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.

McCain says GOP is Corrupt

Last night in the Republican presidential debate, Sen. John McCain said, in response to Mitt Romney’s criticism of McCain-Feingold:  ”Is there anyone who believes there’s not enough money washing around money in politics, which has corrupted our own party?

His “we have enough money in politics” argument has become a standard defense of McCain-Feingold. The idea here is that while McCain-Feingold may have restricted spending on politics, there is still “enough” money in politics. But McCain characteristically misses the point. In a free society, the question is not whether citizens collectively produce “enough” spending on politics. It is rather whether they are free to spend on politics as they wish. McCain-Feingold abridged political liberties even if Sen. McCain believes we have “enough” political speech left over. 

McCain’s charge that the GOP is corrupt also recalls the debates surrounding McCain-Feingold. The Senator then charged the entire Senate with corruption, but when Sen. McConnell challenged him to name a single corrupt individual, he could not. Now McCain thinks the GOP itself was corrupted by money in politics. That seems like a strange way to appeal for the votes of active Republicans. But Sen. McCain should be required to say exactly how campaign finance corrupted the entire Republican party.  

Another Advantage of Education Tax Credits

Sara Mead’s latest post over at the Quick and the Ed offers yet another opportunity to point out yet another advantage of tax credits over such alternatives as school vouchers or government monopoly schooling.

Before describing that advantage, though, I can’t resist addressing the logical fallacies at the heart of her post. Mead originally argued that tax credits are public money. When that was proven false, she fell back to the claim that tax credits are equivalent to public money in non-legal respects. That, in turn, was proven false in my last post, which contrasted the programs’ categorically different levels of taxpayer compulsion and linked to an exposition of further differences. Mead nevertheless continues to assert that tax credits are equivalent to government money because, she says, they have the same net effect on state budgets and have “a distorting impact on individual incentives.” This is a hybrid of the fallacy of composition and false analogy. The fact that two things share one or more particular traits in common does not make them equivalent. They may, as in this case they do, differ in other material respects. Mead thus remains mistaken in her persistent belief that tax credits are equivalent to government money.

The real reason that her post is worth responding to, however, has nothing to do with its interesting logical fallacies. Rather, it is because she mentions the “distorting impact” of education tax credits on “individual incentives.” In this premise at least, Mead is correct. Education tax credits do affect both parents’ and taxpayers’ behavior, but they do so less perniciously than is the case with either school vouchers or government schooling.

Under scholarship donation tax credits, taxpayers choose the scholarship granting organization that receives their money. If they are not happy with the quality or efficiency of their current choice, they can redirect their next donation elsewhere. Under vouchers or the status quo, taxpayers dissatisfied with the state system who decided to redirect their tax liability to a private scholarship organization of their choosing would eventually find themselves in jail. Their behavior is thus rather more profoundly circumscribed under government-funded programs.

The incentives for parents who claim personal use tax credits are also superior to those faced by parents under vouchers or the status quo. Under the sort of tax credit policy my colleagues and I advocate, the eligibility criterion for the personal use credit would simply be that parents take financial responsibility for their own children’s education (i.e., that the kids not be enrolled in government schools). They could allocate some of the money they saved for home instructional materials and some for tuition, for instance, weighing the value of each according to their own preferences. This ability to weigh alternative educational expenditures against one another produces an incentive for thrift and parental involvement. Such parental budgetary discretion is impossible under the status quo, and more problematic under vouchers (which tend to be limited exclusively to tuition because of the more intrusive regulatory restrictions usually applied to government subsidy programs).

As for Mead’s conspiracy theory about the “real” reason why my colleagues and I support education tax credits, it’s only worth a brief mention: Education tax credits are the best policy option under current conditions, both legally and practically. If conditions change, and I wake up some morning to find that a state has so drastically cut taxes that such a program would not be viable, I will happily suggest alternatives that would still fulfill the public’s unwavering desire for universal access to a good education. That’s provided I’m not struck by a flying pig on the way to work, of course.