Tag: market failure

Let’s Not Lose Sight of a Real Education Market

Over the last few days Jay Greene, the Fordham Institute’s Kathleen Porter-Magee, and several other edu-thinkers have been arguing about whether national curriculum standards would destroy a competitive market in education, and a market that already provides the uniform standards Fordham wants Washington to impose. But let’s be very clear: We haven’t had a real market – a free market – in education for a long time.

Sadly, I’m afraid Jay started this whole mess, though he certainly knows what a free market in education would look like and I don’t think he intended to confuse the issue.  Indeed, he doesn’t use the term “free market,” but mainly writes about the “competitive market between communities.” His argument is that Americans over time picked standardized curricula and schools by moving to districts that provided such things. He is no doubt at least partially right, though the case is hardly open and shut. Indeed, there is strong historical evidence that district consolidation and uniformity was often pushed on small districts from outside, especially in urban areas. It is also quite possible that many people moved to districts with uniform offerings not in search of such offerings, but in search of something else that happened to coincide with them. Most notably, industrialization brought many people to cities in search of employment, and school uniformity often came with that. Finally, the economist whose work inspired Jay’s post notes that while he believes small rural districts died largely due to residents abandoning them, he concedes that there is a “lack of direct evidence connecting rural property values with local decisions about consolidation.”

Those caveats aside, Jay’s point is a still good one that I have made before, most notably when discussing schooling and social cohesion: People will tend to have their children learn many ”common” things because that is the key to personal success. People will learn what they need to in order to work effectively and successfully in society.  Moreover, people will simply tend to gravitate toward things that work.

So the main problem in the Greene-Fordham debate is not that Jay’s points are necessarily wrong, it’s that “competitive market between communities” is too easily misconstrued as “free market,” and it fails to acknowledge the gigantic inefficiencies that come from government monopolies, whether controlled at the district, state, or federal level. Those include the massive, expensive waste that fills the pockets of special interests employed by the system; constant conflict over what the schools will teach; and at-best very ponderous competition – if you want a better school you have to buy a new house – that quashes crucial innovation and specialization. Worse yet, it leads to the following kind of crucial, damaging misunderstanding by Porter-Magee:

For more than a decade we have been conducting a natural experiment where we let market forces drive standards setting at the state level. The result? A swift and sure race to the bottom. A majority of states had failed to set rigorous standards for their students—and had failed to create effective assessments that could be used to track student mastery of that content. In fact, the whole impetus behind the Common Core State Standards Initiative was to address what was essentially a market failure in education.

This is wrong, as they say, on so many levels!

First, we do not have real market forces anywhere at work in the current, NCLB-dominated regime. Using the quick list of market basics that John Merrifield lays out in his Policy Analysis on school choice research, a truly free market needs ”profit, price change, market entry, and product differentiation.” None of these are meaningfully at work in public schooling, with profit-making providers at huge tax-status disadvantages; public schools artificially “free” to customers; high legal barriers to starting new institutions that can meaningfully compete with traditional public schools; and requirements that all public schools teach the same things, at least at the state level. 

Moreover, if you want to talk about competition between states – which is more in line with what Jay was discussing – under NCLB all states have faced the same, overwhelming incentives to establish low standards, weak accountability, or both: If they don’t get their students to something called “proficiency” – which they define – the federal government punishes them! In light of that, of course they have almost all set very low “proficiency” bars. But that is about as far from “a natural experiment where we let market forces drive standards setting” as you can get! Indeed, it is a brilliant example not of market failure, but government failure!

Ultimately, Jay’s point is right: People on their own will tend to select educational options that are unifying, as well as gravitate to what appears to work best, so there is no need for the federal government to impose it. Moreover, as Jay points out, there are huge reasons to avoid federal standardization, including that special interests like teachers unions will likely capture such standards. But that problem has been at work with state and local monopolies, and it, along with myriad other government failures, will not be overcome until we have a real market in education – a free market in education.

Higher Education Subsidies Wasted

A study from the American Institutes of Research finds that federal and state governments have wasted billions of dollars on subsidies for students who didn’t make it past their first year in college. The federal total for first-year college drop outs was $1.5 billion from 2003 to 2008.

Due to data limitations, the figures are only for first year, full-time students at four-year colleges and universities. Community colleges have even higher drop-out rates, and part-time students or students returning to college are more likely to drop out. Therefore, the numbers in the report are “only a fraction of the total costs of first-year attrition the nation and the states face.” Moreover, it doesn’t include the cost for students who drop out some time after their sophomore year.

Federal policymakers from both parties are fond of lavishing subsidies on college students. Proponents argue that without federal subsidies, an insufficient number of future workers will possess the skills necessary to compete in a global economy.

However, a Cato essay on federal higher education subsidies argues that students wishing to attend college already have plenty of incentive to save or borrow from private sources:

Supporters of student aid subsidies argue that higher education is a “public good” that would be underprovided in a free market. However, that is probably not the case. People have a strong incentive to invest in their own education because it will lead to higher earnings. Those with a college degree will earn, on average, 75 percent more during their lifetime than those with just high-school degrees. That is a big incentive for people to save or borrow in private markets to pay for their own college costs. There is no “market failure” here.

In fact, higher education subsidies drive up tuition prices:

It is matter of supply and demand. More and more Americans have sought a college education, which has pushed prices higher. Ordinarily, such upward pressure would be restrained by consumers’ willingness and ability to pay, but as government subsidies have helped absorb tuition increases, the public’s budget constraint has been lifted. Peter Wood, a professor at Boston University noted that federal subsidies “are seen by colleges and universities as money that is there for the taking … tuition is set high enough to capture those funds and whatever else we think can be extracted from parents.”

But isn’t it great that Uncle Sam is helping put more young folks in college? Not necessarily:

Many of those additional students may not have been ready, or suited, for college. As evidenced by the rising shares of college students who require remedial work. Further evidence of the problem is that institutions have lowered their standards to adapt to the rise in second-rate students. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences reported that from the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s, college grade point averages grew steadily but Scholastic Aptitude Test scores declined. The share of entering college students who complete degrees has also fallen over the decades. In addition, while college attendance is up, overall adult literacy has barely budged over the last 15 years.

The essay also notes that college students devote 3.2 hours to education on an average weekday, versus 3.9 hours to “leisure and sports,” and that the six-year graduation rate for bachelor’s students is only about 56 percent, indicating that many students are not very serious about education.

Just as housing subsidies incentivized people to purchase homes that they otherwise shouldn’t have, higher education subsidies have incentivized people to go to college who weren’t ready or suited for it. In both cases, the cost to taxpayers has been substantial while the alleged benefits have proven illusory.

Hot Heads and Government Failure

The left-wing blogosphere and left-leaning newspapers have spent the past few days joyously incensed over the story of a Tennessee city fire department that allowed a home to burn because the homeowner hadn’t paid his annual fire fee.

AlterNet’s Jonathan Holland titled-and-teased his post on the fire:

Ayn Rand Conservatism at Work – Firefighters Let Family’s House Burn Down Because Owner Didn’t Pay $75 Fee

Talk of limited government is appealing until you see what it actually means in practice: a society in which it’s every man for himself.

ThinkProgress’s Zaid Jilani thundered that the fire demonstrates that there are two competing visions of American society:

One, the conservative vision, believes in the on-your-own society, and informs a policy agenda that primarily serves the well off and privileged sectors of the country. The other vision, the progressive one, believes in an American Dream that works for all people, regardless of their racial, religious, or economic background. The conservative vision was on full display last week in Obion County, Tennessee.

(An aside: ThinkProgress loves to throw in partisan barbs, so Jilani claims that “every seat” of the Obion County Commission is “filled by a Republican,” a claim that Holland echoes. Nope. But then, ThinkProgress recently harangued Michael Cannon for an opinion that isn’t his, so ya’ know…)

Finally, today the New York Times editorial page chimes in:

In any case, the founding fathers left no message that government can make an object lesson of a neglectful citizen by letting his house burn down. The [homeowners] deserve an apology, even if it won’t come from the candidates peddling dreams of constricted government.

It’s unfortunate that these writers didn’t pause from their fervor to consider the facts. In a nutshell: The firefighters involved were from a city government fire department following a city government policy concerning people who didn’t pay a city government fee for a 20-year-old city government program that was adopted in response to a county government decision.

John Galt in Nomex this ain’t.

Beyond the facts, these writers are confused about basic political theory.

All three writers argue that fire service is a public good that shouldn’t be left to private action. “Public good” is a technical term referring to a type of market failure in which (to over-simplify) it would be easy for some people to benefit from a good without paying their fair share for it. As a result, public goods are at risk of being under-provided because of all the free-riding. The classic (though flawed) example of a public good is a lighthouse: a ship can benefit from the safety of its beacon without contributing to the lighthouse’s construction and upkeep.

But it’s unclear how the Obion County fire would be an example of a public goods failure – obviously a homeowner who fails to contribute to fire service can be excluded from receiving the service. A better example in support of the public goods argument might be that fire service is publicly provided so as to protect the neighbors of a house that’s on fire – though again, if you read the details of the Obion County fire, you find that it provides an example that such neighbors can be protected.

Indeed, the Obion County fire seems a clear example of government failure, not market failure. Because city government provides the service (albeit through a voluntary fee system for people like the affected owner who live outside the city lines), people likely consider it a subsidized public service. As a result, there is strong disincentive for any private firm to enter the market and offer competing service. It’s not difficult to imagine what a private fire service would do in an event like the Obion fire: it likely would extinguish the blaze and then send the homeowner a bill. There are plenty of examples of this sort of practice in private marketplaces. And it’s what the government fire company in Obion should have done. Instead, the firefighters stood by and watched the house burn.

One can’t blame the NYT editorial page, ThinkProgress, and AlterNet for trying to spin an example of government failure into a tale of the horrors of limited government. Just a few weeks out from a national election in which progressive candidates appear poised for a major waxing, the last thing the progressive side needs is a heartrending example of government failure. And yet, the Obion County fire is an example of why that waxing is sorely needed — and justified.

The Myth of ‘Market Failure’ in Health Care

One argument in favor of a government overhaul of the health care system is that the free market had its chance, and failed when it comes to providing the best possible care.  But as David Goldhill discovered while researching for the September cover article in The Atlantic, the United States has anything but a free-market health care system.

He explains his findings below:

For real market-based reform, see Cato’s new Policy Analysis, “Yes, Mr. President: A Free Market Can Fix Health Care.