Et Tu, City Journal? A Terrible Argument for Dismissing School Choice

In a forthcoming City Journal article, Manhattan Institute senior fellow Sol Stern suggests that school choice is failing to measure up, and that choice supporters need to find a “Plan B.” The New York Sun covers Stern’s essay here.

While Stern has done some excellent writing on education in the past, this particular piece is confused and at times factually incorrect. There are many other problems with Stern’s article, but it seems best to begin with the basic facts.

Before calling for a Plan B, one should be aware of the successes of Plan A.

Stern writes, “In 2002, after a decade of organizing by school choice activists, only two programs [for poor children] existed: one in Milwaukee, the other in Cleveland …” In fact, there were three programs that targeted disadvantaged students.

Florida’s voucher program was passed in 1999 and available to students in failing schools, which was used as a proxy or “poor children” (though it was later overturned by that state’s supreme court).

Stern then turns from this very specific accounting to a broad discussion of “proposals for voucher programs” and private school choice in general. But he fails to mention the other voucher programs passed and still in existence; special needs vouchers in Florida, Ohio, Utah, and Georgia and for foster-care children in Arizona.

And although Stern seems most interested in choice programs meant only for disadvantaged children, he fails to mention any of the many education tax credit programs passed in recent years. Five states – Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island – have donation tax credit programs. Nearly $150 million in scholarship funds support close to 100,000 low-income children. And that’s not counting the most recent business-donation programs in Arizona and Rhode Island, or Arizona’s personal-donation tax credit program which serves primarily low-income families.

Stern’s article is simply not an accurate reflection of the significant and accelerating legislative success school choice has seen in recent years.

Ethanol Program Milks Consumers Dry

Have you noticed how the price of milk has shot up in the past year? A big chunk of the blame lies with Congress and the ethanol program.

In its effort to promote the fantasy known as “energy independence,” the U.S. Congress favors the ethanol industry with a 51-cent-per-gallon exemption from the federal gasoline tax, and a 54-cent-per-gallon tariff on imported ethanol. By artificially stimulating the domestic ethanol industry, the program has created an insatiable demand for corn, driving up feed grain costs for dairy farmers, leading to higher prices for milk.

I’ve often disagreed with Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on trade issues, especially his threat to slap tariffs on imports from China, but on this issue, the senator has positioned himself as the American consumer’s best friend. According to a story this week in the New York Daily News:

“Ethanol has increased the average American’s grocery bill $47 since July,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, citing figures from Iowa State University.

Schumer (D-N.Y.) is pushing for an immediate end to the 54-cent-per-gallon tariff on ethanol imports as a way to increase the supply of the federally mandated fuel additive, reduce pressure on the corn market and bring down milk prices.

“Bring the cheaper ethanol in, reduce the price of corn, and then reduce the price of milk,” he said.

The senator is on to something. While were at it, let’s eliminate remaining U.S. tariffs on imported shoes, clothing, sugar, rice, cheese and, yes, milk.

Irrational Voters

Analyzing exit polls from last week’s New Hampshire primary, E.J. Dionne observes in today’s Washington Post that “an astonishing 42 percent of McCain’s voters disapproved of the Iraq war”

Maybe Bryan Caplan is onto something?

On a related note, Sen. McCain boasts of his fiscal conservatism, and one of his most reliable applause lines on the campaign trail comes from his strident criticism of wasteful government spending. His favorite example is the infamous “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska, one of thousands of earmarks tucked into the 2006 transportation bill. As McCain tells it, the bridge would have cost $233 million to build and would have served about 50 people. (David Boaz spelled out the gory details here. There were actually going to be two bridges costing a total of $454 million. In September 2007, Alaska officials dropped plans to build the bridge, but kept the money.)

To take nothing away from that particularly egregious misuse of taxpayer funds, it is worth noting that the war in Iraq is costing at least $10 billion a month, with some estimates placing the total costs closer to $12 or $13 billion. In other words, in one month’s time, we are spending the equivalent of 42 $233 million bridges. I doubt that we need that many bridges, and I’d much prefer that they be paid for by user-fees, but presumably some of these would go to somewhere?

The voters who oppose the Iraq war but who support the leading advocate for the war seem to be saying that fiscal conservatism stops at the water’s edge. Then again, it could just be cognitive dissonance.

Data Security for Me But Not for Thee

At his press conference announcing the REAL ID Act last week, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said:

We are not going to have a national database. REAL ID does not require that states start to collect additional information from applicants that they have not already created. We are not going to wind up making this information available willy-nilly. In fact, the steps we are taking under REAL ID will enhance and protect privacy rather than degrade and impair privacy.

…[A]mong the things we’re doing under REAL ID is requiring that state motor vehicle agencies have in place background checks and security plans for their databases at – in terms of the motor vehicle information. Traditionally, again and again we have seen corruption at motor vehicle agencies leading to people improperly disseminating personal information. These security plans and these background checks will actually minimize the risk that employees will improperly take that information and disseminate it.

Meanwhile, Section 508 of the Court Security Improvement Act of 2007, signed into law by President Bush last week, allows federal judges and Supreme Court Justices to withhold their addresses from the REAL ID database system, giving the addresses of their courts instead.

The federal judiciary evidently doesn’t trust Secretary Chertoff’s assurances.

Robert S. McIntyre’s “Fuzzy Math”

Robert S. McIntyre, the tireless crusader for higher taxes, had a letter in Saturday’s Washington Post under the title “Fuzzy Math.” Usually McIntyre is directing his ire at the “fuzzy math” of supply-siders and other fiscal conservatives, such as this pdf about Senate Republicans. This time, however, he wrote in to point out an error in the Post’s political data. But was it an error? Here’s McIntyre’s letter:

Fuzzy Math

On Jan. 4, reporting the results of the Iowa caucuses, you said, “Sixty percent of Republican caucusgoers described themselves as evangelicals, according to entrance polls. Those voters went for Huckabee over Romney by more than 2 to 1.” [That article here.] Meanwhile, you also reported that Mike Huckabee received 34 percent of the total GOP vote. This seems impossible.

Even if Huckabee didn’t get a single non-evangelical vote, his two-thirds-plus share of 60 percent of the voters would give him more than 40 percent of the total vote.

Can you explain this?

– Robert S. McIntyre

McIntyre seems to be befuddled by a simple conceptual error. He’s assuming that Huckabee and Romney were the only two candidates, in which case two-thirds of 60 percent of the voters would indeed be 40 percent of the total vote. But in fact, Huckabee and Romney together got only 60 percent of the total vote. So let’s sort through the numbers. The entrance poll surveyed 1600 Republican voters. Of those, we’re told that 60 percent, or 960, were evangelicals. As this Los Angeles Times graphic of the entrance polls shows, Huckabee beat Romney 46-19 among those voters, which suggests he got about 442 evangelical votes among those polled. (And about 35 percent of evangelical voters voted for someone other than Huckabee or Romney.) That’s about 28 percent of the 1600 total voters. Huckabee got only 14 percent of the non-evangelical Republicans polled, or about 90 people. Add the 90 to the 442, and you get 532, or 33.25 percent of the voters surveyed. Which is pretty close to the 34.4 percent that Huckabee got in the actual caucuses.

McIntyre’s error should have been obvious to the Post’s editors. I don’t know why newspapers should publish letters to the editor that contain obvious errors. Would they publish a letter that said “You misspelled Reagan; it should be Raegan”? I doubt it.

Of course, what’s more interesting is that this simple conceptual error about elementary arithmetic comes from a leading “liberal” expert on tax policy, quoted regularly in major newspapers about the interpretation of complex income tax data. Let’s hope he understands those intricate and abstruse data better than he does simple political polls.

Did Bill Kristol Just Refute His Own Logical Fallacy?

Ah, the old Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc, the favorite logical fallacy of the dozen or so remaining Iraq War defenders in Washington. Presenting, for the prosecution, Bill Kristol:

The Democrats were wrong in their assessments of the surge. Attacks per week on American troops are now down about 60 percent from June. Civilian deaths are down approximately 75 percent from a year ago. December 2007 saw the second-lowest number of U.S. troops killed in action since March 2003. And according to Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of day-to-day military operations in Iraq, last month’s overall number of deaths, which includes Iraqi security forces and civilian casualties as well as U.S. and coalition losses, may well have been the lowest since the war began.

So far, so good. But then, our noble NYT columnist gets into trouble refuting Barack Obama’s equally asinine explanation that “much of that violence has been reduced because there was an agreement with tribes in Anbar Province, Sunni tribes, who started to see, after the Democrats were elected in 2006, you know what? — the Americans may be leaving soon.” Presenting, for the defense…Bill Kristol!

But Sunni tribes in Anbar announced in September 2006 that they would join to fight Al Qaeda. That was two months before the Democrats won control of Congress. The Sunni tribes turned not primarily because of fear of the Shiites, but because of their horror at Al Qaeda’s atrocities in Anbar. And the improvements in Anbar could never have been sustained without aggressive American military efforts — efforts that were more effective in 2007 than they had been in 2006, due in part to the addition of the surge forces.

Thus, we have learned that when the truth damages the Weekly Standard’s spin-line, it is to be swiftly discarded. When it damages Democratic Party spin, it is to be exalted. This sort of thing is pretty common in Washington, but to refute your own spin in the very same column in which you offer it is truly mastery of the form. Bravo!

On a related Monday-morning-snark note, much fuss has been made of the NYT’s decision to hire Kristol. From someone who bows to nobody in his strong distaste for the man, I’m forced to wonder whether anybody has considered that the NYT’s duty is not to inform the populace, or foster civic understanding, or even present truth to its readers. It’s to sell ads. And do we think that Kristol is going to provide the Times more or fewer links–and accordingly, more or less ad revenue–than it possessed previously?

What Ends Recessions?

With the economy slowing and fears of recession percolating, the Bush White House and both Democrat and Republican lawmakers are talking about possible stimulus legislation to get the economy moving. Before they pass anything, and before the press and the public get all excited about “bold,” bipartisan action, we should ask ourselves whether stimulus packages are helpful in ending recessions.

The definitive historical review of U.S. government responses to recession is Christina and David Romer’s 1994 NBER Macroeconomics Annual paper “What Ends Recessions?” [$]. The Romers examine each U.S. recession from the end of World War II to the article’s publication date (that is, the recessions of 1954, 1958, 1960, 1970, 1975, 1980, 1982, and 1991) and determine what government actions were taken in response and how successful those actions were.

Government response to recessions comes in three forms: monetary policy (the Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee lowers interest rates to spur investment and borrowing), automatic fiscal policy (the automatic increase in government spending during recessions that results from increased unemployment insurance claims, welfare disbursements, etc.), and discretionary fiscal policy (the adoption of stimulus packages that contain increased government spending and/or tax cuts).

The track records for both FOMC action and the automatic stabilizers are strong, the Romers show. Both kick in quickly when recessions begin, and the economy turns around fairly soon afterward.

Stimulus packages have a much shoddier record, however: they take months to move through Congress, and additional months to implement — long after the recession has come and gone. Moreover, many of the specific actions initiated by stimulus packages are hardly stimulatory — extending unemployment benefits or launching major government construction programs requires several months to several years (and sometimes even decades) before the federal monies hit the economy.

A look at the various proposals now floating around Washington show that a 2008 stimulus package will be more of the same.

Saturday, New York senator Charles Schumer used the weekly Democrat radio address (who listens to those things, anyway?) to outline his party’s stimulus package proposal, which would use a temporary (and likely tiny) tax cut for the middle class, coupled with “longer-term investments such as in clean energy and infrastructure” — not exactly the stuff of effective economic stimulus.

President Bush’s proposed stimulus package focuses on tax cuts. The package includes a proposal to move up an already-approved income tax cut (President Eisenhower made a similar move — with some effectiveness — in his stimulus package for the 1954 recession) and abolish taxes on stock dividends. The centerpiece of the Bush proposal, however, is the permanent adoption of his 2001 and 2003 tax cuts that are set to expire in 2010 and 2011 — a desirable proposal but also not the stuff of economic stimulus in 2008.

If I were a cynic, I’d say these proposals indicate that neither congressional Democrats nor the Bush White House is really interested in stimulating the economy to ward off recession. Instead, I might believe that the Dems and the Bushies are just trying to look like they’re doing something about the economy during an election year when, in fact, they want to use the risk of recession as cover to adopt policies that they’ve wanted to adopt all along and to funnel money to special interests. But then, if I were a cynic, I’d say that Congress and the White House used 9/11 as an excuse to adopt just about every bad, police-state idea that’s been floating around D.C. bureaucrats’ offices for a decade. If I were a cynic…

The good news is that the two government tools that are effective at combating recession are already at work. The automatic stabilizers are in play and the FOMC has cut interest rates significantly since October. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke has indicated that more cuts are forthcoming as long as recession risks are elevated.

Thus, I have to agree with this excellent Washington Post editorial on recession-fighting: Congress and the White House should leave recession-fighting to the Fed and the automatic stabilizers, and still their stimulus package excitement.