Did Common Core Do That? We Don’t Actually Know

Common Core supporters love to accuse opponents of peddling misinformation, and sometimes opponents do. On the flip side, Core supporters are frequently guilty not only of peddling deceptive information of their own, but promising the world without sufficient evidence to justify it. A new report from Harvard’s Paul Peterson – generally a pretty sober analyst – comes a bit too close to making such a leap, strongly suggesting that the Common Core has caused appreciable improvement in the rigor of state standards.

Based on a rough trend of decreasing differences between the percentage of students scoring “proficient” on state tests and on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Peterson and co-author Matthew Ackerman report that state standards are rising. In other words, “proficient” on state tests is looking more like presumably high-flying “proficient” on the “Nation’s Report Card.”

Between 2011 and 2013, “20 states strengthened their standards, while just 8 loosened them,” Peterson and Ackerman report. To what do they attribute this? “A key objective of the CCSS [Common Core] consortium – the raising of proficiency standards – has begun to happen.” In case the text of the report didn’t make the attribution of success to the Core clear, the report’s subhead intoned that, “commitments to the Common Core may be driving the proficiency bar upward.”

At the very least, there should be a huge emphasis on “may,” and the Core probably shouldn’t be mentioned at all.  

Indeed, Peterson and Ackerman’s results could suggest that the Common Core actually dampened rigor. According to the report, of the four states that never adopted the Core, Texas and Virginia raised their standards while Alaska and Nebraska stood pat. That means 50 percent of non-adopters lifted their standards and 50 percent stood their ground. None went backward. Among Core adopters, in contrast, eight states, or 18 percent, lowered their standards; 19, or 42 percent, stood still; and only 18, or 40 percent, raised their bars. (I exclude Minnesota, which adopted the English standards but not the math, and West Virginia, for which data were unavailable. Among adopters I include Indiana and Oklahoma, which eventually dropped out but were Core states as of 2013.)

Furman’s Folly: Nostalgia about 1973 and Nonsense about the Bottom 90 Percent

Jason Furman, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, set out to explain “middle-class economics” in the Wall Street Journal, March 11, in an earlier Vox blog and in a presentation to National Association of Business Economists (NABE), as well as the first chapter of the Economic Report of The President

The intent is to make the recent economy look healthier (massaging 2.3-2.4 percent growth for 2013-14 into 2.7 percent), and to claim that “subpar” 2010-14 income gains for the middle class (generously defined as the bottom 90 percent) are not due to a subpar recovery but to something that has gone on ever since 1973.  His Wall Street Journal article complains of “the decades-long trend of slower income growth for the middle class.”

Furman says, “Congressional Budget Office data (with a minor extrapolation) show, median U.S. incomes are up 17 percent since 1973.”  Actually, CBO data start with 1979 and end with 2011, so it takes more than minor extrapolation to extend that back to 1973 or forward to 2013.  CBO estimates show real after-tax median income rising from $45,400 in 1983 to $68,000 in 2008 (in 2011 dollars), but not yet back to the 2008 level by 2011. Making up a number for 1973 can’t undo stagnation after 2008. 

He continues: “But from 1948-73, median incomes rose 110 percent, according to broadly comparable Census estimates.”  Yet the two series aren’t remotely comparable.  Unlike pre-tax “money income” from the Census Bureau, the CBO subtracts federal taxes (middle-income tax rates were nearly cut in half since 1981) and includes rapidly increased health and other in-kind benefits from employers and government (Medicaid, SNAP, CHIP and housing allowances). 

The Iran Policy Clownshow

I’ve been talking about U.S.-Iran policy to groups around the United States for about eight years now. Many members of these groups—World Affairs Councils, university groups, local groups interested in Middle East policy—disagree with my general take on Iran and the Middle East, but I’ve always gotten a fair hearing and good questions.

Given that, it’s been both amusing and depressing to watch the political spectacle that’s been happening in Washington this week. It all began when Bill Kristol’s favorite senator, Tom Cotton (R-AR), got 46 of the other 53 Republican Senators to join him in signing an “open letter to the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” trying to scare the clerical leadership away from a diplomatic deal by threatening to scotch it themselves once Barack Obama is out of office. Cotton, a Harvard Law grad, was subsequently chided on his understanding of the U.S. Constitution both by the Iranian foreign minister, Javad Zarif, as well as by Jack Goldsmith, a conservative lawyer who worked on the legal aspects of the war on terror for the George W. Bush administration.

In response to media inquiries, GOP Senators gave embarrassing explanations of the letter. Most absurd was Cotton’s protestation that the letter was intended to help produce a better deal. This claim is absurd not because the causal pathway from this letter to a better deal is dubious (although it is), but because Cotton has made perfectly clear that his goal is the destruction of negotiations, not improving them. As he remarked at a January Heritage Foundation event:

the end of these negotiations isn’t an unintended consequence of Congressional action, it is very much an intended consequence. A feature, not a bug, so to speak.

Lego Asks U.S. to Ban Imports of “Figure with Skirt”

Lego’s patent for the “Toy Building Brick” expired in 1988, but the company still aggressively tries to claim monopoly privileges over its products.  Ten years ago, Lego tried unsuccessfully to claim trademark protection for blocks with circles on top.  Now they are going after competitors for making products that look similar to the new “Lego Friends” line of blocks marketed toward girls.  For example, Lego complains that its competitors have infringed its copyright in “Figure with Skirt”.

Figure with Skirt

Of immediate interest is the fact that Lego has filed a complaint at the U.S. International Trade Commission seeking to bar importation of certain Mega Bloks, Lite Brix, and Best-Lock products.  There are a number of reasons why the ITC should not be adjudicating patent or other intellectual property disputes, and if you’re interested in the full story, you should read my Cato Policy Analysis on the subject from 2012.

The Eternal Criminal Record

Professor James Jacobs of New York University School of Law has written a new book, The Eternal Criminal Record, just published by Harvard University Press.  From the dust jacket:

For over sixty million Americans, possessing a criminal record overshadows everything else about their public identity. A rap sheet, or even a court appearance or background report that reveals a run-in with the law, can have fateful consequences for a person’s interactions with just about everyone else. The Eternal Criminal Record makes transparent a pervasive system of police databases and identity screening that has become a routine feature of American life.

The United States is unique in making criminal information easy to obtain by employers, landlords, neighbors, even cyberstalkers. Its nationally integrated rap-sheet system is second to none as an effective law enforcement tool, but it has also facilitated the transfer of ever more sensitive information into the public domain. While there are good reasons for a person’s criminal past to be public knowledge, records of arrests that fail to result in convictions are of questionable benefit. Simply by placing someone under arrest, a police officer has the power to tag a person with a legal history that effectively incriminates him or her for life.

In James Jacobs’s view, law-abiding citizens have a right to know when individuals in their community or workplace represent a potential threat. But convicted persons have rights, too. Jacobs closely examines the problems created by erroneous record keeping, critiques the way the records of individuals who go years without a new conviction are expunged, and proposes strategies for eliminating discrimination based on criminal history, such as certifying the records of those who have demonstrated their rehabilitation.

A few days ago, I sat down with Professor Jacobs for a podcast interview.  More info on his book here.

Is the TPP Necessary as a Response to China?

Paul Krugman has a blog post on the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) today.  Overall, he is skeptical of the need for it.  He refers to a recent op-ed by Larry Summers, and notes that Summers appears to support “an idealized TPP that could have been,” but is “against the TPP that actually seems to be on the table.”  Krugman says he feels similarly.

Tyler Cowen responds as follows:

I agree with much of the economics in his post, though I would frame the points with a different kind of rhetoric.  But I think Krugman is nonetheless wrong to oppose TPP.  You will notice the word “China” does not appear in his argument.  He closes with a question: “Why, exactly, should the Obama administration spend any political capital – alienating labor, disillusioning progressive activists – over such a deal?”  The answer is simple: this deal either happens on American terms, or an alternative deal arises on Chinese terms without our participation.  For rather significant foreign policy reasons we prefer the former, and the pragmatic side of President Obama understands this pretty well.

Cowen is one of my favorite bloggers, both for style and substance, but I want to push back a little bit here.  The alternative deal he is referring to is the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a negotiation among 16 countries, including China and India, in the Pacific region.  There is a good deal of overlap, in terms of participating countries, with the 12 TPP parties.  I think he is making two points here: (1) If there is no TPP, there will be an RCEP, and that will be bad for the United States; and (2) the RCEP will reflect Chinese priorities, not U.S. priorities, and that will be bad for the United States.

Just briefly, let me comment on both points.  First, the RCEP may be, to some extent, a response to the TPP.  If the TPP fails, the motivation for the RCEP might also diminish.  Furthermore, regardless of what happens with the TPP, it will not be easy to complete the RCEP.  Getting India, China, and 14 other countries to agree will not be easy.  So there may never be an RCEP.

Second, the reference to Chinese terms makes it sound like this will be an agreement that establishes state-owned companies as the norm.  In reality, if you look at the topics covered, I’m not sure this agreement would be much different than any other trade agreement, except perhaps less emphasis on labor rights and intellectual property protection than in U.S. agreements.  There will be tariff lowering, services liberalization, and all the usual issues.

In my view, then, we should consider the TPP on its own merits and not worry so much about what other countries do.  If they want to liberalize amongst themselves, that’s great.  But that’s not a threat, just an incentive to do a better job with trade negotiations ourselves.

The Folly of Fed Obeisance

As if to get my work week off to rotten start, my otherwise good pal Don Boudreaux greeted me first thing Monday morning with a link to Robert Samuelson’s Sunday evening Washington Post op-ed on “The Folly of Fed Bashing.” In it, Samuelson takes the Fed’s conservative critics to task for their “misinformed” attacks on the Fed, faulting them for failing to appreciate how much more transparent the Fed’s operations are today than they were some decades ago, and for not understanding that its actions, however undesirable they may seem, are generally “necessary for the nation’s long-term economic health.” As for the perception that “the Fed is a large and aloof agency that needs to be tamed,” it rests, Samuelson says, on a “simplistic” view of the Fed’s history.

Well I can’t speak for others, but I know something about the Fed’s history. And I’ve come to the conclusion, informed by careful consideration, over the course of several decades, of that history, and the history of numerous other monetary arrangements in the U.S. and elsewhere, that the Fed is actually…a large and aloof agency that needs to be tamed.

True, the Fed is in some respects more transparent than it used to be. But it has also been doing things that it never used to do. The ordinary Fed publications and disclosures to which Mr. Samuelson refers shed no light at all on many of these novelties. Not for nothing did Dodd-Frank provide for a special, one-time audit of the Fed’s crisis-related undertakings. Among other things, that audit pointed to some serious conflicts of interest that might otherwise have escaped censure. Yet according to Mr. Samuelson’s supposedly up-to-date Fed history, it should have been just as unnecessary as the recurring audits Fed “bashers” have been calling for.

Would such recurring audits themselves be otiose? The Dodd-Frank audit covers the Fed’s actions up to July 21, 2010. Consequently the GAO isn’t allowed to look into any of the Fed’s unorthodox measures since then, including later rounds of Quantitative Easing, Operation Twist, and its enhanced overnight reverse repo program, not to mention its stress tests and other financial-regulatory measures. More importantly, under existing law it can’t be asked to look into any “emergency” steps the Fed might take in the future. Should we always have to rely on special legislation after the fact to allow Congress to scrutinize unusual Fed actions?

Mr. Samuelson complains about simplistic history. Allow me to complain instead about simplistic conjectures about the future–conjectures to the effect that the Fed will never again engage in the sorts of activities that warranted the Dodd-Frank audit. Such conjectures are after all implicit in claims, like his, to the effect that a permanent enhancement of the GAO’s Fed-auditing powers would only serve to “fulfill conservatives’ political agenda” by allowing Congress to “harass” the Fed and to otherwise undermine its ability to do its job.* Does Mr. Samuelson believe that the GAO “harasses” the other government departments and agencies over which it has unlimited auditing powers? If not, why does he worry that it would harass the Fed? Conservative agenda? Does he think that only conservatives (or conservatives and libertarians) distrust the Fed, and welcome GAO scrutiny of its unusual activities? If GAO officials themselves argue for relaxing present limits on their agency’s Fed-auditing powers, must they be part of a conservative plot?

Samuelson also sees “no obvious advantage” in a measure that would compel the Fed to choose and stick to a monetary rule, such as a Taylor Rule or NGDP growth rule. But while the advantage of such a rule may not be obvious to him, others may find it obvious enough. Either a Taylor or a Sumner-style NGDP growth rule would have called for less expansionary monetary policy in the mid-2000s, and for more expansionary policy in late 2009–reason enough to wonder whether, in complaining (in Samuelson’s words) that a rule “might make policy too inflexible,” Janet Yellen bothered to consider how in practice policy tends to “flex” the wrong way.

Finally, although he recognizes that the Fed isn’t infallible, and even suggests that the recent financial crisis was proof of its fallibility, Samuelson remains convinced that the Fed’s unhindered exercise of almost unlimited discretionary powers has contributed more than rule-based arrangements might to “the nation’s long-term economic health.” On what, I wonder, is this judgment based? Certainly not on recent experience. But a longer view is just as hard to square with the assertion, as Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz went to great lengths to demonstrate. Mr. Samuelson worries that Fed “bashing”–by which he seems to mean any criticism of the Fed that seeks to justify a reduction of its considerable power–“adds to uncertainty and subtracts from confidence” upon which economic growth depends. In truth, the Fed’s actions are themselves often unpredictable, and especially so when it comes to their influence on the long-run course of prices and spending. Were the Fed really a sort of Ambrose Light of financial markets, as Mr. Samuelson imagines it to be, Fed watching, instead of being a growth industry, would be about as useful–and as boring–as watching paint dry.

But the Fed needs more than mere watching. It needs scrutiny. It needs criticism. Above all, it needs to be reined in–not for conservatives’ sake, but for everyone’s. Mr. Samuelson may not like it. But I, for one, intend to keep bashing away.


*Like many commentators who take the Fed’s side in the “audit the Fed” debate, Samuelson suggests that there only two possible kinds of GAO audits to which the Fed might be subject: simple “do the books balance” audits, as are already provided for, and ones by which the GAO would “second guess” the Fed’s conduct of ordinary monetary policy. In fact, the Fed does a lot more than engage in ordinary monetary policy, and, as the special audit provided for in Dodd-Frank illustrates, there are correspondingly many ways in which the GAO might scrutinize it’s conduct. The real debate is about these other sorts of scrutiny. To represent it as a debate about whether the GAO (or “Congress”) should be allowed to interfere with the Fed’s conduct of monetary policy is missing the point, if it isn’t something rather worse than that.