Archives: 10/2013

Free Speech Week—Tuesday

Today Cato continues its celebration of the freedom of speech on day two of Free Speech Week. Throughout the week we will be celebrating freedom of speech by posting highlights from Cato’s recent work to support freedom of speech in its various forms, whether through legal advocacy, media appearances, or other public outreach.

Today’s highlight focuses on one of Cato’s recent efforts to promote free speech in the context of campaign finance. Campaign finance laws generally attempt to reduce “corruption” in politics (or achieve some other end goal of varying legal validity) by curtailing the First Amendment rights of those who attempt to participate in the electoral process by speaking out or contributing money to candidates or parties. Shawn McCutcheon is one of these people whose First Amendment rights are being curtailed by federal campaign finance laws, but not for any legally valid purpose. In addition to the limits on contributions to any individual candidate or political party per election, federal campaign finance law also places a cap on the overall amount that can be donated to all candidates and parties combined in any two-year period. Mr. McCutcheon has been waging a legal battle to vindicate his First Amendment right to support however many political candidates he pleases, so long as his contributions remain within the various individual limits. The case is now before the Supreme Court (oral arguments were last week) and stands to be one of the bigger First Amendment cases the Court hears this year. 

Cato has supported Mr. McCutcheon’s fight by filing an amicus brief in the case and by spreading awareness of the issue. Our brief asserts the unworkability of the contribution-expenditure distinction that lets the government treat political contributions as less than fully-protected speech. The Supreme Court will announce its decision in the case later in the term.

To read Cato’s amicus brief in McCutcheon v. FEC click here.

For commentary by Cato’s Ilya Shapiro on the legal issue at stake click here, and here.

For more information on Free Speech Week and to learn how you can help celebrate free speech, check out

Why Such a Harsh Review for a Book I Liked?

I’ve had some feedback on my review of Amanda Ripley’s book The Smartest Kids in the World, and How they Got that Way. A key question: Dude, why so harsh?

I did spill less ink than I could have discussing the book’s good qualities. I find disagreement more interesting than agreement in book reviews, though, so when pressed for time in writing one I tend to give the latter short shrift. For the record, my list of its strong points was not exhaustive. For instance, Ripley is entirely right that children must be taught that learning new things can be challenging, requires effort, and that failures are an integral part of the process. She is right that teacher acumen and subject-area expertise are vitally important. She is right that when both school and home place a high value on learning, children learn more.

But this is not new information. There is an “effective schools” research dating back to the 1970s that has repeatedly found the same things. The real promise of Smartest Kids in the World was in its subtitle: and How they Got that Way. And that is where we encounter the book’s fundamental flaw. Ripley states at the outset that she is fascinated by differential educational outcomes across countries, but isn’t interested in the role that policy might play in them. True to form, the book ignores an enormous swath of research conducted in that area over the past generation.

Equal Protection Nonsense: Women at West Point Edition

On NPR’s Morning Edition today you’ll find the story “West Point Women: A Natural Pattern or a Camouflage Ceiling?” Reporter Larry Abramson leaves us with the impression that, in the words of Col. Ellen Haring (class of ’84), “women are being excluded from a taxpayer-funded educational opportunity”—or, as Abramson puts it:

The Army says it wants more women in the officer corps. The question is whether more will join an organization where their [sic] are still perceived limits on their numbers.

Col. Haring has a point, or would have one if the aim of West Point were simply to afford young men and women an “educational opportunity.” But the American people, through their representatives, presumably had a more precise goal in mind when they created West Point in the first place. National defense is a quintessential public good, defined as economists do, so we don’t need to argue about whether the government should be in that business. To be sure, the purpose of an army officer corps, pursuant to that goal, may change as technology changes. But for the present and the foreseeable future, there are certain limits on the composition of the corps that are set by its very function. By virtue of that function, the Army, at least at the officer level, never has been and, one hopes, never will be a come-one-come-all equal opportunity employer. The American people would be ill-served were that to happen.

Mayor Bloomberg Doesn’t Understand Economics

Mayor Bloomberg says New York City’s lack of affordable housing is a sign of a vibrant economy, because it proves people want to live there. Despite his reputation in the business world, he obviously doesn’t understand the laws of supply and demand.

“Somebody said that there’s not enough housing,” Bloomberg said on a radio show. “That’s a good sign.” Housing is only scarce, he said, because “as fast as we build, more people want to live here.”

In fact, as I showed in chaper 10 of my book, American Nightmare, as well as in this blog post, high housing prices do not prove that lots of people really find an area desirable. Instead, they are more a sign of government barriers to housing. In a nutshell, downward sloping demand curves means a few people may be willing to pay a high price for any good, but that doesn’t mean the public in general finds that good to be particularly valuable.

As reported by Virginia Postrel on Bloomberg’s own news service a few months ago, America’s elites have built an economic wall around places like New York City and California in order to make these areas more exclusive. Rent control in the city combined with New Jersey’s and Connecticut’s smart-growth policies have turned New York from a fairly affordable place to live as recently as 40 years ago to one that is completely unaffordable today.

Yes, Bloomberg’s city may be building some housing. But it obviously isn’t building enough to meet demand. In 1969, median housing prices in the New York urban area (including northern New Jersey) were just 2.6 times median family incomes, and 3.3 times in 1979. By 2005, they were 8.4 times. Thanks to the recession more than new housing, they were down to 5.3 by 2012–still way too high. But in New York City alone median prices were still 8.7 times median family incomes.

Here’s the surprise: Median family incomes in New York City were just 15 percent greater than in the city of Houston in 2012. But home prices were 284 percent greater. That’s not a sign that people are demanding to live there; it’s a sign of acute shortages.

Houston frets when its median home prices approach $150,000 and price-to-income ratios come close to 2.2. With New York City median prices approaching $480,000 and median values nearly nine times median incomes, Mayor Bloomberg should do more than pat himself on the back; he should recognize that the city is suffering from a major housing crisis.

E-Verify’s Continued Ineffectiveness

Now that the government shutdown is over, Congress’ attention will turn to other issues.  There is a possibility that a series of immigration reform bills will be voted on in the House of Representatives before the end of the year.  One bill will certainly include mandatory E-Verify.

As my colleagues and I have written over the last several years, E-Verify is bad for businesses, taxpayers, the privacy of all Americans and residents, economic growth in general, and it won’t stop unlawful hiring.  Don’t believe me on the last point?  Just look at Arizona.  Here is a table of the number of all new hires in the state and the number of E-Verify queries run per quarter:

Year, Quarter

All New Hires

E-Verify Queries


2008, 1




2008, 2




2008, 3




2008, 4




2009, 1




2009, 2




2009, 3




2009, 4




2010, 1




2010, 2




2010, 3




2010, 4




2011, 1




2011, 2




2011, 3




2011, 4




2012, 1




2012, 2




2012, 3




2012, 4




Source: U.S. Census and Department of Homeland Security

Although all hires in Arizona are supposed to be run through E-Verify, an average of just over 50 percent of hires actually were from 2008 to the end of 2012.  These numbers actually overstate E-Verify’s enforcement record because multiple E-Verify queries could be run on the same hire.  The numerator could be a lot smaller than is reported above.    

If a state like Arizona will not enforce E-Verify, what chance is there that the federal government will do it everywhere?  Thankfully, lax enforcement of E-Verify in Arizona is a good indicator that this harmful system will not get the chance to be as destructive as many of us fear if it is ever mandated nationally.      

Book Review: Amanda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World, and How They Got that Way

Update: I respond to feedback on this review from readers wondering why I was so harsh on a book I liked.

In the author’s note to Smartest Kids in the World, Amanda Ripley writes: “I didn’t care deeply about charter schools, vouchers, tenure, or other policy hang-ups…. So, I thought, I’ll just slip out the back door and go investigate this other mystery for a while.” That other mystery was the apparent ability of some countries to educate their children unusually well.

Ripley’s note captures both the book’s strengths and its weaknesses. She is a talented writer with a sense of adventure, and her prose is a pleasure to read. By setting aside the leading education policy questions of our time, she is able to focus on telling the personal stories of children from very different parts of the world, and there is much to be learned from them.

But there is a cost to ignoring virtually all of the evidence on how education policy affects educational outcomes: you’re much less likely to find the needle in the haystack if you decide not to look at the hay. When Ripley concludes that the effect of policy is marginal, the reader can only wonder: how would she know, when she didn’t study the evidence?

Free Speech Week — Monday

Cato has always been a faithful advocate for a robust freedom of speech.  As such, we are proud this week to participate in Free Speech Week, a celebration of the freedom so important they put it first in the Bill of Rights.

As part of this week’s ongoing celebration of free speech, we will be posting highlights from Cato’s recent work to support freedom of speech in its various forms, whether through legal advocacy, media appearances, or other public outreach.

Today’s highlight focuses on an event held here at Cato last week, in which author Jonathan Rauch discussed his recently re-released and expanded book Kindly Inquisitors. In the book, Rauch, an openly-gay advocate for gay marriage, argues that government suppression of discriminatory language and “hate speech” does more harm to gays and minorities than it helps.  Rauch’s book, originally published in 1993, contributes a number of valuable insights to the dialogue on free speech and the consequences of curtailing it to protect certain groups.

Rauch was joined by Greg Lukianoff of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Brian Moulton of the Human Rights Campaign & Cato’s John Samples. Please check out the video below:

For more information on Free Speech Week and to learn how you can help celebrate free speech, check out