Topic: General

Where Are the Conservatives?

When the Education Department was created in 1979, many critics warned that a secretary of education would turn into a national minister of education. Rep. John Erlenborn (R-Ill.), for instance, wrote,

There would be interference in textbook choices, curricula, staffing, salaries, the make-up of student bodies, building designs, and all other irritants that the government has invented to harass the population. These decisions which are now made in the local school or school district will slowly but surely be transferred to Washington.

Dissenting from the committee report that recommended establishing the department, Erlenborn and seven other Republicans wrote, “The Department of Education will end up being the Nation’s super schoolboard. That is something we can all do without.”

That’s why Ronald Reagan promised to abolish Jimmy Carter’s Department of Education in his 1980 campaign. And why House Budget Committee chairman John Kasich put abolition of the department in his budget proposal after the 1994 GOP takeover of Congress.

But things changed. Instead of eliminating or at least reducing federal intervention in local schools, Republicans in 2001 decided to dramatically escalate it with the No Child Left Behind Act. And now Jeb Bush, whom some conservatives call the best governor in the country, writes in the Washington Post (along with Michael Bloomberg) that we should strengthen NCLB. Make it tougher, they write, with real standards and real enforcement. Create data systems to “track” every student. Create federal standards for teachers.

If there’s an earthquake this week, it may be caused by Madison, Taft, Goldwater, and Reagan turning over in their graves. Imagine it: the leading conservative governor in America, considered a pioneer in education reform, wants the distant federal government to come into his state’s schools and impose tougher rules and regulations. And even the Wall Street Journal’s redoubtable editorial page deplores “rampant noncompliance” with federal mandates and “lax enforcement” by Big Brother in Washington.

In its new issue, American Conservative magazines asks two dozen leading intellectuals “What is left? What is right? Does it matter?” Not if leading conservatives have made their peace with federal control of local schools–and are demanding that the feds crack down on the locals.

Another Fiscal Conservative Sighted?

The Associated Press states as fact that Sen. Lincoln “Chafee is a fiscal conservative.” OK, let’s go to the tape.

According to the National Taxpayers Union, Chafee voted to restrain taxes and spending only 33 percent of the time in 2005. He introduced 43 bills to raise spending and only two to cut spending. He voted against Medicaid cuts. He voted not to allow a cap on spending increases. He voted to increase spending on community development block grants, low-income heating assistance, education, and a package of welfare programs.

What is the AP’s definition of a fiscal conservative?

New at Cato Unbound: Mexicans in America

Be sure to check out today’s fresh August issue of Cato Unbound, kicking off with celebrated essayist Richard Rodriguez’s provocative meditation on the place of Mexico and Mexicans in the U.S. economy and consciousness. Here’s a taste:

It is as though America, having benefited from illegal labor, pretends that the transaction was one of middle-class benevolence. Mexicans should be thankful for a month of cheerless eight-hour shifts, standing there waiting for the old lady to get off the commode. The odd thing is that they are thankful!

Read the whole thing, and stay tuned: Mexifornia author Victor Davis Hanson will reply on Wednesday, and it’s not going to be a lovefest.

Another Year Older and Deeper in Debt

Social Security turns 71 today. One can argue about whether or not the program was a good idea in 1935, but there should be no question about its inadequacies today. And its flaws just get worse with each passing year.

Social Security will begin running a deficit in just 11 years. Of course, in theory, the Social Security Trust Fund will pay benefits until 2040. That’s not much comfort to today’s 33-year-olds, who will face an automatic 26 percent cut in benefits unless the program is reformed before they retire. But even that is misleading, because the Trust Fund contains no actual assets. The government bonds it holds are simply a form of IOU, a measure of how much money the government owes the system. It says nothing about where the government will get the money to pay back those IOUs.

Overall, the system’s unfunded liabilities—the amount it has promised more than it can actually pay—now totals $15.3 trillion. Yes, that’s trillion with a “T.” Setting aside some technical changes in how future obligations are calculated, that’s $550 billion worse than last year. In other words, because Congress failed to act last year, our children and grandchildren were handed a bill for another $550 billion.

Moreover, Social Security taxes are already so high, relative to benefits, that Social Security has quite simply become a bad deal for younger workers, providing a low, below-market rate-of-return. In fact, many young workers will end up paying more in taxes than they receive in benefits. They will actually lose money under the program.

But the single most important problem with the current Social Security system is that workers have no ownership of their benefits. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled, in the case of Flemming v. Nestor, that workers have no legally binding contractual or property right to their Social Security benefits, and those benefits can be changed, cut, or even taken away at any time. This means that workers completely dependent on the goodwill of 535 politicians when it comes to what they’ll receive in retirement. And because workers don’t own their benefits, those benefits are not inheritable. This particularly disadvantages those groups in our society with shorter life expectancies, such as African-Americans.

Social Security reform was once a bipartisan issue. Democrats like Senators Bob Kerrey and Daniel Patrick Moynihan were outspoken in warning about the program’s looming insolvency, and in calling for innovative approaches to fixing it. The Democratic Leadership Council and its think tank arm, the Progressive Policy Institute, explored many approaches to reform, including personal accounts. Congressmen like Charlie Stenholm reached across the aisle in search of compromise. Even President Clinton led a national debate to “Save Social Security First.”

But since President Bush called for reforming the nation’s troubled retirement program, congressional Democrats have had only one answer: “No.” No to personal accounts. “No” to changes in benefits. “No” to offering a real reform plan of their own. “No” to any discussion or negotiation.

At the same time, Republicans—apparently terrified of offending AARP and other special interests—have scurried for cover, running from positions they should know are correct. Republicans seem to believe that if the just stick their heads far enough in the sand for long enough, Democrats won’t attack them. The result is a choice between Democratic obstructionism and Republican cowardice.

And we wonder why so many young people are turned off to politics?

Sore Loserman

NPR reporter Luke Burbank, guest-hosting “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me,” mocked Sen. Joe Lieberman’s decision to run for re-election as an independent after losing the Democratic primary. Burbank ridiculed Lieberman, saying that “nothing, not poor poll numbers, not scorn from his party, not losing the damn primary, could stop him from running for Senate … selflessly ignoring the will of the people… . If [the independent campaign] doesn’t work, he’s planning a bloodless coup of the Bridgeport High School PTA.”

OK, that’s a fair point. But I was trying to think of how NPR might have treated other candidates who lost an election and wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. One example was Rep. John B. Anderson (R-Ill.), who ran for the Republican presidential nomination. After losing every primary, he filed to run as an Independent. Nexis doesn’t include any NPR transcripts from 1980, but the general reaction of the mainstream media was to celebrate Anderson’s courage and independence in standing up to the extreme conservative Republican primary voters who gave the nomination to Ronald Reagan. That same year, liberal Republican Sen. Jacob Javits (R-N.Y.) lost his primary to Alfonse D’Amato and went on to run as the Liberal Party nominee. Again, the media reaction was sympathetic.

But then I remembered a more recent example of a political candidate who wouldn’t give up, even after winning the election: Joe Lieberman in 2000, along with running mate Al Gore. So Lieberman may be the first candidate in American history to refuse to accept losing an election twice.

Do they still sell those “Sore Loserman” shirts?

Jefferson-Jackson Day: Laissez Les Bons Temps Rouler

Here’s an idea for the cash-strapped Louisiana Democratic Party: for next year’s Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner, instead of paying big bucks for first-class air travel and hotel rooms for some national party poohbah, why not have the dinner feature Rep. William Jefferson, currently the target of an FBI investigation, and businessman Vernon L. Jackson, who has pleaded guilty to bribing Jefferson?

Federalism, Compulsion, and School Choice

My recent posting criticizing federal school voucher programs has drawn a critique from Robert Teegarden of the Alliance for School Choice. Here is my response: 

I appreciate Robert and the Alliance taking the time to respond to my position on vouchers, tax credits, and the federal government. I’ve long argued that the school choice movement needs the equivalent of the Federalist and Anti-Federalist papers to hash out the best policy solutions, and here we are hashing out the proper federal role in market education reform. Excellent.

The first thing I’d like to do is correct some misapprehensions about my views. I do not think, nor have I ever said, that “tax credits… never have any government regulation,” as Robert claimed. I have shown that current tax credit programs impose less regulation on private school instruction than do current voucher programs, and I have argued that tax credits reduce the incentive for regulatory encroachment over time (see the “Conviction, Compulsion, and Conflict” section of the linked page).

Also, I would like to be clear that my opposition to federal school choice programs is not limited to federal vouchers, but includes federal education tax credits as well. I see federal vouchers as a more serious danger than federal tax credits, but neither is advisable.

The arguments, in both cases, are the same: the risk of destroying the entire U.S. independent education sector due to federal regulatory encroachment is simply too great, and federal intervention violates the 10th Amendment because Congress is granted no powers over education under the Constitution.

Robert’s contention that the 10th Amendment allows for federal vouchers – because ”the people” want vouchers and the Amendment reserves power to “the people” – is not persuasive. The express purpose of the 10th Amendment is to forbid Congress from acting outside its constitutional purview, regardless of what voters may be clamoring for at any given time. If the people want to change the Constitution to allow federal vouchers, there is a provision for that in the amendment process. Unless and until the Constitution is amended, Congress is legally bound by it.

In making the regulatory argument, I referred to “the laboratory of federalism.” It’s not my phrase, though, and I shouldn’t have used it. A better way of expressing the issue is to think of the states as market actors competing for businesses and residents. Under the “marketplace of federalism,” families and businesses seeking high quality education can seek out educationally freer states and flee states that mess up their education systems by excessively regulating the private sector. The federal government, by contrast, is a monopolist. Any regulations imposed by it are imposed equally on all schools in every state.

There is no check or balance to mitigate this threat. Robert called me “prescient” for expressing this concern, but the converse is true: I can’t see the future, but my hindsight is 20-20. Having studied dozens of school systems from ancient times to the present, I have found no system of elementary and secondary education funded by the government that did not eventually fall under the government’s pervasive control. Not one.

Robert points to pre-school and higher-education programs that have escaped such suffocating regulation. These are not germane. Historically, government regulation of the content of schooling has been concentrated most severely on the elementary and secondary levels because this is the period during which minds can most easily be shaped. Too much younger and children cannot grasp intellectual and ideological concepts. Too much older and they begin to have minds of their own. The existence of government-funded college and pre-school programs that have escaped extensive regulation does not alter the fact that such minimally regulated programs have seldom existed and have never survived at the elementary and secondary levels.

Robert ends his commentary with the following hopeful statement: “Money going to students is different from money going for institutions….  And like the famed battles for Troy, the ‘curriculum culture wars’ in America will all but cease, for parents will then actually be able to choose a school consistent with their values.”

His hope is unjustified. As I pointed out in the article to which Robert was responding, the Dutch have had “money going to the student” since 1917. This has not eliminated their culture wars. Some liberal Dutch citizens are uncomfortable funding orthodox Islamic voucher schools, and have made efforts to regulate them out of existence. In the wake of the murder of Theo Van Gogh, several schools, Muslim and non-Muslim, were burned to the ground in eye-for-an-eye arsons. Though Muslim voucher schools still exist, they are being increasingly heavily regulated, whether or not they promulgate extremist or hateful views.

It isn’t hard to see similar fault lines in America. A conservative religious school in Florida (one not participating in any of that state’s voucher programs) expelled a student a year or two ago for learning while gay. The student wasn’t “out,” but a teacher got wind of his sexual orientation, asked him about it, and he was expelled when he answered truthfully.

Does anyone think this expulsion would long stand if the school were cashing government voucher checks? Inevitably, liberal-minded folk would campaign for a law forbidding discrimination on such grounds. And would religious conservatives morally opposed to homosexuality be happy about such a law, or happy to fund schools aimed specifically at gay students? Or would they try to pass their own regulations to entrench their own views?

What voucher advocates have yet to acknowledge is that compelling all taxpayers to support every kind of schooling (a government voucher program) is a recipe for the same set of social conflicts as compelling all taxpayers to support a single kind of schooling (the current monopoly system). The only alternatives that avoid this socially Balkanizing compulsion are complete separation of school and state, and non-refundable education tax credits.

As I explained in my piece on federal vouchers, personal use tax credits involve people spending their own money on themselves – no compulsion involved. And tax credits for donations to private scholarship funds allow the donor to chose the recipient organization, also avoiding compulsion.

Finally, tax credits are indeed viable. Robert claims that the donation tax credit funding stream would prove insufficient. Before the rapid spread of state schooling in the mid-1800s, elementary enrollment and literacy were nearly universal among the free population in both England and the United States. That was in large part due to mutual aid societies and philanthropies. It has, in other words, already been done – and done even without the help of a tax credit program. With a tax credit program that allows taxpayers to redirect their funds to scholarship programs at no cost to themselves, universal access to the education marketplace can be achieved far more easily than it was in the early republic.

Robert’s comment that it is somehow unacceptable for low-income families to rely on the goodwill of others fails to recognize that this is exactly the system we have today. This is a democracy. If there were not overwhelming support for high levels of education spending in this country, we wouldn’t have increased inflation-adjusted per-pupil spending by a factor of 14 over the past eighty years. Americans’ commitment to universal education is undeniable, and does not rest on a gun being pointed at the public’s head.

For a further discussion of these points, please see my piece Forging Consensus, and thanks again for engaging in this important discussion.