Archives: July, 2013

Obligatory ESEA Reauthorization Post

I should probably have been working overtime commenting on current efforts to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—currently known as No Child Left Behind—because it is the flagship federal education law. Based on national test scores, that makes it the biggest ship in a fleet of Titanics.

So why haven’t I been expending countless hours and pixels on the reauthorization, especially with the House passing its version today? Partly because there are almost no prospects of any reauthorization moving seriously on the path to enactment. The GOP-controlled House, and Democratically controlled Senate and White House, have given no indication that they will give any effort to move something to completion. And that is to be expected, not just because of infamous “gridlock,” but because President Obama unilaterally issued waivers from the law’s most onerous provisions—in particular the 2014-15 deadline for all students to be “proficient” in reading and mathematics—and in so doing released almost all pressure to change the law. Well, at least to change it the constitutional way: legislatively.

For what it’s worth, the House bill is better than the status quo, eliminating punishments for districts and schools that fail to hit “adequate yearly progress,” keeping spending slightly in check, and attempting to ensure that the U.S. secretary of education can’t all but require states to adopt national curriculum standards. That said, it is still a monstrous behemoth full of reporting requirements, giveaways to GOP-favored sectors like charter schools, and big spending. In other words, it’s nowhere near what the Constitution permits, and decades of performance measures scream for: no federal intrusion in classrooms outside of enforcing nondiscrimination and governing—if the Feds choose—District of Columbia schools.

Short of outright eliminating the federal schooling leviathan, there is one proposal worth looking at: the Local Education Authority Returns Now Act (LEARN) from Rep. Scott Garrett (R-NJ), which would let states declare they’ll run their own education systems, then let state taxpayers keep the money Washington would have used to “help” them in education. It would sever the cord Washington has around states to make them do its bidding—tax dollars their citizens had no choice about paying—and reward their taxpayers directly.

What about the Academic Partnerships Lead Us to Success Act (APLUS), which is a Heritage Foundation-backed piece of legislation? It is better than the status quo or main House GOP bill, but it contains two major, unacceptable provisions:

  1. A requirement that the U.S. secretary of education approve state requests to control consolidated funding.
  2. A continued requirement that each state have a single set of standards, tests, and “proficiency” goals. 

Essentially, it’s the same basic shell as No Child Left Behind, only with more state autonomy over spending. That’s not good enough.

That said, this is all moot. There doesn’t seem to be any serious effort to reauthorize the law, and there’s no indication that will change anytime soon. Based on what we’ve seen, that’s probably a good thing.

Idaho Cooperates with Homeland Security on National ID

In June 2011, I noted here how a new cardless national ID system was forming up using state driver license data. It hasn’t gone very far. Passage of an immigration reform bill containing a national E-Verify requirement would slam down the gas pedal.

But a few days ago, Idaho became the third state in the union to sign up for the Department of Homeland Security’s RIDE (Records and Information from DMVs for E-Verify) program, which is administered by the ID-friendly American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators. Idaho joins Mississippi and Florida in volunteering state driver information to the DHS.

As the full name of the program suggests, RIDE is an “add-on” to E-Verify, the government’s highly problematic system for “internal enforcement” of immigration law via government background checks. RIDE is intended to let the E-Verify system check the authenticity of driver licenses that are typically provided as one of the forms of ID during the broader verification process. E-Verify’s problems are legion—I documented them in my 2008 paper, “Franz Kafka’s Solution to Illegal Immigration“—and we highlighted them again on Capitol Hill in March.

Much like mass-scale license plate scanning, the RIDE program represents the application of technology and systems developed for one purpose to vastly different ones. The RIDE program takes state driver licensing data—which is for driver licensing and traffic law enforcment—and turns it over to the DHS for federal law enforcement and the creation of a national ID.

In 2007, Idaho was the second state in the nation to reject the REAL ID Act, our national ID law. The Idaho House and Senate passed a resolution condemning that effort to put all Americans into a national ID system. But the bureaucrats appear to have waited out the legislature. With most people’s attention elsewhere, the Idaho Transportation Department teamed up with DHS officials to move forward with a national ID.

After the DHS has tapped into Idahoans’ driver data, there is no guarantee that the uses of it would be limited to E-Verify. Mission creep is a law of gravity in government, and it’s likely over time that E-Verify and Idaho driver data will be put to new and interesting uses by the federal government. Expect the DHS to get a lot more familiar with you and your driver license data if mandatory E-Verify comes into effect and RIDE continues to grow.

Michael Gerson, Mainstream Republican?

Michael Gerson, an important intellectual force within the administration of Bush the Younger, from whose wreckage the GOP is still trying to emerge, now is inveighing that Rand Paul “can never be a mainstream Republican.”

The claim is peculiar because Gerson himself, the purveyor of an unapologetically big-government, “heroic” conservatism, was hardly a mainstream Republican until George W. Bush altered what “mainstream Republican” meant. Certainly, anyone who called skeptics of federal power “morally empty” would not have been identified as a mainstream Republican until Bush (and Gerson) transformed the party.

But in case you need a few other reasons to question Gerson’s conservative bona fides:

One wonders whether Edmund Burke, John Lukacs, or William F. Buckley would have judged these as the marks of a conservative.

Gerson’s takes as a jumping-off point for his latest dig against libertarianism some of the genuinely offensive and wrong things that Paul adviser Jack Hunter had written about the Civil War, race, and the Confederacy. But one gets the sense that though Gerson’s appreciation for Lincoln and a powerful federal government are heartfelt, he didn’t need to see Hunter’s C.V. to dislike Paul—and to use Hunter as a way to slam libertarianism.

In the end, though, Gerson’s argument that Paul “can never” be a mainstream Republican is belied by the fact, highlighted by Gerson’s very article, that the mainstream of the GOP is moving, slowly, in Paul’s direction. As Gerson’s first sentence observes, Paul is 2013’s “Republican flavor of the year.”

Paul and the GOP have at least three choices: a recapitulated Southern strategy, Gerson’s militarist Christian Democracy, or a libertarian-conservatism that can appeal to 21st century America. As Gerson should know by now, much like the course of a war, the future of a political party is hard to predict in advance.

Thomas Sowell on the Economics of Immigration

Thomas Sowell, distinguished social scientist and columnist, recently criticized Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) for his statement that America needs immigration reform to avoid a “worker shortage.” Ryan was trying to explain that allowing more workers to come in the future would allow the economy to grow. He incorrectly used the word “shortage, which has a specific meaning in economics, and Sowell was right to criticize him for that. 

However, the economics of immigration are far more complex than Sowell’s writings let on. After dinging Ryan for his word choice, Sowell went on to explain that if American farmers don’t have enough workers, they will just raise their wages to attract Americans into the profession:

In agriculture, the farmers would obviously prefer to get workers who get low pay rather than workers they have to pay a higher wage… And as long as there is an unlimited supply of farm workers coming in from Mexico, they will never have to raise the wages very much… And it’s a time when millions of Americans are out of work, and are looking for any kind of work. And so this is utter nonsense.

If Sowell is going to quibble about words like “shortage,” it’s fair to criticize Sowell’s use of the word “unlimited” to describe the supply of farm workers coming from Mexico. If the supply of workers in agriculture was truly unlimited, or infinite, the wage would be 0. Furthermore, Americans are not “looking for any kind of work.” If they were, they would be lowering their wages quite a bit more than they currently are, until they become attractive hires. Relatively sticky wages even during periods of high unemployment are evidence that people are not “looking for any kind of work.”        

Issues of economic vocabulary aside, Sowell only described one possible outcome from a reduction in the supply of low-skilled immigrant farm workers: an increase in wages. The far more likely reaction is that American farmers will stop growing crops that require many workers. Without a large supply of low-skilled immigrant farm workers, labor-intensive farming would either shrink dramatically or disappear entirely.  American farmers would either grow different crops that could be profitably harvested mechanically or stop farming. American consumers would either import fruits and vegetables that require large numbers of workers from countries where those workers are abundant, or scale back their consumption of those food stuffs. Fewer workers also means fewer consumers of these agricultural goods, decreasing demand and partly offsetting some of the increase in price that would occur from a decrease in supply. Those effects would be the economically efficient outcome if increased labor scarcity was driven by changes in the free market. In this case, however, the increase in labor scarcity would come from legislation mandating such scarcity.

A Big, Tiny Deal on Student Loans

After a bit of a false start last week, it sounds again like the Senate is on the brink of a bipartisan compromise that will link rates on federal student loans to overall interest rates. Given all the hubbub that’s surrounded the loans, that’s big news. Given the actual change that would take place, it’s tiny.

Based on reports so far, the plan seems to be to eventually peg all undergraduate loans – both the officially “subsidized” and “unsubsidized” – to 10-year Treasury bill interest rates, adding 2.05 percentage points. Today, that would make the interest rate 4.57 percent. However, it appears that the compromise would put rates at 3.85 percent this fall. That’s no doubt a sweetener to appease student interest groups, whose goal is to get the cheapest loans possible regardless of the rest of the economy, and who don’t think a deal pegging student loans to T-bills is so hot.

To be fair, the deal isn’t hot. It’s barely room temperature. But that’s because it still gives away far too much, not too little. Taxpayer-backed loans that go to almost anyone have been a sweet-sounding disaster, encouraging people to consume education they aren’t willing or able to complete; prodding people who are college-ready to demand things that have little or nothing to do with education; and fueling rampant price inflation throughout the system. And, like last week’s abortive deal, this one appears to eliminate the different rates for the “subsidized” loans – those geared to truly low-income students – and the “unsubsidized” loans that have no income cap. In other words, the student aid system that is already heavily skewed toward the better-off seems likely to become a bit more so.

If this compromise eventually gets signed by the president, it will likely be hailed as a big, bipartisan deal. And maybe politically it would be. But as policy? It would barely register.

Feds’ Campus-Speech Blueprint: “Sentence First, Verdict Afterward”

As discussed in this space a few weeks back, the federal government is pushing a new “blueprint” ordering universities to open the way to wider complaints over unwelcome speech. Although the U.S. Department of Education quickly retreated to a seemingly less extreme interpretation of the law, the dangers remain that the field offices of its Office for Civil Rights will arm-twist academic institutions into stacked disciplinary methods and new curbs on speech. I’m in the July Commentary with an article bringing the controversy up to date. 

Two points worth noting: first, while the Obama administration has pushed the new plan hard, the wider trend of gradually stepped-up federal supervision over university life has been going on for decades under Republicans and Democrats alike. There’s not much resistance: university officials and organized professors are relatively half-hearted about sticking up for their own institutional autonomy. Indeed, the federal prescriptions represent in some ways a consolidation of power by already-powerful elements within the academy, as opposed to a perceived hostile takeover from the outside. In the same issue of Commentary, Philip Hamburger has an excellent article outlining how university researchers have for decades now tamely submitted to federally prescribed controls — overseen by so-called IRBs, or institutional review boards — over such relatively innocuous forms of “human-subjects research” as interviewing politicians and observing passersby in public places. In 2007, David Hyman wrote for Cato’s Regulation magazine on “The Pathologies of Institutional Review Boards.” (adapted from a post at Overlawyered).

Aside From That, Mrs. Lincoln, How’s ObamaCare Implementation Going?

The Washington Post has published a remarkable exposé on the Obama administration’s foundering efforts to implement ObamaCare.

The article paints a picture of a White House that did not know what it was getting into, either in terms of public opposition or the technical challenges of implementation. It likens the task of getting young adults to buy ObamaCare’s health plans to getting young adults to vote, despite a glaring difference between those challenges. (Hint: one of them requires young adults to shell out hundreds of dollars per month.) But this exposé is most remarkable for not exposing two lawsuits that by far pose the greatest challenge to ObamaCare’s survival.

One indication that implementation is not going well is what the Post quotes ObamaCare’s supporters as saying:

“In 2011, there was this ‘we’re going to save the world’ mentality. In 2013, it focuses more on how do we deliver on the requirements of the law.”

“It’s pretty much a black box.”

“They tell us, ‘It’s freakishly on schedule.’ They use those exact words. But only the people who work in this can tell you if it’s actually running on time.”

“Advocates on the ground are really struggling with that group. They want to have a positive message but don’t know what to say.”

“We’re in an environment [now] where 40 percent are against it, 35 percent are for it and neither side knows what’s actually in it.”

“How hard does the insurance department or Medicaid department in a red state [that opposes the law] make it to implement this?”

“Everybody is having sleepless nights given the magnitude of the effort and the short amount of time.”

“It’s like building a bridge from both ends and hoping, in the end, they connect.”

“I read [the delay of the employer-mandate] as an admission that not all of the components of the [data] hub are working.”

“Some of the guidance from the federal government is still coming. That means we can’t get to our wishlist.”

As bad as these evaluations are, things are actually quite a bit worse.

For one thing, the HuffingtonPost/Pollster.com polling aggregator currently shows that 52.5 percent of Americans are against ObamaCare, compared to 40.5 percent are for it. That’s a 12-point gap, not a five-point gap. It’s also the largest gap that aggregator has ever measured.

For another, the Washington Post acknowledges that if young adults don’t sign up for ObamaCare’s over-priced insurance “the law will fail,” and acknowledges the difficulty of getting young adults to over-pay for insurance. But it still downplays that challenge:

When…asked in a recent survey whether a $210 premium was affordable, only 29 percent of likely marketplace enrollees said yes. [Marketers then told] participants that, with their tax credits, they would save “$1,908 a year compared to what you would pay on your own.”

All of a sudden, 48 percent of the participants thought that insurance was affordable. But 48 percent is still less than half.

That number will turn out to be even lower when young adults realize they’re still shelling out that $210 they already said they cannot afford.

But the Post neglects to mention the greatest threat to the law’s survival: those tax credits may not even be there in two-thirds of the country.

The attorney general of Oklahoma, and a group of small employers and individuals from various states, have each filed lawsuits challenging the Obama administration’s plans to issue those tax credits in the 34 states that have opted not to establish one of ObamaCare’s health insurance “exchanges” themselves. The statute quite clearly authorizes those credits (and related subsidies) only “through an Exchange established by the State.” Nowhere, and in no way, does federal law allow the administration to issue entitlements through the 34 state-based Exchanges established and operated by the federal government. Yet the White House is trying to spend an estimated $700 billion over 10 years in those states without congressional authorization.

Both the non-partisan Congressional Research Service and Harvard Law Review have acknowledged these lawsuits are credible. Plaintiffs in one of the suits have asked the court to block that illegal spending before it begins in 2014. Supporters of the law admit that if that happens, ObamaCare doesn’t just fail, it collapses.

So the question this supposed exposé really answers is: aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how’s ObamaCare implementation going?