Archives: December, 2012

Common Core Caught In Its Own Tangled Web

At this point, I probably don’t need to rehearse all the deceptions that have been central to the triumph of national curriculum standards. (If for some reason you need a refresher, check out this op-ed.) Unfortunately, what we are dealing with now are the slowly emerging costs of all that deception. We are indeed entering a tangled web.

The fastest growing hullabaloo is over how much fiction versus nonfiction English teachers – or is it schools? – must teach. Many English teachers  are just now learning about seeming Common Core dictates that no more than 30 to 50 percent of what they teach – depending on  the grade level – be fiction. You know, Fahrenheit 451 or Animal Farm. The specific reasons for their concern are two tables in the Common Core ELA document  (p. 5) that appear to lay out just such percentages.  And needless to say, despite the Common Core’s air of omniscience about what and how kids should learn, there is big disagreement about the relative value of fiction and nonfiction.

But hold on! Common Core crafters David Coleman – now head of the SAT-makin’ College Board – and Susan Pimentel insist that’s all off base. The standards are very clear, they say,  that the percentages apply to all reading in a school, not just English classes. As they wrote in the Huffington Post yesterday:

The Standards could not be clearer: ELA classrooms must focus on literature – that is not negotiable, but a requirement of high school ELA. On page 5 of the Standards – where the distinction between literature and informational text is introduced – there is an explicit, unambiguous statement regarding the balance of texts relative to the disciplines covered by the Standards:

“… the ELA classroom must focus on literature (stories, drama, and poetry) as well as literary non-fiction, [and] a great deal of informational reading in grades 6-12 must take place in other classes…”

I sure hope the Common Core doesn’t have lessons on ambiguity, because I don’t think the crafters grasp the concept. This explanation couldn’t be much more ambiguous, stating that English classes must focus on literature “as well as” nonfiction. Sure sounds like a 70-30 or 50-50 split could be mandated under that.

This is, of course, exactly the kind of obtuse mumbo-jumbo one should expect from a document – and overall effort – that tries to simultaneously be revolutionary and innocuous. And wouldn’t it have been wonderful if this sort of thing had been hashed out before states were cajoled into adopting the standards? But then there would have been public disagreements, and all the silliness of people holding different opinions is exactly what destroyed past efforts to impose uniform standards on the country.

The good news is that, absent further federal efforts – which are the huge, looming threat – there is no mechanism that can actually make states adhere to these confusing time allocations, or anything else in the Common Core. And, of course, states can move in a wholly better direction by instituting private school choice programs that don’t include centralized standards. Then individual children – you know, unique people – could seek out educational models tailored to their specific needs provided by educators with the freedom to use different and innovative standards and methods.

Even if that happens, though, the lesson is becoming clear: Practice to deceive, as Common Core supporters have, and you could get caught in a very sticky web.


French Thief Complains that Victims Are Running Away

Atlas is shrugging and Dan Mitchell is laughing.

I predicted back in May that well-to-do French taxpayers weren’t fools who would meekly sit still while the hyenas in the political class confiscated ever-larger shares of their income.

But the new President of France, Francois Hollande, doesn’t seem overly concerned by economic rationality and decided (Obama must be quite envious) that a top tax rate of 75 percent is fair. And patriotic as well!

French Prime Minister: “I’m upset that the wildebeest aren’t remaining still for their disembowelment.”

So I was pleased - but not surprised - when the news leaked out that France’s richest man was saying au revoir and moving to Belgium.

But he’s not the only one. The nation’s top actor also decided that he doesn’t want to be a fatted calf. Indeed, it appears that there are entire communities of French tax exiles living just across the border in Belgium.

Best of all, the greedy politicians are throwing temper tantrums that the geese have found a better place for their golden eggs.

France’s Prime Minister seems particularly agitated about this real-world evidence for the Laffer Curve. Here are some excerpts from a story in the UK-based Telegraph.

France’s prime minister has slammed wealthy citizens fleeing the country’s punitive tax on high incomes as greedy profiteers seeking to “become even richer”. Jean-Marc Ayrault’s outburst came after France’s best-known actor, Gerard Dépardieu, took up legal residence in a small village just over the border in Belgium, alongside hundreds of other wealthy French nationals seeking lower taxes. “Those who are seeking exile abroad are not those who are scared of becoming poor,” the prime minister declared after unveiling sweeping anti-poverty measures to help those hit by the economic crisis. These individuals are leaving “because they want to get even richer,” he said. “We cannot fight poverty if those with the most, and sometimes with a lot, do not show solidarity and a bit of generosity,” he added.

In the interests of accuracy, let’s re-write Monsieur Ayrault’s final quote from the excerpt. What he’s really saying is: “We cannot buy votes and create dependency if those that produce, and sometimes produce a lot, do not act like morons and let us rape and pillage without consequence.”

So what’s going to happen? Well, I wrote in September that France was going to suffer a fiscal crisis, and I followed up in October with a post explaining how a bloated welfare state was a form of economic suicide.

Yet French politicians don’t seem to care. They don’t seem to realize that a high burden of government spending causes economic weakness by misallocating labor and capital. They seem oblivious  to basic tax policy matters, even though there is plenty of evidence that the Laffer Curve works even in France.

So as France gets ever-closer to fiscal collapse, part of me gets a bit of perverse pleasure from the news. Not because of dislike for the French. The people actually are very nice, in my experience, and France is a very pleasant place to visit. And it was even listed as the best place in the world to live, according to one ranking.

But it helps to have bad examples. And just as I’ve used Greece to help educate American lawmakers about the dangers of statism, I’ll also use France as an example of what not to do.

P.S. France actually is much better than the United States in that rich people actually are free to move across the border without getting shaken down with exit taxes that are reminiscent of totalitarian regimes.

P.P.S. This Chuck Asay cartoon seems to capture the mentality of the French government.

Public Prefers Education Tax Credits to Charters, Vouchers

In a recent public opinion study conducted by Harvard University researchers, education tax credits were found to attract more public support (72%) than either charter schools (62%) or vouchers (50%).

The authors seem to find this puzzling, in part due to their belief that “most economists think the difference between vouchers and tax credits more a matter of style than substance.” I have no idea whether this is an accurate assessment of economists’ opinions, but it is certainly a mistaken view, for several reasons.

First, based on a set of regression studies I reported last year in the Journal of School Choice, vouchers, but not tax credits, impose a large and highly significant extra burden of regulation on participating private schools (the link is to an essentially identical pre-publication version). In that study, I offer a suggested explanation for why this pattern may exist.

Second, tax credit programs confer freedom of choice and conscience not just on families but also on taxpayer/donors. As I argued in U.S. Supreme Court amicus briefs in ACSTO v. Winn, and a subsequent op-ed on the Winn verdict, this avoids the compulsion that has plagued state-funded school systems since their inception and has precipitated our endless “school wars.” Vouchers, by compelling all taxpayers to support every type of schooling, perpetuate that compulsion and so perpetuate the conflicts that flow from it.

To my knowledge, in the whole history of the world there hasn’t been a system of government funding for the education of children that has long avoided extensive regulatory constraints. Those constraints defeat the purpose of “school choice” programs, by homogenizing the schools from which parents are permitted to “choose.” There is evidence that tax credits, which make use of only private funds, avoid that fate. Perhaps many economists have not yet become aware of this distinction, but it is one they should take a keen interest in.

Food Trucks Unwelcome in Arlington, Virginia

Libertarian arguments about the importance of economic liberty so often fall on deaf ears, but then you come across government abuses in this area that are so ridiculous that maybe even progressives can see the folly.  Here’s an excerpt from an email I just got from the Institute for Justice:

For those of you who follow IJ’s National Street Vending Initiative, you most likely know that cities across the country pass arbitrary and anti-competitive laws that make it practically impossible for food trucks and other vendors to succeed.  An opportunity to fight against one such law has presented itself in Arlington, Virginia.

Arlington County has a law in place that prevents food trucks from operating in one place for more than 60 minutes.  A local food truck named Seoul Food received a notice for violating this rule.  According to the owner of the truck, he informed the police officer that he did move from one parking spot to another within the allotted time.  The police officer still cited Seoul Food, however, because in the officer’s view the truck had not moved “far enough.”  It is important to note that the County Code does not specify any minimum distance a truck must move; it states only that “the vehicle must remain stopped for … no longer than sixty (60) minutes.”  Arlington Code Section 30-9(B).

The penalty for violating Section 30-9 is severe.  The Arlington County Code classifies a violation of the sixty-minute rule as a Class 1 misdemeanor, which is punishable by “confinement in jail for not more than twelve months and a fine of not more than $2,500.”  Thus, Arlington considers selling food to willing customers from a legal parking space to be as serious as  Reckless Driving, DUI, and Assault & Battery.

You can’t make this stuff up!

I followed up with one of IJ’s lawyers, who also noted that every police officer who Seoul Food’s owners interacted with has given them a different distance that the food truck purportedly has to move.  One said they just needed to move to an adjacent spot, while another said they had to go around the block. 

Alas, because the case is in criminal proceedings (!), IJ can’t represent Seoul Food.  Any Virginia-licensed lawyers with experience in criminal defense work who might want to help out pro bono – or media/others seeking more information on the case – please contact Krissy Keys, kkeys -at-

The Poverty of Affordability Arguments

In the bargaining over avoiding the fiscal cliff, President Obama has taken to framing the argument this way:

We can solve this problem. All Congress needs to do is pass a law that would prevent a tax hike on the first $250,000 of everybody’s income – everybody. (Applause.) That means 98 percent of Americans – and probably 100 percent of you – (laughter) – 97 percent of small businesses wouldn’t see their income taxes go up a single dime. Even the wealthiest Americans would still get a tax cut on the first $250,000 of their income. But when they start making a million, or $10 million, or $20 million you can afford to pay a little bit more. (Applause.) You’re not too strapped.

I’m no political expert, but this seems like a pretty effective, if demagogic, frame: “Ol’ Boehner is just doing the bidding of his bazillionaire paymasters, trying to stick it to regular folks like you.” By framing the debate as being about whether very wealthy people “can afford to pay a little bit more,” Obama skews things in his favor. (On the substance of the argument about increasing taxes to close the gaping fiscal maw, try this from Alan Reynolds or this from Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH).)

And what does John Boehner think about Obama’s framing? Not much, obviously: “We have a huge national debt because Washington spends too much, not because it doesn’t tax people enough.” Boehner rejects the whole affordability frame, proposing his own—“is the problem taxes or spending?”—and adding on an argument that increasing taxes will hurt economic growth. So you’ve got dueling frames.

But what’s of interest to me is the analog of Obama’s frame in the foreign policy/defense spending discussion. In that debate, neoconservatives and liberal imperialists have framed the debate the same way Obama has framed the fiscal cliff debate: except in that case, it’s not about whether wealthy people can afford to pay higher taxes, but whether the United States can afford to continue spending around 50 percent of world military expenditures. Take it away, Robert Kagan:

What about the financial expense? Many seem to believe that the cost of these deployments, and of the armed forces generally, is a major contributor to the soaring fiscal deficits that threaten the solvency of the national economy. But this is not the case, either. As the former budget czar Alice Rivlin has observed, the scary projections of future deficits are not “caused by rising defense spending,” much less by spending on foreign assistance. The runaway deficits projected for the coming years are mostly the result of ballooning entitlement spending. Even the most draconian cuts in the defense budget would produce annual savings of only $50 billion to $100 billion, a small fraction—between 4 and 8 percent—of the $1.5 trillion in annual deficits the United States is facing.

Here again, if the debate is about whether the United States—let’s call us the One Percenters here—can afford to continue frittering away money playing globocop, the advantage is with Kagan and his confreres. But in both cases, Obama and Kagan try to substitute an affordability argument for a propriety/desirability argument. Of course wealthy people can “afford” to pay higher taxes—they’ve done so before, after all. By the same token, the United States can afford to continue funding its globe-girdling military presence. But in neither case do these affordability arguments answer the question: What should happen? To say something is affordable is not to say it is preferable

Obama doesn’t say, “We’ve spent a ton of money over the past 10 years and entitlement costs are ballooning so we’re going to squeeze as much as we can out of the rich and then see where we go from there.” Similarly, Kagan doesn’t lead with his argument that the debt and deficit should be fixed by increasing taxes and sprinkling pixie dust on entitlement costs. Instead, he wants to have the affordability debate. As well he ought to, since the public is increasingly disenchanted with the interventionist foreign policy program.

In neither case should we let the affordability argument carry the day. Boehner rejects the affordability framing of the tax increase debate. Conservatives ought to realize in both cases that something’s affordability is not synonymous with its propriety.

The Latest Greenland Kerfluffle: If Their Science Can’t Be Refuted, Smear ‘Em

Global Science Report is a weekly feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”

About a year and a half ago, we were co-authors (along with Dr. Oliver Frauenfeld from Texas A&M University) on a paper published in the Journal of Geophysical Research in which we presented a nearly 225-year reconstruction of surface snow melt across Greenland (Figure 1).

Our reconstruction was based on long-term temperature records from the southern Greenland coast along with historic indicators of the atmospheric circulation in the North Atlantic Ocean. We found that in addition to the period since about the year 2000, there was an extended (multi-decadal) period in the early portion of the 20th century where the amount of surface snowmelt was elevated above the long-term average.  We concluded from this that since there did not appear to be a large increase in the rate of global sea level rise during the early 20th century period of elevated ice melt—a melt driven primarily by warmer than normal temperatures—that Greenland’s contribution to global sea level rise during the current period of high temperatures was likely to remain relatively “modest,” at least for the next few decades.

Figure 1. Reconstructed history of the total ice melt extent index over Greenland, 1784–2009. Observed values of the ice melt index (blue solid circles), reconstructed values of the ice melt index (gray open circles), the 10 year trailing moving average through the reconstructed and fitted values (thick red line), and the 95% upper and lower confidence bounds (thin gray lines) (from Frauenfeld et al., 2011).

Neither our methods, nor or findings were overly controversial—or so we thought.

Shortly after our paper was published, one of the reviewers of our paper, a noted snow/ice researcher who has spent a lot of time studying Greenland, Dr. Jason Box, came forwarded and denounced our work. On his blog (in posts he has subsequently removed), he attacked our work both from a scientific standpoint as well as deriding it with a few ad hominems (for example “Examining the 2nd [Knappenberger] and 3rd [Michaels] authors’ credentials, a climate change denialist pattern emerges”).

On both accounts we felt he was wrong (of course) and offered a rebuttal.

But perhaps the strongest argument that our results were scientifically sound comes from an ironic source—the results of new research findings from Jason Box himself!

These new findings from Box, although not yet fully available, have been incorporated into another research project that has recently been published (Gregory et al., 2012) and thus we can get a sneak peek at them.

The solid black line in Figure 2 (below) shows Box’s reconstruction of the sea level rise contribution from Greenland back into since the mid-1800s.

Figure 2. Various estimates of the time series of the Greenland ice-sheet mass contribution to global-mean sea-level rise. The reconstructions are plotted as ten-year running time-means of the sea-level equivalent of the rate of change of mass of the Greenland ice-sheet with respect to the mean of 1961–1990. The solid black line, labeled “B” is the net mass balance, including both surface mass balance and ice discharge from Jason Box. The horizontal dotted line indicates zero. The vertical lines indicate the years in which major volcanic eruptions occurred (from Gregory et al., 2012).

Notice the strong resemblance of Box’s reconstruction of the sea level contribution from Greenland with our reconstruction of the surface snow melt across Greenland.  The snow melt/sea level contribution is currently very high, was relatively low in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, was high from the mid-1920s through the late 1960s, and was lower in the 1800s.

Considering that there are other factors besides snowmelt (like snow accumulation and calving glaciers) that contribute to Greenland’s net contributions to sea level rise, the two curves are remarkably similar. This is a strong indication that whatever is driving snowmelt (regional temperature) is also driving the net sea level contribution.

All of which we wrote in our paper:

This record of ice melt indicates that the melt extent observed since the late 1990s is among the highest likely to have occurred since the late 18th century, although recent values are not statistically different from those common during the period 1923–1961, a period when summer temperatures along the southern coast of Greenland were similarly high as those experienced in recent years. Our reconstruction indicates that if the current trend toward increasing melt extent continues, total melt across the Greenland ice sheet will exceed historic values of the past two and a quarter centuries

…The forces acting in concert with ice melt across Greenland to produce higher global sea levels currently, should also have been acting during the extended high‐melt conditions from the mid‐1920s to the early 1960s.

And we also added this concerning the significance of Greenland’s contribution to the total global sea level rise:

[T]here is no indication that the increased contribution from the Greenland melt in the early to mid 20th century, a roughly 40 year interval when average annual melt was more or less equivalent to the average of the most recent 10 years (2000–2009), resulted in a rate of global sea level rise that exceeded ~mm/yr.  This suggests that Greenland’s contribution to global sea level rise, even during multidecadal conditions as warm as during the past several years, is relatively modest.

Figure 3 (anther figure from the new paper from Gregory et al., 2012) shows the breakdown of the factors contributing to the global rise in sea level of the past century and a half.  Greenland’s contribution (based on Box’s reconstruction) is the pale green line (labeled “Greenland-B” in the legend). I think it is pretty fair to characterize this as “modest.”

Figure 3. Observational (black) and a reconstructed (red) time series of global mean sea-level rise (thick lines, with 5–95% observational uncertainty shaded), also showing the contributions to the latter (thin lines), identified by the time series initials in the key (from Gregory et al., 2012).

Why was such a big deal was made about our research results and “denialist” credentials when subsequent results, made by the very person who went ad hominem, completely replicate our findings?


Box, J. E., Greenland ice sheet mass balance reconstruction. Part III: Marine ice loss and total mass balance (1840–2010). Journal of Climate, submitted (as cited by Gregory et al., 2012).

Frauenfeld, O.W., P.C. Knappenberger, and P.J. Michaels, 2011. A reconstruction of annual Greenland ice melt extent, 1785-2009. Journal of Geophysical Research, 116, D08104, doi: 10.1029/2010JD014918.

Gregory, J., et al., 2012. Twentieth-century global-mean sea-level rise: is the whole greater than the sum of the parts? Journal of Climate, doi:10.1175/JCLI-D-12-00319.1, in press.