The Welfare State Causes “Sickness”

Sweden suffers from the world’s highest reported disability rate. This does not mean people there are actually sick, to be fair, but it does show that the welfare state creates bad incentives. People with weak values learn that they can feed at the public trough instead of doing something productive with their lives. A Wall Street Journal story explains how Swedish policy makers are trying to reverse the damage:

Swedes are among the healthiest people in the world according to the World Health Organization. And yet 13% of working-age Swedes live on some type of disability benefit – the highest proportion on the globe. To explain this, many Swedish policy makers, doctors and economists blame a welfare system that is too lax and does little to verify individual claims. … [G]overnments from Finland to Portugal are trying to cut back and get more people to work. Sweden’s bloated sick bay, which includes roughly 744,000 people on extended leave, has caused soul-searching about whether the system coddles Swedes and encourages them to feel sick. … During the 2002 monthlong World Cup soccer finals, short-term sick leave among Swedish men suspiciously rose by 55%. Earlier this year, police in Sweden’s capital city Stockholm investigated the local chapter of the Hell’s Angels biker gang for suspected benefit fraud, because 70% of the gang were on extended sickness benefits. The same doctor had certified them all as suffering from depression. … In Europe, roughly 20% of the working-age population – or 60 million people – depend on various government benefits as their sole or main income, compared with 13% in the U.S. That’s a major economic handicap. … Assar Lindbeck, one of Sweden’s best-known economists, says the lenient welfare state has changed the country over the past generation. In place of the old Protestant work ethic, it has become acceptable to feel unable to work and to live on benefits, he says. “I would not call it cheating,” Prof. Lindbeck says. “I would call it a drift in attitudes and social norms.”

It’s All About the Benjamins …

The Friedman Foundation is out with a great new report detailing the fiscal impact of all school choice programs from 1990 to 2006. They all save a bundle of money, despite their small size and other limitations. School choice saved $444 million, according to their calculations. And that is literal small change compared to the massive amounts a truly free educational system could save state and local governments.

The school choice movement has one large hurdle to clear before the barriers to educational freedom fall: Convince the broad middle class that educational choice is good for the broad middle class.

It is, of course…  school choice saves money and children. And programs that provide for universal educational freedom would save mountains of money while giving middle-class parents the direct benefit of school choice.

But people think that school choice programs will increase the cost of education (and they have no idea how much money government schools actually eat up already). Constantly pounding the educational inequity drum will simply reinforce that perception and offer the middle class nothing in return.

The typical voter wants to help poor kids … but what have all the government programs meant to address inequities gotten us? Mo money, mo problems. Most government programs meant to address inequities end up soaking the taxpayer and changing little, if anything, for the better.

The school choice movement needs to do a much better job at convincing the middle class that school choice, and the fiscal argument for school choice is a great one that advertises benefits for taxpayers with and without children.

With property tax burdens at a high point and rates rising across the country, now’s a great time to highlight the fiscal recklessness of the education-industrial complex and how school choice can fix it.

More Evidence that 2003 Tax-Rate Reductions Boosted Growth

Some politicians want higher tax rates because they resent success and think it is okay to base public policy on emotions like hate and envy, but most pro-tax lawmakers presumably are interested solely in getting more money to spend. These “practical” lawmakers may want to consider becoming supply-side tax cutters. After all, the Treasury has received a gusher of additional tax revenue since the 2003 reductions in capital gains tax rates, dividend tax rates, and personal income tax rates. The real lesson, of course, is that pro-growth tax policy leads to faster growth – and faster growth translates into more taxpayers and more taxable income. As the Wall Street Journal opines, the key question is whether politicians can control the impulse to over-spend:

Americans are sending more money than ever to Washington; revenues for the first seven months of fiscal 2007 are up 11.3%, or $153 billion. This Beltway bonanza has helped to slash the projected federal budget deficit by more than half from the same point last year. Across the past three Aprils, federal red ink has sunk by nearly $300 billion. The deficit this year could tumble to $150 billion, or an economically trivial 1% of GDP. This revenue boom certainly casts doubt on the political wails about tax loopholes for the rich. So far this year, the taxes paid on so-called nonwithheld income, which are dollars that don’t come from normal wages and salaries, have climbed by nearly 30%. This is income largely derived from capital gains, dividends and other investment sources – i.e., the tax rates that President Bush cut in 2003. Individual income taxes are also up by 17.5% – a handsome fiscal dividend from rising wages and low unemployment. In other good news, the pace of federal spending, which was pedal-to-the-metal in Mr. Bush’s first term, has finally decelerated. So far this year federal outlays have climbed by 3%, and, save for Medicare and Medicaid, federal expenditures are nearly flat from 2006.

Don’t Expect Much from Sarkozy

A Financial Times column neatly summarizes the economic views of Nicolas Sarkozy. His opposition to “fiscal dumping” really means that he opposes tax competition and wants to insulate the French welfare state from global competition:

He wants the EU to move in a French direction, offering citizens “protection” from the outside world. …During the campaign, he called on the EU to protect its citizens from unfair competition from abroad, particularly
Asia, and from fiscal, social and environmental “dumping” from poorer EU members in eastern Europe. That approach is at odds with the “open
Europe” model being promoted by most northern, central and eastern European countries.

Do You Hear the Footsteps? School Choice is Coming …

Politicians are risk-averse – so risk-averse that they often create risk for themselves by not getting ahead of issues that are building to the tipping point.

Education tax credits are supported by overwhelming majorities, and some recent polls add to the evidence. Politicians should take note before it’s too late for them.

A poll by the Show-Me Institute reveals that in Missouri, support outweighs opposition by almost 2.5 to 1 for both personal-use and business donation tax credits. A poll by the Bluegrass Institute shows that in Kentucky, support for donation tax credits outweighs opposition by 3 to 1.

These numbers are not new, and they are not going away. Critics of these polls have legitimate concerns regarding question order and wording. But tax credits are very popular with the general public no matter how you frame the question.

Even the Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup polls on education, which are notoriously pro-government education, show this kind of lopsided support for education tax credits. PDK mysteriously dropped the tax credit question after their 1998 and 1999 polls showed 2 to 1 support for education tax credits.

My own polling research shows support ranging from 2.5 to 1 up to 4 to 1 depending on the specific proposal. And that dominant support holds across party ID – Republicans, Democrats, and Independents.

Education tax credits are popular because people want control over their child’s education and control over how their education dollars are spent.

The school choice movement needs to start talking to and mobilizing the broad middle class that so overwhelmingly supports school choice. Politicians beware … the support is there.

The Heckler’s Veto in France

Two days before the French presidential election, Socialist candidate Segolene Royal warned that there would be riots if her opponent, conservative Nicolas Sarkozy, was elected. She told a radio interviewer:

“Choosing Nicolas Sarkozy would be a dangerous choice,” Royal told RTL radio.

“It is my responsibility today to alert people to the risk of (his) candidature with regards to the violence and brutality that would be unleashed in the country (if he won),” she said.

Pressed on whether there would actually be violence, Royal said: “I think so, I think so,” referring specifically to France’s volatile suburbs hit by widespread rioting in 2005.

Then the Washington Post casually reported, in an article on Sarkozy’s plans, that “While he seeks the strong majority that will be crucial for pursuing the ambitious agenda he has promised, it is unlikely he will risk tackling any tough issues that could spark social unrest or street protests.”

“The question he will have to ask himself first is: What are the reforms he should implement to show politically that he sticks to what he announced?” said Dominique Reynié, a political analyst at the Institute for Political Sciences’ Political Research Center. “And the second question is: What are the reforms he can implement without creating riots?”

And indeed, according to Time, there have been riots since the election. But the rioters aren’t the disaffected immigrant youth of the suburbs. Instead, “the participants are mostly white, educated and relatively comfortable middle class adherents of extreme-left and anti-globalization ideologies.” Some 500 cars were burned each night, up from the routine 100 cars set afire in la belle France every night.

It was outrageous for Royal to suggest that the French people should choose their leader on the basis of fear and threats. We talk about a “heckler’s veto” in which the government prevents someone from speaking in order in order to avoid a violent reaction from his critics. How much worse it would be for a great nation to choose its president because of a “rioters’ veto.” How appalling for the leader of a French political party ostensibly committed to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen to encourage a rioters’ veto. Journalists should think twice about casually reporting that elected leaders will make their decisions out of fear of rioters.

And people on the left who are committed to democracy and peace should speak up against the use of such political violence by others on the left. Nobody warned that the French bourgeoisie would riot if Royal was elected. And they wouldn’t have, so no journalist would be reporting that President-elect Royal would have to avoid “tackling tough issues that could spark social unrest.”

Is The Economist Right about Vouchers?

The latest issue of The Economist notes that a mounting body of empirical evidence now favors school voucher programs over government school monopolies. This is eminently true, and it’s delightful to see some of the existing school choice evidence getting a hearing in a mainstream publication. So: jolly good show, wot.

That said, a magazine called The Economist should be held to a very high standard for accuracy, incisiveness, and perspective when it weighs in on the subject of market effects in education – to a higher standard than if the subject were taken up by, say, Vogue, Cat Fancy, or the New York Times.

With that in mind, a few corrections and clarifications are in order. Though Milton Friedman can justly be credited with kindling the modern, U.S. interest in vouchers, the idea was not “first suggested” by him in the mid 1950s. Perhaps the earliest explicit description of the idea is in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, and it figured in the writings of other notable economists and liberal (in the classical sense) philosophers in the 18th and 19th centuries. Vouchers have, in fact, been in nationwide use in the Netherlands since 1917. This is a useful point to note because it shows that vouchers are not a recent concoction, or exclusively the brainchild of a libertarian economist.

Next, the Economist states that voucher programs “are running in several different countries without ill-effects for social cohesion.” It does seem that vouchers are more conducive to social cohesion than state monopoly schooling. Under vouchers, families can pursue both their common educational goals and their unique cultural and religious traditions, all without having to foist their preferences on their neighbors. This is quite different from the endless “school wars” that result whenever there is only one official school system (viz., U.S. battles over sex ed., school prayer, the teaching of history or reading or math, and the current favorite of pedagogical pugilists: the teaching of evolution vs. “intelligent design”).

But to say that voucher programs have no social ill-effects whatsoever is, perhaps, an overstatement. After the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh in the fall of 2004 at the hands of a militant Islamist, one Dutch Muslim voucher school was bombed and another set ablaze. This is only the most violent and extreme manifestation of a broader unease among some Dutch citizens with the government funding of conservative Islamic schools. Over the past decade, there have been periodic efforts to either cap the number of such schools that can be opened, or to craft regulations so as to make their creation unlikely. This, of course, is a zero-sum game. Either law abiding Dutch Muslims can enjoy the benefits of their country’s voucher program, or they cannot. If they can, taxpayers who object to their teachings but are forced to pay for them anyway become frustrated and social tension results. If they cannot, the Muslim minority suffers second-class status and social tension results.

The reason for this lose-lose situation is that while vouchers lessen the amount of compulsion in education (as compared to government monopoly school systems) they do not eliminate compulsion altogether. Taxpayers can still be compelled to support schooling that violates their convictions. It is possible to promote universal access to the education marketplace with even less compulsion than is associated with vouchers, by means of a universal education tax credit program. I describe such a system here.

The Economist’s portrayal of the Swedish voucher program is also overly kind. “The only real restrictions imposed on private schools,” the magazine claims, “were that they must run their admissions on a first-come-first-served basis and promise not to charge top-up fees.” In reality, the regulations are much more onerous. Most notably, voucher schools must follow a state curriculum and are forbidden to charge tuition fees larger than the voucher amount (this is also true of the Dutch program). These restrictions all but destroy the prospects for specialization and the division of labor, and prevent free floating, market-determined prices from arising. These, as The Economist’s editors must well know, are essential components of free markets. Without them, no genuine market can exist.

Late last year, the Cato Institute published an Education Market Index, which measures roughly 100 characteristics of education systems (or education policies) and rates them on the extent to which a free market currently exists (or on the compatibility of a policy with the rise of a free education market). While the Swedish voucher policy does indeed outscore the Dutch one on this metric, as The Economist’s editors would have predicted, it does so by scoring 40 out of 100 as compared to the Netherlands’ score of 31 out of 100. As currently designed, neither program is conducive to the rise of a genuine education market.

Popularizing the theory and evidence on education markets is an area in which The Economist could well lead the way. If true to its name, the magazine could hold scholars’ and pundits’ feet to the fire when they mischaracterize existing weak school choice programs as markets. The magazine could also continue to draw attention to regions and niches where true free markets in education already thrive – India’s private schools serving the poor, for instance, or the growing worldwide, for-profit, largely unregulated market for after-school tutoring services. Such a rigorous approach to the subject in a mainstream magazine would be a unique and welcome contribution to the debate, and no-one is better equipped to tackle it.