But Tell Us What You Really Think of the NCLB, Matt

Matt Ladner, VP for research at the Arizona-based Goldwater Institute, has some harsh words for the No Child Left Behind Act:

The latest incarnation, in fact, represents yet another step in the long sad history of ineffectually throwing money at public schools. NCLB is headed for the ash-heap of failed education reforms. The only question at this point is how expensive of a failure it will become.

Is Charles Murray’s Ceiling Their Fate?

Writing in this week’s Wall Street Journal, IQ expert Charles Murray argues that “Our ability to improve the academic accomplishment of students in the lower half of the distribution of intelligence is severely limited.”

In one sense, he is almost certainly correct. No matter how much we improve the quality of schooling, there will always be intellectual pursuits that are beyond the reach of not just half the population, but beyond the overwhelming majority of us. He gives the example that he himself cannot follow proofs in the American Journal of Mathematics — not because he knows too little, but because he is not smart enough. Charles, I’m with you. After perusing this paper on “The Equivalence Problem and Rigidity for Hypersurfaces Embedded into Hyperquadrics,” I am prepared to agree with the now-discontinued Teen-Talk Barbie: ”[Abstract] math is hard.”

But in another sense, I suggest that Charles is mistaken. It is likely that a significantly improved education system could raise the academic achievement of all students substantially above their current levels. There are numerous examples of this happening, both anecdotally and in the research literature.

On the anecdotal front, recall star calculus teacher Jaime Escalante, and how he put LA’s Garfield High School on the map in the 1980s by constructing a math department that was truly top notch. So many of Escalante’s low-income Hispanic students started taking and passing AP calculus courses (more, at one point, than at Beverly Hills High School) that the program’s overseers insisted on a re-test (his students did remarkably well once again).

Are we to believe that the only children whose grasp of mathematics was greatly improved by Escalante’s instruction were those with above-average IQs? That seems unlikely. It would be hard to argue that calculus is as prohibitively difficult, when well taught, as “hypersurfaces embedded into hyperquadrics.”

On the empirical research front, consider the wealth of international studies comparing student achievement in parent-driven, competitive market schools with the achievement of similar students in bureaucratically-run, non-competitive schools. Are these academic advantages, which are sometimes substantial, concentrated only among those with 100+ IQs? Again, there is no reason to think so.

The problem, as I see it, with Murray’s argument is simply that he is assuming the “ceiling” on academic achievement is lower that it is actually likely to be. This may be due to the fact that, at present, the education system through which 90 percent of American students pass is badly designed, and consistently fails to raise students up to their full potential.

It is also worth noting that Charles makes no mention in this particular piece about the benefits of an improved K-12 education system for brighter students. Surely they deserve the opportunity to fulfill their intellectual potentials just as much as children on the left side of the bell curve.

In short, a better school system could do a lot of kids an awful lot of good.

Two Reasons Why an Individual Mandate Will Not Solve the Free-Rider Problem

The idea that government should compel people to purchase health insurance is gaining traction among Republicans and Democrats.  The idea is called an “individual mandate,” because it would require individuals to purchase coverage (as opposed to a mandate that requires employers to provide coverage to their workers).  Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) put that idea into effect in the Bay State.  California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposes to do so in the Golden State.  A number of other states are considering it.

What makes the idea attractive is the fact that many people obtain health care but don’t pay for it.  Unless health care providers can (1) collect from, (2) avoid, or (3) deny care to those people (which in many cases is illegal), the costs must fall on someone else.  Thus, the reasoning goes, decreeing that everyone must obtain health insurance would solve that “free-rider” problem.

But there are two important reasons why it will not:

  1. There would still be people without health insurance.  Many will not obey the decree.  California mandates that all drivers must carry auto insurance, yet according to the Insurance Research Council, 25 percent of California motorists are uninsured.  In fact, the share of uninsured motorists is higher than the share of residents without health insurance (18 percent).  Even with a mandate, there will be uninsured people who free-ride at others’ expense.
  2. Free-riding by people with health insurance.  According to research by the Urban Institute’s Jack Hadley and John Holahan, people who have health coverage account for at least 30 percent of uncompensated care delivered to the non-elderly.  Since uncompensated care accounts for just 4 percent of health spending, a mandate could affect at most 2.8 percent of spending.

So an individual mandate could solve at most two-thirds of a very small problem, but chances are it would do even less good than that.

That small benefit must be balanced against the costs.  According to The New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn, who is generally sympathetic, “individual mandates … require substantial government intervention in the free market.”  Government must monitor yet one more aspect of the citizens’ lives.  It must define what qualifies as health insurance, which is an invitation to the sort of special-interest rent-seeking that has made health insurance unaffordable for so many.  It must tax some citizens to subsidize those who cannot afford coverage.  A final cost of such mandates is that rather than solve the much larger problem of moral hazard, they actually make that problem worse. 

An individual mandate would not fix our broken health care system.  It would simply pump more money into that system. 

What is interesting, then, is this.  Journalists and left-ish policy wonks explode when special interests try to line their own pockets by supporting, say, ineffective weapons systems.  But where is the outrage when this or that group seeks to do the same thing with ineffective health care proposals?

How Large are Federal Oil Subsidies?

Yesterday, I co-authored an op-ed with Peter Van Doren on the Democrats’ energy bill scheduled for a vote today in the House.  The bill is advertised as an exercise to eliminate the subsidies going to “Big Oil” and to use that money instead to subsidize renewable energy (the fact that “Big Oil” is also in the renewable energy business and will simply find that the federal checks are going to different corporate in-boxes has apparently not occurred to anyone, but I digress).  But did the Democrats wipe out all the subsidies, or did they leave some big subsidies behind?

A lot of people think that the Democrats left a lot of money on the table.  Today in the Christian Science Monitor, for example, economist Doug Koplow argues that the biggest subsidy left untouched by Pelosi & Co. relates to the military protection of oil producing facilities and shipping lanes abroad, a mission which costs the taxpayer at least $19 billion a year. 

While the Ds certainly were less than thorough in their anti-oil-subsidy crusade, I’m not so sure that the subsidies are anywhere near as large as many people think.

Quantifying the national security costs associated with ensuring the safe and reliable delivery of foreign oil is difficult.  The Congressional Research Service estimated in 1997 that those costs may be anywhere between $0.5-65 billion, or 1.5 cents to 30 cents per gallon for motor fuel from the Persian Gulf.  Agreement about the extent of the military’s “oil mission” is difficult because military and foreign policy expenditures are generally tasked with multiple missions and objectives, and oil security is simply one mission of many.  Analysts disagree about how to divide those missions into budgetary terms. 

Debate about the size of the U.S. military’s oil mission and related foreign policy expenses, however, is not particularly relevant to a discussion about whether and to what extent oil companies are subsidized by this kind of thing.  From an economic perspective, the key question is whether an elimination of U.S. military and foreign aid expenditures dedicated to “the oil mission” would result in (a) greater corporate expenditures to secure oil from abroad, and/or (b) an increase in the price of oil, and, if so, how much?  That is the true measure of the subsidy if it indeed exists.  That’s because, if the oil mission provides no value to multinational oil companies or oil consumers - as I maintain - than it is not a subsidy.  Measuring the subsidy by the amount of money government spends on the oil mission is at best a measure of how much politicians believe the national security externalities might be.  Political assessments may or may not be accurate.            

To be sure, if the termination of the American “oil mission” implied the termination of all military, police, and court services in the region, petroleum extraction investments would become more risky, extraction of oil might decrease, and prices would increase.  But remember that oil companies in the Middle-East are creatures of government.  So the question is really whether Middle-East governments would produce less oil because the United States ended its oil-related military mission and foreign aid.  Or would oil producing states provide – or pay others to provide – military services to replace those previously provided by the United States?           

I strongly suspect that a cessation of U.S. security assistance would be replaced by security expenditures from other parties.  First, oil producers will provide for their own security needs as long as the cost of doing so results in greater profits than equivalent investments could yield.  Because Middle-Eastern governments typically have nothing of value to trade except oil, they must secure and sell oil to remain viable.  Second, given that their economies are so heavily dependent upon oil revenues, Middle-Eastern governments have even more incentive than we do to worry about the security of production facilities, ports, and sea lanes.  

In short, whatever security our presence provides (and many analysts think that our presence actually reduces security) could be provided by other parties were the United States to withdraw.  The fact that Saudi Arabia and Kuwait paid for 55 percent of the cost of Operation Desert Storm suggests that keeping the Straits of Hormuz free of trouble is certainly within their means.  The same argument applies to Al Qaeda threats to oil production facilities.           

If oil regimes paid for their own military protection and the protection of their own shipping lanes, would U.S. Middle-East military expenditures really go down?  The answer might very well be “no” for two very different reasons.  First, the U.S. Middle-East military presence stems from our implicit commitment to defend Israel as well as the region from Islamic fundamentalism, and those missions would not likely end simply because Arab oil regimes paid for their own economic security needs.  Second, bureaucratic and congressional inertia might leave military expenditures constant regardless of Israeli or petroleum defense needs.              

Thus, U.S. ”oil mission” should not be viewed as a subsidy that lowers oil prices below what they otherwise would be.  Instead, the expenditures are a taxpayer-financed gift to oil regimes and the Israeli government that has little, if any, effect on oil prices or corporate profits.  Now, I’d be happy to see the oil mission go, but “Big Oil” won’t be any poorer for it.

More on Bush’s Surveillance Flip-Flop

Based on the DOJ briefing regarding the NSA surveillance about-face, it appears that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) is not approving surveillance on a program-wide basis.  Instead, it is issuing individualized surveillance orders against particularized targets.  It remains unclear, though, how exactly the FISA orders have changed to permit more “speed and agility” and, because so much is taking place within the dark, all suggestions are pure, unadulterated guess-work.

One compelling theory is Orin Kerr’s:  namely, that the FISA court is issuing anticipatory warrants (warrants based on a finding that there is probable cause to search when a future triggering condition appears.)  As Kerr notes, that’s consistent the one bit of evidence we can glean:  that the FISA court is limiting the approval orders to a 90 day period, rather than the full statutory one year period permitted under FISA.  Shorter review is consistent with ensuring that the triggering condition for the search and the probable cause requirement mesh.  It also helps explain the timing, since the Supreme Court approved anticipatory warrants in United States v. Grubbs last term.  (For more on Grubbs, read Professor David Moran’s article on last term’s Fourth Amendment cases, The End of the Exclusionary Rule, Among Other Things, in the latest Cato Supreme Court Review.)

Kerr’s theory, however, doesn’t explain one part of the puzzle:  multiple sources’ statements to the Washington Post that the orders touch on ”programmatic” issues.  What might this mean, if FISC is approving orders on a case-by-case, rather than program-level, basis?

One possibility is that DOJ has adopted a streamlined internal approval process for emergency FISA applications within the executive branch, and that FISC has approved it.  FISA imposes some internal pre-approval requirements for emergency applications–including review by the AG and a cabinet level official with foreign affairs responsibility.  In February testimony last year, Gonzales complained at length that this statutory approval process had become overly cumbersome:

To be sure, FISA allows the government to begin electronic surveillance without a court order for up to 72 hours in emergency situations or circumstances. 

But before that emergency provision can be used, the attorney general must make a determination that all of the requirements of the FISA statute are met in advance. 

This requirement can be cumbersome and burdensome.  Intelligence officials at NSA first have to assess that they have identified a legitimate target. After that, lawyers at NSA have to review the request to make sure it meets all the requirements of the statute. And then lawyers at the Justice Department must also review the request and reach the same judgment or insist on additional information before processing the emergency application.  Finally I, as attorney general, must review the request and make the determination that all of the requirements of FISA are met.  

But even this is not the end of the story. 

Each emergency authorization must be followed by a detailed formal application to the FISA courts within three days. The government must prepare legal documents laying out all of the relevant facts and law and obtain the approval of a Cabinet-level officer as well as a certification from a senior official with mass security responsibility, such as the director of the FBI. 

Finally, a judge must review, consider and approve the application.  All of these steps take time. Al Qaida, however, does not wait.  … Just as we can’t demand that our soldiers bring lawyers onto the battlefield, let alone get the permission of the attorney general or a court before taking action, we can’t afford to impose layers of lawyers on top of career intelligence officers who are striving valiantly to provide a first line of defense by tracking secretive Al Qaida operatives in real time.  

In the briefing on the new FISA process, however, the administration noted that one change that made compliance with FISA possible was a change in executive branch “infrastructure”:

[O]ne thing that did change was – authorization earlier this year, last year, the National Security Division, which is a new agency in the Department of Justice, which will – be coordinating with the FISA Court on all kinds of matters including this one. So we’re now equipped in a way we weren’t before to handle this work.

One way to read this is that the new FISC order finds that new streamlined executive branch procedures for internal review of emergency applications accords with FISA.  Its hard, unfortunately, to guess exactly what such procedures might be, but it almost certainly includes eliminating duplicative layers of legal oversight within the executive.

NEJM Reviews Medicare Meets Mephistopheles

This week’s issue of the New England Journal of Medicine carries a review of the Cato Institute’s latest health care book, Medicare Meets Mephistopheles by Cato adjunct scholar David A. Hyman. Reviewer Peter Jacobson of the University of Michigan School of Public Health writes:

Hyman’s bracing critique reflects the fact that neither Medicare’s problems nor the ascendancy of market-based approaches to solving them can be ignored any longer.

Medicare Meets Mephistopheles provides a good starting point for free-market advocates who are serious about preventing the federal government from imposing price controls on prescription drugs, or otherwise stealing from future generations.

Goodbye Warrantless NSA Surveillance?

The DOJ announced today it has reached a double super-secret deal with the FISA court which allows it to bring the administration’s NSA surveillance program within the statutory FISA framework governing surveillance warrants. What deal, you ask? The DOJ’s letter to Senators Leahy and Specter provides few details, except to say that it is based on a FISA court order that establishes “innovative” and “complex” warrant procedures that allow the administration to act with “speed and agility.”

Absent further information, its hard to tell whether this is a good development, although as Marty Lederman notes, it is “difficult to imagine that the FISA court would roll over and approve an ‘innovative’ legal theory if it were dubious – especially not in this context, where DOJ has many incentives to get the FISA court on-board and where the congressional and public spotlight is shining so brightly.”

The administration’s about face underscores what I argued in this piece: that the administration’s claims that it was simply too cumbersome to comply with FISA held absolutely no water.

Lederman also notes that the threat of losses in ongoing multi-district litigation involving the state secrets privilege as well as the threat of congressional subpoenas, and possible litigation over executive privilege, may well have prompted the administration to give up its go it alone stance. I’ve previously argued that such threats had the potential to rein in the administration, without involving a winner-takes-all show down with the Supreme Court, here.