How Public Schools Cause Social Conflict

For many Americans, it is an article of faith that public schooling is the key the nation’s unity. However, in a new study, “Why We Fight: How Public Schools Cause Social Conflict,” Cato scholar Neal McCluskey demonstrates that far from uniting diverse peoples, public schooling forces them into constant conflict over schools for which they all must pay, but only the most politically powerful can control. “To end the fighting caused by state-run schooling, we should transform our system from one in which government establishes and controls schools, to one in which individual parents are empowered to select schools that share their moral values and educational goals for their children,” says McCluskey.

Supreme Court Sentencing Ruling

As usual, NYT Supreme Court reporter, Linda Greenhouse, has a good report about yesterday’s sentencing decision from the Supreme Court. 

Excerpt:

The Supreme Court invalidated California’s criminal sentencing law on Monday, ruling that the 30-year-old statute gave judges authority that the Constitution places with juries.

The 6-to-3 decision will require the California courts to reconsider thousands of sentences as the Legislature contemplates its options for amending the statute to meet the justices’ objections.

While no other state is directly affected, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s forcefully worded majority opinion demonstrated that the Roberts court is committed to carrying out the full implications of the revolution in criminal sentencing that the court began seven years ago in Apprendi v. New Jersey.

In fact, with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. joining the majority, the court planted its stake more firmly than ever in what criminal law scholars and practitioners have taken to referring to as Apprendi-land.

Round-up of coverage here.

Ruling here.

I have argued that this legal trend is a positive development [.pdf] and the ruling will indeed impact the sentences of thousands of prisoners in California.  Still, some of the “revolutionary” rhetoric is overblown.  For more Cato work on sentencing, go here.

The State of the State of the Union

It’s time once again for the State of the Union, that annual ritual of outsized promises and insincere, if thunderous, applause. As I recount here, thanks to a custom initiated by President Jefferson, for 112 years presidents delivered their annual messages to Congress in writing. With each passing year, that custom looks better and better. Would that they’d go back to mailing it in.

As the presidency has grown more powerful over the course of American history, the content and style of the State of the Union has changed accordingly, as Elvin T. Lim documents in “Five Trends in Presidential Rhetoric,” a very interesting article [.pdf] in the journal Presidential Studies Quarterly.

Over time, presidential rhetoric has become less humble, more assertive, less intellectual, less republican (in the small-‘r’ sense of the word) and more populist. And the promises have grown ever grander and less credible. In his half-dozen SOTUs, for example, President Bush has promised, among other things to teach our children well, heal the sick, defend the sanctity of marriage, and bring democracy to the world. Last year the president pledged that, with fedgov’s help, we would “change how we power our automobiles.” (“Wood chips, stalks,” and “switch grass” may be the answer.) And this year, he’ll confirm once again that, as he put it last year, “we are on the offensive in Iraq, with a clear plan for victory.”

Here are a couple of neat SOTU-related links that you can use to track changes in presidential rhetoric over time.

First is the “US Presidential Speeches Tag Cloud,” which “shows the popularity, frequency, and trends in the usages of words within speeches, official documents, declarations, and letters written by the Presidents of the US between 1776 - 2006.” Click and drag through the ages and watch as the word “Constitution” becomes less and less prevalent.

Second is this site, which “provides access to the corpus of all the State of the Union addresses from 1790 to 2006, [and]…. allows you to explore how specific words gain and lose prominence over time, and to link to information on the historical context for their use.” (Via Julian Sanchez).

If you’ve ever thought to yourself, “man, that speech gets dumber every year,” you’re not wrong. The latter site analyzes the SOTUs using something called the “Flesch-Kincaid score,” “which is meant to suggest the grade level in an American school for which the text is comprehensible.” That score’s declining steadily.

Similarly, Lim notes that the quality of argument and the language used in the speeches are becoming more simplistic:

Thus, whereas William Henry Harrison likened liberty to ‘the sovereign balm for every injury which our institutions may receive’ in his inaugural address, George [H.W.] Bush simply likened it to a kite: ‘Freedom is like a beautiful kite that can go higher and higher in the breeze.’

Of course, complexity of language isn’t necessarily a virtue, and the fact that the SOTU’s becoming more comprehensible shouldn’t necessarily be taken as evidence of a national slide toward Idiocracy.

But some of the other trends Lim tracks are discomforting for supporters of limited, republican government, such as the increasing focus on “the children” with “Presidents Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton [making] 260 of the 508 references to children in the entire speech database, invoking the government’s responsibility to and concern for children in practically every public policy area.” Nothing against the cute little buggers, but a properly limited federal government would spend less time talking about them and designed policies that focus on them.

In any event, if you get bored during Tuesday’s speech, use the links above to see how the speech has changed. Or, if not, there’s always the State of the Union drinking game.

Debate: Does Anybody Want the Libertarian Vote?

This Thursday Brink Lindsey and I will participate in a panel discussion sponsored by America’s Future Foundation on “The Future of Fusionism.” It’s sort of an odd format: I will discuss the libertarian vote and how the Republicans are losing it, and Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review will say “we don’t need no stinkin’ libertarians.” Then Brink will talk about his proposed tactical alliance between liberals and libertarians, and Jonathan Chait of the New Republic will say – well, pretty much the same thing Ramesh says. Then we’ll all debate whether either Democrats or Republicans can win consistently if they leave the libertarian center on the table.

AFF says you must sign up in advance.

Trade is Much Bigger Than the Doha Round

There have been whispers of late regarding prospects for a last minute resurrection of the WTO’s Doha Round of multilateral trade talks.  My colleague Sallie James does a great job discussing those prospects with polite skepticism in a recent Cato podcast.  Let me be a little more direct: Doha’s dead, yadda yadda yadda, now let’s move on!

Ok, that sounds a bit cavalier.  So please allow me to clarify.  To be more precise, Doha is not dead permanently; it is in a cryogenic state, available for resuscitation under different circumstances. 

Atop the many reasons to conclude that Doha’s time has passed for now is this: the Bush administration has neither the will nor the resources to engage in the type of horse trading necessary to produce an agreement that would be simultaneously acceptable to our trade partners and our Congress (and worthy of the negotiating efforts expended thus far).  As with every other policy initiative “championed” by the Bush administration (and trade was never really a priority), trade’s oxygen has been consumed by the Iraq inferno.

Judging from the commentaries I’ve read and conversations I’ve had, I am less inclined than most to view Doha’s deep freeze as some colossal economic setback.  Certainly it is a(nother) foreign policy setback for the United States, which will undoubtedly be accused of perpetuating poverty and misery the world over.  To the extent there is some small truth in that (some U.S. trade policies have acute, adverse impacts on people in developing countries), Doha’s failure carries real costs.  But by and large, there is no reason to assume that international trade and foreign investment will suddenly slow or reverse course.  In fact, trade and investment are likely to continue to grow handsomely and the world economy will continue to expand, as more and more people from more and more countries partake of the global economy.  And furthermore, I suspect that some, if not many, of the reforms and liberalizations proposed in the Doha Round will be adopted, ultimately, without need of agreement, by countries (including the U.S.) that recognize it is in their interest to reform regardless of what other countries do. 

What concerns me more than the failure to reach a new accord is the potential for marginalization of the old agreements and institutions.  The agreements that culminated in the creation of the World Trade Organization in 1995 and the quiet success of its dispute settlement system (which has “handled” 357 disputes) have a lot to do with trade’s contribution to world economic growth.  Long-standing rules and familiar processes have helped reduce and eliminate some of the uncertainties (and therefore, risks and costs) traditionally associated with trading and investing with foreigners.  If member countries were to begin questioning the efficacy of the system or the wisdom or propriety of its adjudication process when it becomes politically convenient to do so, calls to skirt the rules and ignore the verdicts might not be too far behind.  And that behavior could prove contagious, leading to new uncertainties, greater risks and costs, and ultimately, degradation and a potential collapse of the rules-based trading system.

That scenario, should it unfold, is a long way off.  But the seeds of discontent are sowing.  U.S. policymakers have from time-to-time expressed skepticism about WTO rulings.  That skepticism is memorialized in Section 2101(b)(3) of the legislation that gave President Bush trade promotion authority in 2002:

Support for continued trade expansion requires that dispute settlement procedures under international trade agreements not add to or diminish the rights and obligations provided in such agreements. Therefore-

(A) the recent pattern of decisions by dispute settlement panels of the WTO and the Appellate Body to impose obligations and restrictions on the use of antidumping, countervailing, and safeguard measures by WTO members under the Antidumping Agreement, the Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures, and the Agreement on Safeguards has raised concerns; and

(B) the Congress is concerned that dispute settlement panels of the WTO and the Appellate Body appropriately apply the standard of review contained in Article 17.6 of the Antidumping Agreement, to provide deference to a permissible interpretation by a WTO member of provisions of that Agreement, and to the evaluation by a WTO member of the facts where that evaluation is unbiased and objective and the establishment of the facts is proper.

Reactions in Congress to WTO dispute settlement decisions have been most acerbic when the subject has concerned U.S. application of its trade remedy laws.  As I reported last month, the WTO Appellate Body’s indictment of the U.S. antidumping calculation practice known as zeroing led to a rare change in practice at the Commerce Department.  However, some in Congress were not very pleased, suggesting the administrative actions circumvented congressional authority.Just last week, the Appellate Body ruled again on the issue of zeroing in the United States, but this time the ruling was even more encompassing, forbidding the practice under almost every conceivable comparison methodology.  Compliance with the ruling would be a landmark achievement in the realm of antidumping reform because the practice of zeroing is the single greatest systemic inflator of dumping margins.  And therein lies the problem.  In terms of the practical effect on the bottom line, banning zeroing entirely is akin to fairly ambitious antidumping reform, which Congresses past (and presumably present) have opposed.

When Congress granted President Bush trade promotion authority in 2002, it did so with strings attached. 

(14) TRADE REMEDY LAWS.-The principal negotiating objectives of the United States with respect to trade remedy laws are-

(A) to preserve the ability of the United States to enforce rigorously its trade laws, including the antidumping, countervailing duty, and safeguard laws, and avoid agreements that lessen the effectiveness of domestic and international disciplines on unfair trade, especially dumping and subsidies, or that lessen the effectiveness of domestic and international safeguard provisions, in order to ensure that United States workers, agricultural producers, and firms can compete fully on fair terms and enjoy the benefits of reciprocal trade concessions; and

(B) to address and remedy market distortions that lead to dumping and subsidization, including overcapacity, cartelization, and market-access barriers.

To Congress, trade remedy laws are not the problem.  Dumping and subsidization are.  And the latest Appellate Body decision against zeroing makes it that much harder to combat “unfair” trade.

Accordingly, Congress is highly unlikely to go quietly into the night after the WTO’s latest indictment of zeroing. Thus, confrontation–perhaps intractable confrontation–between the United States and the WTO dispute settlement system may be in the cards later this year.

Antidumping is not the only area where the United States is on the defensive in the WTO.  Without an ongoing negotiating round, new cases concerning agricultural subsidies are likely to be brought (Brazil and Canada have already done so). 

If the United States refuses to comply (or is seen dragging its feet for a long time), other WTO members might follow the example, and eventually the dispute settlement mechanism could become a dead letter. These are the risks to the multilateral trading system. 

The failure of Doha to bear fruit in the form of a new ambitious agreement is disappointing, but hardly catastrophic.  However, to the extent that the absence of an ongoing negotiating round (indeed, in the wake of the first failed multilateral negotiating round ever) might liberate politicians to call for unilateral actions that contravene trade agreements, it will be more important to be vigilant in the face of threats to global commerce.

Of the Government, By the Government, For the Government

Members of Congress who represent federal employees are demanding higher pay for their constituents. In particular, they want “parity” in the raises for the civil service and the military. The Bush administration is thought to believe that sometimes military employees, especially in certain fields, should get higher raises, although both civilian and military raises were 2.2 percent this year.

As Chris Edwards wrote in the Washington Post last August:

The Bureau of Economic Analysis released data this month showing that the average compensation for the 1.8 million federal civilian workers in 2005 was $106,579 – exactly twice the average compensation paid in the U.S. private sector: $53,289….

Since 1990 average compensation for federal workers has increased by 129 percent, the BEA data show, compared with 74 percent for private-sector workers.

If federal employees were underpaid in our strong economy, presumably it would be hard to hire them, and current employees would be quitting. Yet in fact the “quit rate” among federal employees is far lower than in the private sector. Even during the Great Depression, when employees thought very carefully before leaving an unsatisfying job, the quit rate in manufacturing was higher than it is among federal employees today. Federal employees are paid handsomely. Indeed, when they talk about “pay parity,” one could only wish that Congress would legislate parity between the pay of private-sector employees and that of federal employees. If it did, decades would pass before federal employees got another raise.

We might note that this effort is being pushed by eight House members representing Virginia and Maryland, plus District of Columbia delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. The Founders put the seat of government in a special district, outside any state, so that the government wouldn’t be unduly influenced by local pressures. And they denied the vote to residents of the district because the government shouldn’t be influencing itself.

Now, though, we have 1.8 million civil service employees (plus about 800,000 in the post office and more than a million in the military). That’s a large voting bloc, especially in the states surrounding Washington, D.C. And so members of Congress from Virginia and Maryland, especially the Washington suburbs, have become in effect representatives of the bureaucracy in Congress.

Hey, Mildred, Remember When Government Worked?

Walking into the Arlington County, Virginia, main library, I am confronted with a big display titled “When Government Works.” I guess we couldn’t really expect a tax-funded government agency to highlight “When Government Doesn’t Work.”

But here’s the striking thing about the display: Except for a couple of books about the glories of the Library of Congress, every single book on display was from the New Deal era: WPA state guides and books about the Hoover Dam, TVA, and federal aid for artists.

In the view of the defenders of expansive government, is the New Deal really the last time government worked? And remember, the display isn’t titled “When Government Worked” but rather “When Government Works.” There are arguments to be had over whether and by what criteria the New Deal “worked.” But if you think the last great success of government occurred before our recent presidents were born, shouldn’t you give serious consideration to the possibility that most of the time government doesn’t in fact work very well?