From the “When Will They Learn” File

The more wailing I hear from big-government conservatives about public education being monopolized by teachers unions, or progressive theorists, or a political system that just won’t see the light, the more amazed I am that these people obsess over conquering the hopeless system rather than letting parents and children out of it. When will they finally feel the mammoth weight of their own, huge complaints and realize that “more government, only with us in control” is a doomed reform strategy?

This morning, after reading a National Review Online piece by Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a leading neo-con education outfit, I found myself asking that same question again.

In his article, Petrilli discusses a House Education and Labor committee hearing scheduled for Friday that will focus on U.S. Department of Education staffers steering schools to specific, preferred curricula under the Reading First program. Reading First works, Petrilli declares, and he’s sickened that House Democrats will be playing politics with it by holding a hearing designed mainly to embarrass the Bush administration:

Whatever was done, it evidently worked for kids….The Office of Management and Budget recently declared [Reading First] the only “effective” No Child Left Behind program. A new report from the Government Accountability Office…is filled with plaudits from state officials, who have seen their reading scores skyrocket. This creates a bit of a conundrum for committee chairman George Miller, one of the architects of No Child Left Behind and thus of Reading First. His commitment to closing the achievement gap is well known….But so is his fealty to Speaker…Nancy Pelosi. And this supposed “scandal” gives the Democrats a shot at another Bush-administration scalp.

So what does Petrilli think our representatives ought to be doing instead of indulging in what he calls “political theater of the absurd”? Tackling questions like:

Should the federal government be in the business of prescribing and proscribing curricula for the nation’s schools, and if so how? What are the pros and cons?

Of course! Instead of wasting all their time on the political opportunism, grandstanding, and show-hearings to which they are addicted, federal politicians should be figuring out if they should exert even more control over American education.

Unfortunately, we know what Petrilli would like them to decide were they able to leave stupid and destructive politics aside for even just a moment and actually get down to business. As he and the Fordham Foundation have made clear many times before, he’d want these hopeless political opportunists to authorize the creation of national curricular standards, which in the end - though Petrilli and Fordham won’t admit it - would give the politicians even more control over American education.

Now THAT is absurd. Unfortunately, it’s also par for the neo-con course.

Bon Voyage, Politicians

Senator McCain and Speaker Pelosi have been criticized for their visits to the Middle East, but at least they can claim that their trips were relevant to issues of national importance. Most members of Congress, by contrast, create excuses for junkets to Europe and the Caribbean. Taxpayers pick up the tab for these quasi-vacations - and the price tag is staggering since politicians travel on private jets operated by the military and generally stay in plush hotels. The Examiner explains:

Congress is keeping Andrews Air Force base plenty busy this year ferrying lawmakers all over the globe at taxpayers’ expense. Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi took his wife, nine Democrats and two Republicans - Reps. Dan Lungren of California and Mike Rogers of Alabama - on a whirlwind tour of the Caribbean last week. After stops in Honduras and Mexico, they stopped in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where the delegation stayed at the five-star Caneel Bay resort. In a separate trip to the Caribbean last week, Rep. Eliot Engel of New York squired his wife and four Democratic members to Grenada and Trinidad. All told, the military flew at least 13 congressional delegations to various destinations during the Easter recess – at an estimated rate of $10,000 or more per flying hour. …At the Caneel Bay resort, where room rates reach $1,100 per night, the spokeswoman said Thompson and his wife paid the “government rate.” But, according to the reservations department, Caneel Bay doesn’t “offer any government rates.” …Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., also led a trip to Belgium over the two-week Easter recess. In February, Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, took a delegation there. “We’re at war with Iraq and Afghanistan, but apparently our members see Belgium as our most urgent international destination,” scoffed one Republican member of Congress.

Another “Piggybacking” Story

CNN reports on another example of police hysteria over “wireless theft.” Stories like this seem to pop up every few months: somebody parks their car on a residential street, opens up his laptop, and uses it to access a wireless network that’s not protected by a password. Then the police come along and arrest the guy. In the two cases reported in this story, both of which occurred in the UK, the police let them off with a warning. But in 2005, a guy was fined 500 pounds and placed on probation for a year for “stealing” Internet access.

As I argued in an op-ed last year, this is silly. Accessing someone else’s wireless network, especially for casual activities like checking your email, is the very definition of a victimless crime. I’ve done the same thing on numerous occasions, and I deliberately leave my wireless network open in the hopes that it will prove useful to my neighbors.

The only concrete harm opponents of “piggy-backing” can come up with is that the piggy-backer might commit a crime, such as downloading pirated content or child pornography, with your connection. But remember that there are now thousands of coffee shops, hotels, and other commercial locations that offer free WiFi access, and most of them don’t make any effort to verify identities or monitor usage. So someone who wants to get untraceable Internet access can go to any one of those establishments just as well as they can park outside your house.

Which isn’t to say that there are no reasons people might not want to share their network connections with the world. If sharing your Internet access creeps you out, by all means set a password. And there’s almost certainly work to be done educating users so that people are fully informed of the risks and know how to close their network if they want to do so.

But arresting people for logging into an open network is completely counterproductive. Ubiquitous Internet access is socially useful, and the vast majority of “piggy-backers” aren’t doing anything wrong. If you see someone parked on the street outside your home using your wireless network, you shouldn’t pick up the phone and call the cops. Instead, call your geeky nephew and ask him to set a password for your network. Or, even better, do nothing and consider it your good deed for the day.

Morbid Comparisons

On Monday, a student at Virginia Tech shot and killed 32 of his colleagues and then himself – the most deadly peacetime shooting incident in U.S. history. Many Americans are still grieving about this incident and are puzzled about what would lead a young man to such deadly behavior.

On Wednesday, terrorists killed 312 civilians in Iraq, including 140 civilians in a truck bombing across from the busy Sadriya market in a mostly Shi’ite neighborhood in Baghdad, only hours after Prime Minister al-Maliki committed the Iraqi government to assume responsibility for security by the end of this year. The deaths due to the terrorism in Iraq on Wednesday substantially exceeded the high level of recent terrorism. Terrorists killed 500 Iraqi civilians last week, including 47 civilians killed when a suicide bomber blew up a car at a busy bus station in Karbala.  A truck bomb destroyed a major bridge across the Tigris River, and a suicide bomber penetrated the fortress-like Green Zone, blowing himself up inside the parliament cafeteria and killing one member of parliament. Moreover, last week was not unusual in Iraq. Over the past year, terrorist attacks killed 73 Iraqi civilians per day, including those by the 17 bombings that killed 50 or more civilians. (These estimates are from press releases by Antiwar.com and are based on reports in the Iraqi press).

Most Americans have no comprehension of the level of terrorism in Iraq. Since the American population is 12 times the Iraqi population, the above numbers should be multiplied by 12 to understand the relative magnitude of terrorist activities in the United States and Iraq. At the recent rate of terrorist activities in Iraq, around 876 Americans per day would be killed by terrorist attacks! At that rate, Americans would be experiencing a level of grief and despair beyond our current comprehension.

I draw several lessons from this morbid comparison: There is every reason to improve our understanding of the motives that led to the massacre at Virginia Tech and the responses that might have reduced the number of fatalities, because the victims were Americans and these conditions are more likely to be under our control. At the same time, we should recognize that the presence of a substantial number of American troops in Iraq may have contributed to but, at least, has not reduced the extraordinary rate of terrorism, that more troops or different tactics are not likely to be more successful, and that the several civil wars underway in Iraq are not under our control. We have an important stake in reducing the number of future incidents like that at Virginia Tech and Oklahoma City. It is much less clear that we have an important stake in the outcome of the several civil wars in Iraq.

Drop the Excuses for Poor Coverage of School Choice

Jay Mathews, education reporter for the Washington Post, urges everyone to drop the voucher issue because:

1. “I am tired of the voucher issue.”

Mathews may feel like he’s had to write about vouchers too much, but most of the public hasn’t heard a thing about them, and certainly doesn’t know much about education tax credits, which get far less coverage and are usually called “vouchers” by journalists covering the education beat in any case. 

Being tired of covering an issue is a sorry excuse for a journalist to call for its dismissal.  Although, I have to say that it’s difficult to see how he could be tired of vouchers when he mentioned them in only 3 out of about 121 articles over the past year.  That’s just over 2 percent of his articles.

Perhaps Mathews could look into the bipartisan promise of education tax credits, which he mentions not at all over the past year.  Arizona, Rhode Island and Iowa passed tax-credit programs last year, and Pennsylvania expanded its existing business-tax credit program. The Arizona, Iowa, and Pennsylvania bills became law with Democratic governors, and the Rhode Island business-tax credit was born in a legislature controlled by Democrats. Finally, Democratic Gov. Eliot Spitzer in deep-blue New York proposed an education-tax deduction in his first state budget.

And he could even give more attention to charter schools, which he mentioned only 8 times.

2. “I do not think such programs are going to solve our education crisis.”

I disagree.  Just because a reform won’t solve every problem, doesn’t mean that it won’t solve many of them. 

And it will solve the education crisis of many individual children.

3. “Few of us are willing to go the voucher route.”

So, because most people don’t want to use a voucher no one should have the chance? 

Mathews claims, “I don’t see anything wrong with the [voucher] idea itself… .  I could not think of a single thing to say [to try to persuade a low-income mother that using a voucher is wrong] that would not leave me feeling guilty and deceitful.”

How would Mathews’ third objection hold up with a voucher mom as an argument for dropping the issue?  How would any of these objections?

4. “It is too risky, and too inconvenient.”

For whom is it too risky and inconvenient?  How is it too risky?  The parents who desperately need options for their child aren’t bothered by the inconvenience, and they certainly know it’s more risky to leave their child in a failing and dangerous school.

Again, how would this argument fly with a voucher mom?

Mathews goes on to say that “the two major political parties find it very hard to drop the voucher issue,” because “they can raise money on that issue forever, while in the meantime not doing much for schools.” 

This is absurd.  School choice is no fundraising issue.  School choice is being driven by people who believe it will save children and money while improving education across the board.  Lawmakers who support school choice, especially Democrats, are siding with principle and risking the wrath of the educational industrial complex.  With a monopoly on education, control of school boards, and forced dues, the big education unions have a lot more money to throw around during election season than school choice activists. 

Mathews may be tired of the voucher issue, but I think a little more reporting on school choice might do justice to his vocation as a journalist.

Tax Competition Forcing Lower Corporate Rates in Europe

The news pages of the Wall Street Journal have an excellent article showing how nations in Europe are cutting corporate tax rates in an effort to compete for jobs and capital. The politicians and bureaucrats do not like this process, of course, but European Commission-led efforts to harmonize taxes fortunately have failed. In closing, the WSJ article cites a post on the Cato blog about the shame of America having a higher corporate tax rate than France:

Europe’s major economies are competing with one another to cut corporate taxes as they fight to attract and keep investment, fueling a trend that has taken Europe’s corporate-tax rates below those of other regions. Nominal tax rates on corporate income in the European Union average 26%, compared with 30% in the Asian-Pacific region and nearly 40% in the U.S. The latest moves by European governments suggest business taxes in the EU will fall further in coming years. … In recent years, many smaller European nations – including Ireland and the former Soviet-bloc nations of Eastern Europe – have slashed corporate-tax rates to as low as zero, as part of their economic-growth strategies, and have succeeded in attracting investment from multinational corporations. That success has put pressure on Europe’s larger economies to cut their taxes. Until recently, Germany condemned the low-tax competition from Poland and others as “tax dumping.” But after failing to win support within the EU, Germany has joined in: Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling coalition has agreed to cut the corporate-tax rate to just under 30% next year from 39%. Others in Western Europe have reacted to the tax cut in Germany, Europe’s largest economy. In March, Britain’s finance chief, Gordon Brown, announced a reduction to 28% from 30%, following complaints from British companies that Britain was losing its status as one of Europe’s low-tax countries. Nicolas Sarkozy, a leading contender to become France’s next president, wants to cut the French corporate-tax rate to less than 28% from around 34%, albeit with some vaguely defined strings attached. … Elsewhere in Europe, Spain is reducing its tax rate on corporate profits to 30% from 35% in stages. … The Cato Institute in Washington, a free-market think tank, calls it “rather embarrassing” that France has a lower corporate-tax rate than the U.S.

Wherein I Liken Jonathan Cohn to a Muckraker

But not in a bad way.

Yesterday, the Kaiser Family Foundation held a forum to celebrate the release of Sick: The Untold Story of America’s Health Care Crisis—and the People Who Pay the Price. The book’s author is Jonathan Cohn, senior editor at The New Republic. I was invited to comment. Susan Dentzer of the Newshour with Jim Lehrer moderated the discussion, and was even kind enough to plug my book.

You can find the video, a podcast, bios, and even our slide presentations at the web page Kaiser devotes to the forum.