Archives: October, 2008

NCLB Moment of Truth

Even if some people won’t admit it, by now everyone understands that the No Child Left Behind Act is just one, big, perverse incentive, an obnoxious federal law that practically screams at states, “lie about ‘proficiency’ and ‘accountability.’ As long as I can prattle on about caring for all children, I don’t care what you do!”

Despite this widespread understanding, it’s rare to catch a public official actually admitting to gaming the law, which is what makes this bit from Monday’s New York Times ickily refreshing:

Why did California decide on six years of relatively slow achievement growth, followed by six years of extraordinary gains? Officials from many states told the Bush administration in 2002 that they needed time to write new tests and accustom teachers to them.

But the California state school superintendent, Jack O’Connell, said he also bet that Congress might change the law in 2007, perhaps by removing its 100 percent proficiency goal. “It’s true that was in the back of my mind when we negotiated our plan with the feds,” Mr. O’Connell said. “And I’d do the same thing again. I’m still hoping a new administration will change the law.”

Thanks for the candor, Mr. O’Connell. It concisely illustrates why NCLB and its predecessors have been failures, and why the only way to improve education is to give parents, not politicians, power over the schools.

Housing, Financial Markets, and Government

I’ve been absent for Cato-at-liberty in recent weeks because I’ve been busy with the bailout and various related issues. I’ve missed the opportunity to post and get feedback from readers, so I’m posting some of my recent articles for your reading pleasure.

My first foray into the issue was a column for Real Clear Politics arguing against the bailout.

Needless to say, the political class disregarded my sage advice and voted to give the Treasury Department a blank check for $700 billion. So my next article was part of a Google-sponsored debate on whether the turmoil in financial markets is a reason to expand the size and scope of government. You can also see my opponent’s article  and my rebuttal if you are so inclined. You can also rate both of our arguments if you feel like putting your thumbs on the scale.

I’m also taking part in a debate sponsored by the Los Angeles Times. Monday’s topic was whether government should have any role in subsidizing housing, and Tuesday’s topic focused on who should get blamed for the current mess. I’ll post subsequent debates as they become available.

Not a Cost-Shift, but a Control-Shift

I’m reading left-wing critiques of John McCain’s health plan and coming across doozies like this one from the Center for American Progress and Planned Parenthood:

Finally, the McCain plan would result in a greater proportion of health care costs being born by individuals and families.  Because policies sold in the individual market typically feature less  comprehensive benefits and higher cost-sharing requirements than policies sold in the large-group market, individuals and families who enroll in these plans will find themselves paying a greater share of their overall health care spending.

Wildly wrong.  Individuals and families already pay 100 percent of health care costs.  They don’t just pay for out-of-pocket spending and the “employee share” of their health-insurance premiums.  They also pay for the cost of government spending through higher taxes.  And they pay for the “employer contribution” to their health-insurance premiums because employers reduce workers’ wages.

The McCain plan would let individuals and families control a greater proportion of health-care spending – specifically, that “employer contribution,” which averages $9,000 for those with family coverage.  For example, see this.

Perhaps that is what the Left fears?

Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité - A Package Deal

News that France will suspend football (soccer) games at which “La Marseillaise” has been booed reveals how the famous credo of that country has fallen into disuse.

A liberal approach toward speech - giving Tunisians in France the liberté to boo their country of residence - would communicate powerfully that France is stronger than such slights - yet still welcoming of Tunisians as frères et soeurs.

The booing wouldn’t last long, as the Tunisians would recognize and appreciate the égalité légale accorded them by France.

Fin.

Gods That Fail

Harold Meyerson in the Washington Post has a column titled “Gods That Failed.” He’s referring to a famous book:

In 1949, a number of famous writers, among them Arthur Koestler, André Gide, Richard Wright, Stephen Spender and Ignazio Silone, wrote essays explaining why they were no longer communists. The essays were collected in a volume entitled “The God That Failed.”

And then he makes this analogy: “Today, conservative intellectuals might want to consider writing a tome on the failure of their own beloved deity, unregulated capitalism. “

Where to begin? Certainly we haven’t had any unregulated capitalism lately. As I put it the other day, the kind of capitalism that has encountered the current crisis is “the kind in which a central monetary authority manipulates money and credit, the central government taxes and redistributes $3 trillion a year, huge government-sponsored enterprises create a taxpayer-backed duopoly in the mortgage business, tax laws encourage excessive use of debt financing, and government pressures banks to make bad loans.”

As for conservative intellectuals, some of them may wish for some form of “unregulated capitalism,” though plenty of them – from Russell Kirk to David Brooks and Michael Gerson and that Arkansas Aristotle, Mike Huckabee – have been pretty darn skeptical about capitalism. But whatever the more free-market conservatives may have dreamed of, they didn’t get laissez-faire. Nor did they ever make capitalism their deity, the way communists truly did make the workers’ state their god.

But let’s think about the comparison that Meyerson is making. Some intellectuals once supported communism, and that failed. Some intellectuals, we’ll concede for the moment, were just as enraptured with capitalism; and that system, too, in Meyerson’s view, has failed. Are these equivalent failures?

Communism’s failure involved Stalin’s terror-famine in Ukraine, the Gulag, the deportation of the Kulaks, the Katyn Forest massacre, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Che Guevara’s executions in Havana, the flight of the boat people from Vietnam, Pol Pot’s mass slaughter – a total death toll of 94 million people, according to the Black Book of Communism. Prominent American leftists – from Lillian Hellman and Dalton Trumbo and lots of other writers to Alger Hiss of the State Department and FDR speechwriter Michael Straight, who became the publisher of The New Republic – were members of the party that did these things. And that party had total control in the countries that it ruled. There were no opposition parties, no filibusters, no election-related maneuverings that prevented the party in power from getting what it wanted.

What the Communist Party wanted, it got. Communism in practice was communist theory made real.

In the United States, on the other hand, economic and political outcomes are always the result of jockeying between parties and interest groups. So even if Ronald Reagan and his advisers wanted to give Americans “unregulated capitalism,” they had to deal with Tip O’Neill and the Democrats, and with critics in the media, and with many other players. As these forces played out, in the late 1970s and early 1980s some deregulation did occur, along with some tax-cutting. And indeed there was some financial deregulation in the Clinton years as well.

And what is the ”failure,” as Meyerson puts it, of this semi-deregulated capitalism? Does it involve mass starvation? Does it involve terror-famines? Does it involve millions of deaths? No, so far it involves a sharp decline in the stock market from record levels. Taking 1980 as the starting point for Meyerson’s nightmare vision of “unregulated capitalism,” here’s what has happened to the S&P 500. It’s had some dips, but it still reflects vast wealth creation, and vast increases in the assets of our IRAs and 401(k)s.


(click for larger version)

The “failure” of capitalism and the failure of communism are not morally equivalent, and Meyerson should be embarrassed to even imply such a comparison.

McCullagh on “Other People’s Money”

Friend of liberty (and Cato) Declan McCullagh has a new column on CBSNews.com called “Other People’s Money.”

With that moniker for the column, methinks he’ll be addressing Washington’s ways from an important but underrepresented perspective.

His inaugural column, “Will U.S. Taxpayers Need a Bailout?”, points out the perils of politically directed investments in the banking sector.

Quote of the Day

“It’s beautiful to see the amount and quality of food here, the choices, the possibilities. Meanwhile, people are hungry in Cuba, scraping to get by, obsessing about where they’ll find dinner. I have to be careful with all this great food. If I keep eating, I won’t be able to run anymore and I’ll get out of shape.”

–Reinier Alcántara, a Cuban soccer player who defected last week while his team was in Washington, DC., recounts his emotional first visit to a grocery store in the U.S.