Topic: Government and Politics

Early Childhood Summit Don’t Lie?

When I first heard about the White House Summit on Early Education being held today, I worried. “I sure hope this isn’t going to be a PR stunt to cheerlead for government pre-kindergarten programs,” I thought. Then I got the announcement: U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will be having a Twitter chat with pop sensation Shakira in conjunction with the summit! “Oh, I was just being silly,” I said to myself, relieved that this would be a sober, objective discussion about what we do – and do not – know about the effectiveness of pre-K programs.

Okay, that’s not actually what happened. In fairness to Shakira, she does appear to have a very serious interest in children’s well-being. Unfortunately, the White House does not appear to want to have an objective discussion of early childhood education.

Just look at this, from the official White House blog:

For every dollar we invest in early childhood education, we see a rate of return of $7 or more through a reduced need for spending on other services, such as remedial education, grade repetition, and special education, as well as increased productivity and earnings for these kids as adults.

Early education is one of the best investments our country can make. Participation in high-quality early learning programs—like Head Start, public and private pre-K, and childcare—provide children from all backgrounds with a strong start and a solid foundation for success in school.

Let me count the ways that this is deceptive, or just plain wrong, as largely documented in David Armor’s recent Policy Analysis The Evidence on Universal Preschool:

  • The 7-to-1 ROI figure – for which the White House cites no source – almost certainly comes from work done by James Heckman looking at the rate of return for the Perry Preschool program. It may well be accurate, but Perry was a microscopic, hyperintensive program from the 1960s that cannot be generalized to any modern, large-scale program.
  • If you look at the longitudinal, “gold-standard” research results for Head Start, you see that the modest advantages accrued early on essentially disappear by first grade…as if Head Start never happened. And federal studies released by the Obama administration are what report this.
  • It stretches credulity to call Head Start “high quality,” not just based on its results, but on its long history of waste and paralysis. Throughout the 2000s the federal Government Accountability Office and general media reported on huge waste and failure in the program.
  • Most evaluations of state-level pre-K programs do not randomly assign children to pre-K and compare outcomes with those not chosen, the “gold standard” mentioned above. Instead they often use “regression discontinuity design” which suffers from several shortcomings, arguably the biggest of which is that you can’t do longitudinal comparisons. In other words, you can’t detect the “fade out” that seems to plague early childhood education programs and render them essentially worthless. One large-scale state program that was evaluated using random-assignment – Tennessee’s – appears to be ineffective.
  • The White House says early childhood programs can help “children from all backgrounds.” Not only is that not true if benefits fade to nothing, but a federal, random-assignment evaluation of the Early Head Start program found that it had negative effects on the most at-risk children.

I suspect the vast majority of people behind expanding preschool are well intentioned, and I encourage them to leverage as much private and philanthropic funding as they can to explore different approaches to pre-K and see what might work. But a splashy event intended to proclaim something is true for which we just don’t have good evidence doesn’t help anyone.

Let’s not mislead taxpayers…or kids.

Debunking the Debunking of Dynamic Scoring and the Laffer Curve

Many statists are worried that Republicans may install new leadership at the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) and Congressional Budget Office (CBO).

This is a big issue because these two score-keeping bureaucracies on Capitol Hill tilt to the left and have a lot of power over fiscal policy.

The JCT produces revenue estimates for tax bills, yet all their numbers are based on the naive assumption that tax policy generally has no impact on overall economic performance. Meanwhile, CBO produces both estimates for spending bills and also fiscal commentary and analysis, much of it based on the Keynesian assumption that government spending boosts economic growth.

I personally have doubts whether congressional Republicans are smart enough to make wise personnel choices, but I hope I’m wrong.

Matt Yglesias of Vox also seems pessimistic, but for the opposite reason.

He has a column criticizing Republicans for wanting to push their policies by using “magic math” and he specifically seeks to debunk the notion - sometimes referred to as dynamic scoring or the Laffer Curve - that changes in tax policy may lead to changes in economic performance that affect economic performance.

He asks nine questions and then provides his version of the right answers. Let’s analyze those answers and see which of his points have merit and which ones fall flat.

But even before we get to his first question, I can’t resist pointing out that he calls dynamic scoring “an accounting gimmick from the 1970s” in his introduction. That is somewhat odd since the JCT and CBO were both completely controlled by Democrats at the time and there was zero effort to do anything other than static scoring.

I suppose Yglesias actually means that dynamic scoring first became an issue in the 1970s as Ronald Reagan (along with Jack Kemp and a few other lawmakers) began to argue that lower marginal tax rates would generate some revenue feedback because of improved incentives to work, save, and invest.

Now let’s look at his nine questions and see if we can debunk his debunking:

Myanmar Reforms Slip Into Reverse: How to Save Burma’s Democracy

WALLAY, BURMA—When foreign dignitaries visit Myanmar, still known as Burma in much of the West, they don’t walk the rural hills over which the central government and ethnic groups such as the Karen fought for; for decades. Like isolated Wallay village.

Wallay gets none of the attention of bustling Rangoon or the empty capital of Naypyitaw. Yet the fact that I could visit without risking being shot may be the most important evidence of change in Burma. For three years the Burmese army and Karen National Liberation Army have observed a ceasefire. For the first time in decades Karen children are growing up with the hope of a peaceful future.

The global face of what Burma could become remains Aung Sang Suu Kyi, the heroic Nobel Laureate who won the last truly free election in 1990—which was promptly voided by the military junta. The fact that she is free after years of house arrest demonstrates the country’s progress. The fact that she is barred from running for president next year, a race she almost certainly would win, illustrates the challenges remaining for Burma’s transformation.

The British colony gained its independence after World War II. The country’s short-lived democracy was terminated by General Ne Win in 1962. The paranoid junta relentlessly waged war on the Burmese people.

Then the military made a dramatic U-turn, four years ago publicly stepping back from power. Political prisoners were released, media restrictions were relaxed, and Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, was allowed to register.

The U.S. and Europe lifted economic sanctions and exchanged official visits. Unfortunately, however, in recent months the reform process appears to have gone into neutral, if not reverse.

While most of the military battles in the east are over, occasional clashes still occur. None of the 14 ceasefires so far reached has been converted into a permanent peace. While investment is sprouting in some rebel-held areas, most communities, like Wallay, are waiting for certain peace and sustained progress.

Of equal concern, Rakhine State has been torn by sectarian violence, exacerbated by the security forces. At least 200 Muslims Rohingyas have been killed and perhaps 140,000 mostly Rohingyas displaced.

Political reform also remains incomplete. Particularly serious has been the reversal of media freedom and imprisonment of journalists. Khin Ohmar, with Burma Partnership, a civil society network, cited “surveillance, scrutiny, threats and intimidation.”

Reviving Federalism Is a Winning Issue

In his new book, Saving Congress from Itself, James Buckley argues that Congress should abolish the entire federal aid-to-state system to save money and improve American governance. A recent Cato study shows that there is substantial public support for reforms in that direction.

In “Public Attitudes toward Federalism,” John Samples and Emily Ekins review decades of polling data to discern views on federal policymaking vs. state/local policymaking. They find strong support for state/local primacy in many policy areas, including education, housing, transportation, welfare, and health care.

The authors find that Americans have become more strongly in favor of state/local control—as opposed to federal control—since the 1970s. For example, when asked whether “major decisions” about housing policy ought to be made at the federal level or state/local level, just 18 percent favor federal today compared to 28 percent four decades ago.

The political opening here is obvious: reformers on Capitol Hill should push to reduce the federal role—by cutting spending and regulations—in those areas where the public has a clear preference for state/local primacy. From constitutional and good governance perspectives, many federal agencies and programs ought to be eliminated, but the Samples/Ekins study indicates areas that reformers should target first.

Why is reviving federalism a politically appealing reform? Because the public has a much more favorable view of state/local governments than the federal government. Samples and Ekins find that 58 percent of people have a favorable view of local government, compared to just 32 percent for the federal government. Asked which level of government provides the most value for their tax dollars, 33 percent said the federal government and 67 percent said state/local governments. Asked whether government provides “competent service,” 31 percent agreed with regard to the federal government and 48 percent agreed with regard to local governments. On average, Americans believe that the federal government wastes 60 cents out of every dollar it spends.

The Samples/Ekins results show that self-identified Republicans have a stronger belief in decentralized policymaking than do Democrats. So reviving federalism is a ripe opportunity for the incoming Republican majorities in Congress.

***

George Will reviews Buckley’s book today in the Washington Post, and you can read more about federalism here.

The War Between Disparate Impact and Equal Protection Continues

For decades, courts have been struggling to reconcile two conflicting theories of what constitutes unlawful discrimination. The first theory, often called “disparate treatment,” reflects the commonly understood meaning of “discrimination.” Under this theory, a government action discriminates—violates the principle of equal protection or equality under the law—if it explicitly or implicitly treats members of one race or other special group differently from others. Examples of disparate treatment include Jim Crow’s black codes, university admission caps and quotas, and policies excluding women from certain positions.

The second theory, known as “disparate impact,” argues that the definition of discrimination should be much broader and include laws and policies that, while neutral in their application and operation, disproportionately harm members of a specific group. An example of a rule that would be considered discriminatory under this theory, but not under disparate treatment, would be a requirement that all soldiers in a particular unit be over six feet tall—because, as a statistical matter, far fewer women would be eligible than men. In several other cases, Cato has argued that allowing disparate impact theory claims against government bodies is problematic because the only way a government can assure that a rule doesn’t accidentally produce statistically unequal outcomes is to engage in intentionally discriminatory policies—like quotas—that can ensure a specific outcome.

Here is the case that proves this point: Buffalo makes promotions within its fire department on the basis of both merit and seniority. Firefighters who wish to be considered for advancement have to pass a set of exams. Those who are successful are placed on a list of candidates eligible for promotion within a set time period. If a candidate isn’t promoted within that period, however, the promotion qualification expires and he’s forced to re-take the exams.

During one administration of the exam, the only successful candidates were white. Because that was statistically unlikely given the racial makeup of the department, the city feared that if it promoted the successful candidates, it would be sued for having a policy that had a disparate impact on non-white firefighters. Its solution was to make a racially based decision not to promote any of the qualified candidates, allowing their promotion-list placements to expire.

In a litigation battle that has progressed in fits and starts over many years, Cato has now joined the Pacific Legal Foundation and other concerned groups on a brief reminding the New York Court of Appeals (that state’s highest court) that allowing government to engage in disparate treatment to avoid accusations of disparate impact simply trades one form of discrimination for another. And, as Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for a Supreme Court plurality back in 2007, the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.

The New York Court of Appeals will hear argument in the case of Margerum v. City of Buffalo on January 6 in Albany. For more on the “war between disparate impact and equal protection”—in the context of a previous firefighter-promotion case—see this prescient essay by Kenneth Marcus in the 2009 Cato Supreme Court Review.

Two Very Depressing Charts for President Obama, Two Very Encouraging Charts for America’s Taxpayers

Let’s look at some fiscal data that must be very depressing for President Obama and other advocates of big government.

Which means, of course, that this information must be very good news for American taxpayers!

Here’s a chart looking at annual federal spending since 2000. You’ll notice that spending skyrocketed from 2000-2009 (a time when libertarians were justifiably glum), but look at how the growth of government came to a screeching halt after 2009.

Here are some specific numbers culled from the OMB data and CBO data. In fiscal year 2009, the federal government spent about $3.52 trillion. In fiscal year 2014 (which ended on September 30), the federal government spent about $3.50 trillion.

In other words, there’s been no growth in nominal government spending over the past five years. It hasn’t received nearly as much attention as it deserves, but there’s been a spending freeze in Washington.

Now let’s look at what happens when government is put on a diet.

Computer-Aided Reporting: Looking Where the Light Is Good

Upshot (New York Times) writer Derek Willis tweeted this morning, “We need to stop doing stories (and maps) with meaningless data.” At the link, a story on Vox charts the poorest members of Congress. It’s based on a Roll Call story published in September.

His main point, I think, is the failure of the data to reliably reflect what it’s supposed to. The disclosures on which these stories rely don’t include the value of homes members own, for example, and information is reported in broad bands, so it’s probably not very accurate and may be wildly inaccurate.

The data is meaningless in another, more important way. Neither story suggests any correlation between wealth (or its absence) and legislators’ behavior or fitness for office. It’s just a look at who has money and who doesn’t—uninformative infotainment. Maybe some readers stack up inferences to draw conclusions about Congress or its members, but this is probably an exercise in confirming one’s biases.

This illustrates a real problem for computer-aided journalism. When the only data available depicts a certain slice of the world, that will skew editorial judgments toward that slice of the world, overweighting its importance in news reporting and commentary.

In my opinion, reporting on public policy suffers just such a skew. There is relatively good data about campaign financing and campaign spending, which makes it easy to report about. The relatively high level of reporting on this area makes it appear more important while the actual behavior of public officials in office—the bills they sponsor, the contents of bills, amendments, votes, and the results for society—goes relatively unreported.

It won’t be the fix for all that ails reporting on public policy, but our Deepbills project makes essential content of legislation available as data. It vastly expands the territory around U.S. federal public policy that computer-aided jounalists can cover. Deepbills data has been picked up various places, but we need more adoption before it will provide all the value it can to a better-informed public.

Update: On Wednesday, the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee will have a hearing on implementation of the DATA Act, which could yet further expand the data available to journalists, and all of us.