Topic: General

Mr. President, Don’t Scapegoat Private Schools

It is not often I get a chance to latch on to someone as high profile as the President of the United States saying that public schools “draw us together.” But in his appearance at Georgetown University a couple of days ago, President Obama blamed, among other things, people sending their children to private schools for breaking down social cohesion and reducing opportunities for other children.

First, let’s get our facts straight: Private schools are not the main way better-off people, or people with high social capital, isolate themselves from poor families. Only 9 percent of school children attend private schools, and as Matt Ladner points out in a great response to the President, that percentage has been dropping over the years. No, the main way the better-off congregate amongst themselves is buying houses in nice places, which translates into access to good school districts. Even the large majority of the mega-rich appear to send their children to public schools, but rather than paying school tuition, their tuition is the far-steeper, far more exclusive price of a house. And let’s not pretend – as the President hinted – that we’ve seen anything close to long-term decreased funding for public schools. Even with a slight dip during the Great Recession, inflation-adjusted, per-pupil spending in public schools has well more than doubled since 1970.

On the deeper point, do we really know that public schools “draw us together,” and more importantly, do so better than private schooling? No, we don’t. That’s the accepted wisdom, but basic history doesn’t necessarily bear it out. Roman Catholics ended up starting their own school system – which at its peak in 1965 enrolled about 12 percent of all students – because the de facto Protestant public schools could not accommodate them. African-Americans, of course, were long legally excluded from public schools, especially white public schools. Similar situations existed for Asians and Mexican-Americans in some parts of the country. And, of course, public schools reflected the communities they served, which were often small and homogeneous. Finally, public schooling forces diverse people into a single system, which has led to seemingly incessant, cohesion-tearing clashes over values, personal identities, and much more.

Reich Is Wrong on the Minimum Wage

Watching Robert Reich’s new video in which he endorses raising the minimum wage by $7.75 per hour – to $15 per hour – is painful.  It hurts to encounter such rapid-fire economic ignorance, even if the barrage lasts for only two minutes. 

Perhaps the most remarkable flaw in this video is Reich’s manner of addressing the bedrock economic objection to the minimum wage – namely, that minimum wage prices some low-skilled workers out of jobs.  Ignoring supply-and-demand analysis (which depicts the correct common-sense understanding that the higher the minimum wage, the lower is the quantity of unskilled workers that firms can profitably employ), Reich asserts that a higher minimum wage enables workers to spend more money on consumer goods which, in turn, prompts employers to hire more workers.  Reich apparently believes that his ability to describe and draw such a “virtuous circle” of increased spending and hiring is reason enough to dismiss the concerns of “scare-mongers” (his term) who worry that raising the price of unskilled labor makes such labor less attractive to employers. 

Ignore (as Reich does) that any additional amounts paid in total to workers mean lower profits for firms or higher prices paid by consumers – and, thus, less spending elsewhere in the economy by people other than the higher-paid workers.

Ignore (as Reich does) the extraordinarily low probability that workers who are paid a higher minimum wage will spend all of their additional earnings on goods and services produced by minimum-wage workers. 

Understanding the World’s Energy Needs

A new documentary by Cato Senior Fellow Johan Norberg, shown recently on PBS stations nationwide, is a non-political look at the reality of the world’s energy problems. “Energy questions are complicated, and there are always trade-offs,” Norberg notes.    While bringing electricity to many remote villages in India and the Sahara causes an increase in carbon emissions, it also allows families to have refrigeration for their food, electricity to light their homes and the time to develop their lives beyond working just to sustain themselves every day.   “Don’t they deserve the same kinds of life changing benefits that power has brought the west?” Norberg asks.

This program explains how ALL sources of energy have their attributes and drawbacks.   It will take large amounts of low-cost power to fuel economic development in the third world, while also keeping up with growth in the developed world.  There is no “perfect” source to meet these needs:  Coal and oil make up a third of the current world energy supply, so while the infrastructure is in place and works fairly inexpensively, these fossil fuels are consistently tagged as “dirty.”  Natural gas is abundant and clean, and cheap and easy to use, but the means of getting to it (fracking) is controversial.  Nuclear energy power is one of the only large-scale alternatives to fossil fuels, but nuclear accidents like Chernobyl and Three Mile Island have made the public wary.  Hydro power is clean and fairly cheap, but dams have been targeted by environmentalist for harming fish populations. And, Norberg notes, most good sources of hydropower are already being utilized to their full capacity, leaving little chance to expand this resource.  Solar power is clean and abundant, but it doesn’t work when the sun doesn’t shine, and the infrastructure to capture it is expensive.  Wind supplies only one percent of energy globally because while it’s clean, it’s intermittent and doesn’t always come at the right velocity.

Norberg doesn’t make judgements, for the most part…except to say that top-down, government imposed “solutions” to the world’s energy problems have not worked yet, and are highly unlikely to suddenly start working. 

This is an excellent program for people who really want to understand the basics of world energy needs.  Watch it at Cato’s site here, and read more about the Free to Choose network here.

Sinking the Lusitania: Lying America into War, Again

The British luxury passenger liner RMS Lusitania was torpedoed a century ago. The sinking was deemed an atrocity of war and encouraged American intervention in World War I.

But the ship was carrying munitions through a war zone and left unprotected by the Royal Navy. The “Great War” was a thoroughly modern conflict, enshrouded in government lies. We see similar deceptions today.

World War I was a mindless imperial slugfest triggered by an act of state terrorism by Serbian authorities. Contending alliances acted as transmission belts of war. Nearly 20 million died in the resulting military avalanche.

America’s Woodrow Wilson initially declared neutrality, though he in fact leaned sharply toward the motley “Entente.” The German-led Central Powers were no prize. However, the British grouping included a terrorist state, an anti-Semitic despotism, a ruthless imperial power, and a militaristic colonial republic.

Britain was the best of a bad lot, but it ruled much of the globe without the consent of those “governed.” This clash of empires was no “war for democracy” as often characterized.

The Death (and Rebirth?) of Peer Review

Here’s a headline from today’s Washington Post: “Sexism in science: Peer editor tells female researchers their study needs a male author.” Peer review is the usually-anonymous process by which articles submitted to academic journals are reviewed for quality and relevance to determine whether or not they will be published. Over the past several years, numerous scandals have emerged, made possible by the anonymity at the heart of that process.

The justification for anonymity is that it is supposed to allow reviewers to write more freely than if they were forced to place their names on their reviews. But scientists are increasingly admitting, and the public is increasingly noticing, that the process is… imperfect. As the Guardian newspaper wrote last summer about a leading journal, Nature:

Nature […] has had to retract two papers it published in January after mistakes were spotted in the figures, some of the methods descriptions were found to be plagiarised and early attempts to replicate the work failed. This is the second time in recent weeks that the God-like omniscience that non-scientists often attribute to scientific journals was found to be exaggerated.

In the 1990s I sat on the peer review board of an academic journal and over the years I have occasionally submitted to and been published by such journals. Peer reviews vary wildly in depth and quality. Some reviewers appear to have only skimmed the submitted paper, while others have clearly read it carefully. Some reviewers understand the submissions fully, others don’t. Some double-check numbers and sources. Others don’t. It’s plausible that this variability (particularly on the weak end) is a side-effect of reviwers’ anonymity. I have seen terse, badly-argued reviews to which I doubt the reviewer would have voluntarily attached his or her name. Personally, I try never to write anything as a peer reviewer which I would not happily sign.

Henry Butler: George Mason Law School’s New Dean

Our friends over at the George Mason University Law School have a new dean this morning—and he’s one of their own, Henry Butler, Foundation Professor of Law at George Mason and Executive Director of the law school’s Law & Economics Center. Late last evening, George Mason Provost and Executive Vice President S. David Wu sent out a notice of the appointment to a wide circle of the law school’s friends.

Over the years, Henry has contributed more than once to Cato’s work.  And in 2009 we filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court on behalf of Henry and the late Professor Larry Ribstein, challenging, among other things, the method through which members of the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board were removed under the 2002 Sarbanes–Oxley Act. In 2010, citing a violation of the separation of powers, the Court would find that method unconstitutional.

Following in the footsteps of Dean Daniel Polsby—and especially, before that, of his mentor, the late Henry Manne—“Henry II” has a great foundation on which to build. The first Henry brought the law school into national prominence. Dean Polsby secured that accomplishment by adding stellar members to an already impressive faculty, many of whom we have worked with and published. With Dean Butler now at the helm, we look forward to more such cooperation in the future. Congratulations Henry.

Americans Should Not Wait for Politicians to Help Syrian War Victims

KUWAIT CITY, KUWAIT—Seventy-eight nations plus 40 non-governmental organizations recently gathered to raise money for the relief of Syrian refugees. Kuwait’s Emir opened the Third International Humanitarian Pledging Conference for Syria with a plea for funds.

The small Gulf nation has carved out an international humanitarian role. “This is our baby,” one Kuwaiti official told me.

Kuwait opened the proceedings with a promise of $500 million, matching last year’s donation. The U.S. won the number one position with an offer $507 million, but many participants offered little more than good will. Overall the conference generated $3.8 billion of the $8.4 billion which aid agencies were seeking.

Antonio Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, warned that “We are at a dangerous tipping point.” The vulnerability of those caught in the conflict’s crossfire was highlighted by the Islamic State’s advance to the Yarmouk camp for Palestinian refugees on the outskirts of Damascus.

Alas, virtually no one in Syria has escaped the impact of four years of civil war. More than 200,000 Syrians are thought to have died; another million have been injured. The economy has imploded. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon added: “Four out of five Syrians live in poverty, misery and deprivation.”

Some 12.2 million people, more than half of the population, are estimated to need humanitarian assistance. A similar number have been displaced—between 6.5 million and 7.8 million within Syria and three to four million on to neighboring states.

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