Educational Toleration

NPR reports on a new Florida law that requires the teaching of American history in the schools and sets up some rules for how it should be taught. At the beginning of the report I was amused by the description of the impetus for the law:

Mike Fasano was a state Senator from New Port Richey, Florida, just north of Tampa. After visiting some schools he learned that students often didn’t know the name of their town’s mayor, the name of the state’s lieutenant governor, or even the difference between the Florida legislature and the U.S. Congress.

The name of the lieutenant governor? Let’s see … kids who can’t vote can’t name a public official who has no power. And that’s a problem? But OK, they should know the difference between the legislature and the Congress. And so:

To help remedy that, Fasano proposed a bill recently signed into law that requires Florida schools to teach the history of the United States from the period of discovery to the present. Nothing controversial about that. The clause that alarmed historians was the one that seemed to suggest that any discussions of controversial events that were open to different interpretations would be off-limits.

Indeed, the bill does say:

American history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed, shall be viewed as knowable, teachable, and testable, and shall be defined as the creation of a new nation based largely on the universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.

And that has stirred controversy. Teachers and educrats and a Washington lobbyist for historians (!) all complain that history is not just “facts,” that interpretation is essential for understanding what happened. And of course they’re right. The first problem is that millions of things happened every day in 400 years of American history (note that “400 years” assumes that American history began with the arrival of European settlers). You can’t tell kids every one of those things, so already you’re picking and choosing among facts, based on some theory or assumption about what’s important.

And then of course history is full of controversies: Did the British treat the colonists unfairly? Did the colonists treat the Indians unfairly? Were the costs of the American Revolution worth it? Were the Founders hypocrites to proclaim their devotion to liberty while holding slaves? And so on and so on, right up to the dropping of the atomic bomb, the debacle of Vietnam, and the contemporary questions of whether either Bill Clinton or George W. Bush was the worst president in American history.

But the mere listing of a few historical controversies illustrates the difficulty of deciding on a “right” answer. Whose interpretation should be taught to all students in government schools? Should we tell students that Jefferson was a hero or a hypocrite? That the 600,000 deaths in the Civil War were or were not worth it? That the bombing of Hiroshima was a war crime or a necessary measure to save even more lives? That FDR saved capitalism or transformed a federal republic into a centralized welfare state?

There are no right answers to these questions. (Well, there are, but apparently not everyone sees them.) So the teaching of history becomes a political struggle: Which faction will get to impose its view on millions of children?

The way to avoid political fights like these is to depoliticize them. Take away the power for anyone to impose his or her views on all the children. People used to expect the state to impose one religion on the whole society. When, nevertheless, people came to hold differing religious beliefs, Europe went through the Wars of Religion. And out of those conflicts came a new understanding: religious toleration and the separation of church and state. Let everyone worship as he chooses, and let no one impose religion on those with different beliefs.

The separation of school and state would accomplish the same thing in education: No more political fights over school prayer, the Pledge of Allegiance, gay teachers, evolution, dress codes, sex education, or historical interpretation. Let every family choose schools that reflect their own values or otherwise best meet their educational needs. And if we can’t achieve separation, we could at least adopt toleration: Let all parents send their children to schools they choose, without financial penalty.

Yet More Government Waste

Sen. Chuck Grassley, chairman of the Finance Committee, is asking Medicare/Medicaid administrator Mark McClellan why two senior Medicare investigators spend up to two months each year “on travel to popular vacation destinations.” Grassley wants to know, “What did American taxpayers and Medicare beneficiaries get for the travels of Rollow and Jencks?”

Good for him. As I suggested in another recent item, it’s better for Grassley and the Finance Committee to be exercising their oversight of federal programs than to run amok through American society, investigating the Red Cross, American University, the Nature Conservancy, and other charities and nonprofits. A top Grassley aide has met 500 times with nonprofit officials as part of his investigations and hearing preparations.

So better to remember that the role of the United States Senate Committee on Finance is not to regulate American society, but to oversee the finances of the federal government. In that light, the investigations into wasteful spending at Medicare and the Legal Services Corporation are to be welcomed.

Still, you have to consider: The budget for Legal Services is about $326 million, and the allegedly wasteful spending probably amounts to a few million dollars. In the case of Medicare, Grassley is complaining about $75,000 in travel expenses. Total spending on Medicare will rise by $52 billion this year, to $382 billion. Medicaid will cost taxpayers another $200 billion in FY2007. The federal deficit is projected to total $1.76 trillion over the coming decade. And the government’s total fiscal imbalance, as calculated by Kent Smetters and Cato’s Jagadeesh Gokhale, is now $63 trillion.

When the Senate Finance Committee investigates $75,000 in suspicious travel at Medicare or doubled meal expenses at Legal Services, it is engaging in sleight of hand. Like a magician who draws your attention to his right hand while he moves things around with his left, the committee is trying to divert our attention from the fact that it is ignoring these massive problems while it gets favorable headlines for penny-ante stunts.

Republicans for the Big-Government Guy

Do Republicans still support limited government? Don’t laugh–there are still people around who would answer “yes.” On this site we’ve spent plenty of time on Republicans spending like drunken Democrats, nationalizing education, expanding entitlements, declaring the president an absolute monarch, embracing Wilsonian foreign policy, and so on. The latest just adds insult to injury.

A lead story in the New York Times is headlined, “G.O.P. Deserts One of Its Own for Lieberman.” Yes, Republicans are actually supporting the Sore Loserman for reelection rather than their own nominee. More specifically, Lieberman is being officially supported by Connecticut’s three Republican congressmen, Newt Gingrich, and William Kristol. The White House and the Republican National Committee are “staying out of this one.” Gov. Jodi Rell and Sen. John McCain are endorsing “the Republican nominee” but not campaigning for him. (His name is Alan Schlesinger, by the way.) Sen. Norm Coleman says, “From America’s perspective, it would be a good thing for Joe Lieberman to be back in the Senate.”

And that’s because Lieberman supports the good old Republican principles of low taxes, less regulation, limited government, and a strong national defense, right?

Well, not quite. He does support President Bush’s floundering war in Iraq. But as Robert Novak pointed out last week:

Lieberman followed the liberal line in opposing oil drilling in ANWR, Bush tax cuts, overtime pay reform, the energy bill, and bans on partial-birth abortion and same-sex marriage. Similarly, he voted in support of Roe vs. Wade and for banning assault weapons and bunker buster bombs. His only two pro-Bush votes were to fund the Iraq war and support missile defense (duplicating Sen. Hillary Clinton’s course on both).

Lieberman’s most recent ratings by the American Conservative Union were 7 percent in 2003, zero in 2004 and 8 percent in 2005.

I actually agree with him on a couple of those votes, though I wouldn’t expect that conservatives would. The National Taxpayers Union says that he votes with taxpayers 9 percent of the time, worse than Chris Dodd or Barbara Boxer.

Only if you believe that continuing to support the war in Iraq outweighs all other issues combined can a conservative reasonably support Joe Lieberman. And apparently a lot of Republicans and conservatives are willing to toss aside his commitment to high taxes, higher spending, more regulation, and entitlement expansion in order to get that vote for Bush’s war.

From Your Blog to God’s Ears

Have blogs become part of the mainstream? Consider the evidence of a front-page story in Saturday’s New York Times, which reports on reaction to the federal court ruling that the NSA wiretapping program is illegal. The first three legal experts quoted are bloggers; two of the quotes are from the blogs, one appears to be from an interview with a lawyer-blogger. Stop writing those law review articles, legal scholars, and get thee to Blogger.

Labeling Dictators

The Wall Street Journal’s “Remembrances” column notes the death this week of Alfredo Stroessner this way:

Gen. Alfredo Stroessner, the military strongman who ruled Paraguay from 1954 until 1989. Among 20th century Latin American leaders, only Cuban President Fidel Castro has served longer.

Why is Stroessner a “military strongman” while Castro is “Cuban President”? Both came to power through bullets, not ballots, and ruled with an iron hand. Stroessner actually held elections every five years, sometimes with opposition candidates, though of course there was no doubt of the outcome. Castro dispensed with even the pretense of elections. Both ruled with the support of the army. In Cuba’s case the armed forces were headed by Castro’s brother, and indeed he has just turned over power to his brother who heads the military. So why does the Journal not give Stroessner his formal title of “president,” and why does it not describe Castro accurately as a “military strongman”?

Every Day in Every Way …

Big-ticket items drive most discussions of politics and government, but let’s not forget to lament the small advances that help make big government what it is.

At the outbreak of hostilities in southern Lebanon, my well-traveled colleague Tom Palmer expressed dismay that Americans overseas should expect a lift home courtesy of the U.S. government when they’ve gotten in harm’s way. Alas, by the end of July, Congress passed the Returned Americans Protection Act of 2006, which raised by $5 million the fiscal year 2006 limit on emergency assistance funds provided to U.S. citizens returning from foreign countries. Score one for bigger government — and for less responsible people.

But the bill actually results in reduced spending, saving about three cents (net present value) per U.S. family. How could this be?

A little legislative artifice did the trick. You see, the bill also allowed state food stamp agencies access to the National Directory of New Hires. They can use this database to verify employment and wage information for food stamp recipients using information on every newly hired American worker’s employment, wages, and receipt of unemployment insurance. With access to these data, state food stamp agencies will be able to better verify the income of their beneficiaries and reduce overpayments.

Created “for the children“ — a tool for tracking down deadbeat dads — the National Directory of New Hires is slowly but surely being put to new uses, including now more careful administration of food stamps. For tens or hundreds of reasons that are largely good, systems like the NDNH database will expand until the point is reached where we are all under comprehensive surveillance. 

Lost privacy is a cost of large government. In this case, the government has monetized worker data to economize on food stamp programs, masking the cost of scooping up American travelers caught overextended abroad. 

A little more spending here, a little more surveillance there. Every day in every way …

Wireless Progress — and the Challenge Not Yet Met

A lot is happening in the world of wireless telecommunications these days. And a lot is not. First, let’s look at a couple things that are happening:

WiMax is poised to move forward as a significant new platform for broadband. ”WiMax” is the popular name for the 802.16 wireless metropolitan-area network standard. It’s like WiFi but can travel a lot farther. It easily traverses the “last mile,” the complicated and expensive rights-of-way that create a high barrier to entry for competitors to DSL and cable.

Recently, Intel announced that a line of its chips will support WiMax. Intel also invested $600 million in leading WiMax provider Clearwire. Clearwire recently pulled back from an IPO, though, fueling speculation that Clearwire and WiMax are not all they’re cracked up to be. Since then, Sprint Nextel has announced that it would spend up to $3 billion to build a WiMax network. Nothing is certain, but WiMax looks pretty good right now for bringing more competition to broadband.

Here’s another thing happening: The Federal Communications Commission is amidst an auction of wireless spectrum. In 1993, Congress gave the FCC the authority to use competitive bidding for allocating rights to use radio spectrum. This beats comparative hearings and lotteries by a mile, because companies that have paid good money for spectrum tend to be well focused on making good use of it. This redounds to the benefit of consumers and the public through new, competitive wireless services.

But much more can be done to improve how this natural resource is deployed. It is widely recognized that creating property-like rights in spectrum will foster secondary markets and help move spectrum to its highest and best use. That work seems not to be happening very quickly, however. 

And a report Cato released yesterday shows that much difficult work remains to be done if we are to have a property regime for spectrum, with all the benefits it entails. In “Toward Property Rights in Spectrum: The Difficult Policy Choices Ahead,” University of Colorado professors Dale Hatfield and Philip Weiser show why creating a property-oriented system for electromagnetic spectrum rights will not be easy.

“Even though the merits of the case for property-like rights in spectrum is beyond dispute, the details about how such a regime would work must still be defined,” Hatfield and Weiser point out. Variation in the way radio waves behave means that simple geographic borders cannot define how rights to use spectrum are divided. Regulation of transmitter technology and power cannot be replaced wholesale with enforcement of radio “trespass.”  Rather, ownership of rights to use spectrum must be defined and enforced with a model suited to the particular characteristics of radio propagation.

The study is a nice tour through radio for the technically uninitiated — you can find out why radio arguably has seven dimensions. And it challenges readers (and hopefully the FCC) to think about the set of rules that will best divide and organize spectrum licenses so that Ronald Coase’s vision can be realized in the area where he did his early work.