Hopelessly Devoted to HIM?

SMU Biblical studies professor Mark Chancey has just penned a study of Bible teaching in Texas Public Schools (.pdf). The report concludes that “the public school courses currently taught in Texas often fail to meet minimal academic standards for teacher qualifications; curriculum, and academic rigor; promote one faith perspective over all others; and push an ideological agenda that is hostile to religious freedom, science and public education.”

Chancey’s most damning charge: “Most Bible courses are taught as religious and devotional classes that promote one faith perspective over all others.” If true, that, of course. would be unconstitutional. (Nadine Strossen, call your office.)

Here’s a thought: Rather than forcing all Americans to pay for a one-size-fits-few government monopoly that inevitably creates legal and cultural conflict over the curriculum, why not institute a school system that would give both parents and other taxpayers real educational choice? This could easily be done by combining and enlarging the existing personal use and scholarship donation tax credit programs that exist in states like Pennsylvania and Arizona. A short exposition of the idea appears here, and a more comprehensive one is available here.

Cato’s Neal McCluskey will be publishing a study of the endless school wars caused by our state-run education monopolies later this year. Stay tuned.

New at Cato Unbound: Veronique de Rugy on Anti-terrorism Spending

In today’s installment of Cato Unbound, AEI resident scholar (and Cato adjunct scholar) Veronique de Rugy argues that the $271.5 billion devoted by the federal government to homeland security since 9/11 has not been well spent.

“Not only are we over-investing in homeland security,” de Rugy argues, “but most times we spend too much money in the wrong way and on the wrong things.”

The consequence is that we are no safer. “Bad security is often worse than no security at all,” de Rugy writes. “By trying, and failing, to make ourselves more secure, we make ourselves less secure.”

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Behavioral Economics

Peter raises the threat that behavioral economics poses to free market policy. I’m less concerned about this movement, in large part because its teachings can be turned against central regulators. 

Here’s law professors Stephen Choi and Adam Pritchard, from the conclusion to their excellent 2003 article Behavioral Economics and the SEC (from the Stanford Law Review; working paper version available here):

Regulators are vulnerable to a wide range of behavioral contagion. Regulators may suffer from overconfidence and process information with only bounded rationality. Heuristics play a large role in how regulators make decisions. Even with expertise, regulators may misapply heuristics across the spectrum of different regulatory problems. Regulators may also suffer from confirmation bias, supporting prior regulatory decisions whatever the wisdom of the decisions.

And in groups the decisionmaking of regulators may decline rather than improve. On the one hand, groups and organizational structures may help alleviate some of the mistakes that derive from individually biased decisions. Studies of group decisionmaking provide evidence that the total can indeed be greater than the sum of individuals in enhancing the accuracy of decisions. But cognitive illusions may grip entire groups. Groupthink may also lead to an uncritical acceptance of regulatory decisions.

If both investors and regulators operate under the influence of behavioral biases, the value of regulation in correcting these biases comes into question. If regulators are not well equipped to determine whether regulation will counteract the biases facing investors, regulation may well do more harm than good. Worse still, SEC regulators may suffer greater behavioral biases than securities market participants. Investors that perform poorly will either learn (and perhaps put their money into an index fund or otherwise hire expertise) or exit the market. Private institutions face similar market pressures to serve the interests of their client-investors or perish. Although some types of biases may give institutions a competitive edge, the magnitude of such biases is limited by the cost that they impose on investors. The market may not function perfectly, but regulators under the present regime face no such pressures.

Doublespeak and the War on Terror

Last week, Cato published my paper “Doublespeak and the War on Terrorism.” Of course, this has not kept President Bush from using doublespeak. 

In his televised address this week, Mr. Bush said that all members of the U.S. military are “volunteers.” Not so. We do not have the large-scale conscription of civilians, but we do have “stop-loss” orders from the White House, which means soldiers that have fulfilled the terms of their enlistment contracts may not leave military. The men and women who wanted to return to civilian life after serving their term of service are not “volunteers.”  In military circles, the stop-loss order is known as the “backdoor draft.”

Fortunately, more people are calling attention to such misuse of language by government. Go here for a column by Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post. Go here for a column by Dick Meyer of CBS News.

We’ll never be able to stop the government from engaging in doublespeak because the government is constantly engaging in mischief. But if we’re vigilant about it, we can keep the government in check.

A New Solution to the Trade Deficit ‘Problem’

I’ll be honest with you folks — in Australia we have an expression, “Only in America!” It is used whenever outlandish, seemingly crazy, or especially unusual ideas or events occur over here. It is frequently used by news-readers. Please don’t be offended.

Anyway, I am proposing a new expression, “Only from Congress.” It could be used to describe, well, whenever an outlandish, seemingly crazy, or especially unusual idea is announced by members of Congress. And to kick things off, I would like to introduce the first item for your consideration.

Two Democratic senators, Byron Dorgan of North Dakota and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, have proposed that any company wishing to import goods into America would need a government-issued certificate. The senators, according to this New York Times article (link requires subscription), view this as a “market-based system to cut the trade deficit to zero within 10 years.”

It would work thus: Any company that exports goods would be issued an import certificate that would allow it to import goods. The “exchange rate” would fall from $1.40 in the first year (i.e., $1 worth of exports would earn $1.40 worth of imports), to $1.30 in the second year, and so on until we achieve “balance.” If a company does not wish to import anything, it can sell the import certificate to someone who does. I guess that’s the “market-based” part.

Sherman Katz of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace was quoted in the article as saying that “’it looks on the face of it to represent an enormous intrusion of government activity into business totaling trillions of dollars each year.”

“Enormous” doesn’t seem to quite capture it though, does it? How about “insane”?

Can you imagine the type of federal oversight this would require? And how would our trade partners react to the U.S. market being restricted in this way?

And what about oil? Ah, the wise senators have already thought of that. Oil would be given a 10-year phase-in, to allow the economy “time to find and develop alternative energy supplies.”

Imports of goods keep inflation in check and imports of capital keep interest rates down and help finance economic growth. Restricting imports would necessarily restrict capital flows into the economy because of the necessary balance between the current and capital accounts. To bring investment in line with savings, domestic interest rates would need to rise, reducing investment and economic growth. (More here.)

Question for the senators: What sort of certificate would you issue to cope with those sorts of macroeconomic effects?

I’m guessing we can expect lots of “Only from Congress” ideas in the coming campaign season. I’m excited.

Regulation News Pegs!!

In the public relations racket, they’re called “news pegs” — current events that can be used to promote your research. As editor of Regulation, I sometimes get the complaint that my publication is “interesting, but it doesn’t have a lot of news pegs.”

So how about this — two Regulation news pegs in one day!

Peg 1: Should we tax nonprofit hospitals?

Decades ago, Congress awarded tax-exempt status to private nonprofit hospitals in return for the hospitals agreeing to treat indigent patients who would otherwise rely on taxpayer-provided healthcare services. But this “grand bargain” is now under Capitol Hill scrutiny following the discovery that for-profit, non–tax exempt hospitals provide roughly the same amount of free medical care to the poor. Today’s NPR program Marketplace discusses the congressional hearings.

All of this should come as no surprise to readers of Regulation. In the summer issue, Guy David of Penn and Lorens Helmchen of Illinois-Chicago lay out this very problem and ask (pdf), why is the government giving one type of tax treatment to some hospitals and another type to others?

Peg 2: Soft Paternalism

For several years I’ve believed that one of the most important intellectual challenges to libertarian ideas is behavioral economics — the empirical field of study that suggests people often do not act rationally and thus markets do not maximize public welfare.

The current issue of the New Yorker contains an article by John Cassidy on behavioral and neuroeconomics that confirms my view. In the article, Cassidy writes that “most economists agree that, left alone, people will act in their own best interest, and that the market will coordinate their actions to produce outcomes beneficial to all.  Neuroeconomics potentially challenges both parts of this argument.”

The regulatory prescriptions that follow from this research are often described as “soft” or “libertarian” paternalism.  The basic notion is that government should require certain behaviors as a default rule (for example the purchase of health insurance or particpation in 401k saving plans) but allow people to opt out if they prefer.

But government actors appear to be no more rational than economic actors — and it is quite possible that soft paternalism could be more detrimental to public welfare than the private choices studied by behavioral economics. Harvard economics professor Ed Glaeser states this case (pdf) in the summer issue of Regulation.

Shameless

On the off chance anyone may have thought there were any vestiges of limited government left in the ranks of today’s GOP:

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is trying use a bill authorizing U.S. military operations, including in Iraq and Afghanistan, to prohibit people from using credit cards to settle Internet gambling debts. Frist, R-Tenn., and his aides have been meeting with other lawmakers and officials in both the House and Senate to get the measure attached to a compromise Defense Department authorization bill, according to a Senate GOP leadership aide.

If this goes through, any senator who would dare suggest that the gambling ban be killed on the grounds that what people do with their own money on their own time in their own homes is none of Bill Frist’s business now risks accusations that he doesn’t support U.S. troops overseas.

What’s most aggravating about Congress’ full-throttle push to ban online game is that there’s really no call for it from the public, save for some of the fringe family-values conservatives. Some in Congress – Sen. John Kyl, and Reps. Goodlatte and Leach, for example – have been pushing this ban for years. But Frist’s sudden interest looks like little more than election year red meat.

Public opinion polls show most voters are overwhelmingly opposed to an online gambling prohibition. And to my knowledge, supporters of the bill can’t point to a single study showing that large numbers of Americans are gambling away their futures on these poker sites. Thus far, they’ve justified the bill with no more than a few anecdotes.

Of course, there’s also the naked hypocrisy of exempting state lotteries and the politically powerful horse racing industry from the ban. There actually are studies showing state lotteries to be a primary outlet for gambling addicts.