Archives: 08/2010

Take Off the Blinders: Diversity Demands Educational Freedom

Yesterday, FoxNews.com posted a story on what appears to be a growing problem for public school systems across the country: accommodating Muslim holidays. Unfortunately, the report didn’t contain the solution to the problem. It did, though, contain a very succinct discussion of the root of the problem; an example of the good intent that causes people to ignore the problem; and the kind of “solution” that is ultimately at odds with the most basic of American values.

A quote from New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg captured the essence of the problem:

One of the problems you have with a diverse city is that if you close the schools for every single holiday, there won’t be any school.

There you have the basic conundrum in a nutshell: Whenever you have a diverse population – whether in a hamlet, city, state, or nation – and everyone has to support a single system of government schools, you cannot possibly treat all people – or even most of them – equally. Either there are winners and losers, or nobody gets anything.

Understanding why public schooling  can’t handle diversity – why, simply, one size can’t fit all – is really basic common sense. So why isn’t there more outrage over, or even just recognition of, the utter illogic of our education system? Mohamed Elibiary, President and CEO of the Freedom and Justice Foundation, illustrated the attitude that likely causes lots of Americans to wear blinders:

I’m a little torn. I want Muslims to be getting the same recognition as other Americans, but at the same time I don’t want to see public education systems be a battleground between religious identities, because then we’re missing the point of why we have a public education system to begin with.

No doubt many people truly believe as Elibiary does: that a major purpose of public schooling is to bring diverse people together and, by doing so, unify them. It’s a fine intention, but also a classic case of intent not matching reality. Indeed, the reality is often very much the opposite. Rather than unifying people, public schooling has repeatedly forced religious conflict (as well as conflict over race, ethnicity, political philosophy, curriculum, and on and on).

It started almost on Day One, when Horace Mann, a Unitarian, was locked in conflict with Calvinists over what kind of Protestantism the state’s nascent “common schools” would teach. When Roman Catholics began arriving in America in large numbers, battles – sometimes deadly – erupted over who would get what kind of Christianity in the public schools. When Tennessee outlawed the teaching of evolution, the Scopes “Monkey Trial” fired the first big blast in the war over the teaching of human origins, a fight we are still very much in. In the latter part of the twentieth century, the fighting moved to what, if any, religious expression is permissible in public schools. And now, we’re getting fired up over whose holidays will get the most deference from government schools. It almost seems like war without end.

Finally, the article gropes at – but doesn’t grab – the solution to our education and diversity problem. Says Georgetown University professor Bradley Blakeman:

That’s the beauty of having a school district responsive to the localities as opposed to blanket rules that affect multiple jurisdictions, states or even countries. One size doesn’t fit all when it comes to these kinds of rules and regulations. We’re not a homogeneous nation, which makes us so great.

Blakeman is heading in the right direction (even as federal policy pushes us the opposite way): The closer that control of education gets to individual people, the more easily it can be tailored to unique needs, values, and desires. Unfortunately, Blakeman fails to identify the obvious last step: completely decoupling government funding from provision of education. In other words, instituting universal educational choice. Making matters worse, Blakeman for all intents and purposes concludes that as long as decisions are made at the local level, and the majority gets its way, everything is fine:

A school should reflect the beliefs and practices of the community that they serve. And if school boards are sensitive to their populations, that’s fine, provided the decisions of the board reflect the majority opinion of its community.

It may sound harsh, but one way to describe this is simply ”tyranny of the majority” – whatever the majority wants, it gets, as long as it is the local majority. It’s a solution that completely ignores that ours is not supposed to be a nation of majority rule, but rule of law that protects individual freedom. And, of course, one of the most basic protections is the prohibition on government tipping the scales in favor of one religion, two religions, or no religion at all. 

This solution also fails, by the way, to address the problem at hand: School districts – not states or Washington – having to accommodate diverse populations. In other words, ”local control” is ultimately no solution at all.

Universal choice is, quite simply, the only system of education compatible with the most basic of American values – individual liberty – and the only way to avoid constant, divisive battles over who will get what out of the schools. Hopefully, people will come to realize that before our conflicts get even worse.

Concerning the End of “Combat Operations” in Iraq

Several of today’s front pages feature iconic images of U.S. troops marching onto troop transports and into the sunset in Iraq. Today’s story by Ernesto Londoño in the Washington Post, features Lt. Col. Mark Bieger of the 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division,  “This is a historic mission!” Beiger bellows as his troops prepared to depart Baghdad for the last time, ”A truly historic end to seven years of war.”

No disrespect to Col. Bieger and his troops, but the war isn’t over, and it won’t be so long as there are significant number of U.S. troops in Iraq at risk of being caught in the cross-fire of a sectarian civil war.

The Iraqi government, more than five months after nationwide elections, remains in limbo. Talks over a power sharing arrangement have broken down. Meanwhile, violence is on the rise. Call it whatever you like, but the 50,000 troops who remain in Iraq are still dealing with a lot of challenges.

Much of the confusion in the media reporting revolves around semantics, words and phrases such as “combat” and “combat units.” It doesn’t help that George W. Bush declared on May 1, 2003 that ”major combat operations in Iraq have ended” under that infamous “Mission Accomplished” banner. But beyond Bush’s irrational exuberance, such terms are increasingly misleading in an era in which conventional, state vs. state organized violence – what we used to think of as war – has been replaced by murky, disorganized violence, perpetrated by disparate militias, or merely disgruntled individuals unhappy with their lot in life, and determined to take it out on anyone who happens to be around at the time.

Unfortunately, I have very little confidence that that state of affairs will change any time soon. And I seriously doubt that our people – our men and women in uniform, and, explains Michael Gordon in the New York Times, soon many more U.S. civilians and contractors – will be able to put everything right, and not for lack of trying. Meanwhile, I am deeply troubled by the rising chorus of voices calling on the Obama administration to ignore the remaining provisions of the status of forces agreement (SOFA) and prepare for an indefinite military presence in Iraq. (On this, see Ted Galen Carpenter’s latest entry at TNI’s The Skeptics blog.)

So, no, the war isn’t over. For better or worse (and chiefly the latter),  Americans will remain associated with an unpopular and government in Baghdad as it struggles to hold together the country’s disparate factions. They will be at great risk if the current political paralysis collapses into still wider violence.

Needless to say, I hope that doesn’t happen. But I won’t be striking up the band and declaring the war American in Iraq to be truly over, until all of our troops are back home.

Partnership, ObamaCare-Style: Jump, or Be Pushed

Financial Times writes:

The federal government will step in to ensure that the Obama administration’s health care reforms are implemented in every state, Kathleen Sebelius, the health secretary, said, amid growing resistance to the changes in some parts of the US and an inability to act in others.

The article quotes Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius:

The way the bill is written, it really is a state-based programme with the federal government providing the back-up.  So if a state opts not to set up a risk pool, we do it here at the department. If the state opts not to regulate their insurance market, we do it…

It is not a federal takeover, it’s really a partnership.

Yes, a partnership not unlike that between the Soviet Union and, say, Czechoslovakia.

The Obama administration has good reason to emphasize its conception of this “partnership:”

[S]ome big states, including California and Florida, said they did not have the legal authority to enforce the new consumer protection standards, while others face such severe budget crises that they will struggle to pay for provisions, such as the expanded Medicaid services for lower-income groups, required under the law….

Separately, more than 20 states are challenging a mandate that requires almost all Americans to have some form of insurance by 2014 as unconstitutional. A judge in Virginia has said a challenge brought by the state’s attorney-general can proceed, while Arizona, Florida and Oklahoma will soon follow in Missouri’s footsteps by holding yes-or-no referendums on the mandate….

“Federal/state relations is one of the biggest challenges to implementing healthcare reform,” said Diane Rowland, executive vice-president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a non-partisan health policy group. “Many of the states are facing fiscal crises and they have real capacity issues.”

Sebelius is undeterred:

The legal challenges will work their way through…. It doesn’t slow anything down. This is the law of the land.

Maybe, but then again, maybe not.

GM IPO ASAP, SVP

GM announced yesterday its intention to go sell shares on the New York Stock Exchange, thus officially beginning the process of re-privatizing the company.

A GM initial public offering is the right move, and cannot happen soon enough.  Let’s get the government out of the car business now. 

But successfully reprivatizing GM should not be seen as a sign that the intervention itself was successful.  The intervention was akin to theft – from Ford, Honda, Toyota, the other automakers and taxpayers – and was highly damaging to crucial longstanding institutions in the United States, like property rights and the rule of law.

The costs of GM’s ”turnaround,” if it is to happen, will never be fully appreciated.  The other auto companies were denied the spoils of competition.  Had they been able to pick up the market share that the nationalized GM has maintained, then more resources would have flowed to the companies that are best at making the products that people want to buy.  These are huge implicit costs–the costs that are not seen–that are happily swept under the rug by Obama administration officials.

It is also highly likely that the timing of the IPO talk is politically motivated.  Democrats want to have a business success to tout for their campaigns this fall.  But there is the real prospect that that the IPO won’t raise anywhere near the amount of cash to make taxpayers whole, which could generate a lot of bad press before the election.  With economic growth and auto sales prospects apparently in doubt and the $41,000 Chevy Volt about to be unveiled when gas prices are relatively low, investors may not be ready to own GM stock.

Unserious Cost Cutters Only

In a new Governing column entitled “Serious Cost Cutters Only, Please,” William Eggers and John O’Leary offer advice “for those public leaders who are looking to make structural changes that will bend the cost curve of government down.”

The target audiences are state officials who presently find themselves in the politically unrewarding position of not being able to spend as much as they’d like to because the recession has constrained revenues. Eggers and O’Leary correctly warn that policymakers shouldn’t “kick the can” down the road by pursuing short-term strategies that could prove costly in the long-run.

Unfortunately, their recommendations are of the pie-in-the-sky “good government” variety.

The piece caught my eye because I have first-hand state government experience with some of their suggestions:

The first lesson is that it is virtually impossible for the secretaries and department heads charged with running operations to come up with sufficient savings themselves to deliver the necessary cost savings. The best approach by far is to establish a dedicated team, located physically and philosophically close to the chief executive, and charge them with developing a set of recommendations that the mayor or governor can then direct her lieutenants to execute.

I spent two years working for such a dedicated team within Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels’ Office of Management and Budget. The group, “Government Efficiency and Financial Planning,” was originally tasked with conducting a “long-overdue inventory of the state’s operations.” We produced two reports with hundreds of recommendations for making state government more “efficient” and “effective.”

The governor never directed his “lieutenants to execute” very many – if any – of the recommendations. In fact, the lieutenants were so worried about the potential political fallout from the issue of the second report that it was intentionally released when nobody was looking. They needn’t have worried because those interests who might have had cause for concern already saw that the first report was basically inconsequential.

Eggers and O’Leary continue:

There is likely to be some internal friction between the cost reduction team and the various department leaders. That is by design. The cost reduction team is supposed to be disruptive.

GEFP was somewhat disruptive, but not very effective. The governor’s lieutenants typically either sided with the department leaders or did little to support GEFP. The reason was simple. The perceived political costs of GEFP’s efforts usually exceeded the perceived political benefits. Department heads, on the other hand, can create favorable (and unfavorable headlines) and thus possess greater pull.

The sorry story of the Indiana Economic Development Corporation is instructive. A recent series of investigations by an Indianapolis reporter found that the IEDC had long been taking undeserved credit for job creation. When the reporter tried to visit some of the companies celebrated in IEDC news releases, he found empty fields, vacant lots and deserted factories. When he asked the head IEDC official to provide the public with evidence to support the agency’s claims, the IEDC head refused.

The IEDC, which was created by Gov. Daniels, was portrayed quite differently in the first GEFP report released in late 2006:

The previous Department of Commerce was responsible for a wide range of programs that included economic development, energy, community development and revitalization, agriculture, and tourism. The priorities of these programs were difficult to discern while mired within the former structure. The dismantling of the previous department into the Indiana Economic Development Corporation, Office of Energy and Defense Development, Office of Community and Rural Affairs, Office of Tourism Development, and Department of Agriculture has enhanced the profile of their respective programs and allowed for greater focus and accountability. Each of these areas now has a strategic plan that identifies its mission and long-term goals.

Adding insult to taxpayer injury is this gem of a quote that’s contained in the report’s introductory section on transparency:

Information on government performance mainly comes from agency heads and program managers. Human nature will incline agency heads and program managers to report results that show their programs in the best possible light. Naturally, agencies have little incentive to report information that would demonstrate inefficient or ineffective performance.

The last I heard, GEFP is now in charge of overseeing how Indiana spends its share of Obama’s stimulus money. The 2006 report, now a distant memory, stated in bold font that “outcomes and results matter.” Unfortunately for Indiana taxpayers, the outcome certainly hasn’t been a smaller state government or lower state taxes.

Eggers and O’Leary rightly acknowledge that politics make government cost cutting efforts difficult. But at the end of the day, politics almost always trumps policy. Government is not a business, and attempts to make it operate like one are a fool’s errand.

More importantly, when Eggers and O’Leary talk about cutting government costs, they’re not really talking about net cuts. Taxpayers bear the cost of government. Therefore, a net cut in government costs would mean a reduced burden on taxpayers. Making government “more efficient” is all well and good, but if the “savings” just get plowed into other programs – as has been the case in Indiana – then taxpayers aren’t any better off.

What structural changes can be made to avoid the long-term fiscal problems that concern Eggers and O’Leary?

I’ve concluded that a strong statutory limit on state spending and/or revenues is the best option. That such limits, like Colorado’s TABOR, are effective is proven by the vociferous opposition they generate from interests that depend on state largess.

Another sign is that it’s rare for an authoritative state policymaker to pursue such a measure for the obvious reason that it would inhibit the  ability to spend other people’s money. Once again, my time in state government was instructive.

When I suggested to Gov. Daniels that he consider pushing a measure like Colorado’s TABOR, he replied that he “guess he didn’t see the need for that.” A Daniels lieutenant would later instruct me, at the governor’s behest, to create a taxpayer rebate mechanism (a component of TABOR). However, I was told that the mechanism couldn’t “cost” much because the governor didn’t want his second-term spending “priorities” to be jeopardized. I was also told it had to “look good” to voters for purposes of boosting Daniels’ reelection prospects.

The bottom line is that policymakers of all stripes say they want taxpayer money spent more efficiently and effectively. If I had a dime for every time I heard a politician promise to root out “waste, fraud, and abuse” I’d be snorkeling in the Caribbean instead of writing this blog post. Therefore, if taxpayers want structural changes that will limit the burden of government, they’re going to have to demand that policymakers offer more than just platitudes.

That Which is Seen and That Which is Not Heard

Cato adjunct scholar David Post writes on the Volokh Conspiracy blog about the sticky copyright wicket facing some impressive jazz recordings from the 30s and 40s.

I get pretty excited … when I read that the collection also contains live performances of a Goodman-Wilson duet on “Lady Be Good” (with Wilson playing harpsichord!), Lester Young and Herschel Evans on “Tea for Two,” Charlie Christian playing electric guitar with the Goodman sextet in a 1939 performance of “Shivers,” the Count Basie and Duke Elllington bands’ performances at the 1938 “Carnival of Swing” on Randalls Island, … all previously unreleased. Oh, lordy — you’ve got to be kidding me! And listening to the excerpts from the recordings here, if anything, makes me even more delirious — this is truly great stuff by some of the greatest musicians that ever lived.

But:

[T]he potential copyright liability that could attach to redistribution of these recordings is so large — and, more importantly, so uncertain — that there may never be a public distribution of the recordings. Tracking down all the parties who may have a copyright interest in these performances, and therefore an entitlement to royalty payments (or to enjoining their distribution), is a monumental, and quite possibly an impossible, task, and it may well be that nobody steps forward with the resources to (a) undertake the efforts required and (b) take on the risk of liability.

Some of Post’s observations on copyright policy:

[I]f you give people a property interest in their creations, they’ll be able to work out market arrangements to receive compensation for them; knowing that in advance, they’ll create more works of art than they otherwise would absent that protection, and we’re all better off as a result. That’s easy enough to see. What’s harder to see is why that principle should ever be limited…

This case makes seen some costs of overbroad copyright protection through the medium of what we may not hear.

Net Neutrality and Unintended Consequences

Google and Verizon’s proposed framework for net neutrality regulation has provoked cries of protest from advocates of aggressive regulation at places like Free Press and Public Knowledge. Some of the loudest objections have concerned the distinction between the “public Internet,” which (at least for wireline broadband) would be subject to neutrality requirements, and vaguely defined “differentiated” or “managed” services—presumably things like IPTV or digital telephone service—which would not. This, according to the pro-regulation camp, would amount to a massive loophole that defeats the purpose of imposing neutrality rules. As Public Knowledge writes in their press release:

Thus, it is conceivable under the agreement that a network provider could devote 90% of its broadband capacity to these priority services and 10% to the best efforts Internet. If managed services are allowed to cannibalize the best efforts Internet, whatever protections are agreed to for the latter become, for all intents and purposes, meaningless.

This may be right. But if so, it sounds like a reason to be chary of the whole regulatory project. Neutrality or no neutrality, after all, there are a variety of ways to get digital content from producers to subscribers. Traditionally, the cable running to your home comprised separate dedicated channels for cable TV and broadband Internet traffic—though the trend now is toward a more efficient model where the TV content is also delivered as packet-switched data. If you’d rather watch Jersey Shore from the Jersey Shore, you can stream your video to a mobile device like a tablet or smartphone via Internet, but that’s hardly the only way to get your Snooki fix: There’s also, for instance, Digitial Video Broadcasting Satellite to Handheld (DVB-SH) or Qualcomm’s MediaFLO operating on their own dedicated frequencies.  Imposing neutrality rules on wireless broadband (as the Google/Verizon proposal would not – again, to the dismay of regulation fans) shouldn’t affect these services.

My concern, then, is that if neutrality rules foreclose the possibility of cross-subsidy from the providers of subscription-based video streaming or VoIP services, these alternatives become more attractive. Maybe Netflix or Hulu Plus want to be able to offer a deal where your subscription price includes priority delivery of their packets to your smartphone or tablet, making non-WiFi video streaming feasible even if you haven’t sprung for that kind of top-shelf bandwidth for all your wireless data. If neutrality regulation forbids that kind of deal, even with respect to these kinds of “managed services,” one possible effect is to skew investment away from building out next-gen IP networks and toward these kinds of niche services, which strikes me as inefficient. Indeed, it’s precisely the effect Public Knowledge seems to fear, and there’s no obvious reason to suppose that it’s going to be a big problem within IP-based broadband services, but not affect the choice between alternative modes of digital content delivery.

I should close with the caveat that I haven’t looked very closely at the economics here, so while I think the effect I’ve just sketched is theoretically plausible enough, I couldn’t say with any confidence how significant it’s going to be in practice. That said, given that the case for neutrality regulation seems to rest on a smattering of genuine cases of bad behavior by providers and a whole lot of dire speculation about consumer-unfriendly practices that might emerge, I’ll permit myself a little extra latitude to deal in hypotheticals.