The Futility of Government Education Standards

Parents want to know how well prepared their children are academically. Employers want to know what job applicants know. Educational standards and testing are thus useful tools. Leaping from that fact to the belief that state or federal government should impose a single set of standards or tests on all students is utterly unjustified.

When the government imposes, for instance, a high-school leaving test that students must pass in order to graduate, one of two things happens: the test is watered down to the point of meaninglessness to ensure that virtually every student receives a diploma, or the test is deferred or eliminated to ensure that every student receives a diploma.

The latter course was adopted by Washington state several months ago, and by Texas two days ago. Once a government gets into the business of handing out diplomas, it is compelled by political expediency to ensure that virtually all students are awarded diplomas. You can’t get re-elected if voters think that you’ve ruined their children’s career prospects by denying them a government diploma.

Most people want to know how well students are actually performing, especially at the end of high school, but government diplomas cannot tell us that because they must be easy enough for virtually everyone to obtain.

There is an obvious solution to this dilemma: get the government out of the diploma business. While it is important for diplomas to be meaningful, to connote some specific set of skills and body of knowledge, it is not necessary for every student to earn precisely the same diploma, or for diplomas to be awarded by the government. The private sector handles knowledge certification all the time. In the computer industry, for instance, database and networking companies certify workers as competent to use their products. These certifications are meaningful, but different from one another.

Diplomas that connote more advanced skills in a wider range of subjects would be more difficult to obtain, but would have more value in the eyes of employers and institutions of higher education. Every student could seek to obtain the most advanced diploma he or she is capable of attaining, and hence diplomas would become a useful source of information about a student’s competencies. Diplomas could be awarded by individual schools or by educational certification agencies. There is no need for the government to get involved. In fact, government involvement, as noted above, would muck up the process.

Government intervention in any industry is fraught with unintended consequences, and this is true most of all in education, the field into which governments have intruded most aggressively.

Big-Government Surgeon General

I have written before about how the U.S. surgeon general has become the national nanny, nagging us to stop smoking, lose weight, exercise more and never leave home without a condom. James W. Holsinger, a surgeon and cardiologist from Kentucky, is President Bush’s latest nominee for the post. His nomination has been in trouble because of some retrograde comments and writings on homosexuality. But it is also worth noting that Dr. Holsinger testified yesterday he also supports:

  1. Universal health insurance;
  2. Banning pharmaceutical advertising;
  3. Banning the advertising of sugary cereals and other “junk food” on television;
  4. Federal regulation of vending machines in schools; and
  5. Increasing tobacco taxes as part of a campaign to “make America a tobacco-free nation.”

All in all, a perfect national nanny, and another example of President Bush’s big-government conservatism at work.

French Drivers Defy Speed Cameras

French politicians may be hopeless statists, but at least the French people still have a bit of laissez-faire spirit. Not only do they evade taxes at nearly twice the U.S. rate, they’ve also figured out a clever, market-based strategy for dodging part of the penalty when caught on the roads by speed cameras.

The UK-based Times reports:

It is the latest ruse on the roads of France: drivers are avoiding disqualification by trading licence points on the internet. Complete strangers are taking the rap for speeding offences in return for up to €1,500 (£1,000), and police admit they are powerless to intervene. Even pensioners who have not driven for many years are getting in on the act. The online scam is also popular in Spain and other European countries, and authorities believe it may soon be introduced in Britain. It threatens to make a mockery of a French crackdown on road safety and embarrass President Sarkozy….

The technique is simple. In return for money, the seller provides his or her name and licence number in response to the speed camera ticket. The notice that is automatically sent to the owner of the offending vehicle includes a form for identifying another driver. Checks are extremely rare. The black market, which the authorities admit they are unable to prevent, is an unintended consequence of stronger enforcement of the highway code and especially of an exploding number of speeding tickets since automatic radar was installed on French roads on 2003.

…It has become routine in families of all classes for repeat offenders to ask friends and relatives with clean licences to lend their names. This explains an apparently steep rise in bad driving by older citizens. The rate of offences by drivers over 65 jumped 38 per cent from 2003-05, when the speed cameras began to bite. 

…One internet user in Spain listed his grandmother’s licence points for €250 each, plus the cost of any traffic fines. “I have persuaded the poor woman to renew her licence, with the sole objective of having more points,” he said.

British “Fat Tax” Would Mean More Intrusive Government

According to a Reuters report, a new study from the United Kingdom estimates that more than 3,000 lives would be extended if the 17.5 percent value-added tax was imposed on supposedly unhealthy foods. Without endorsing the specific estimates, the underlying economic analysis is sound. Certain foods presumably are unhealthy (at least for people who already are overweight) and taxing those foods will change behavior (just like taxing work, saving, and investment changes behavior).

But this does not mean, as a matter of principle, that the government should use the tax code to dictate private choices. Once politicians wander down that path, what will stop them from taxing people at higher rates if they don’t jog at least three times a week? Or how about tax credits for eating green vegetables? Some might respond that taxpayers have a right to insist on healthy behavior since they are paying – via the government-run health care systems – the medical costs of unhealthy people. But this highlights the problem of a socialized health care system. If people are responsible for the consequences of their own choices, then there is less temptation for nanny-state policies. For what it’s worth, this does not mean that the U.K. should maintain a VAT exemption for food. But the exemption should be eliminated as part of a plan to reduce the general tax burden, not as a scheme to control people’s lives:

A “fat tax” on salty, sugary and fatty foods could save thousands of lives each year, according to a study published on Thursday. Researchers at Oxford University say that charging Value Added Tax (VAT) at 17.5 percent on foods deemed to be unhealthy would cut consumer demand and reduce the number of heart attacks and strokes. The purchase tax is already levied on a small number of products such as potato crisps, ice cream, confectionery and chocolate biscuits, but most food is exempt. The move could save an estimated 3,200 lives in Britain each year, according to the study in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. …Any “fat tax” might be seen as an attack on personal freedom and would weigh more heavily on poorer families, the study warned. A food tax would raise average weekly household bills by 4.6 percent or 67 pence per person. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair has previously rejected the idea as an example of the “nanny state” that might push people away from healthy food.

Government Giveaways

Most Americans are appalled by pork spending, corporate welfare, and other congressional waste. But at least one man relishes federal giveaways. He extols the government freebee. The July 4 Falls Church (Virginia) News-Press notes:

“Mothers, lock up your daughters, because Matthew Lesko, the so-called ‘crazy Free Money Guy,’ will be camping out in front of the U.S. Capitol from August 14-17. Famous for his question-marked suit, Lesko will be answering questions during his campout as part of a program he calls: One Man, 72 Hours, 100,000 Government Freebies.”

So folks, don’t leave the taxpayer rip-offs to the expert Washington lobby firms such as Cassidy and Associates. If you are vacationing in D.C. this August, you can teach yourself how to drain the U.S. Treasury from the Free Money Guy.

(These days pilfering from federal taxpayers has been raised to a fine art form. Indeed, here’s Lesko immortalized in a D.C. art gallery.)

Takeover Accomplished!

Yesterday, Democrats made good on their promise to transform the U.S. House of Representatives from what they said had been a wholly-owned subsidiary of student lending companies under Republicans, into a wholly owned subsidiary of middle- and upper-middle-class freeloaders under them.

By a 273 to 149 vote, the House passed the College Cost Reduction Act of 2007. Its good side is that it would cut several subsidies to lenders in federal loan programs, supposedly saving about $19 billion. The bad part is how it would use those savings. If enacted, the bill would modestly increase Pell Grants – which is not good news if you dislike taxpayer-dollar giveaways, though at least Pell is somewhat geared toward the truly needy – but would focus most benefits on loan programs utilized much more by the financially able. (See table 5 of this report to see loan utilization by family income.)

Indeed, the bill would cut in half – to a tiny 3.4 percent in five years – interest rates on subsidized student loans, and offer $5,000 in loan forgiveness to public servants ranging from police all the way to – get this – prosecutors! That is, it would offer $5,000 until those people had been in their jobs for ten years, at which point the entire remainder of their loans would go bye-bye, eaten by taxpayers who themselves get, approximately, nothing out of this bill.

Needless to say, professional advocates for college kids with huge senses of entitlement – like these guys, these folks, and this gal – are ecstatic about this transfer from one group of thieves to another. As for me, I’m just sorry that it’s too late for poor, common-good-obsessed prosecutors like this guy to have his loans forgiven. Oh, and this famous public servant, too.

Food Safety and Imports

Unhealthy products from China have been in the news lately. First it was poisoned pet food, then contaminated toothpaste, toy trains with lead paint, and now farmed fish containing unauthorized chemicals. For skeptics of trade, the news offers yet another reason to beware of imports in general but especially those “Made in China.”

Consumers have every right to be concerned about the safety of the products they buy, but the problem of potentially harmful products is not unique to China or even imports. As a New York Times story points out today, U.S. customs officials routinely intercept more potentially harmful food imports from Mexico and India than they do from China. Federal inspectors have turned away hundreds of shipments of produce from the Dominican Republic and even candy from Denmark.

Safety concerns are not confined to imports. Americans have been poisoned by beef from Nebraska, spinach from California, and peanut butter from Georgia. The same safety standards apply to imported food as to domestic food. The right response is not wholesale restrictions on imports, but to find better ways of keeping harmful products out of stores no matter where the products originate.

The large majority of food products imported to the United States, like those grown domestically, are safe and healthy. In fact, imports improve our health by making fresh produce available year around. Imports also keep prices down at the grocery store, which benefits low-income families most of all. Raising tariffs on imported food would certainly do more harm than good.