Slaughterhouse of Dreams

More than one in ten public high schools in America is a “dropout factory” according to an analysis by education researcher Bob Balfanz of Johns Hopkins University. At these schools, dropping out is the norm, not the exception, and their record of sky high dropout rates is consistent over time.

What can be done about it? The most obvious solution, to anyone familiar with school choice research, is to stop assigning students to these slaughterhouses of dreams, and stop sending tax dollars to them so that they can continue apace with their grizzly work. Instead, make it possible for all families to afford the schools of their choice, public or private.

Economist Derek Neal has shown that in urban areas, where most “dropout factories” are located, Catholic schools do a far better job keeping kids in school. African American students benefit the most. After controlling for differences in student background between the sectors, minority Catholic students had an 88 percent high school graduation rate, compared to just 62 percent for similar students in public schools. In other words, black students attending Catholic schools are almost one-and-a-half-times as likely to graduate as their public school peers. Still more impressive, these gains persisted through to college. Catholic school students were two-and-a-half-times as likely to graduate from college as similar public school students.

Jay Greene has found similarly favorable results for private schools (.pdf) in Milwaukee’s school choice program.

So let’s stop herding children into failing schools. Let’s give them a choice and a far better shot at educational success.

Limited Government: Good for Thee, But Not For Me

An interesting, if not encouraging, piece today by Jonah Goldberg in the LA Times about how Americans, although all for limited government in theory, are all-too-fond of the goodies government throws their way in practice. People usually like stuff, especially if someone else pays for it. Consequently, according to Mr Goldberg, the constituency for limited government is small. That might explain the lack of advocates for a very limited government among the front-runners for the Republican nomination (Side note: I have often wondered how many of the Democrats I know would lose their enthusiasm for Ron Paul if they looked beyond his anti-war stance).

Things might get worse, too. A 2006 study from the Heritage Foundation shows that the number of people who receive some sort of assistance from the government grew two and a half times more quickly than the U.S. population as a whole between 1962 and 2005 (see graph 10). And although it does not measure the same thing, a recent report by the staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation shows that 42 percent of Americans didn’t pay any income tax in 2006 (hat tip: Chris Edwards).

It seems we may be reaching a crucial “tipping-point” of dependency talked about in the Heritage report, although obviously it can only go so far before those being looted pull the plug (Say, that sounds like a good idea for a book plot!).

About Those Electric Cars ….

In a post yesterday, I scored U.S. News & World Report’s Marianne Lavelle for (among other things) passing on an estimate from an advocacy group called “CalCars” that “with today’s electricity prices, drivers would be paying the equivalent of 75 cents per gallon.” In fact, it would cost you almost $3.50 to get the same amount of BTUs from electricity that you get from gasoline in this country (assuming, of course, you are paying the national average price for electricity). This morning, The Daily Kos takes me to task for not going further and taking into consideration the greater efficiency with which electric motors convert BTUs to energy vis a vis internal combustion engines powered by gasoline.

Fair enough. Concentrating simply on BTU costs doesn’t tell the whole story. I did not, however, read Ms. Lavelle’s claim as anything beyond a claim about the cost of electricity versus the cost of gasoline - that is, the cost of fuel.

A good walk-through of the conversion efficiencies in play can be found here. The environmental calculations therein, however, are more problematic in that the authors assume the fuel used to produce the electricity in question comes exclusively from natural gas. That’s not a very good assumption.

Despite claims to the contrary over at the Daily Kos, neither I nor libertarians in general have any axe to grind regarding electric motor vehicles. I am not “for” them or “against” them. When electric motor vehicles become economically attractive, I’m confident that auto manufacturers will produce them. If that were to happen over the next year or two, I would have zero complaint. And to the extent to which I have any opinion on the matter, I think it would be a very good thing if battery technology advanced to such a degree that electric power could compete with petroleum in transportation markets. I simply don’t think government subsidies or mandates are likely to hasten the day in which that wish will be translated into reality.

Inspector General at the Door?

How many federal police agencies can you name?

The list is getting longer. CIA, FBI, NSA, ATF, DEA, INS, TSA, Secret Service, Customs, Border Patrol, U.S. Marshals Service, to name a few. But there are many more. IRS agents are armed. So are EPA agents. Agents with the Bureau of Land Management are not only armed, they have a SWAT team. Now agents with the Office of the Inspector General are getting into the police business, as Ryan Scott found out when his dog was shot and killed by an unnamed investigator.

Expect more stories like this. The number of federal criminal laws has been steadily expanding (pdf). To enforce those laws, Congress hires more agents. The agents, in turn, conduct more raids. To process the cases, Congress hires more prosecutors. And then, of course, Congress builds more prisons.

What we need to do is roll all of this back. Way back. For Cato scholarship on the federalization of crime, go here (pdf), here, and here.

Renewable Energy BS at U.S. News & World Report

In an article posted the other day at U.S. News & World Report, Marianne Lavelle reports on the state of affairs in the renewable energy industry. While the story she tells is a good one, she makes two stunning errors that lead me to question every other figure reported in the article.

Error #1 -

Historically, ethanol has been more expensive than gasoline, but crude oil prices are now so high that ethanol would be cheaper even without its 51-cent-per-gallon subsidy. Indeed, one reason pump prices have not skyrocketed along with the price of crude oil is that so much fuel is blended with 10 percent ethanol.

Really? Ethanol (E100) prices on U.S. spot markets last week averaged $1.87 a gallon. That is indeed cheaper than the price of conventional gasoline in those same markets ($2.25 per gallon), but ethanol has only two-thirds of the energy content of gasoline. If you want to buy enough ethanol to displace the energy you get from a gallon of gasoline, you would have to spend $2.80 per gallon. Hence, ethanol is not cheaper than gasoline, and federal mandates to use ethanol in transportation fuel does not reduce pump prices.

Error #2 -

The plug-in advocacy group CalCars estimates that with today’s electricity prices, drivers would be paying the equivalent of 75 cents per gallon [were they to run their cars on electricity rather than gasoline].

Again, really? Electricity prices last week averaged 9.57 cents per kilowatt hour. Given that there are 3,400 BTUs in a kilowatt hour of electricity and about 124,000 BTUs in a gallon of gasoline, simple math dictates that it would cost almost $3.50 to buy enough electricity to get the same amount of energy we get from a gallon of gasoline.

Reporters have got to stop taking figures at face value from policy activists with political axes to grind. And editors have got to start asking reporters to independently back their numbers up. Until that happens, don’t bother with the print media. The “facts” bandied about therein are a crap shoot. Some are correct, some are not, but you never know which.

More Willful Obtuseness from Michael Gerson

From this week’s Newsweek column, ostensibly about the “lessons of Iraq” and his new book:

Another false lesson is found in the assertion that the Iraq War has actually been creating the terrorist threat we seek to fight—stirring up a hornet’s nest of understandable grievances in the Arab world. In fact, radical Islamist networks have never lacked for historical provocations. When Osama bin Laden proclaimed his 1998 fatwa justifying the murder of Americans, he used the excuse of President Clinton’s sanctions and air strikes against Iraq—what he called a policy of “continuing aggression against the Iraqi people.” He talked of the “devastation” caused by “horrible massacres” of the 1991 Gulf War. All this took place before the invasion of Iraq was even contemplated—and it was enough to result in the murder of nearly three thousand Americans on 9/11. Islamic radicals will seize on any excuse in their campaign of recruitment and incitement. If it were not Iraq, it would be the latest “crime” of Israel, or the situation in East Timor, or cartoons in a Dutch newspaper, or statements by the pope. The well of outrage is bottomless. The list of demands—from the overthrow of moderate Arab governments to the reconquest of Spain—is endless.

I find it difficult to believe that even Gerson finds this reasoning persuasive. If it were, why protest about how this isn’t a war on Islam? Why go to great pains to describe the common ground between people in Islamic countries and ourselves? Why cast anything we’re doing as a “war of ideas?” If Gerson’s argument were persuasive, it wouldn’t make a lick of difference whether the president held a press conference and made obscene gestures at Muslims making the hajj, and tipped his hand about the grand conspiracy to keep Islam weak.

After all, the list of demands is endless. Right? Right?

Spitzer’s Speedy Flip-Flop

Wow. A brief 36 days is all it took New York Governor Eliot Spitzer (D) to abandon his stance on driver licensing and New Yorkers’ public safety. As I wrote at the time, Spitzer got it right when he announced that he would de-link driver licensing and immigration status because of the safety benefits to the state’s drivers.

But shrill attacks from anti-immigrant groups came fast and furious. A small group of 9/11 victims’ family members, grief curdled into hatred of immigrants, regularly bandy fear and their loved ones’ memories for political purposes. And they did so with relish when Spitzer announced his plan. It’s crassness that one would expect a New York pol to stare down.

But Spitzer, unable to withstand the heat, seems to have gone scrambling for an out. The New York Times reports that Spitzer will team up with DHS officials today to announce New York’s planned compliance with the REAL ID Act. It requires proof of legal presence to get a compliant license.

This a flat out reversal of the position Spitzer took just over a month ago. The justification he gave - correctly - for de-linking licensing and immigration status was New Yorkers’ safety. With driver licensing treated as an immigration enforcement tool, illegals don’t get licensed, don’t learn the rules of the road or basic driving skills, and don’t carry insurance. When they cause accidents, they flee the scene, leaving injured and dead New Yorkers and causing higher auto insurance rates. As I noted a few weeks ago during his brief flirtation with principle and fortitude, “Spitzer is not willing to shed the blood of New Yorkers to ‘take a stand’ on immigration, which is not a problem state governments are supposed to solve anyway.”

He may try, but Spitzer can’t honestly claim that he’s been consistent. New York’s compliance with REAL ID, were it actually to materialize, would put REAL ID compliant cards in the hands of citizens and make New York driver data available to the federal government. Thus, possession of a non-REAL-ID-compliant license would be tantamount to a confession of illegal status. Thanks to Spitzer’s flip-flop, illegal aliens will now recognize that getting a license merely provides federal authorities the address at which to later round them up for deportation.

Needless to say, they’re not going to get licenses, and the safety benefits Spitzer correctly sought for New Yorkers just 36 days ago will not materialize. The result is what’s known in regulatory circles as risk transfer. There will be more injuries on New York’s roadways so that the U.S. can have a national ID system. Alas, the security benefits of that system, as I showed in testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, are negative.

I was impressed and surprised by how right Spitzer had gotten it when he de-linked driver licensing and immigration status in New York. I’m once again impressed, but in a much different way, by how quickly he went scampering away from this good policy. The reactionary critics of his policy obviously really got to him.