Abundance Has Arrived

Today is the official release date for my new book, The Age of Abundance. In it I offer a new interpretation of American history since World War II – one that focuses on the sometimes exhilarating, sometimes disorienting social changes triggered by the advent and deepening of mass prosperity. The civil rights movement and the sexual revolution, environmentalism and feminism, the fitness and health care boom and the opening of the gay closet, the withering of censorship and the rise of a “creative class” of “knowledge workers,” the decline of machine politics and the mad proliferation of subcultures and lifestyles – all, in my telling, are the progeny of economic abundance. Furthermore, I argue that the upshot of all these changes is a much more libertarian America, although politics has not yet caught up to the new social reality.

I’ve also started up a weblog, www.brinklindsey.com, as a companion site for the book. The idea is to comb the Internet’s massive historical archives for materials and imagery that relate to the book’s themes. Check it out!

DHS Privacy Committee Declines to Endorse REAL ID

The Department of Homeland Security’s Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee is filing comments on the REAL ID regulations. Comments close today (Tuesday). Instructions for commenting can be found here, and apparently, due to difficulties with the automatic comment system and with receiving faxes, DHS has opened an email address for receiving comments: oscomments [at] dhs [dot] gov (subject: DHS-2006-0030) . Emails must have “DHS-2006-0030” in the subject line.

The Committee took care to offer constructive ideas, but the most important takeaway is summarized by Ryan Singel at Threat Level:

The Department of Homeland Security’s outside privacy advisors explicitly refused to bless proposed federal rules to standardize states’ driver’s licenses Monday, saying the Department’s proposed rules for standardized driver’s licenses – known as Real IDs – do not adequately address concerns about privacy, price, information security, redress, “mission creep”, and national security protections.”Given that these issues have not received adequate consideration, the Committee feels it is important that the following comments do not constitute an endorsement of REAL ID or the regulations as workable or appropriate,” the committee wrote in the introduction to their comments for the rulemaking record.

I’ll be testifying on REAL ID today before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Property Tax Revolt: The First Time Was Only a Warning

It looks like a property tax revolt is brewing across the country, perhaps the biggest one since the era of Proposition 13, in the late 1970s. The Christian Science Monitor reports today that “legislative proposals, citizen initiatives, and lawsuits are on the agenda in at least 20 states.”

It’s no surprise why. Rising home values have meant rising assessments in many parts of the country. Rising home values are great if you’re selling; but if you’re not planning to sell your house, the increase can just mean higher taxes. And now, as Dennis Cauchon pointed out in USA Today, house prices are falling in some places but assessments haven’t yet been adjusted.

More importantly, cities and counties gleefully increased spending as the tax revenue rolled in during a decade or so of rising prices. But now that the revenue increases are slowing, local governments don’t want to cut back. Instead, they want to raise rates to keep the good times rolling—for governments if not for taxpayers.

The Wall Street Journal reports that more and more taxpayers are protesting their assessments. That’s one form of rebellion. Another is tax protests and calls for political action, and the Journal reports that those are happening, too, from Florida to Minnesota.

Back in 1978, the college newspaper cartoonist Berke Breathed (later famous for “Bloom County” and “Opus”) drew a brilliant cartoon about Proposition 13. For the benefit of our younger readers, I’ll explain: Proposition 13, which slashed property taxes in California, was spearheaded by Howard Jarvis. And it passed in June 1978, about the time the movie The Omen II came out, with its tagline “The first time was only a warning.” And Breathed was right: Prop 13 was a warning to the political class that taxpayers were fed up. After Proposition 13, the Democratic Congress cut the capital gains tax rate. Massachusetts passed Proposition 2-1/2 in 1980. More than a dozen other states put constitutional limits on taxes in the next few years. Ronald Reagan ran for president on a tax-cutting platform; he defeated incumbent Jimmy Carter, swept in a Republican Senate, and cut the top marginal income tax rate from 70 percent to 50 and then to 28 percent.

From earmarks to entitlements to local assessments, it’s time for taxpayers to give the political class another warning.

Prospective Teachers: You Too Can Afford College!

As I was sitting at home on Saturday morning, flipping through the TV channels, I came across Education Sector’s Kevin Carey on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal. Now, I’m not sure what his main topic was – as I said, I stumbled on him whilst channel surfing – but just as I tuned in he seemed to be offering a stale but unchallenged argument: College student debt is too high, and we know this because there’s no way on his salary a new teacher could comfortably afford to make his monthly debt payments.

Intuitively, my reaction to this all-too-common refrain was “hogwash.” But then, being properly skeptical about all things, including my own knee-jerk reactions, I thought I’d best test out the proposition that a new graduate saddled with an average student debt load couldn’t possibly afford to become a public school teacher.

To run my test, I sketched a rough expense estimate for a new graduate who will be starting off as a first-year teacher in Indianapolis, Indiana, a city I thought seemed like “average” America.

So what would his expenses likely be? Below is a basic list, with bases for estimates:

Monthly Loan Payment: $300. (The State PIRG’s Higher Education Project reports that for a new graduate with $20,000 in debt – roughly the average for a new graduate who has taken out a loan – that must be paid back in 10 years at a 6.8 percent interest, the monthly payment would be $230. For the sake of a “fudge factor,” I boosted the payment to $300.)

Rent: $650 (This is from CNNMoney.com. It turns out rent in Indianapolis is relatively cheap. However, rents are likely at least partially reflective of overall lower living costs, which would in turn be reflected in salaries, evening this out.)

Food: $200 (I just guesstimated this based on my own food expenditures, and then added a bit on the off-chance I eat less than the average recent graduate.)

Transportation: $120 (My notional teacher is both living and working in Indianapolis so I didn’t figure he’d have too great a commute. I estimated that he’d fill his tank up about once a week at $30 a pop.)

Auto Insurance: $90 (Young Mr. Chips drives a 2001 Corolla and has a pretty good driving record. Allstate’s quote estimator reported that this would be close to his monthly premium.)

Renters Insurance: $20 (I got this quote through State Farm. Actually, their quote for an 800 square-foot apartment, about $40,000 worth of stuff, and $100,000 in personal liability was $16.50 per month.)

Clothing/Laundry: $100 (I guesstimated this too. I don’t buy a lot of clothes, but thought it might be a reasonable amount.)

So what’s our recently minted grad’s grand monthly total for all these essentials and student loans? $1480.

Now, let’s see if a first-year teacher working for the Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) could afford such a load on their initial salary. Looking at the salary schedule for IPS teachers, one finds that our fresh graduate heading right into teaching will earn – get ready – an annual salary of $34,638, or a monthly salary of $2,887!

At this point I shouldn’t even have to do the math to see my test’s results, but let’s make this formal: If we subtract our new teacher’s monthly expenses from his monthly salary, we find that he has $1,407 left over! That’s right, almost half of the young man’s salary remains after paying off his monthly loan charge and all of his major expenses. That is a lot of beer money! (Or, I suppose, money he could save.)

Of course, there are expenses missing from this calculation – taxes, for one – but there are also major income boosters missing. After all, most teachers only teach for about ten months, and many get temporary jobs to fill the time. That means their teaching salary is generally not their only income. And I didn’t mention such major benefits as the generous loan forgiveness programs for which many teachers qualify.

Now, maybe I’ve overlooked some big expense, or grossly underestimated something, or my example isn’t representative of the financial challenges facing the average first-year teacher. If none of those things are the case, though, then there’s only one possible conclusion that can be drawn about the “student debt is too high and teachers’ salaries are too low” argument: It is utter hogwash, and ought never, ever, to be repeated again.

I’m not holding my breath.

New at Cato Unbound: Dan Klein on Coercion in Economics

This month’s issue of Cato Unbound, “Should Coercion Count? The Place of Liberty in Economic Theory,” kicks off today with a penetrating essay by GMU economist and Econ Journal Watch editor Dan Klein. 

Klein writes:

In my view, economic understanding, by experts and the general public alike, would gain by economists doing more of the following: (1) using the voluntary/coercive distinction in their formulations, analysis, and discourse; (2) making that utilization explicit and unabashed; (3) thinking hard about the content of that distinction, particularly by clarifying the holes and gray areas; (4) making it clear that, while they may promote a presumption of liberty, they do not mean to suggest that the distinction carries a necessary condemnation of coercion.

Why don’t economists do all this already? Read Dan’s essay, and the forthcoming replies from Harvard economist Ed Glaeser, NYU philosopher Liam Murphy, and Chicago law and economics powerhouse (and Cato scholar) Richard Epstein.

Government Schools to Parents: Leave Your Money, Your Kid, and Shut Your Mouth

Jay Mathews, ed-beat superstar for the Washington Post, has a story today that perfectly sums up the government school response to involved parents; leave it to the professionals, stupid. 

Across the country, parents hit a solid wall of silence when they question the actions of school administrators.   But these same administrators have the gall to blame uninvolved parents for the sorry state of our government schools.  Mathews reports:

Schools nationwide are calling on parents to get involved. The Maryland State Board of Education endorsed a broad range of family outreach initiatives in a 2005 report that called public education “a shared responsibility.”

Yet some parents in Montgomery County and elsewhere have discovered limits on the get-involved policy when they ask questions about individual teachers, whether those queries are about alleged abuse of students or a decision to fire a popular instructor.

In Montgomery County, beloved third-grade teacher Soon-Ja Kim was bounced on the word of one reviewer despite an outpouring of support from parents who knew what great work she had done with their children.  I can’t say it better than it’s reported:

But a panel of eight teachers and eight principals charged with reviewing Kim’s performance gave little weight to the parent letters when they considered her future in a closed-door meeting, according to panel members.

Doug Prouty, vice president of the Montgomery County Education Association and co-chairman of the panel, said in an interview that the strong parental support for Kim was considered only a “secondary data source.”

The good test scores of Kim’s students, he said, were also secondary. The primary sources for the decisions, he said, were the judgments of Principal Elaine Chang, a consulting teacher assigned to evaluate Kim and the panel members themselves that Kim was ineffective in the classroom and hurting her students’ progress.

“That’s a bunch of hooey,” said Elyse Summers, one of the multitude of pro-Kim parents. “Our children went to Mrs. Kim’s class every day, came home and are performing extremely well.”

“We take parent feedback, both good and bad, about teachers very seriously,” Edwards replied. But the Montgomery schools spokesman added that “the final decision about the effectiveness of teachers must come down to those with the professional expertise.”

Thanks to Mathews for pointing out these object lessons in government schooling.  Teachers work for the government school system, not the children or the parents. 

I only wish that Mathews had pointed out the obvious solution to this problem; giving parents the power through school choice.  Otherwise, “those with the professional expertise” will continue to demand more money and less input from parents. 

Congress Backs Official Idiocy

Here’s Congress siding with Boston’s idiotic public officials. The Terrorist Hoax Improvements Act of 2007 would allow government officials to sue people who fail to promptly clear things up when those officials mistakenly think that they have stumbled over a terrorist plot.

There’s nothing in the bill allowing individuals or corporations to sue government officials when hare-brained overreactions interfere with their lives and business or destroy their property.