Archives: 04/2009

The Global Economy Is Not Immune to Swine Flu

World governments should be careful not to play politics with the Mexican swine flu outbreak. The health consequences should of course be rigorously addressed—but without adding economic consequences, which is what several countries appear poised to do.

Public health scares have a history of seeping into trade policy without anything resembling sufficient consideration of the evidence. Governments in Russia and East Asia are already banning pork exports from Mexico, even though there is zero evidence that they pose a health hazard. It hearkens back to unfounded bans of U.S. beef in recent years by the European Union and South Korea.

If the U.S. government jumps on board, U.S. exports could be targeted for retaliatory trade actions. One quarter of U.S. pork production is exported, as well as billions of dollars of our soybeans used as feed by foreign hog farmers.

Exploiting this crisis could turn what is so far a manageable health problem into an unnecessary trade and diplomatic conflict. Obviously the global economy does not need the extra strain.

How Serious Is U.S. Ed. Productivity Collapse

A commenter at Joanne Jacobs’ edu-blog wonders “how serious this ‘collapse’ is.” I offered the following response:

How serious of a collapse is it? Total k-12 expenditures in this country were about $630 billion two years ago (see Table 25, Digest of Ed Statistics 2008). The efficiency of our education system is less than half what it was in 1971 (i.e., we spend more than twice as much to get the same results — see Table 181, same source).

So if we’d managed to ensure that education productivity just stagnated, we’d be saving over $300 billion EVERY YEAR. If we’d actually seen productivity improvements in education such as we’ve seen in other fields, we’d be saving at least that much money and enjoying higher student achievement at the same time.

My guess is that most people would consider saving $3 trillion per decade and more fully realizing children’s intellectual potential are both very important.

Another commenter observes that spending has of necessity increased due to the combination of rising salaries and a failure to deploy new technologies to lower costs. This is true to a point, but the total employee/student ratio in public schools has also grown dramatically over the same period. A few years ago I calculated that taxpayers would save more than $100 billion annually if the public schools just went back to the employee/student ratio of 1970. And the savings are still massive even if you account for a roughly 10% increase in teachers for expanded special education services.

Ultimately, though, you have to ask WHY public schools have failed to use technology to lower costs as virtually every other field has successfully done. The answer is that doing so is difficult and so won’t happen without the freedom and powerful systemtic incentives to MAKE it happen. The only system of freedoms and incentives that makes productivity growth the norm is the free enterprise system.

Who’s Blogging about Cato

Bloggers from all over are discussing Cato’s research and commentary. Here are a couple we found:

  • Net Right Nation editor Adam Bitely has linked to Cato commentary and analysis regularly over the past few months.
  • At the Show-Me Institute Blog, Sarah Brodsky wrote about charter schools, citing a Neal McCluskey’s post about the drawbacks of charter school education programs.

Let us know if you’re blogging about Cato by emailing cmoody [at] cato [dot] org.

Topics:

You Just Can’t Say That

Let’s get one thing straight: As I’ve noted on numerous occasions, you can’t look just at National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results – especially only between two years – and attribute gains or losses to specific laws or programs. There are simply too many variables at play in education – federal laws, state laws, school choice, child nutrition, teacher quality, parents’ attitudes, the weather – to confidently assert that any one is responsible for changing scores. Indeed, it is possible that nothing government has done has had any effect, and every trend just reflects changing attitudes toward education among students themselves.

And yet, some reporters identify something akin to a god variable anyway, as the Associated Press did in its coverage of the new NAEP long-term-trends report:

The biggest gains came from low-achieving students. That is probably not an accident — the federal No Child Left Behind law and similar state laws have focused on improving the performance of minority and poor children, who struggle the most.

Now, there are a lot of problems with this statement, including that several of the lowest-achieving percentiles by age and subject saw no statistically significant changes in scores between 2004 and 2008; many groups had periods of faster gains before NCLB (though we don’t even have clear before and after-NCLB data points); and NAEP offers no income-based score breakdowns, only the proxy of parents’ education – and that just for 13 and 17-year-olds in mathematics. But the biggest problem is that, all of these factual problems aside, there is no way to ascribe score changes to specific laws or government policies. The data just aren’t there.

Fortunately, most of the coverage of the NAEP report has been pretty reasonable, including from the Washington Post and New York Times. But the AP reaches a lot of people, and that means many Americans are going to get “news” about the latest NAEP findings that is little more than unsupportable conjecture.

First 100 Days: More of the Same

President Obama campaigned on a promise of change. But the first 100 days of his administration have seen a continuation of the Bush administration’s irresponsible fiscal policies: more bailouts, higher spending, and mounting debt.

The president has already signed a tax hike that disproportionately hurts lower-income people, and is seeking additional tax increases to fund a transition to a more centrally-planned, European-styled economy.

Just as previous administrations have done, the president is using the current economic ‘crisis’ to justify further government encroachment upon the private sector. In doing so, dangerous precedents are being set that could have negative repercussions for future economic growth and individual liberty.

In Defense of “Libertarian Crusades”

We in the public interest legal community – especially on the libertarian or conservative side – are used to taking slings and arrows from all quarters.  The media doesn’t understand our quaint obsession with following the text of the Constitution.  The so-called progressives seethe at our evil defense of property rights and the freedom of contract.  Even the business community blanches at our refusal to leave their sacred regulatory protections untouched in our attack on statism.

But what we don’t expect is to see federal judges openly and wantonly question our motives – least of all in an actual opinion.  Yet this is precisely what Judge Jacques “Jack” Wiener did last Thursday in dissenting from a Fourth Amendment seizure/Fifth Amendment takings case.  The case, Severance v. Patterson, involves a challenge to a Texas law that caused the seizure of beachfront property after Hurricane Rita pushed the vegetation line landward.  The purpose of the law, the Open Beaches Act, is to ensure public access to the beach regardless of erosion and other natural land migrations (a.k.a. a “rolling easement”).  The Fifth Circuit panel ended up affirming the dismissal of part of the claims and asking the Texas Supreme Court for a ruling on state-law issues implicated in others.

But the legal details aren’t important.  What I want to highlight is Wiener’s dissent, which begins with the following “Context” (a section title not commonly found in judicial opinions; see pages 22-23 here):

Although undoubtedly unintentionally, the panel majority today aids and abets the quixotic adventure of a California resident who is here represented by counsel furnished gratis by the Pacific Legal Foundation. (That non-profit’s published mission statement declares that its raison d’être includes “defend[ing] the fundamental human right of private property,” noting that such defense is part of each generation’s obligation to guard “against government encroachment.”) The real alignment between Severance and the Pacific Legal Foundation is not discernable from the record on appeal, but the real object of these Californians’ Cervantian tilting at Texas’s Open Beaches Act (“OBA”) is clearly not to obtain reasonable compensation for a taking of properties either actually or nominally purchased by Severance, but is to eviscerate the OBA, precisely the kind of legislation that, by its own declaration, the Foundation targets. And it matters not whether Ms. Severance’s role in this litigation is genuinely that of the fair Dulcinea whose distress the Foundation cum knight errant would alleviate or, instead, is truly that of squire Sancho Panza assisting the Foundation cum Don Quixote to achieve its goal: Either way, the panel majority’s reversal of the district court (whose rulings against Severance I would affirm) has the unintentional effect of enlisting the federal courts and, via certification, the Supreme Court of Texas, as unwitting foot-soldiers in this thinly veiled Libertarian crusade. It is within this framework that I shall seek to demonstrate how the panel majority misses the mark and why Severance’s action should be dismissed, once and for all, for her lack of standing to assert either a Fifth Amendment takings claim for reasonable compensation (because Severance has had nothing taken by the State) or a Fourth Amendment unreasonable seizure claim (because that which was putatively seized did not belong to Severance at the time; and even if it had, there was nothing unreasonable about the purported seizure).

 
Apparently in Judge Wiener’s world, it is beyond the pale for an organization to provide pro bono legal services that also advance some larger ideological mission.  Somebody tell the NAACP or ACLU – or the Supreme Court for that matter, which invites amicus briefs from just the kinds of groups Wiener excoriates.  Cato itself routinely files such briefs, of course, and on several occasions has joined with PLF.

Chief Judge Jones pithily dispatches her colleague’s grandiloquence in the majority’s first footnote (see bottom of page 2 here):

Notwithstanding the hyperbolic and unsupported assertions in Part I of the dissent (“Context”), the judges of the court endeavor not to decide appeals based on who the litigants are, who their lawyers are, or what we may believe their motives to be. Whether that rule is observed in light of Part I of the dissent, however, the reader must determine.

And I won’t even get into Wiener’s mixed metaphors and schoolboy Latin – he meant qua, not cum – other than to say “hit the road, Jack.”

(Full disclosure: I clerked on the Fifth Circuit and am familiar with Wiener’s squishy, unreliable jurisprudence; he’s very nice in person, but something happens in chambers – left-wing clerks? – that detracts from his effectiveness.  One caveat: Wiener is a great friend of the taxpayer; the IRS does not win in his courtroom.)

For commentary from the Volokh Conspiracy, see here.  For PLF’s press release, see here.  Hat tip: Cato adjunct scholar Tim Sandefur (whose day job is with PLF, though he did not work on this case).

Barbarians Inside the Gate

I watched the congressional conference committee on the budget yesterday on CSPAN, and it seemed like the final fall and sacking of Rome. Two of the remaining generals defending fiscal sanity, Reps. Paul Ryan and Jeb Hensarling, pled with the invading barbarians to limit their fiscal pillaging and warned that the Treasury was empty. But the barbarians, in the form of Rep. Rosa DeLauro and others, had visions of spreading the empire’s gold widely, and were not deterred by talk of damage to future generations.

The barbarians are inside the fiscal gate. The gate is the 60-vote margin usually required for big, new spending programs to pass in the Senate. Ryan and Hensarling were right that the Democrat budget plan could be a major turning point in the nation’s fiscal history. The “reconcilation” process approved by the Democrats lowers the bill passage margin in the Senate to a simple majority. The procedure was put in place in the 1970s to control spending and reduce budget deficits. But the Democrats may try to use that budget-restraint mechanism for the opposite – to pass a massive new health care subsidy program.

Ryan and Hensarling have proposed an alternate fiscal vision, but their troops have left the field, and they will need to rebuild their armies before they can put that vision in place.