Federalism and School Choice

Down on The Corner, Ramesh Ponnuru has written that I seemed a “bit over-hasty” in my recent blog entry stating that federal efforts to promote school choice (outside of Washington, D.C., I should make clear) would be “beyond the feds’ constitutional purview.” Ponnuru suggests that Washington could constitutionally “equalize the tax treatment of payments to private and public schools. That is, stop making state and local taxes (or at least the portion of them that go to public schools) deductible, or start making private-school tuitions deductible.”

I’m afraid I don’t see how either of these fits the dual requirements of being both constitutional and promoting school choice, but I can be pretty dense at times and might need some elaboration.

Concerning the first proposal, I don’t understand how eliminating deductions for state and local taxes would advance choice. The problem is having to pay taxes to support “free” public schools in the first place, not that you can deduct those taxes from your federal taxable income. As far as I can figure, eliminating the deductions would increase the tax burden on public- and private-schooling parents (and all other citizens), but would do little to end the private-schooling penalty of having to pay once for public schools and a second time for private.

With regard to the second proposal, I don’t understand how allowing deductions for private-school tuitions is constitutional. The deductions would be explicitly for schooling, and the enumerated powers for which the Constitution permits Washington “To lay and collect Taxes” include nothing about education.

What have I missed?

Temper, Temper

After reading John McCain’s education-centric speech to the NAACP yesterday, I had a pretty enthusiastic reaction. However, having just taken in McCain’s newly posted “Plan for Strengthening America’s Schools,” my exuberance has been significantly tempered.

Don’t get me wrong: I still think McCain’s emphasis on choice yesterday, even if it turns out to be only rhetorical, is great. We need national leaders (and state, and local) to stop parroting clap-trap about fighting to the last kid for the bureaucratic, special-interest-dominated, public-schooling system, and focus instead on helping children get the education they need. But while McCain’s straight (ugh!) talk about choice was refreshing, his plan hardly is.

All that McCain’s plan offers in terms of specifics is that he’d reapportion federal money slated for attracting, rewarding, and training teachers; somehow give principals more control over their budgets; and expand the use of online education. Oh, and importantly(though most voters, concerned primarily about their own kids, probably won’t care), McCain would increase funding for D.C.’s school-choice program.

All of this adds up to little more than tinkering and really doesn’t give voters much to hang their hats on. There’s nothing sweeping and bold like yesterday’s commitment to seek “school choice for all who want it,” and the largely programmatic changes McCain does offer are far too wimpy if he plans to take on Barack Obama, huge promise for huge promise.

Of course, it would be outstanding if McCain has kept his plan small because he doesn’t believe that Washington should be meddling in education. But if that’s his true motivation, he should put it front and center, offering something really principled that could appeal to both disaffected small-government Republicans and liberals who have had it with No Child Left Behind. But what McCain proposes would all come from the feds, and his plan includes nothing about cutting Washington’s education presence down to size. Oh, and there’s the matter of his apparent promise to “fully fund” NCLB

Choice for all is a great theme. But from the looks of his plan, tweaking federal programs will be McCain’s true, disppointing, education focus.

Update: Here’s my chat with Caleb Brown about McCain’s push for choice in a Cato Daily Podcast (iTunes).

Levin’s Misguided War Against Tax Havens

The Senate’s leading opponent of tax competition is Carl Levin of Michigan, and a subcommittee he runs held a hearing yesterday to bash low-tax jurisdictions.

His main target was the Swiss banking and finance conglomerate UBS, which sent its employees to the United States to solicit and serve clients — an approach that even I have a hard time defending. Swiss banks have every right to accept U.S. clients, and Switzerland has every right to have a stronger human rights policy than the United States with respect to financial privacy, but Swiss law applies in Switzerland. If Swiss bankers come to the United States and violate American law (regardless of how bad the law is), they should understand that they run the risk of legal trouble.

That being said, Levin is 99 percent wrong on tax competition issues. Perhaps his most laughable assertion was the statement that “tax havens are engaged in economic warfare against the United States and honest, hardworking American taxpayers.” He is factually wrong and morally bankrupt. Regarding the facts, academic researchers have shown that tax havens boost economic activity in non-haven nations (largely by providing a platform for investments that otherwise would not take place). Moreover, even Treasury Department data confirm that tax havens help bring trillions (yes, trillions) of dollars of investment into the U.S. economy. Regarding morality, Levin is a typical politician who routinely votes for higher taxes on honest hardworking Americans. For what it’s worth, he also routinely votes for corrupt, special interest spending such as farm bills that funnel money from average people to well-heeled agribusiness lobbies.

ABC News has the story:

Federal regulators should consider revoking the U.S. banking license of the giant Swiss Bank UBS because of its role in helping wealthy Americans evade billions of dollars in taxes, Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) told ABC News today. …UBS’s role in arranging “undeclared” accounts for an estimated 19,000 U.S. citizens was one focus of a hearing by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, chaired by Levin today. The role of the LGT bank, owned by the royal family of Liechtenstein, was also investigated.

…A UBS executive, Mark Branson, said the bank will no longer provide “undeclared” accounts to U.S. citizens and is “winding down” its business involving already existing accounts. …Levin called for passage of new laws to end tax haven abuses. “Tax havens,” said Levin, “are engaged in economic warfare against the United States and honest, hardworking American taxpayers.”

Supreme Court Rules, But Behold the Rigmarole

Dick Heller won in the Supreme Court, but the D.C. government is creating a rigmarole of a process for residents to exercise their constitutional right.  Looks like everyone one is going to need a lawyer to guide them through the morassat least in the near term.

Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher says that DC officials held a press conference where they seemed to be amused by the cumbersome registration process they have created: “There are circumstances where it could take months,” Police Chief Cathy Lanier conceded, and you could almost hear the elected officials around her emitting “heh-hehs” of mischievous delight.   Read the whole thing

Louisiana Rejects REAL ID

Melissa Ngo reports and comments on her “Privacy Lives” blog about the passage of a particularly strong anti-REAL ID law in Louisiana.

There’s a gem in the comments from a military veteran on the notion that the Veterans Admininstration might withhold benefits to those not having a national ID as required under the REAL ID Act:

I would suggest those who are in office stop thinking you are in control of the American people. I for one went to war once, I am not afraid to do so again. The government serves the people, not the other way around.

Now We’re Getting Somewhere!

Just yesterday, I was bewailing politicians’ (and others’) unwillingness to take on fundamental questions about what kind of education system has been—and is now—most compatible with American goals and values. It’s much easier to wax poetic about American public schooling as some time-immemorial backbone of the nation than face the educational truth.

Well, though he didn’t debunk all the mythology propping up public schooling, yesterday John McCain offered one of the boldest challenges to the bunk-based status quo I’ve heard from a politician in a while. In a speech to the NAACP, McCain declared that if elected president he would fight for “school choice for all who want it.”

Unfortunately, one of the implications of McCain’s promise is that the federal government would secure choice under his presidency. But outside of Washington D.C., providing anything in education—choice or otherwise—is beyond the feds’ constitutional purview, as Andrew Coulson explains here. This must be made abundantly clear to McCain and Senator Obama, who promises to throw everything into education including the science-lab sink. It’s also disturbing that in the question and answer period following his speech, McCain promised to “fully fund” the No Child Left Behind Act, a change from previous McCain-camp statements.

Despite these major federalism problems, McCain’s speech is a welcome step forward, at least in spirit. At last, though he might not know who should provide it, a major candidate for national office is declaring that school choice for all is the key to success.

Obama vs. Sudan

Here’s Obama, being interviewed by Fareed Zakaria, on why he supports creating a no-fly zone in Sudan to protect Darfurians (whether the UN backs it or not):

In a situation like Darfur, I think that the world has a self-interest in ensuring that genocide is not taking place on our watch. Not only because of the moral and ethical implications, but also because chaos in Sudan ends up spilling over into Chad. It ends up spilling over into other parts of Africa, can end up being repositories of terrorist activity.

This formulation, which comes ironically just after Obama praises George Kennan and realism, demonstrates a dangerous confusion between charity and self-defense. Tragic as it is, the civil war underway in Darfur (whether or not it’s a genocide, the government backed violence against civilians is part of a counter-rebel campaign) has virtually no effect on US welfare. If instability in that part of Africa hurts trade, the impact is infinitesimal. The idea that war in Sudan or Chad would cause terrorism is based an analysis of failed states that does not stand empirical scrutiny. Sure, terrorists have participated in civil strife in several failed states in the Muslim world, but that hardly proves that Sudan or Chad would be a terrorist haven, especially terrorists that target Americans. In fact, it is American participation in conflicts in the Muslim world that makes us a terrorist target, not the absence of our stabilization efforts.

If Obama is so concerned about the violence against civilians in Sudan endangering Americans, why is he only advocating a no-fly zone? Sudan has an air force, but the combatants in Darfur mostly travel on the ground. If our safety is at stake in Darfur, why not buttress the obviously insufficient African Union force with US ground forces?

But an even better way to end chaos in Sudan would be to take the side of the Sudanese state against the rebels, instead of aiding the dissolution of Sudan via a no-fly zone.

Probably Obama does not really believe that our interests are at stake in Sudan but feels compelled to buttress a humanitarian argument with an interest-based one. Advocates of intervening in the Balkans and Iraq used the same all-good-things-go-together trick. Bombing Serbia to protect Kosovars was supposed to save NATO, protect Europe from instability and so on. Invading Iraq was supposed to spread freedom in the region, remove a threat to Saudi Arabia and get our troops home from there, solve the Arab-Israel conflict, quell terrorism, make the North Koreans and Iranians quit pursuing nukes, and produce several other miracles.

This sort of oversell confuses public debate and makes it harder to end interventions. If your sense of charity says that we should get mixed up in another civil war in Sudan, you’re probably not going to want to pay a very high price in blood and money. But once you told everyone that they can never sleep soundly unless Darfurians do, it’s a lot harder to hit the road if the war turns ugly.

Obama’s position on Darfur is indicative of a larger problem in his foreign policy view, which you might call a belief in (or rhetorical commitment to) the indivisibility of security, a tendency to define insecurity anywhere as a threat to security everywhere. He wants to expand the ground forces so we can better fight occupational wars to fix failed states, and agrees with John McCain that we need to surge troops and resources into Afghanistan to transform it into a stable state, which is the wrong objective there. He thinks fighting terrorism requires that he “make it focus of my foreign policy to roll back the tide of hopelessness that gives rise to hate,” a project that will dovetail nicely with our current President’s plan to end evil. This approach to foreign policy is so expansive that it is unrealistic and thus inoperative. That makes it loose talk, which is less harmful than neoconservatism, but nothing to write home about.