Which Part of “Not Green Box” Does the USDA Not Understand?

After a long wait, the United States finally notified the other members of the World Trade Organization of its spending on agricultural programs today. Although timely notification is supposedly a key requirement (and benefit) of the WTO, the U.S. had left members in the dark as to the true nature and extent of its farm subsidies since 2004, and that notification covered only the years up to 2001.

Today’s notification asserts that U.S. spending on so-called “Amber-box” domestic support (that which is linked to production and/or prices of agricultural commodities, and thus is the most market-distorting) was well below its limit of $19.1 billion in every year between 2002-2005 (the period covered by the latest notification). However, sources tell me that the administration admitted in a telephone press conference today that direct payments were classified as “green box” (spending which is at most minimally trade-distorting and therefore not subject to reduction commitments) in their calculations, in direct contravention of a 2005 WTO Appellate Body ruling on U.S. Cotton programs, which stated (at para. 342) “[P]roduction flexibility contract payments and direct payments … are not green box measures exempt from the reduction commitments by virtue of Annex 2 of the Agreement on Agriculture.” (my emphasis)

Seems pretty clear to me.

In other words, if direct payments are properly classified as amber box measures, the United States’ spending might look very different, and may not be below the legal ceiling after all, especially in years 2004 and 2005 (see more here). Members of Congress currently writing a new farm bill might want to keep the threat of WTO litigation (including pending challenges by Canada and Brazil) in mind.

President Wiretap

Along with the usual bills and flyers for bargain pizzas cluttering my mailbox yesterday was an envelope screaming:

SENATOR “WIRETAP”
what she could teach President Bush about serious snooping

I open it up to find a letter from Bill Buckley, using rather more underlining and fewer 11-syllable words than one usually associates with National Review’s founder.  It’s a direct mail pitch for the magazine, and in it I learn what the envelope’s shouting about.  It seems that Senator Clinton “twice employed Tony Pellicano, the Hollywood-based ex-con famous for using wiretaps, hand grenades, and plastic explosives in his, ah ‘inquiries.’” 

I stopped following Clinton scandals after Bill Clinton left office, so I don’t know the story NR’s referring to, but it sure sounds disturbing.   And remember the Travel Office Scandal?  (I do, sort of).  Hillary really sounds like the sort of person you wouldn’t want to grant unlimited wiretap authority for anything she chooses to label “national security.”  Tough, says NR legal guru Andrew McCarthy (along with virtually everyone else who’s written about FISA for the magazine):

The president’s constitutional authority is inviolable — it cannot be reduced by mere legislation. When Congress passes a statute, like FISA, that purports to reduce the president’s constitutional authority, it is Congress, not the president, that is trampling the rule of law. A president who ignores such a statute is not a law-breaker; he is a defender of the highest law.

Judging by fundraising and polls, “Senator Wiretap” may well succeed GWB as “defender of the highest law.”  And then we’ll see if NR’s right about her teaching President Bush a thing or two about “serious snooping.”  

I feel like there’s a lesson in here somewhere, but I’m too distracted by Ted Kennedy jokes to figure it out. 

Topics:

The Political Possibility Delusion

Today the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation – a neo-con education think tank – released The Proficiency Illusion, a report detailing how low many states have set their “proficiency” standards under the No Child Left Behind Act. As discovered before, Fordham finds that many states set “proficiency” at surface-scraping levels, most likely in an effort to avoid sanctions under the law, or even more likely, just so their leaders can continue to tell their citizens “don’t worry, everything’s fine.”

Yesterday, I wrote about Diane Ravitch’s assault on NCLB in the New York Times, and took major issue with only one thing that she called for: national standards. Well, the Fordham folks make the same proposal, suggesting that it’s insane that we have no, single, curricular standard:

First, it’s crazy not to have some form of national standards for educational achievement—stable, reliable, cumulative, and comparable. That doesn’t mean Uncle Sam should set them, but if Uncle Sam is going to push successfully for standards-based reform he cannot avoid the responsibility of ensuring that they get set.

Now, forget for a second that the Fordham folks are saying that Uncle Sam needn’t set national standards but that it should set them all the same. What’s more important is that Fordham fails to address the same unavoidable problem that Ravitch missed: As long as government controls education, political forces will ensure that standards stay low and easy to meet. It is, simply, the absolutely inescapable conclusion one reaches after examining the history of public schooling generally, and the 40-plus years of federal involvement. Indeed, the No Child Left Behind Act and consistently bankrupt state standards prove this beyond a doubt, yet some conservatives still push for national standards, ignoring political reality and forgetting all the progressive educator, teacher union, and other special interest domination of education conservatives have been complaining about for decades.

The history of American education proves one thing: When government runs education, education works for the people in government, not parents and children. That’s why any national standards adopted by government – whether Uncle Sam or some consortium of states – are doomed to failure, and why the only way to get high standards – and critical competition and innovation to boot – is universal school choice.

It’s time for big government conservatives to accept political reality, forget about hopeless national standards, and put all their energy into giving parents – not politicians – the real power in education.  

More Reckless Raids?

Today’s NYT reports on reckless pre-dawn raids by immigration officials in New York. Excerpt:

“These were like dragnets being cast over entire houses,” said Nadia Marin-Molina, director of the Workplace Project, an immigrant advocacy organization in Hempstead that has gathered many of the complaints.

The complaints echo a federal lawsuit filed last month in Manhattan contending that immigration agents unlawfully force their way into the homes of Latino families in violation of the Fourth Amendment’s protection from unreasonable searches.

“We have been inundated with calls,” said Cesar Perales, director of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, which filed the lawsuit. “People are terrified by these indiscriminate raids.”

It is a familiar tale of agents bursting into homes when the occupants are asleep and without having done sufficient investigative work in advance of the raid.  Such tactics produce unnecessary violence.  Sometimes the residents, understandably, think their home is being invaded by criminals. 

The Antitrust Religion

Many successful American businesses have been accused of anti-competitive practices. In The Antitrust Religion, a new book published by the Cato Institute, attorney and author Edwin S. Rockefeller argues that much of the conventional wisdom about antitrust is wrong. Drawing on 50 years of experience with U.S. antitrust laws, Rockefeller sheds light on why lawmakers, bureaucrats, academics, and journalists use arbitrary and irrational laws and enforcement mechanisms to punish capitalists rather than promote competition.

Rockefeller also participated in a Cato daily podcast about the book.

So Close, Yet So Far

In today’s New York Times, education historian Diane Ravitch declares that Congress should kill the No Child Left Behind Act and get out of education. Well, almost.

In her piece, Ravitch runs through a litany of problems with NCLB, not the least of which is that the law encourages states to set “proficiency” standards as low as possible, and encourages NCLB supporters like President Bush and Education Secretary Spellings to exaggerate its effectiveness. Ravitch also rightly takes the law to task because through it Congress sets reforms and penalties for bad schools, “which is way beyond its competence.” Unfortunately, she stops short of calling for full federal withdrawal from education, asserting that Washington “is good at collecting and disseminating information,” and declaring the need for “a consistent national testing program in which officials have no vested interest in claiming victory.”

It is actually a very debatable proposition that the feds are good at collecting data – a look at the federal Digest of Education Statistics, for instance, shows some pretty long lags between when data is collected and when it becomes available to the public – but that’s not the big problem with Ravitch’s piece. The big problem is the national testing proposal. Quite simply, as long as we have public schools – meaning, schools run by government – government officials will always, always, always have a vested interest in “claiming victory.” As a result, unless the system is fundamentally changed, no matter how the standards are designed and implemented we will always get lowest-common-denominator outcomes:

  1. Easy standards and tests, voluntary adoption: Politicians at all levels will likely adopt the standards and have little political incentive to lower them. The outcomes, however, will be poor.
  2. Difficult standards and tests, voluntary adoption: Politicians at all levels will have little incentive to adopt the standards and outcomes will be poor.
  3. Easy standards and tests, involuntary adoption: Politicians at all levels will adopt the standards and have little political incentive to lower them. The outcomes, however, will be poor.
  4. Difficult standards and tests, involuntary adoptions: Politicians at all levels will adopt the tests, but will exert constant political pressure to make them easier, just as we’ve seen with NCLB. The outcomes, again, will be poor.

So what’s the solution if not national standards? Fundamentally change the system: Get the feds out of education, and implement universal school choice at state and local levels. Then, since they won’t run the schools, public officials won’t have the same, dangerous, vested interests in the results, and schools that do a bad job will, at last, have a very strong interest in responding to parents, not running to politicians.