The Washington Post vs. Milton Friedman

Actually, it’s the Post’s education columnist Jay Mathews vs. the Milton and Rose Friedman Foundation’s executive director, Robert Enlow, in a school choice debate being held at Edspresso.com. Robert gets the best of this exchange.

Jay is generally a reasonable guy, and so, naturally, supports school choice programs that allow families to easily choose the public or private school that best serves their kids. His two failings in this debate are: not grasping the transformative nature of a large scale market reform, and allowing his own sense of futility about the prospects for change to color the school choice movement’s real potential.

As do most journalists, Mathews confuses the existing niche of non-profit private schools, and existing tiny voucher programs, with the kind of vibrant, large-scale, significantly for-profit market that could arise under a well-designed statewide school choice program. I explained the difference in this blog post.

It’s also easy to sympathize with how tired Mathews sounds when talking about the futility of real reform in k-12 government schooling. He’s been writing this beat for a long time, and change has been miniscule thus far. But what Mathews seems not to have noticed is that the school choice movement has been steadily growing, and steadily introducing and passing more programs over the past twenty years. For every battle-hardened veteran of the movement that is beginning to tire, there are several sharp new researchers, analysts, and campaigners coming forward to carry on the standard. Not just in the United States, but everywhere from England to India.

Utah may be the first U.S. state to implement a universal school choice program, but even if its program is reversed, another will follow. It’s inevitable. The status quo system will continue to consume more and more money without showing improvement, as it has done for generations now, and eventually people in one of our fifty states will decide they’ve had enough. Once one state tastes educational freedom, and reaps its benefits, the others will fall like dominos to the exigencies of economic and demographic competition.

Perhaps not tomorrow, or next year, but probably within the next ten or twenty, chunks of government school district headquarters will be sold for their historical value on eBay – like relics of the Berlin Wall. And public education will finally be delivered through a market system that can live up to its ideals, rather than by the moribund monopoly we’ve been saddled with for the last century-and-a-half.

Hagel Inches Closer to a Run

Chuck Hagel dropped another veil or two this week in his long tease about running for president. (In Thursday’s Washington Post, Dana Milbank uses both the “Hamlet” and “showing a little leg” metaphors, so I needed something different.) On Sunday’s “Face the Nation” he talked about the need for new leadership and speculated about running on a ticket with New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. Then on Wednesday he somewhat belatedly called for the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. And on the same day he gave a speech to the Center for National Policy (a non-partisan think tank run by former Democratic Party officeholders). Milbank reports that he delivered a speech about foreign policy and other problems, complete with lots of speculation about the viability of an independent candidacy in this “perfect storm” of an election year.

If Hagel should run, voters would see a commonsense Midwestern conservative who voted against Bush’s trillion-dollar expansion of Medicare and against his federalization of education, against his friend John McCain’s attempt to outlaw criticism of politicians, and for the Bush tax cuts. Unfortunately, from my perspective, he also voted for the Patriot Act, the Federal Marriage Amendment, and the authorization for war in Iraq. But he’s had second thoughts about some of those. He’s a solid free-trader, though he sometimes votes for a few too many trade subsidies.

But if he hooks up with Bloomberg, who’s on top–the experienced senator with foreign policy credentials or the competent mayor with a billion dollars? They seem to have very different views on lots of issues; Bloomberg is for gun control and all manner of nanny-state provisions, for instance. It’s hard to know if you want Bloomberg and Hagel in the White House until you know who’ll have the Oval Office.

Brink Lindsey on the Daily Show!

Cato vice president for research Brink Lindsey will appear tonight on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart to discuss his new book, The Age of Abundance: How Prosperity Transformed America’s Politics and Culture. Someone over at the Daily Show must have got wind of the fact that Brink’s book is a ripping good yarn that explains (finally!) how the separate reactions of Bible-thumpers and filthy hippies to the abundance of post-WWII America eventually blended to give us the mixed up, crazy, socially liberal, fiscally conservative world we live in today.

Watch Brink dazzle Jon tonight at 11 pm EST on Comedy Central.

Also, be sure to check out Brink’s refurbished website, wherein he dredges the depths of YouTube in search of the elusive essences of zeitgeists gone by.

Topics:

What’s Legal at the New York Times?

The New York Times reports that Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez “is carrying out what may become the largest forced land redistribution in Venezuela’s history…in a process that is both brutal and legal.” In what way is this process legal? The article never says. Presumably the Venezuelan congress has passed legislation authorizing the seizure and redistribution of land. But Chavez controls all 167 members of the National Assembly, and the Assembly has granted him the power to rule by decree. It’s hard to call anything in Venezuela “legal” at this point. One might as well say that Stalin’s executions or Pinochet’s disappearances were “legal.” (And by the way, have you noticed that the Times always refers to Pinochet as a dictator, but to Chavez and Fidel Castro as President or leader?)

If the term “legal” has any meaning other than “the ruler has the power to do it,” then it means that something is done in accordance with the law. The Oxford English Dictionary defines law as “the body of rules, whether proceeding from formal enactment or from custom, which a particular state or community recognizes as binding on its members or subjects.” One of the key elements of law is that it provides stability and certainty. I doubt that all the people of Venezuela recognize land seizures as proceeding in accordance with a body of rules. And certainly the arbitrary rule of a president or a rubber-stamp congress does not provide any certainty in the law.

At least the Times paused to tell us that the process was legal, even if it failed to specify just how. The Wall Street Journal article on the same topic doesn’t bother to consider the question of legality; perhaps that’s just a clearer recognition that in Venezuela there is no law, there is only Chavez.

And the rest of the Times article makes the process pretty clear:

The squatters arrive before dawn with machetes and rifles, surround the well-ordered rows of sugar cane and threaten to kill anyone who interferes. Then they light a match to the crops and declare the land their own….

Mr. Chávez’s supporters have formed thousands of state-financed cooperatives to wrest farms and cattle ranches from private owners. Landowners say compensation is hard to obtain. Local officials describe the land seizures as paving stones on “the road to socialism.”

“This is agrarian terrorism encouraged by the state,” said Fhandor Quiroga, a landowner and head of Yaracuy’s chamber of commerce, pointing to dozens of kidnappings of landowners by armed gangs in the last two years….

But while some of the newly settled farming communities are euphoric, landowners are jittery. Economists say the land reform may have the opposite effect of what Mr. Chavez intends, and make the country more dependent on imported food than before.

The uncertainties and disruptions of the land seizures have led to lower investment by some farmers. Production of some foods has been relatively flat, adding to shortages of items like sugar, economists say.

John R. Hines Freyre, who owns Yaracuy’s largest sugar-cane farm, is now trying desperately to sell the property and others in neighboring states. “No one wants this property, of course, because they know we’re about to be invaded,” said Mr. Hines, 69….

“The double talk from the highest levels is absurd,” Mr. Machado said. “By enhancing the state’s power, the reforms we’re witnessing now are a mechanism to perpetuate poverty in the countryside.”

To be sure, the Times does stress the concentration of land ownership in Venezuela and the delight of many of the squatters at getting the seized land. But it’s a balanced article, other than that pesky word “legal.”

As I’ve written before, too many journalists are treating Chavez’s growing dictatorship in a guarded way. They report what’s happening – nationalizations, land seizures, the unanimous assembly, the rule by decree, the demand to repeal presidential term limits, the installation of military officers throughout the government, the packing of the courts – but they still treat it as normal politics and even report with a straight face that “Chavez stresses that Venezuela will remain a democracy.” Some law, some democracy.

Breasts vs. Government Subsidies

I was catching up on my reading in the International Breastfeeding Journal, and came across a great article by George Kent, a professor at the University of Hawaii.

As a scholarly article, it had no photos. Instead, what made it interesting were the contradictions it revealed in the federal women, infants, children (WIC) subsidy program. This is a $5 billion per year program that subsidizes families with babies, mainly by providing free infant formula.

Kent found that:

  • More than half of the infant formula consumed in the nation is provided free through WIC. That’s an awful lot of formula for a program that is supposed to be just for poor folks.
  • Government promotion of infant formula directly counters the advice of nearly all government and private experts regarding the superior health outcomes of breast milk over formula.
  • A government program is thus inducing mothers to substitute less nutritious formula for more nutritious breast milk. Breastfeeding is much less common among mothers on WIC than other mothers.
  • As I can attest, formula has a remarkably high retail price. Kent notes that formula is very inexpensive to produce, but that the government subsidies through WIC greatly inflate the demand. The losers are non-WIC families and the beneficiaries are an oligopoly of three formula makers.

Kent concludes that “there is no good reason for an agency of the government to distribute large quantities of free infant formula.” WIC subsidies for infant formula should be ended.

I would favor the whole WIC program be terminated. Unfortunately, like many federal aid programs administered by the states, WIC has a vigorous lobby group –National WIC– made up of the thousands of state and local government officials that run the program.

The group’s 2006 legislative agenda is entitled “WIC at RISK! A Healthy, Strong America in Jeopardy!” The document predicts dire consequences if Congress doesn’t go along. Unfortunately, most members buy into such doomsday rhetoric and aren’t regular readers of the International Breastfeeding Journal.

Public Opinion?

This week I’m getting emailed press releases telling me that “94% of international teens want the US to address global warming more aggressively. “If you read waaaay down in the email, you discover that it was an online survey of 250 teens who – it appears – mostly attend U.S. schools. So maybe the striking headline is just a teensy bit of a stretch.

But if it were a scientifically valid survey of actual teenagers around the actual world, one might still say: So 94 percent of teenagers in other countries – that is, respondents who don’t pay taxes and haven’t studied either climatology or economics and aren’t looking for a job – and if they did pay taxes or look for a job, wouldn’t do so in the United States – think that the United States should hobble its economy in the name of something that vaguely sounds scary. And we should care because…?

No Matter What, NCLB is Great!

This morning the results from the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) civics and U.S. history assessments came out, and the results were, well, a bit blah. But that didn’t get the Bush administration off message. Like almost everything that happens in American education, they declared the results proof that the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) is working!

Let’s look briefly at the results, and then get to the spin.

First, U.S. history, which had scores for 1994, 2001 and 2006. In 4th grade, the proportion of students hitting the desired performance level – proficient – was a mere 18 percent, and that was only a one percentage point increase over 1994, the first year reported, and no change from 2001. The increase in students demonstrating at least “basic” knowledge was a little bigger, rising six percentage points from 1994 and four from 2001.

In 8th grade the proficiency increases were better, but final totals worse. The chunk of students hitting proficiency rose from 14 percent in 1994, to 16 percent in 2001, to 17 percent in 2006. Students hitting at least basic rose from 61 percent in 1994, to 62 percent in 2001, to 65 percent in 2006.

For 12th graders – our schools’ final products – a measly 13 percent were proficient in U.S. history, though that was up from only 11 percent in 1994 and 2001. The percentage hitting at least basic was also up, but only to 47 percent from 43 percent in the previous years.

Now to civics, where the scores were for 1998 and 2006.

In 4th grade, the proportion of students hitting proficiency rose from 23 to 24 percent, and at-or-above basic improved from 69 to 73 percent. In 8th grade there was stagnation, with the percent proficient stuck at 22, and at-least basic at 70. Finally, in 12th grade the percentage hitting proficiency rose from 26 to 27 percent, and at least basic from 65 to 66 percent.

So, on the whole, scores didn’t get any worse than in previous years but they also didn’t get much better, results I’d summarize as ho-hum. To read U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings’ reaction, however, you’d think we’d seen totally different reports – literally:

For the past five years, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has focused attention and support on helping students become stronger readers. The release today by The Nation’s Report Card on U.S. History and Civics proves NCLB is working and preparing our children to succeed.

Wait a minute.

Reading? What the… Oh, right. Reading “counts” under NCLB’s accountability regime, but U.S. history and civics don’t. The secretary is therefore “bridging” – leaving the subject at hand in order to make an off-topic point, one intended to provide the standard Bush administration education message: NCLB is working!

The reports offer further indication that our nation’s achievement gap continues to narrow: our lowest-performing students are making the greatest gains, particularly in the early grades…. These results are a testament to what works. As students’ skills in reading fluency and comprehension strengthen, so does their ability to do well in other subject areas. While critics may argue that NCLB leads educators to narrow their curriculum focus, the fact is, when students know how to read and comprehend, they apply these skills to other subjects like history and civics. The result is greater academic gains.

Oh, politics! In what other realm could someone so deftly turn mediocre news about one thing into a declaration of victory in something else? But it’s all sleight of hand, a trick to take our eyes off the humdrum civics and history results and put them on reading “success.” But don’t be fooled.

The most recent NAEP reading assessment – you know, the one that actually assesses reading – provided results from 2002 and 2005, a period fully covered by NCLB, and showed that reading scores either stagnated or dropped in that time. For instance, the average 4th grade reading score was stuck at 219 (out of 500) in both 2002 and 2005, and 8th grade scores dropped from 264 to 262. And how were scores for those “lowest performing students” whose improvements Spellings touted? The average mark for students in the lowest ten percent of 4th grade performers rose from 170 to just 171 between 2002 and 2005, and was stuck at 196 for the lowest quarter. In 8th grade the average score of the lowest 10 percent dropped from 220 to 216, and of the lowest quarter dropped from 244 to 240.

So much for the assertion that NCLB-driven reading improvements have led to rising scores in civics and U.S. history – they haven’t even led to rising scores in reading!

Which brings us to the biggest civic lesson we can learn from the new NAEP results: Politicians are concerned first and foremost with making themselves and their programs look as good as they possibly can, not with being honest with the American people. It’s exactly why, both in education and many other things, government truly is best that governs least.