Archives: 10/2008

Brecht on Bloomberg

The New York City Council has gone along with Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s urgent and high-pressured request that it overrule two votes of the people and allow him to serve another term. The council’s joint project with the mayor to ignore the will of the people puts me in mind of Bertolt Brecht’s famous poem on the East German government, The Solution: 

After the uprising of the 17th June
The Secretary of the Writers Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

Damned With Faint Praise

Well, not faint exactly. Indeed, it is pretty hearty. But considering the source, I’m not sure it is an asset.

In an article in today’s Congress Daily, key sugar lobby groups praised Senator Obama’s newfound enthusiasm for the U.S. sugar program. As a senator from the candy-making state of Illinois, he was none too fond of the price supports and import restrictions that raised input prices for factories in his state.

Not anymore. In a letter to sugar groups, Senator Obama gave assurances that while he “has concerns” with the program, he would listen to and work with them to “reward [their] hard work with policies that will keep [their] industry and your communities strong”. Oh dear.

One former lobbyist pointed out that “…the candidate now “represents a broader range of interest” than when he was a state legislator…[and] added that Obama has never voted against the sugar program and supported the 2008 Farm Bill.” McCain, on the other hand, would likely have lost the support of formerly Republican-leaning farmers because “…[he] has consistently opposed the program and agreed with President Bush’s decision to veto the Farm Bill.” Another lobbyist said that “Sen. McCain seems to want to radically alter [the farm safety net].”

Considering the woeful sugar policies of the United States, an honorable person should be ashamed to receive Big Sugar’s support.

Fears of Nuclear Terrorism

Nightmare scenarios of terrorists gaining possession of nuclear weapons might make for good movie plots, but Americans grossly exaggerate the likelihood that an act of nuclear terrorism will occur within the next five or ten years. So says the RAND Corporation’s Brian Michael Jenkins in a new book, Will Terrorists Go Nuclear? (See also some of John Mueller’s writings on this subject here and here.) 

James Kitfield’s interview with Jenkins, posted at The National Journal, is an interesting read. Jenkins focuses on the fear factor surrounding nuclear terrorism, fears that terrorists are happy to exploit, even as their capacity for using such weapons is very, very small. I particularly appreciated Jenkins’ ideas about breaking the “chain reaction of fear” and his advice to American political leaders is worth repeating verbatim:

Rather than telling Americans constantly to be very afraid, we should stress that even an event of nuclear terrorism will not bring this Republic to its knees. Some will argue that fear is useful in galvanizing people and concentrating their minds on this threat, but fear is not free. It creates its own orthodoxy and demands obedience to it. A frightened population is intolerant. It trumpets a kind of “lapel pin” patriotism rather than the real thing. A frightened population is also prone both to paralysis – we’re doomed! – and to dangerous overreaction.

I believe that fear gets in the way of addressing the issue of nuclear terrorism in a sustained and sensible way. Instead of spreading fear, our leaders should speak to the American traditions of courage, self-reliance, and resiliency. Heaven forbid that an act of nuclear terrorism ever actually occurs, but if it does, we’ll get through it.

It is understandable why politicians are reluctant to embrace such recommendations. On the other hand, if they understood that terrorists seek to engender panic, public officials would pay as much or more attention to calming the public’s fears as they do to stoking them.

Today at Cato

Article: “Don’t Expand NATO,” by Benjamin H. Friedman and Justin Logan in World Politics Review

Article: “Nuclear Energy: Risky Business,” by Jerry Taylor in Reason Magazine

Podcast: “Jacob Zuma and the Future of South Africa,” featuring Tony Leon

Op-Ed: “Questions and Answers About Obama’s Health Plan,” by Michael D. Tanner in the McClatchy News Service

Radio Highlight: Adam B. Schaeffer On Education

Why Do We Spend So Little on Politics?

Citizens for Responsible Politics are wringing their hands over the fact that Americans may spend $5.3 billion on political campaigns this year. (And it’s not all the Obama campaign!) $5.3 billion.

So let’s see … the federal government just spent $700 billion on a bailout of Wall Street. Or maybe it’s $2.25 trillion, or $3 trillion, in the eventual total cost of the financial bailouts. And we’ve spent $600 billion–or maybe a trillion, or maybe $4 trillion–on the Iraq war. And so little things like a $25 billion bailout for the automobile industry become accounting errors. Meanwhile, under President Bush annual federal spending has soared past $2 trillion and past $3 trillion.

And with all this money available in Washington, people have only spent $5.3 billion this year to get a piece of it? What’s wrong with them? Political scientists from Gordon Tullock to Stephen Ansolabehere have pondered this question. Tim Harford says it’s not easy to get politicians to do what you want even when you spend money on them, and that’s why people spend so little.

But $5.3 billion to elect a president and 468 members of Congress? That’s less than we’ll spend on potato chips this year.

Fighting for Tax Havens on French TV

Former Senator Phil Gramm used to joke that trying to restrain government in Washington was like “doing the Lord’s work in the Devil’s city.” After my recent appearance on French TV to debate tax havens, I have a better sense of how he felt.

I was the lone pro-market spokesman, matched up against three statists, to discuss the topic: “Should tax havens be banned.” Needless to say, the program was not exactly designed to promote a libertarian viewpoint.

For those interested in this issue, you can watch Part I and Part II. Feel free to send me feedback.

On Dropouts, Listen to Obama’s Favorite Economist

Libby Quaid of the AP reports today on a new Education Trust study of American high school dropout rates. According to that report, today’s kids complete high school at a lower rate than did their parents, NCLB hasn’t helped, and the solution is more federal money and sage oversight. Both the study and the AP story would have benefitted from a look at the work of two University of Chicago economists: James Heckman and Derek Neal.

Heckman, often cited as one of the biggest influences on Barack Obama’s education policy platform, co-authored in 2007 what is still the definitive study of U.S. graduation rates. He found that the graduation rate peaked around 80 percent in the late 1960s and has drifted down by four or five points since then. He also found a sudden up-tick immediately after the passage of NCLB. So did NCLB really help American kids? Not so fast. Heckman writes:

NCLB gives schools strong incentives to raise graduation rates by any means possible. When monitoring was implemented in 2002, minority [student] retention [i.e., flunking] dropped sharply and graduation rates turned upward, especially for minority groups (Figure VI and VII)…. Whether these represent real gains or are an indication of schools cheating the system in the face of political pressure remains an open question for future research, although the timing suggests strategic behavior [i.e., cheating].

The tons of money and federal oversight added by NCLB appear to be sweeping public schooling’s failures under the rug, not fixing them. The recommendation of the new Education Trust study, that even more money and better federal intervention will do the trick, does not inspire confidence. Unless one believes that a prospective Obama presidency will usher in a gilded age of wise bureaucrats and politicians immune to self-interest, there is no reason to expect that more of the same “solutions” will produce anything other than more of the same results.

If any politicians and voters in this country actually care about raising the graduation rate in a meaningful way, they might want to have a look at the work of Heckman’s colleague Derek Neal, and the subsequent work of Greene (2004) and Warren (2008) — all of whom find that private schools significantly increase the graduation rates of urban (especially minority) children over the rates of similar students attending public schools. And they do this, of course, for about two-thirds of the cost.

Alas, don’t expect Obama to listen to Neal, Greene, or Warren on this evidence any time soon, as Obama has publicly expressed his opposition to parental choice programs that include private schools.