Archives: July, 2011

Could You Modify It ‘To Stop Students From Becoming This Advanced?’

The free Web tutoring service “Khan Academy” has gotten much well-deserved attention, including a feature story in the current issue of Wired. That story includes a quote that literally took my breath away:

Even if Khan is truly liberating students to advance at their own pace, it’s not clear that the schools will be able to cope. The very concept of grade levels implies groups of students moving along together at an even pace. So what happens when, using Khan Academy, you wind up with a kid in fifth grade who has mastered high school trigonometry and physics—but is still functioning like a regular 10-year-old when it comes to writing, history, and social studies? Khan’s programmer, Ben Kamens, has heard from teachers who’ve seen Khan Academy presentations and loved the idea but wondered whether they could modify it “to stop students from becoming this advanced.”

This attitude is a natural outgrowth of our decision to operate education as a monopoly. In a competitive marketplace, educators have incentives to serve each individual child to the best of their ability, because each child can easily be enrolled elsewhere if they fail to do so. That is why the for-profit Asian tutoring industry groups students by performance, not by age. There are “grades,” but they do not depend on when a student was born, only on what she knows and is able to do.

But why should a monopolist bother doing that? It’s easier just to feed children through the system on a uniform conveyor belt based on when they were born.

US Has Already Been Downgraded

Lost in all the concerns over how Moody’s and S&P will view any deal to raise the debt ceiling and whether such a deal addresses our country’s long term budget imbalances is the fact that at least three rating agencies have already downgraded U.S. government debt.  One of these agencies, Weiss Ratings, treats U.S. government debt as barely better than “junk” or speculative grade.

It would be easy to dismiss these agencies as irrelevant and attempting to simply grab attention, but at least one of these agencies, Egan-Jones, has a track record of correctly predicting problems at such companies as Enron, WorldCom, Global Crossing, Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers that the major rating agencies missed until it was too late.  Egan-Jones also employs a business model of having investors pay for its services, rather than the debt issuer.

The simple truth is that the U.S. government has made more future promises than it will have the capacity to pay, under almost any circumstances.  The fact that the major rating agencies downplay these long term imbalances is further testament to their entrenched monopoly status.  But then when the government provides you with some regulatory protections, its only natural to assume the government will expect one to return the favor.

For more on the issue, check out Cato’s latest daily podcast.

The Norwegian Killer’s Anti-individualist Nationalism

Does it matter what political agenda motivated Anders Behring Breivik, who is allegedly responsible for two attacks in Norway that killed some 93 people? In some sense, no. He’s a mass murderer, and he deserves society’s severest punishment (which in Norway is apparently 21 years in prison, or approximately three months for each murder). But as with each such attack, there’s been a rush to blame some ideological faction or other. As usual these days, some writers didn’t bother waiting for evidence before assuming that the perpetrator was Islamic and rushing into print with condemnation of people who would make cuts in a U.S. defense budget as large as the rest of the world combined or begin to wind down the Afghan war after 10 years (!).

But surely NPR takes the cake for the most ridiculous name-dropping. This morning Linda Wertheimer, who has 40 years of journalistic experience at NPR, interviewed Goran Skaalmo of the Norwegian Business Daily about Breivik. At about 3:20 of the audio, Wertheimer asks Skaalmo:

I was reminded of the American writer Ann [sic] Rand, in that he talks in his manifesto about the government being too soft, too sort of politically afraid to draw the kind of nationalist lines that he calls for.

Say what? When did Ayn Rand ever call for a hard, nationalist government? She was an immigrant, of course, and Breivik was greatly motivated by anti-immigration sentiment. She was staunchly individualist, just the opposite of nationalism. And she favored a government strictly limited to the protection of individual rights. Wertheimer reaches new depths in stupid Ayn Rand references.

A Norwegian newspaper’s report on Breivik (in an automatic Google translation) includes this telling line:

In one of the posts he states that politics today no longer revolves around socialism against capitalism, but that the fight is between nationalism and internationalism.

His online posts and his 1500-page online book seem to point to a fairly consistent nationalist, anti-immigrant, anti-Islamic “cultural conservative” defense of Europe’s “Judeo-Christian culture.”

Meanwhile, Norwegian bloggers have discovered that he lifted large passages from the 35,000-word manifesto of the anti-capitalist “Unabomber” Theodore Kaczynski.

Bastiat on Free Trade and Living on the State

The estimable James Grant reviews a new collection of writings of the brilliant Frederic Bastiat, published by the beneficent Liberty Fund, in the always scintillating Review section of the Saturday Wall Street Journal:

Because nobody else can understand them, modern economists speak to one another. They gossip in algebra and remonstrate in differential calculus. And when the pungently correct mathematical equation doesn’t occur to them, they awkwardly fall back on the English language, like a middle-aged American trying to remember his high-school Spanish. The economist Frédéric Bastiat, who lived in the first half of the 19th century, wrote in French, not symbols. But his words—forceful, clear and witty—live to this day.

Bastiat might have something to say about the attitudes and policies that have brought both Europe and the United States to the brink of debt disaster:

“The dominant notion, the one that has permeated every class of society,” he wrote in the wake of the Revolution of 1848, “is that the state is responsible for providing a living for everyone.”

“Poor people!” he lamented of the duped French populace in the same tumultuous year. “How much disillusionment is in store for them! It would have been so simple and so just to ease their burden by decreasing their taxes; they want to achieve this through the plentiful bounty of the state and they cannot see that the whole mechanism consists in taking away ten to give it back eight, not to mention the true freedom that will be destroyed in the operation!”

And of course, taking away eight to give back ten is fun while it lasts. But it can’t last forever.

This Week in Government Failure

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

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Debt Debate a Reminder of What Government Is

If it is true that a failure to increase the debt limit on August 2nd has the potential to bring about economic Armageddon, shouldn’t we be asking ourselves if it’s a good idea to allow the political class in Washington to continue collectively play God with our lives? After all, these people are fallible human beings.

In a similar vein, Sheldon Richman reminds us of what government really is in a new column on the issue of federal debt. I like Richman’s statement because one need not be a hardcore libertarian to appreciate the message:

Government is not some higher super-competent entity like the man pretending to be the Wizard of Oz wanted the people to think he was. It’s a coercive organization of limited, flawed, and essentially ignorant men and women who, having been anointed in an election after campaigns hawking snake oil, are presumptuous enough to think they are capable of making wise decisions on our behalf.

Having worked in both federal and state government, I know from first-hand experience that there’s no wizard behind the curtain. My gut tells me that some of the pundits and analysts who display an almost child-like belief in the capabilities of government might think differently had they spent time behind the curtain.

It is my hope that the circus-like atmosphere in Washington over raising the debt ceiling will cause more Americans to question why so much power and money has been placed in the hands of imperfect (to put it politely) men and women. Therefore, while I think the odds that Republicans and Democrats will strike a deal to substantively cut spending are somewhere around zero, perhaps the sordid spectacle will generate more popular support for downsizing the federal government.

Spending Cuts and National Security

An op-ed by Peter Singer and Michael O’Hanlon in today’s Politico questions the impact of spending cuts on the military. “Substantial defense budget cuts are possible, make no mistake,” the Brookings’ scholars concede, “But they could mean loss of capability, and some may increase security risks.”

Another Brookings scholar, Robert Kagan, is more emphatic, telling Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post that “[The proposed cuts are] utterly irresponsible and dangerous to national security.” Max Boot agrees. Cuts of up to $1 trillion over the next 10 years “would be nothing short of a disaster.” Lawmakers who are considering such cuts, Boot claims, “are flirting with eviscerating American combat capabilities — and with it the role of the United States in world affairs.” AEI’s Tom Donnelly wails: “Nobody has defense as a high priority. It’s increasingly looking like everybody wants to toss the military overboard.”

Wow. Sounds scary. What is actually going on here?

For starters, the military’s budget has still not been cut. As I noted yesterday at the National Interest’s “The Skeptics”:

The Department of Defense has enjoyed an unbroken streak of rising budgets since 1998. In real, inflation-adjusted terms, U.S. taxpayers now spend more on national security than at any time since the end of World War II. An effort led by South Carolina Republican Mick Mulvaney to hold the DoD base budget to last year’s levels failed. Mulvaney’s amendment, which would have cut $17 billion from the budget voted out of committee, attracted support from more than a quarter of the House GOP caucus, but was ultimately defeated. So the DoD base budget that emerged from the House continues its growth.

Second, the various proposed cuts to future spending are just that: proposed. As with everything else associated with the debt negotations, the details matter a lot. The cuts might never materialize; future Congresses might simply renege on deals made this summer. More importantly, in nearly every case, they aren’t actual cuts. They are projections based against certain assumptions about future spending. And depending on inflation, the growth of the economy, and a host of other factors, those assumptions will change.

Up to this point, Kagan, Boot, Donnelly, and others have succeeded in fending off cuts to military spending. But it was never realistic to believe that one could cut government spending while leaving more than 50 percent of the discretionary budget off the table.

To her credit, Kori Schake is beginning to look past the immediate discussion over whether to cut the Pentagon’s budget, and is thinking about how to do so. The headline at Foreign Policy blares, “Out Come the Long Knives for Defense,” but the gist of her argument is more sophisticated, and far more realistic than the “no military cuts, no way” crowd:

Given the magnitude of our defense spending and the relatively advantageous position we occupy compared to the magnitude of threats facing the United States, we can afford to accept near-term risk by cutting defense spending in order to solve the larger strategic problem of our national indebtedness.

Though Schake likely opposes cuts in military spending along the lines that Ben Friedman and I sketched out here and here, she implores national security planners to begin thinking seriously about which missions are absolutely essential to U.S. national security and which missions that our military has been performing for decades can and should be handled by others. That is the approach that Friedman and I take in proposing a force structure guided by the lessons of the recent past: we should avoid costly and counterproductive nation-building missions; fighting terrorism does not require a massive military deployed in dozens of countries around the world; our allies can and should do more to defend themselves; and we should retain the ability to bring power from the air and sea in those very rare instances when distant crises might pose a direct threat to U.S. national security.

I hope that Schake sketches out more clearly which roles and missions we can afford to shed. And I hope that the claims that all missions are essential, and that any cuts in military spending will pose an intolerable risk, are shown for what they are: indefensible.