Tag: central planning

I’m Sick of Central Planners

Education scholar Diane Ravitch has an op-ed in today’s Washington Post arguing that the nation needs to change course on K-12 education.

Ravitch was a supporter of the No Child Left Behind Act, but now she says “we wasted eight years with the ‘measure and punish’ strategy of NCLB.”

So central planning of the nation’s schools from Washington didn’t work under George W. Bush, but now Ravitch has a whole bunch of new central planning ideas for the schools. She uses the phrases “we need” and “we must” repeatedly, implying that we should impose new national rules of her choosing on all the schools.

She says:  ”Everyone agrees that good education requires good teachers. To get good teachers, states should insist — and the federal government should demand — that all new teachers have a major in the subject they expect to teach…”

In the column, Ravitch laments the unexpected negative consequences of NCLB, but she seems not to realize that the new policies she advocates would probably also have negative consequences. Wouldn’t demands that teachers have certain degrees push up teaching costs at a time when schools are already complaining that their budgets are stretched tight? Wouldn’t her mandate cause schools to substitute teachers with paper qualifications but poor teaching skills for other teachers who have better teaching skills? Is having a degree in a specific subject more important than teachers having qualities such as empathy, patience, and love of learning?

I don’t know the answer to those questions, and I’m not an education expert. But I do know that the experts often disagree on the best teaching methods and that the established educational wisdom is always evolving. For that reason, one-size-fits-all decrees from Washington make absolutely no sense. So why should Ravitch impose her judgment regarding teacher qualifications on all 100,000 or so public schools in America?

Let’s let the nation’s schools in their local communites try new approaches, learn from each other, and move the ball forward as they see fit. And let’s encourage folks like Ravitch to run for her local school board if she has ideas about schooling that she wants to experiment with.

RIP Michael Foot, a Socialist Who Understood What Socialism Was

“Michael Foot, a bookish intellectual and anti-nuclear campaigner who led Britain’s Labour Party to a disastrous defeat in 1983, died [March 3],” reported the Associated Press. He was 96.

Foot personified the socialist tendency in the Labour Party, which Tony Blair successfully erased when he won power at the head of a business-friendly, interventionist “New Labour.” Yet Foot remained a respected, even revered, figure.

“Michael Foot was a giant of the Labour movement, a man of passion, principle and outstanding commitment to the many causes he fought for,” Blair said Wednesday. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Blair’s partner in creating “New Labour,” praised Foot as a “genuine British radical” and a “man of deep principle and passionate idealism.”

Michael Foot may have been the most serious intellectual ever to head a major Western political party. He wrote biographies of Labour politicians Aneurin Bevan and Harold Wilson, and of H.G. Wells, and a 1988 book on Lord Byron, “The Politics of Paradise,” and he edited the “Thomas Paine Reader” in 1987. So when you asked Michael Foot what socialism was, you could expect a deeply informed answer. And that’s what the Washington Post got in 1982, when they asked the Labour Party leader for an example of socialism in practice that could “serve as a model of the Britain you envision.” Foot replied,

The best example that I’ve seen of democratic socialism operating in this country was during the second world war.  Then we ran Britain highly efficiently, got everybody a job… . The conscription of labor was only a very small element of it.  It was a democratic society with a common aim.

Wow. Michael Foot, the great socialist intellectual, a giant of the Labour movement, a man of deep principle and passionate idealism, thought that the best example ever seen of “democratic socialism” was a society organized for total war.

And he wasn’t the only one. The American socialist Michael Harrington wrote, “World War I showed that, despite the claims of free-enterprise ideologues, government could organize the economy effectively.” He hailed World War II as having “justified a truly massive mobilization of otherwise wasted human and material resources” and complained that the War Production Board was “a success the United States was determined to forget as quickly as possible.” He went on, “During World War II, there was probably more of an increase in social justice than at any [other] time in American history. Wage and price controls were used to try to cut the differentials between the social classes… . There was also a powerful moral incentive to spur workers on: patriotism.”

Collectivists such as Foot and Harrington don’t relish the killing involved in war, but they love war’s domestic effects: centralization and the growth of government power. They know, as did the libertarian writer Randolph Bourne, that “war is the health of the state”—hence the endless search for a moral equivalent of war.

As Don Lavoie demonstrated in his book National Economic Planning: What Is Left?, modern concepts of economic planning—including “industrial policy” and other euphemisms—stem from the experiences of Germany, Great Britain, and the United States in planning their economies during World War I. The power of the central governments grew dramatically during that war and during World War II, and collectivists have pined for the glory days of the War Industries Board and the War Production Board ever since.

Walter Lippmann was an early critic of the collectivists’ fascination with war planning. He wrote, “A close analysis of its theory and direct observation of its practice will disclose that all collectivism… is military in method, in purpose, in spirit, and can be nothing else.” Lippman went on to explain why war—or a moral equivalent—is so congenial to collectivism:

Under the system of centralized control without constitutional checks and balances, the war spirit identifies dissent with treason, the pursuit of private happiness with slackerism and sabotage, and, on the other side, obedience with discipline, conformity with patriotism. Thus at one stroke war extinguishes the difficulties of planning, cutting out from under the individual any moral ground as well as any lawful ground on which he might resist the execution of the official plan.

National service, national industrial policy, national energy policy—all have the same essence, collectivism, and the same model, war. War is sometimes, regrettably, necessary. But why would anyone want its moral equivalent?

Groopman on How Behavioral Economics Undermines the Case for Central Planning

In The New York Review of Books, oncologist and author Jerome Groopman delivers a stunning rebuke to those in the Obama administration (read: OMB director Peter Orszag) who think the federal government can improve health care quality by telling doctors how to practice medicine:

in the Senate health care bill…Doctors and hospitals that follow “best practices,” as defined by government-approved standards, are to receive more money and favorable public assessments. Those who deviate from federal standards would suffer financial loss and would be designated as providers of poor care…

Over the past decade, federal “choice architects”—i.e., doctors and other experts acting for the government and making use of research on comparative effectiveness—have repeatedly identified “best practices,” only to have them shown to be ineffective or even deleterious.

For example, Medicare specified that it was a “best practice” to tightly control blood sugar levels in critically ill patients in intensive care. That measure of quality was not only shown to be wrong but resulted in a higher likelihood of death when compared to measures allowing a more flexible treatment and higher blood sugar. Similarly, government officials directed that normal blood sugar levels should be maintained in ambulatory diabetics with cardiovascular disease. Studies in Canada and the United States showed that this “best practice” was misconceived. There were more deaths when doctors obeyed this rule than when patients received what the government had designated as subpar treatment (in which sugar levels were allowed to vary).

That’s just one of many examples Groopman offers of where government planners have gone awry.  He concludes:

Ironically, the failure of experts to recognize when they overreach can be explained by insights from behavioral economics…

The care of patients is complex, and choices about treatments involve difficult tradeoffs. That the uncertainties can be erased by mandates from experts is a misconceived panacea, a “focusing illusion.”

Come to think of it, Groopman makes much the same case as I did in my article, “Pay-for-Performance: Is Medicare a Good Candidate?” (Yale J. Health P. Law & Ethics, Vol. 7, issue 1: Winter 2007): evidence-based medicine is essential, but variation in disease burden and patient preferences (read: values) makes it impossible for central planners to define quality accurately.

Read the whole thing.