Tag: united states

How Sweden Profits from For-Profit Schools

The brass ring of education reform is to find a way to ensure that the best schools routinely scale-up to serve large audiences, crowding out the mediocre and bad ones. Over the past twenty years, the United States and Sweden have taken two very different approaches to achieving that goal, which I wrote about in a recent op-ed.

In the U.S., our main strategy has been for philanthropists to fund the replication of what they deem to be the academically highest-performing networks of charter schools. In a recent statistical analysis of California, the state with the most charter schools, I discovered that this is not working out particularly well for us. There is no correlation between charter school networks’ academic performance and the philanthropic funding they’ve raised. And, at any rate, charter schools still enroll less than 3 percent of the nation’s students.

In 1992, Sweden introduced a nation-wide public and private school choice program. Private schools went from enrolling virtually no one to enrolling about 11 percent of the entire student population–a figure that continues to grow with each passing year. Moreover, recent research finds that these new private schools outperform the public schools. And which private schools are growing the fastest? The chains of for-profit schools that are in greatest demand, and that have an incentive to respond to that demand by opening new locations. The popular non-profit private schools tend not to expand much over time.

Given that Sweden is universally regarded as a liberal nation, and the U.S. is seen as a bastion of capitalism, one wonders why they got to the brass ring first, and why it is taking us so very long to get there now that they’ve shown us the way.

The Legitimacy of the Libyan War

President Obama’s speech last evening offers a chance to assess the implications of the war in Libya.

President Obama is not the first president to order attacks on another nation without the authorization of Congress.  This case, however, seems different. Prior to the intervention, the President’s national security advisors had determined that the nation had no vital interest at stake in the Libyan civil war. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has repeated that conclusion after the intervention began. For his part, President Obama emphasized in last night’s speech and before, that the war would preclude a “humanitarian catastrophe.” Why did that rationale win out over the realism of his advisors?

President Obama tends to see our nation and the world as divided between oppressors (victimizers) and the oppressed (victims).  In this view, politics should help the oppressed and do justice (i.e. harm) to the oppressor.  In Libya, this outlook provides a clear division between a oppressor (Qaddafi and his loyalists) and his victims (the rebels). Morality thus demands war against the oppressor on behalf of his victims.

But there is a problem with America acting alone. Many people in the Middle East and elsewhere see the United States not as a vindicator of the oppressed but rather as a oppressor.  Truth be told, more than few Americans share that view.

Those who share this view believe that the United States cannot act unilaterally to help the victims in Libya. This would be true even if Congress authorizes the war as required under Article I of the United States Constitution.  The authorization to go to war must come from someone else other than an American political official or institution.

Hence, President Obama sought international authorization for the war in Libya. True, he sought that authority for pragmatic reasons. A coalition meant shared burdens and (Obama believes) a quick way out of Libya. But the authorizations by the U.N. Security Council and earlier by the Arab League also could be seen as giving legitimacy to the enterprise. Those authorizations meant the United States could go to Libya as a true protector of the oppressed.

If you doubt any of this, examine closely what the President has said about the war. In his speech, the rebels become victims at the mercy of an oppressor. Congress gets a fleeting mention related to consultation about, rather than authorization of, war. True legitimacy for the war comes from a “U.N. mandate and international support.” In his letter to Congress announcing the war, the first sentence reads “at my direction, U.S. military forces commenced operations to assist an international effort authorized by the United Nations (U.N.) Security Council and undertaken with the support of European allies and Arab partners, to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe…” Here again the legitimacy for the war comes the United Nations, the European allies, and the Arab League. Congress has neither power to deny the president nor legitimacy to bestow on his work.

There is much to say about these reasons for war. Some people might see in Libya a civil war between two armed gangs. Lacking the frame of oppressor and victims, they will be less willing than the President to assume that the people in the territory called Libya wear either black or white hats. We may learn to our cost that our new allies are victims now and oppressors later.  If we take the President seriously, we will be obligated to make war against them, too.

We have now taken on a default obligation to help every victim and to punish every oppressor throughout the world. We have two constraints on fulfilling that obligation. The first, mentioned by the president, is costs. Eventually the financial markets may limit our efforts on behalf of victims. Second, and more important legally, a president must seek authorization for war from the United Nations, the European union, the Arab League or….well, anyone except the United States Congress.

It is not just that this president, like others before him, ignored Article I of the Constitution. Nor is this president the first to shun moral complexity in favor of a Manichean outlook. President Obama is the first, however, to assert that his broad powers to initiate war should be limited primarily by people who are outside the American social compact.  On this account, sotto voce, the Constitution is not just ignored. It is irrelevant.

Another Dubious Record in Mexico’s Drug War

Mexico ends 2010 with 15,000 illicit drug-related murders for the year—a record for the Calderon administration that began its term four years ago by declaring an all-out war on drug trafficking. Drug war violence skyrocketed since Calderon took office, claiming more than 30,000 lives. Though it is an unwinnable war whose consequences also include the rise of corruption and the weakening of the institutions of civil society, it is being used by drug warriors and skeptics alike to push for pet projects ranging from increased development aid to more military cooperation.

A recent example comes from the Washington Post this week. It editorialized in favor of an Obama administration plan to stem the flow of arms to Mexico, and it ran a story the same day citing the claim that 90 percent of guns in Mexico’s drug war come from the United States (though the Post also noted that the Mexican and U.S. governments refuse to release the results of their weapons traces). My colleague David Rittgers notes here that the proposed gun regulation is unlawful and here he has explained that a more realistic figure for guns of U.S. provenance is about 17 percent. In a Cato bulletin earlier this year, former Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castañeda calculated a similar figure and explained why attempts at controlling the trade in U.S. arms are a waste of time:

In fact, we only know with certainty that about 18 percent of guns come from the United States, according to Mexican and U.S. sources. The rest is surely coming from Central America, countries of the former Soviet Union, and beyond. And as countries as diverse as Brazil, Paraguay, Somalia, and Sudan attest — all countries with a higher arms per capita than Mexico — you don’t need a border with the United States to gain easy access to guns. Nevertheless, the possibilities of really limiting the sales of weapons in the United States is not imminent, to put it mildly. Moreover, asking the United States to stop arms trafficking from north to south is like asking Mexico to control its border from south to north, whether it is for drugs, people, or anything else. It’s not going to happen.

Will the Deficit Compel Congress to Cut Military Spending?

Over at National Journal’s National Security Experts blog, Megan Scully notes the military spending cuts contained within a proposal by Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, the co-chairs of the president’s deficit reduction commission. Scully asks: “How feasible would it be for lawmakers to make these kinds of cuts to defense?…What kind of sway will fiscal hawks have in the next Congress - and will it be enough to push through sweeping defense cuts over the objections from pro-defense members of their party?”

Government spending across the board must be cut, I explain, beginning especially with entitlements.  I continue:

Other spending must also be on the table, however, and that includes the roughly 23 percent of the federal budget that goes to the military. This often poses a particular challenge for Republicans given their traditional support for military spending and their professed commitment to fiscal discipline. But it need not be particularly difficult. If Republicans reaffirm that the core function of government, many would say one of the only core functions of government, is defense (strictly speaking), then the path to a politically sustainable and economically sound defense posture is clear: a military geared to defending the United States and its vital national interests, and not permanently deployed as the world’s policeman and armed social worker. Such a posture would allow for a smaller Army and Marine Corps as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are drawn to a close (as they should be), deep cuts in the Pentagon’s civilian work force, which has grown dramatically over the past 10 years, and sensible reductions in the nuclear arsenal. More modest cuts are warranted in intelligence and R&D. Finally, significant changes in a number of costly and unnecessary weapons and platforms, including terminating the V-22 Osprey and the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, and greater scrutiny of the F-35 program, for example, must also be in the mix….

Serious cuts to military spending… must be part of a broader strategic reset that ends the free-riding of wealthy and stable allies around the world, and that takes a more balanced and objective view of our relative strategic advantages and our enviable security.

 You can read the rest of my response here.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Chinese Economic Tiger

The news that China has surpassed Japan as the world’s second-largest economy has generated a lot of attention. It shouldn’t. There are roughly 10 times as many people in China as there are in Japan, so the fact that total gross domestic product in China is now bigger than total gross domestic product in Japan is hardly a sign of Chinese economic supremacy.

Yes, China has been growing in recent decades, but it’s almost impossible not to grow when you start at the bottom — which is where China was in the late 1970s thanks to decades of communist oppression and mismanagement. And the growth they have experienced certainly has not been enough to overtake other nations based on measures that compare living standards. According to the World Bank, per-capita GDP (adjusted for purchasing power parity) was $6,710 for China in 2009, compared to $33,280 for Japan (and $46,730 for the U.S.). If I got to choose where to be a middle-class person, China certainly wouldn’t be my first pick.

This is not to sneer at the positive changes in China. Hundreds of millions of people have experienced big increases in living standards. Better to have $6,710 of per-capita GDP than $3,710. But China still has a long way to go if the goal is a vibrant and rich free-market economy. The country’s nominal communist leadership has allowed economic liberalization, but China is still an economically repressed nation. Scores have improved, but the Economic Freedom of the World report ranks China 82 out of 141 nations, just one spot above Russia, and the Index of Economic Freedom has an even lower score, 140 out of 179 nations.

Hopefully, China will continue to move in the right direction. That would be good for the Chinese people. And since rich neighbors are better than poor neighbors, it also would be good for America.

Grasping for Rationales, Feeding Conspiracy Theories

On June 13, the New York Times reported that America “just discovered” a trillion dollars worth of mineral resources in Afghanistan (HT to Katie Drummond over at Danger Room for offering some enlightened skepticism on the topic).

Of course, the U.S. Geological Survey has known about Afghanistan’s “large quantities of iron and copper” since 2007. The Los Angeles Times reported that geologist Bonita Chamberlain, who has spent 25 years working in Afghanistan, “identified 91 minerals, metals and gems at 1,407 potential mining sites” as far back as 2001. Chamberlain was even contacted by the Pentagon to write a report on the subject just weeks after 9/11 (possibly to expound upon the findings of her co-authored book, “Gemstones in Afghanistan,” published in 1996.)

Given the recent failure of Marjah, which Gen. McChrystal recently called “a bleeding ulcer,” this new “discovery” could offer Western leaders a new way to convince their war-weary publics that Afghanistan is worth the fight. Government officials are already touting this new “discovery” as yet another “decisive moment” or “corner turned” in the Afghan campaign.

In the NYT article, head of Central Command, Gen. David Petraeus, said, “There is stunning potential here. There are a lot of ifs, of course, but I think potentially it is hugely significant.”

Afghanistan epitomizes the fate of countries too dependent on foreign patronage, which over time has weakened its security by undermining their leaders’ allegiance to the state. In the long run, $1 trillion worth of mineral deposits could eventually help Afghanistan stand on its own two feet. However, two problems emerge. First, there is little assurance that revenue from mineral resources (which will take years of capital investment to extract) will actually reach the Afghan people and not be siphoned off by Karzai and his corrupt cronies–like much of the international community’s investment does now.

Second, in the short-term, this discovery may feed conspiracy theories that already exist in the region. Though unwise to generalize personal meetings to an entire population, some conspiracy theories that I heard while I was recently in Afghanistan should give U.S. officials pause before announcing that America can help extract the country’s mineral deposits. Some of the wildest conspiracy theories I heard were that the United States wants to occupy Afghanistan in order to take its resources; the Taliban is the United States; the United States is using helicopters to ferry Taliban around northern Afghanistan (courtesy of Afghan President Hamid Karzai); America is at war in order to weaken Islam; and the list goes on.

This “discovery” may force more people in the region to ask: what are America’s real reasons for building permanent bases in Central Asia?

This piece originally appeared on the Huffington Post on June 15, 2010.

The Welfare State, Taken to Its Logical Conclusion

The economic tragedy unfolding in Greece is the welfare state taken to its logical conclusion.  When groups of people use the state to live at the expense of others, the feedback loop about the costs of those transfers is attenuated – often by design.  The welfare state therefore makes commitments that it cannot honor.  By the time creditors or taxpayers say, “Enough,” the welfare state has created a clash between expectations and means that leads to unrest and hardship – a clash that never had to occur.

Reuters reports that this tragedy is playing itself out in Canada, where the Medicare system is straining the budgets of taxpayers and provincial governments – even as Canada remains infamous for providing inadequate access to care.  According to Reuters, the provincial government in populous Ontario predicts that “health care could eat up 70 percent of its budget in 12 years, if all these costs are left unchecked.”  Toronto-Dominion Bank senior economist at Derek Burleton remarks:

There’s got to be some change to the status quo…We can’t continually see health spending growing above and beyond the growth rate in the economy because, at some point, it means crowding out of all the other government services.  At some stage we’re going to hit a breaking point.

The provinces are contemplating measures that would further reduce access, such as ratcheting government price controls downward, “health taxes” on medical services, and (gasp!) charging patients. (Speaking of feedback loops, an economist at Scotia Capital reasons that patients “will use the services more wisely if they know how much it’s costing…If it’s absolutely free with no information on the cost and the information of an alternative that would be have been more practical, then how can we expect the public to wisely use the service?”)

The Greek and Canadian dramas are a preview of what the welfare state, aided by its most recent expansion, will provoke here in the United States.  Again, Reuters:

Canada, fretting over budget strains, wants to prune its system, while the United States, worrying about an army of uninsured, aims to create a state-backed safety net.

Burleton captures the problem nicely:

[F]rom an economist’s standpoint, we point to the fact that sometimes Canadians in the short term may not realize the cost.

Indeed, that’s the very essence of the welfare state, and why its logical outcome is crisis.