Archives: 03/2010

Ravitch-and-Hirsch-topia.

If you follow education news at all, over the last week or so — until the national-standards stories took over — you probably saw a lot about education historian Diane Ravitch’s supposedly sudden determination that school choice isn’t good after all. That’s one of the major selling points of her new book The Death and Life of the Great American School System, and just about every major newspaper has devoted a fair amount of ink to it.

Now I’ve devoted some ink — okay, pixels — to it, too. You can check out my review of Ravitch’s book on the brand-new School Reform News website. When you’re done with that, you can take a gander at my Cato Journal review of Core Knowledge guru E. D. Hirsch’s new offering, The Making of Americans. I think you’ll detect a unifying theme: Ravitch and Hirsch are excellent at their specialties — history and pedagogy, respectively — but they ignore just about everything they have lamented for decades about government schooling in order to proclaim that, um, we somehow need more government schooling.

Go figure!

This Week in Government Failure

Over at Downsizing Government, we focused on the following issues this week:

  • Six reasons to downsize Washington.
  • The chances of a taxpayer bailout for the FHA are probably larger than it wants to admit.
  • The same people that say Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac shouldn’t be on the government’s books are often the same people who once dismissed concerns that the two companies were headed toward financial ruin.
  • Here’s a shocker: the private sector does a better job of fighting fraud than the government.
  • Bailing out state and local governments creates a disincentive for state and local policymakers to implement necessary reforms to get their budgets and future liabilities under control.

Gagging on SAFRA

With national curriculum standards now getting some real attention, I haven’t been able to give the plan to shove bankrupting student aid legislation down our thoats via health-care reconciliation the scourging it deserves. I will soon, but until then this “Water Cooler” piece from the Washington Times should slake your thirst. Here’s a choice quote:

Watching the Democrats create two massive pieces of rotten legislation by themselves is bad enough, but piling them together is like watching someone make an enormous Dagwood sandwich with mysterious fillings and make you eat the mile high concoction in one sitting.

Darn — acckkk! — right!

“A Full Range of Views”

It’s not often (especially these days) that a trade news item makes me laugh out loud. But, via an article in Inside U.S. Trade today, I saw a letter from United States Trade Representative Ron Kirk to Rep. Michael Michaud (D, ME) that did the trick.

Representative Michaud leads the House Trade Working Group, which is indeed working very diligently to stymie any hopes of meaningful trade liberalization. They wrote a letter in January to the USTR outlining their concerns about the upcoming Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations. (I, too have concerns, but not the same ones as the HTWG.) Ambassador Kirk wrote back a fairly anodyne response that did not commit the administration to much of anything, except to follow up on the comments they have received from the Federal Register Notice.

Towards the end, though, came the punchline:

We are conducting follow-up meetings with these groups, including the AFL-CIO, the United Steelworkers, the Sierra Club, Oxfam, and Global Trade Watch, among others, to ensure we are hearing a full range of views on these issues. (My emphasis)

ObamaCare Sparks Democratic Revolt

In today’s Washington Post, Democratic pollsters Pat Caddell and Doug Schoen warn that ObamaCare will be a disaster for Democrats:

Nothing has been more disconcerting than to watch Democratic politicians and their media supporters deceive themselves into believing that the public favors the Democrats’ current health-care plan…

[A] solid majority of Americans opposes the massive health-reform plan. Four-fifths of those who oppose the plan strongly oppose it…while only half of those who support the plan do so strongly. Many more Americans believe the legislation will worsen their health care, cost them more personally and add significantly to the national deficit. Never in our experience as pollsters can we recall such self-deluding misconstruction of survey data…

By 51 percent to 39 percent, respondents feared the decisions of federal government more. This is astounding given the generally negative perception of insurance companies…

Health care is no longer a debate about the merits of specific initiatives…[but] about the government and a political majority that will neither hear nor heed the will of the people.

This oped reminds me of a Bruce Reed article on the differences between hacks and wonks:

Strip away the job titles and party labels, and you will find two kinds of people in Washington: political hacks and policy wonks. Hacks come to Washington because anywhere else they’d be bored to death. Wonks come here because nowhere else could we bore so many to death. These divisions extend far beyond the hack havens of political campaigns and consulting firms and the wonk ghettos of think tanks on Dupont Circle. Some journalists are wonks, but most are hacks. Some columnists are hacks, but most are wonks. All members of Congress pass themselves off as wonks, but many got elected as hacks. Lobbyists are hacks who make money pretending to be wonks. The Washington Monthly, The New Republic, and the entire political blogosphere consist largely of wonks pretending to be hacks. “The Hotline” is for hacks; National Journal is for wonks. “The West Wing” is for wonks; “K Street” was for hacks.

After two decades in Washington as a wonk working among hacks, I have come to the conclusion that the gap between Republicans and Democrats is as nothing compared to the one between these two tribes. We wonks think we’re smarter than hacks. Hacks think that if being smart makes someone a wonk, they’d rather be stupid. Wonks think all hacks are creatures from another planet, like James Carville. Hacks share Paul Begala’s view that wonks are all “propeller heads,” like Elroy on “The Jetsons.” Wonks think the differences between hacks and wonks are as irreconcilable as the Hutus and the Tutsis. Hacks think it’s just like wonks to bring up the Hutus and the Tutsis.

The Democrats’ dogged, bloodthirsty crusade for universal coverage has been possible only because the wonks have seduced or silenced the hacks within the Democratic Party.

The hacks may be launching a rebellion, with Caddell and Schoen’s oped the opening salvo.

Another State and Local Bailout?

Rep. George Miller (D-CA) has introduced a bill that would give state and local governments another $100 billion to prevent public sector job cuts. The bill was written at the behest of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and other local special interest groups addicted to federal largesse.

These days it’s hard to open a newspaper without reading a tug-at-the-heart-strings story about state and local officials having to make the “painful” decision to cut supposedly crucial government spending. Very rarely do journalists dig in deeply and examine in detail where state and local governments are actually spending their giant budgets.

Sometimes stories highlight some superficial waste, such as this Los Angeles Times story reporting that “As Los Angeles County supervisors prepare to carve deeply into everything from public safety to social services, they also are spending millions in taxpayer dollars to burnish their public images, pay for chauffeurs, hold parties for friends and lobbyists and support pet projects.”

The story assumes that every penny L.A. County spends on public safety and social services is a penny well spent. Like their federal counterparts, state and local programs are rife with waste, fraud, and excess. Unfortunately, for every 100 stories you read about teachers being furloughed, you might read one that questions the basic efficiency of the services being provided or possible private-sector alternatives.

In a new Cato Policy Analysis on the cost of public education, Adam Schaeffer found that the Los Angeles school district’s real per-pupil cost is $25,000 – not the $10,000 it reports. This compares to average Los Angeles private school per-pupil spending of $8,400.

The rise of public sector unionism is another subject that should be getting more media attention as state and local politicians warn of having to “slash” programs. According to a recent study by Chris Edwards, half of the $2.2 trillion that state and local governments spent in 2008 went to employee wages and benefits. Edwards found that “public sector unions push up the costs of the public sector workforce in the United States by about 8 percent, on average, but the increase would be more in states with highly unionized public sectors such as California.”

The lavish benefits that state and local politicians have bestowed upon public employees have created massive unfunded liabilities. A recent study by Robert Novy-Marx and Joshua Rauh calculated that state and local pensions are underfunded by a whopping $3.2 trillion. Jagadeesh Gokhale and Chris Edwards estimate that public employee health benefits are underfunded by an additional $1.4 trillion.

Another bailout for state and local government like the one Congressman Miller is proposing creates a disincentive for state and local policymakers to implement necessary reforms to get their budgets and future liabilities under control. It also creates a disincentive for local citizens to be vigilant when it comes to state and local spending. Why bother attending city council or school board meetings when the federal and state governments are picking up a hefty portion of the tab for local spending?

The decades of increasing centralization of what were traditionally local responsibilities has fueled extravagant spending at all levels. Instead of continuing to aid and abet state and local politicians who are only too happy to spend the “free” money the federal government shovels their way, it’s time to get back to our constitutional roots with a return to fiscal federalism.