Archives: 12/2009

Thursday Links

  • Doug Bandow:  “Congress has spent the country blind, inflated a disastrous housing bubble, subsidized every special interest with a letterhead and lobbyist, and created a wasteful, incompetent bureaucracy that fills Washington. But now, legislators want to take a break from all their good work and save college football.”

Forecast for Copenhagen: Cloudy with a Large Chance of Nothing

The big UN climate conference at Copenhagen is supposed to produce a new schedule for greenhouse gas emissions reductions, as the 1997 Kyoto Protocol ends in 2012. 

In fact, Copenhagen in 2009 is beginning to look a lot like Kyoto in 1997.  Back then, the two-week conference was “deadlocked” as it drew to a close, with a major split between the United States and Europe.  President Clinton had committed the U.S. to a relatively innocuous target of holding U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide constant, while the EU wanted much more costly reductions. 

Vice President Gore jetted in near the end of the scheduled conference, and instructed the U.S. negotiators to be “more flexible.” The meeting was extended for days, and suddenly we agreed to reduce our CO2 emissions seven percent below 1990 levels from 2008 to 2012.  For the record, we’re currently emitting about 17 percent above 1990 levels, though that number may drop a couple of percentage points in 2009 due to the recent economic malaise.

The fact that emissions and economic growth are highly correlated wasn’t lost on the Senate, which never ratified Kyoto.

This time around, President Obama will descend upon Copenhagen on the conference’s last scheduled day, December 18.  He’ll be plenty flexible, which is pretty easy to do when nothing you say legally commits the U.S. to anything.  That’s because what comes out of Denmark will either be an extension of Kyoto (not ratified), or a new protocol (with no hope of garnering the 67 Senate votes needed for ratification).

Nonetheless there will be a great pronouncement whenever Copenhagen ends.  The betting is that the Chinese and the Indians, who have steadfastly refused to agree to reduce their overall emissions, will agree to some vague targets thanks to a bribe courtesy of U.S. taxpayers.  Of course, that agreement will be contingent upon them actually getting the loot, which seems pretty unlikely given the upcoming election.

So, the more things change, the more they stay the same. The UN is going to announce a breakthrough, world-saving agreement with no real buy-in from the Chinese and Indians and no chance of approval by our Senate.

Is Greece’s Fiscal Crisis Caused by too Much Spending or too Little Revenue?

It’s been a rough couple of weeks for Greece, which has been battered by rumors of government default. Interest rates have been climbing, as investors are nervous about state finances, and the country’s debt rating has been downgraded.

Not surprisingly, Greek politicians are dealing with the crisis in large part by further increasing the tax burden. One particularly horrible idea is a 90 percent tax on bank bonus payments. I don’t know if lawmakers in Athens have heard of the Laffer Curve, but they’re about to get a real-world lesson that will teach them how punitive tax rates lead to less revenue.

For those who wonder how Greece got into this mess, here’s a quick chart I put together, based on OECD fiscal data. Don’t be  surprised if America has a similar chart in about 10 years.

200912_blog_mitchell32

Colbert Report on PATRIOT & Private Spying

Stephen Colbert tackles both Obama’s flip-flop on the PATRIOT Act (“When presidents take office they learn a secret… Unlimited power is awesome!”) and the private sector’s complicity in the growth of the surveillance state—drawing heavily on the invaluable work of Chris Soghoian.

The Colbert Report Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
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National Standardizers Just Can’t Win

I’ve been fretting for some time over the growing push for national curricular standards, standards that would be de facto federal and, whether adopted voluntarily by states or imposed by Washington, end up being worthless mush with yet more billions of dollars sunk into them. The primary thing that has kept me optimistic is that, in the end, few people can ever agree on what standards should include, which has defeated national standards thrusts in the past.

So far, the Common Core State Standards Initiative – a joint National Governors Association/Council of Chief State School Officers venture that is all-but-officially backed by Washington – has avoided being ripped apart by educationists and plain ol’ citizens angry about who’s writing the standards and what they include. But that’s largely because the CCSSI hasn’t actually produced any standards yet. Other, that is, than general, end of K-12, “college and career readiness” standards that say very little.

Of course, standards that say next to nothing are still standards, and that is starting to draw fire to the CCSSI. Case in point, a new post on Jay P. Greene’s blog by former Bush II education officials–and tough standards guys–Williamson Evers and Ze’ev Wurman. They are heartily unimpressed by what CCSSI has produced, and think its already time to start assembling a new standards-setting consortium:

The new consortium would endeavor to create better and more rigorous academic standards than those of the CCSSI….

Drab and mediocre national standards will retard the efforts of advanced states like Massachusetts and reduce academic expectations for students in all states.

Yes, it is late in the game. But this should not be an excuse for us to accept the inferior standards that at present seem to be coming from the rushed effort of CCSSO and NGA.

Evers and Wurman’s piece is an encouraging sign that perhaps once more national standards efforts will be torn apart by fighting factions and spare us the ultimate centralization of an education system already hopelessly crippled by centralized, political control. Unfortunately, the post also gives cause for continuing concern, illustrating that the “standards and accountability” crowd still hasn’t learned a fundamental lesson: that democratically-controlled government schools are almost completely incapable of having rich, strict standards.

Evers and Wurman’s piece offers evidence aplenty for why this is. For instance, the authors theorize that a major reason the CCSSI standards appear doomed to shallowness is that the Obama administration has made adopting them a key component for states to qualify for federal “Race-to-the-Top” money, and states have to at least say they’ll adopt the standards in the next month or so to compete. In other words, as is constantly the case, what might be educationally beneficial is taking a distant back seat to what is politically important:  for the administration, to appear to be pushing “change,” and for state politicians to grab federal ducats. Political calculus is once again taking huge precedence over, well, the teaching of calculus, because the school system is controlled by politicians. We should expect nothing else.

Here’s another example of the kind of reality-challenged thinking that is all too common among standards-and-accountabilty crusaders:

CCSSI’s timeline calls for supplementing its “college and career readiness” standards with grade-by-grade K-12 standards, with the entire effort to be finished by “early 2010.” This schedule is supposed to include drafting, review, and public comment. As anyone who had to do such a task knows, such a process for a single state takes many months, and CCSSI’s timeline raises deep concerns about whether the public and the states can provide in-depth feedback on those standards–and, more important, whether standards that are of high quality can possibly emerge from the non-transparent process CCSSI is using.

Evers and Wurman assert that if standards are going to be of “high quality” the process of drafting them must be transparent. But the only hope for drafting rigorous, coherent standards is actually to keep the process totally opaque.

Phonics or whole language? Calculators or no calculators? Evolution or creationism? Great men or social movements? Transparent standardizers must either take a stand on these and countless other hugely divisive questions and watch support for standards crumble, or avoid them and render the standards worthless. Of course, don’t set standards transparently and every interest group excluded from the cabal will object mightily to whatever comes out, again likely destroying all your hard standards work.

In a democratically-controlled, government schooling system, it is almost always tails they win, heads we lose for the standards-and-accountability crowd. This is why these well-intentioned folks need to give up on government schooling and get fully behind the only education system that aligns all the incentives correctly: school choice.

Choice lets parents choose schools with curricula that they want, not what everyone in society can agree on, establishing the conditions for coherence and rigor. Choice pushes politicians, with their overriding political concerns, out of the education driver’s seat and replaces them with parents. Finally, choice lets real accountability reign by forcing educators to respond quickly and effectively to their customers  if they want to get paid. In other words, in stark contrast to government schooling , school choice is inherently designed to work, not fail.

The Art of Foreign Policy Punditry

Foreign Policy magazine performs an important public service, publishing a compendium of the “top 10 worst predictions for 2009.” My favorite?

If we do nothing, I can guarantee you that within a decade, a communist Chinese regime that hates democracy and sees America as its primary enemy will dominate the tiny country of Panama, and thus dominate the Panama Canal, one of the worlds most important strategic points.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), Dec. 7, 1999

Rohrabacher made this alarming prediction during a debate on the U.S. handover of the Panama Canal. His fellow hawk, retired Adm. Thomas Moorer, even warned that China could sneak missiles into Panama and use the country as a staging ground for an attack on the United States. Well, Rohrabacher’s decade ran out this December, and all remains quiet on the Panamanian front. As for China, the United States is now its largest trading partner.

Flowers and Chocolates?Flowers and Chocolates?

The point here isn’t to poke fun at Rohrabacher, or any of the other predictors featured on the FP list.  Rather, it’s to point out that predicting the future is really hard.  And as Ben Friedman and I have harped on, you just can’t aspire to any predictive competence without sound theory to guide you.  In order to judge that if we do (or don’t do) X, Y will happen, you need a theory connecting X to Y.  So looking back at our predictions, and comparing them to the results of our policies, is a useful way to test the theories on which we based our policies in the first place.

Putting falsifiable predictions out there is a collective action problem, though: If I start offering nothing but precise point-predictions about what will or won’t happen if we start a war with Iran, or how big the defense budget will get, or anything else, I’m going to get a lot of things wrong.  And if everyone else keeps offering vapid, non-falsifiable rhetoric, I stand to look like a real jackass while everyone can hide behind the fog of common-use language.  As I wrote in the National Interest a while back:

Foreign-policy analysts have an incredibly difficult task: to make predictions about the future based on particular policy choices in Washington. These difficulties extend into the world of intelligence, as well. The CIA issues reports with impossibly ambitious titles like “Mapping the Global Future”, as if anyone could actually do that. The father of American strategic analysis, Sherman Kent, grappled with these difficulties in his days at OSS and CIA. When Kent finally grew tired of the vapid language used for making predictions, such as “good chance of”, “real likelihood that” and the like, he ordered his analysts to start putting odds on their assessments. When a colleague complained that Kent was “turning us into the biggest bookie shop in town”, Kent replied that he’d “rather be a bookie than a [expletive] poet.”

Actually, though, it’s worse than this.  As I wrote in the American Conservative, there’s basically no endogenous mechanism to hold irresponsible predictors accountable:

In 1992, the Los Angeles Times ran an article outlining the dynamics of the “predictions” segment of the popular “McLaughlin Group” TV program.  Michael Kinsley, who had been a panelist on the program, admitted

“When I was doing the show, I was much more interested in coming up with an interesting prediction than in coming up with one that was true.  There’s no penalty for being wrong, but there is a penalty for being boring.  …Prognosticators have known for centuries that people only remember what you got right.  They don’t remember what you got wrong.”

Foreign-policy analysis works in much the same way.  Errant predictions are quickly forgotten.  It is the interesting predictions that the media want, and unfortunately interesting predictions in the context of foreign policy often mean predictions of unprovoked foreign attacks, geopolitical chaos, and a long queue of bogeymen waiting to threaten us.  (By contrast, after a given policy is enacted, its proponents have to spin it in a positive light, as in Iraq.)  Meanwhile, it is the person with the quickest wit and the pithiest one-liner–not the deepest understanding–who winds up with the responsibility of informing the American electorate about foreign-policy decisions.

So it’s very good to see that Foreign Policy has interest in holding everyone’s feet to the fire.  John Mueller does a similar service in The Atomic Obsession, pointing out the many predictions of doom, apocalypse and general disaster that have characterized both the hawkish establishment and the leftish arms-control clique.

If this sort of exercise becomes common, though, watch for foreign-policy commentators not to develop a growing sense of modesty about their predictive power, but rather to take greater care in avoiding falsifiable statements altogether.

Obama on Health Care: Half Right

President Obama gave what seems like his thousandth exclusive health care interview last night, this one to ABC News’s Charles Gibson.  In trying to sell his health care plan, the president warned that if Congress does not pass legislation controlling health care costs, the federal government “will go bankrupt.”  He also warned that unless health care is reformed, “your premiums will go up.”

 The president is absolutely correct about that.  The only problem is that, according to the president’s own chief health care actuary, the bills that Congress is now considering do nothing to restrain either federal health care spending or total health care costs.  In fact, Rick Foster, chief actuary at the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) says that if Congress passes the bill now before the Senate, health care spending will actually increase by $234 billion more over the next 10 years than if we did nothing. 

And, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the congressional bills do little or nothing to reduce the growth in insurance premiums. Even if a bill passes, premiums will roughly double by 2016, and keep rising after that.   But for millions of Americans the bill will actually make things worse.  According to CBO, the Senate bill would actually increase insurance premiums by 10-13 percent for Americans who buy their insurance through the non-group market, that is those who don’t receive insurance from their employer.  Those 10-13 percent increases are over and above the increases that would occur if we did nothing.    

On the other hand, if the president were really serious about controlling health care costs and lowering premiums, he wouldn’t need to spend trillions of dollars and take over one-sixth of the US economy; he could try some of the ideas written about here, and here, and here.