaps especially from conservatives, given their longstanding myopia about the dangers of presidential power. For too long the Right has been wedded to the odd proposition that next to the “Imperial Congress” and the “Imperial Judiciary”, the executive branch–the branch with guns–is the least dangerous branch. I’m glad that NR reviewed the book, and I didn’t expect an uncritical embrace of my perspective. But I would have preferred a serious discussion of the issues the book raises.

New at Cato Unbound: Responsible Drug Use

What would we do without drug prohibition?  Well, we’d probably have to think for ourselves, make informed choices about drug use, and behave responsibly.  A scary thought.

But in a sense, we already have to do these things, because prohibition has completely failed at keeping illegal drugs out of American life. Making wise decisions is already important, and prohibition hasn’t changed much about the need to be informed and responsible.  Prohibition has, however, encouraged a great deal of misinformation about drugs, harmed our civil liberties, promoted violence, wrecked the usual market safeguards that apply to consumer goods, and made the most dangerous drugs more prevalent.

After admitting that “just ban them all” is not a viable answer, the next step in getting past drug prohibition is the search for sensible ways to interact with psychoactive drugs.  The real choice isn’t between prohibition and a final drug binge that wipes out America once and for all.  It’s between prohibition and individual responsibility – a responsibility that might mean saying “no,” but could sometimes mean saying “yes.”

This isn’t an easy message to sell, but two people have been trying for more than a decade, and their efforts have been extraordinary.  They are the pseudonymous authors Earth and Fire Erowid, who together maintain the Erowid.org drug information archive, the largest and most often visited drug information site on the Internet.

They are also the lead authors at Cato Unbound this month, and they’ve produced a remarkable essay criticizing drug prohibition, encouraging free inquiry, and insisting that sound drug policy begins with individual choice and individual responsibility.

SAT Scores — What the Media Are Missing

When the College Board released SAT scores for the nation in late August, media outlets and state departments of education around the country were quick to report overall statewide averages. Sometimes, this mislead the public. A press release from South Carolina superintendent of education Jim Rex noted, for example, that the state’s “high school seniors… raised their average SAT scores by two points” from the preceding year. Though they still placed 48th out of the 50 states.

Shortly thereafter, a few astute folks in the Palmetto state noticed that South Carolina’s average rose solely due to a substantial improvement in the performance of private school test-takers, and that the composite scores for public school students actually fell by 5 points.

That, however, is not the end of the story. Many in South Carolina have long assumed that the state performs below the national average on the SAT in part because of the socio-economic and racial composition of its test takers. In plain English, there’s a widespread belief that South Carolina is brought down by its large share of poor and African American students. Umm. No.

What the data show is quite different. Middle-income South Carolinians score 32 points below middle-income families nationally. Those from families earning less than $20,000 score 72 points below their income peers nationally. And those from families earning over $160,000 score 74 points below their income peers nationally. It is the richest South Carolinians who are the furthest behind their income peers around the nation.

As for the racial breakdown: Blacks in South Carolina are 30 points behind those elsewhere around the country, while whites in South Carolina are 42 points behind whites nationally.

The belief that South Carolina’s most privileged families are getting an excellent public school education and that their scores are being dragged down by those less fortunate is a fiction with little basis in reality.

No Dice, Pickens!

Last Thursday on public radio’s Marketplace Morning Report, Bob Moon interviewed billionaire T. Boone Pickens about his highly self-publicized energy plan, which centers on using wind power to replace a portion of the natural gas used to create electricity, and then using that replaced natural gas to power cars. As it happens, Pickens has invested in a big way in windmills and is extremely well placed to profit from an increase in the use of natural gas-powered vehicles. But the part that bothers me most isn’t the fact that a billionaire is running a propaganda campaign in an effort to rig the regulatory structure to force consumers to buy what he sells – though that bothers me plenty. The part that bothers me most is the mixture of toxic nationalism and egregious economic illiteracy in the ads Pickens is airing to plump for his plan. Which brings us back to Moon’s interview with Pickens:

Moon: Let me ask you to respond to something that Will Wilkinson of the Cato Institute said in a commentary on Marketplace the other day. Here’s some of his criticism of you:

Will Wilkinson clip: He’s leaning hard on our worst nationalist impulses. What he’s really saying is, why buy the things you need from dangerous foreigners when you could be paying more to buy them from rock-ribbed Americans, like T. Boone Pickens.

Pickens: It’s more than me. I mean, this is about America. This isn’t about Boone Pickens and whether Pickens’ wind farm makes money or whatever happens to it. But I mean, here with $700 billion going out of the country, and let’s say that we could cut it in half – $350 billion in the United States, can you imagine how that would multiply for jobs here. I’d much rather that gonna $350 billion was being used here than to give some for foreign oil.

Allow me to point out that Pickens’ reply is nonsense. He continues to insist on characterizing mutually-beneficial exchange across borders as hundreds of billions of American dollars “going out of the country.” But, in a nutshell, the reason Americans bought all this oil from abroad was that they had no way to get more energy bang for their energy buck. Unless the prices of domestic energy sources decline relative to that of foreign oil, shifting domestic consumption to energy from domestically-produced sources will  require Americans to pay more for energy–leaving them less for everything else.

This is not a recipe for multiplying jobs. Rather, it would leave less money in the economy to start new businesses and to expand successful ones. This is a recipe to make ordinary American consumers poorer and energy corporations, like the ones Pickens owns, richer. If Pickens was making sense, the implication would be that Americans would be better off if we “in-sourced” everything. T. Boone Pickens, meet David Ricardo.

Either one of the world’s wealthiest men doesn’t understand elementary economics, which clearly tells us that his plan will make Americans poorer, or his plan is not really “about America.”

Here’s my July 31st Marketplace commentary on Pickens. And here’s Cato’s Jerry Taylor in March debunking “energy independence.”

Fannie and Freddie: Socialist from the Start

When the Cato Institute was founded in 1977 one of the first things the board of directors did was set a policy that we would not accept government funding. A simple libertarian principle, really, that money forcibly extracted from people who do not agree with our approach to public policy should not have to fund it. For 32 years, that has been our policy. In 1995 I received a letter from John Buckley, a v.p. for communications at Fannie Mae informing me of the good news that Cato was going to receive a $100,000 grant from his institution. I wrote back, Thanks, but no thanks, we have a policy against receiving money from government institutions like Fannie Mae. Boy, did I ever get a nasty letter back from Buckley stating that in no way was Fannie Mae a government entity.

The surprise GOP landslide in 1994 had apparently scared the hell out of the overpaid bureaucrats at Fannie Mae and they had decided to start funding market-oriented groups as opposed to the regulatory-oriented groups they had favored for all of their existence. Their judgment about what the new GOP majority would do turned out to be as flawed as their judgment about subprime mortgages. Anyway, if you ever wondered why Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have over 11,000 employees and $5 trillion in mortgages, it is because of the implicit (now explicit) federal guarantee. That guarantee sucked in money that in a free market would have gone to truly private firms. It led to the enormous salaries (and then consulting gigs) and the sloppy attention to whether or not loans could be repaid. So when I hear talking heads on TV this morning claiming socialism is alive and well in America by virtue of the federal takeover of Fannie and Freddie, I think, please, Fannie and Freddie have always been socialist institutions. This is not a market failure as so many are now claiming. It is a government failure, pure and simple.

I am proud that Cato rejected that $100,000 grant.