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March 29, 2013 3:41PM

About a “Capital That Doesn’t Work”: Journalism That Doesn’t Work

In last Sunday’s Boston Globe, Michael Kranish contributed a long entry to the paper’s ongoing series on the always-promising theme of How Washington Is Broken And Doesn’t Work Anymore. Its subject? How those dreadful Republicans blocked the ratification of the international Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities—even though Bob Dole and John McCain supported it! How could they say no to something that a former GOP Senate leader and presidential candidate so ardently and sincerely wanted? Did they somehow not realize that Dole, as an 89-year-old disabled war vet, is a really sympathetic guy on this issue? Didn’t they realize how the Democrats (and reporters at places like the Globe) would make them look over this?

Kranish completely—and I mean completely—ignores the substantive case against the disabled-rights treaty aside from those portions of it that emanated from groups like Christian homeschooler advocates that start out marginalized by many Globe readers. He calls the convention, in a fair sample of his general tone, “a seemingly uncontroversial measure aimed at helping some of the world’s most vulnerable people.” In reality, as readers of this site and others know, there were plenty of reasons for the convention to arouse strong opposition quite aside from the issue of whether one shared the widely reported fears of the homeschooler advocates. If you’d rather not rely on the Cato sources in the above links, you could turn to others like Chicago law professor Eric Posner (“These treaties are little more than a collective back-scratching exercise involving many of the world’s most unsavory nations”) or even Sen. Mike Lee (proponents’ assurances that the treaty could never be enforced against the United States should raise more questions than they answer).

But readers of Sunday’s Globe were not asked to confront any unsettling contrary views of that sort. They were merely invited to join in jeering at the uncouth senators from western and southern states who would vote against the world's disabled people in order to please their party’s base. It’s an easy, glib narrative. But it’s badly wrong.

March 29, 2013 3:33PM

School Choice Expands in Georgia

Shortly before midnight last night, the Georgia House of Representatives voted 168–3 to pass legislation that expands the Peach State’s scholarship tax credit program. The legislation also increases the program’s transparency and accountability while mostly resisting demands for unnecessary new regulations like mandatory standardized testing.

The total credit cap was raised from just over $52 million to $58 million—a good thing, but less than the $65 million that was in an earlier version of the bill. The increase came at the expense of the program’s annual adjustment for inflation, which is unfortunate beause, without additional legislative intervention to expand the program, the credits will be worth less with each passing year.

Most of the transparency and accountability provisions are narrowly tailored and greatly improve the program. The bill requires that scholarship organizations file an independent audit with the Georgia Department of Revenue to ensure that they are complying with the program’s regulations. The department must post information about the scholarship organizations’ contribution and award activities on its website. The bill also forbids the “earmarking” of donations for specific students, including the children of donors.

Some of the new regulations are counterproductive, such as the requirement that students spend at least six weeks in a public school before participating in the program. The requirement is essentially an accounting gimmick to inflate the program’s perceived savings by transforming almost all scholarship recipients into “switchers” from the public school system. Though there are some exceptions for students who are assigned to low-performing public schools, subject of bullying, or who have homeschooled for a year, the requirement is an unnecessary impediment to many families who would like to participate in the program. Moreover, critics see through the gimmick. There are other ways to demonstrate savings, as Florida has done, without creating needless hurdles for families to jump.

That said, Georgia’s school choice expansion is an impressive achievement.

March 29, 2013 3:25PM

On Spending Cuts, Politicians Prefer Gimmicks

The latest report by the Washington Post's David Fahrenthold on Beltway tomfoolery tells of what happened when both Democrats and Republicans asked government workers and the public for suggestions on how to reduce government spending. Apparently neither party had much interest in the responses.

Fahrenthold first looks at the Obama White House’s effort:

After President Obama set up a national online suggestion box asking federal workers for new ways to cut the budget, 86,000 ideas came in Some, inevitably, were a little odd. 

...But many others were more serious, sent in by people who had seen real government waste close up: stop the “use it or lose it” budgeting policy, which leads agencies to blow taxpayer money at year’s end; stop giving paper calendars to workers who already have online calendars; stop letting every armed service design its own camouflage. 

In the end, none of those things happened. Instead, those suggestions became a little-known part of the maddening story of Washington’s budget wars. 

...Obama, for instance, chose 67 suggestions out of those 86,000. While some produced results, many seemed unambitious. Often, the administration picked ideas that applauded what it was already doing, instead of forcing it to start new reforms. Still, the White House considers that a win. 

Of course it does. 

Fahrenthold then turns his attention to the GOP’s “YouCut” website. Created in 2010 and run by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, regular Americans were to be given menus of potential spending cuts, and they were asked to vote for one. Winning ideas were then supposed to go to the House floor for a vote. In the end, only two of the 36 winning ideas became law. No bill was introduced for nine of the winning ideas, and 12 were “introduced only,” which means that they never even made it to the floor for a vote. 

Like the administration and its online suggestion box, Cantor’s office claims that YouCut was a success: 

“The purpose of the YouCut program was to change the culture of Washington,” Rory Cooper, a spokesman for Cantor, said in an e-mail. “Today, as is evident to anyone paying attention, that culture has been changed.” 

Of course it has. 

And now that the “culture has been changed,” it appears that the people's input on spending cuts is no longer needed: 

YouCut appears to be dead. No new votes have been held in the current Congress. Cantor’s spokespeople did not respond to questions about the program’s status this week. 

Note: For more on the awesomeness of the GOP’s YouCut endeavor, see commentary from Chris Edwards and me here, here, here, and here

March 29, 2013 3:07PM

Comcast v. Behrend: Class Certification at the High Court

Confirming the pattern of 2011's Wal-Mart v. Dukes, the issue of class action procedure continues to generate a sharp 5–4 ideological split at the Supreme Court. On Wednesday, replicating the general Dukes line-up, the Court's five conservatives ruled against certifying a large antitrust class action against Comcast over its conduct in the Philadelphia cable market, finding that the plaintiffs' model of economic damages did not suffice to justify handling the case as a class action. (The trial court had knocked out three of the plaintiffs' four theories of recovery; the majority found the plaintiffs' economic model did not distinguish among the theories in such a way as to enable a court to recognize distinct damages attributable to the surviving theory.)

Despite protest from a few pro-antitrust commentators and sweeping claims of victory by a few on the defense side, Comcast is most likely to be remembered as a relatively narrow ruling with limited impact on future cases, for reasons Andrew Longstreth explains at Reuters. Some plaintiffs will need to be a bit more careful in constructing their cases, but the differences won't be major. Indeed, the dissenters, led by Justices Ruth Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, describe the majority's ruling as "good for this day and case only." 

The Cato Institute had entered the fray with an amicus brief arguing the following: 

  1. Courts must engage in a rigorous analysis at the certification stage rather than wave plaintiffs through the gate, even when such an inquiry overlaps with questions of merits that go to the case's ultimate substantive resolution.
  2. In particular, expert reports at the certification stage should be subject to Daubert tests of admissibility, as they are at the merits stage.

The majority opinion emphatically agreed with us on the first point and the dissent did not make any real attempt to challenge it. That suggests that a sound view of this question may command a broad or even unanimous consensus on the Court.

To many participants' surprise, the Court never reached the second point about admissibility, instead proceeding to rule on questions of predominance. This led to a sharp protest from the four dissenters that the majority was reaching out to decide the case on a different ground than it had been briefed on. 

Few doubt that we can expect more wrangling at the Court on class action standards. That could soon happen in its consideration of a Sixth Circuit washing-machine case called Whirlpool v. Glazer, discussed by Ted Frank here.

March 29, 2013 1:07PM

Obama’s Perilous Foreign Policy Path

To both a greater and lesser degree of success, foreign policy scholars have tried to explain the disconnect between President Obama’s soaring idealism of America’s role in the world and his halting political caution about it in discrete situations. That vacillation has drawn criticism, both for being too meddlesome and for not being meddlesome enough. 

Daily Caller contributor Adam Bates ably sums up the president’s incoherence as “not based on any particular logic or worldview beyond the president’s own desire to distance himself from America’s foreign policy past without bothering to actually change any policies.” Indeed. As this author has written in the past, specifically on counterterrorism policies, 

On the one hand, Obama openly rejected Bush’s ‘with us or against us’ approach to foreign affairs. On the other hand, Obama’s sophisticated demeanor opened him to criticism, with hawks condemning him as too weak and easily manipulated by America's enemies. 

The administration has supported policies that have failed to deliver tangible benefits to the American people (Libya), continued to prop up brutal regimes (Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt), and helped tether our country to the region’s parochial quarrels (Afghanistan, Pakistan, and perhaps ever-more-so in Syria). Despite seemingly courageous attempts to distance itself from failed policies of the past, the Obama administration has managed to drift into strategic purgatory. 

March 29, 2013 1:04PM

WSJ Calls for No‐​Fly Zone in Syria, Acknowledges No‐​Fly Zone Isn’t Enough

It seems the Wall Street Journal editorial board has yet to identify a conflict in which the United States should not intervene. Today, they again call for U.S. military intervention in Syria and criticize President Obama for his inaction. Their main recommendation? Easy: set up a no-fly zone: 

The U.S. could boost its diplomatic leverage with the rebels and their regional allies by enforcing no-fly zones over portions of Syria. That would help prevent the regime from using its attack jets and helicopter gunships against civilian targets while allowing insurgents to consolidate and extend their territorial gains. It also means we could use limited force in a way that strengthens the hand of rebels we support at the expense of those we don't. 

The key point here is that the Journal leaves open the possibility of using “limited force” to help the rebels. Indeed, this is what no-fly zones often become: precursors to additional involvement at a later date (think Iraq and Libya). I argued as much last week: 

If the no-fly zone fails to swiftly halt the violence, some will claim that preserving U.S. credibility requires an even deeper commitment. Or [no-fly zones] can just become a slippery slope in their own right. The ink was barely dry on the UN Security Council resolution authorizing a no-fly zone over Libya before the mission morphed into a no-drive zone on the ground, and then a major military operation to overthrow Qaddafi’s government. 

As a general rule, we shouldn’t send our military on feel-good missions that have little chance of success. And that is what no-fly zones are. They also have a clear political purpose, in this case to ensure that the opposition prevails over the Assad regime and its supporters. There is no such thing as an impartial intervention. 

In Libya, there wasn’t such an explicit call for a no-fly zone as a means to toppling Muammar Gaddafi. The UN resolution authorizing the no-fly zone did not include “regime change” as a goal, but that’s what it became. In Syria, a no-fly zone would be used explicitly for the purpose of toppling Bashar al-Assad’s regime. But if regime change is the goal, a no-fly zone will not do much to lead us there. They are security-theater, as Ben Friedman has pointed out: “No-fly zones commit us to winning wars but demonstrate our limited will to win them. That is why they are bad public policy.” 

The Journal inadvertently recognizes all of these points and would rather we just go all the way and couple a no-fly zone with the use of American military force: 

The U.S. could also follow last week's call by Senators John McCain and Carl Levin for targeted air strikes against Mr. Assad's air force and Scud missile batteries. We should add that such a use of force would require Mr. Obama to persuade Congress and the American public that it is in the national interest, something he has rarely tried to do even when 100,000 U.S. troops were in Afghanistan. 

To be clear, they are asking President Obama to explicitly use military force against Assad’s forces (though they do not call for American troops on the ground). This would be an act of war and would require congressional authorization. The Journal sort of acknowledges this by pointing out that the president is required “to persuade” Congress and the American public of the necessity of military intervention. But they don’t go all the way and recognize that the Constitution requires congressional authorization. It is OK for the president to wage war as long as he convinces us it is okay, the Constitution be damned. 

President Obama is exercising restraint, for now, on Syria. But should he change his mind, it is Congress’s job to check his authority to wage war. In recent history, Congress has not been very good at checking the executive's authority and excercising its constitutionally mandated war powers. Until they reclaim this power, the Journal and others might have their way on intervention in every hot spot around the globe. 

***You can find my lengthier arguments against intervention in Syria here and here. For more on the problems with no-fly zones, see Ben Friedman here and here. On why many of the same problems with the Libya intervention applies to Syria, see Friedman here. Finally, on the topic of Syria and chemical weapons, see Doug Bandow here and here.

March 29, 2013 12:58PM

WaPo Blogger Still Won’t Let Facts Get In Her Way

There she goes again.

Just a few weeks ago, Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post falsely accused scholarship tax credit programs of being “welfare for the rich,” an absurd claim that was easily debunked. Now Strauss is making similarly absurd claims about voucher programs in response to the Indiana Supreme Court’s unanimous decision upholding their constitutionality:

The notion is that families deserve to have a “choice” of schools for their children. The reality is that the amount of money provided in each voucher isn’t enough to cover tuition at a great many private schools, especially the elite ones that get most of the media’s attention, such as Sidwell Friends, which the Obama daughters attend.

The implication is that since school choice programs do not provide enough funding to make all choices affordable for low-income families, they don’t really provide “choice” at all. Moreover, Strauss seems to be arguing that if we can’t afford to send every child to the same school as the children of the president of the United States, then we shouldn’t do anything to expand educational options for low-income families. One wonders if Strauss also opposes food stamps because recipients can’t afford filet mignon every night.

While hiding behind weasel words that are technically correct—a “great many private schools” are too expensive for most low-income families even with vouchers—Strauss ignores the “great many private schools” that school choice programs do make affordable for low-income families. Take, for example, this story from yesterday’s New York Times:

Some parents of modest means are surprised to discover that the education savings accounts put private school within reach. When Nydia Salazar first dreamed of attending St. Mary’s Catholic High School in Phoenix, for example, her mother, Maria Salazar, a medical receptionist, figured there was no way she could afford it. The family had always struggled financially, and Nydia, 14, had always attended public school.

But then Ms. Salazar, 37, a single mother who holds two side jobs to make ends meet, heard of a scholarship fund that would allow her to use public dollars to pay the tuition.

She is now trying to coax other parents into signing up for similar scholarships. “When I tell them about private school, they say I’m crazy,” she said. “They think that’s only for rich people.”

Excluding the nine voucher programs for students with special needs and the two for students in failing public school districts, five of the nation’s eight general voucher programs have income caps or give priority to low-income families. The more than 41,000 students participating in these means-tested voucher programs manage to afford private schools that they prefer over their local government schools. These numbers are small compared to the total number of students in those states, but I suspect that Strauss would not support lifting the caps on the number of vouchers available or increasing the voucher sizes, which range from 29 percent to 56 percent of the government schools’ operating per-pupil spending (excluding capital expenditures).

Strauss also misleadingly asserts that students participating in voucher programs do not benefit academically:

There are arguments made that students in voucher schools do better than their peers who wanted vouchers but didn’t get them and are in public schools. Research shows that that is largely not true.

Again, Strauss hides behind weasel words. Her assertion that it is “largely not true” that vouchers improve performance obscures the fact that all the randomized-controlled research shows that voucher students perform as well or better than their peers that sought vouchers but didn’t get them. Professor Patrick Wolf explains:

Nine different research teams have conducted 12 rigorous evaluations of these types of programs over the past 17 years. Eleven of those studies have reported at least some positive findings and no negative results from private school choice. People who claim there is no evidence that opportunity scholarship or “voucher” programs work clearly are not paying attention.

Wolf also cites the increased graduation rates and college enrollment that school choice programs produce at a fraction of the cost of traditional government schools. Moreover, the voucher recipients are “on average, more disadvantaged than the typical public school student and thus dramatically more disadvantaged than the average private school student.”

There are legitimate concerns about voucher programs, as with every public policy. But it is intellectually dishonest to pretend that they don’t expand educational opportunities for low-income families or to ignore the copious research showing academic benefits. Strauss should correct the record.