September 18, 2015 11:25AM

Voters Deserve a Better Debate

We had our second debate of the primary season on Wednesday, a grueling five hour affair pitting fifteen Republican hopefuls against each other in two debate sessions. When CNN’s hosts weren’t asking inane questions – i.e., whether candidates had considered their Secret Service nickname or whether they would trust Donald Trump with the nuclear codes – they did find some time to focus on foreign policy issues. I have a piece over at the National Interest discussing the debate, and highlighting some of the misleading narratives underlying much of the GOP debate.

Though there were some factual errors, the bigger problem was the reliance of most candidates on fundamental ideas which are effectively untrue, like the idea that the U.S. military is weak or small compared to that of other nations:

Ben Carson noted that “our Air Force is incapable of doing the same things that it did a few years ago. Carly Fiorina argued that “we need the strongest military on the face of the planet,” while Marco Rubio noted that “… we are eviscerating our military.” Such claims are entirely false: the U.S. military is among the world’s largest, spending more than the next 13 countries combined in 2013 (including China and Russia)!  Today, the United States makes up 38.4% of all global military spending, and spends substantially more on the military than it did on average during the Cold War.

Many candidates also expressed support for the idea that it is U.S. absence from conflicts which creates problems, rather than U.S. intervention itself. Again, this narrative has proven to be demonstrably false in the last ten years, as examples from Libya, Iraq and elsewhere show:

Jeb Bush noted that “when we pull back, voids are created. We left Iraq… and now we have the creation of ISIS.” Again, this narrative is convenient for many candidates, allowing them to blame President Obama’s troop withdrawals, rather than the initial disastrous decision to invade Iraq, for the rise of ISIS. Unfortunately, it is similarly false: Iraq’s sectarian problems existed long before the U.S. withdrawal of troops in 2011, and the rise of ISIS is at least partly a result of the Bush administration’s decision to disband the Iraqi army.

When we base our foreign policy debates on such misleading ideas, candidates will present policy options which are unworkable or even counterproductive. Voters deserve a better debate, one which acknowledges the nuance and complexity of foreign affairs. You can read the whole piece here

September 16, 2015 12:18PM

Watching the Debates Tonight? Get Smart Policy Analysis on Twitter With #Cato2016

#Cato2016

Tonight, starting at 6:00 p.m. EDT, CNN will host two nationally televised debates featuring candidates for the Republican nomination for the 2016 presidential elections. Though widely regarded as the “second” debate of this election season, those of you who have been following Cato coverage will recognize tonight’s broadcasts as the fourth and fifth debates of Campaign 2016.

Cato scholars will be on hand to live-tweet both debates, bringing insightful commentary and hard-hitting policy analysis to the discussion. Follow tonight’s live-tweeters and join the conversation on Twitter using #Cato2016.

Similar to the Fox debates, the split in candidates will be based on average scores from national poll results spanning a two-month period ending last Thursday, with candidates required to average at least 1 percent support in three polls to qualify.

The first debate will feature Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal, George Pataki, and Lindsey Graham. Then, at 8:00 p.m. EDT, Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Mike Huckabee, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Chris Christie, John Kasich, and Carly Fiorina will take the stage.

Although CNN had originally intended only to include the top ten candidates in the later debate, an exception was made for Fiorina, whose performance in the first Fox debate helped her move into the top ten in polls conducted after that broadcast.

Candidates positions on the stage will be based on their overall rankings, with Trump—flanked by Carson and Bush—front and center for the primetime debate.

Former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore, who garnered 1 percent support in only one poll during the two-month window, did not meet the criteria for inclusion.

Join the conversation tonight on Twitter with #Cato2016.

 

August 3, 2015 1:12PM

#Cato2016 — Cato Scholars Ground National Debates in Solid Policy Analysis

As my colleague Jeff Milyo wrote somewhat recently, the national sport isn’t baseball; it’s politics. With Americans across the nation loyally cheering on either Team Red or Team Blue (or, for a growing few, Team Purple), the discussion around key political events can seem somewhat superfluously shallow. That’s where the Cato Institute comes in.

#Cato2016

Throughout the 2016 campaign season, Cato scholars will be injecting insightful commentary and hard-hitting policy analysis into the national conversation using the Twitter hashtag #Cato2016. 

We’ll be off to a running start with not one, not two, but three major nationally televised events this week.

Tonight at 7:00 p.m. EST, the Voters First Forum will be held at the Dana Center at Saint Anselm College and broadcast nationwide on C-SPAN. Featuring Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, Lindsey Graham, Bobby Jindal, John Kasich, Jeb Bush, Rick Perry, Scott Walker, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Rick Santorum, and George Pataki, the forum will be the first time the majority of the GOP presidential primary contenders will be sharing one stage.  Tune in on Twitter for commentary from Emily Ekins, Jonathan Blanks, Adam Bates, and more. You can find a full list of participating scholars and follow their accounts here.

Then, on Thursday, August 6th, Fox News will host two nationally-televised debates featuring candidates for the GOP nomination for the 2016 presidential elections. The first of these debates—to be held at 5:00 p.m. EST—will be an opportunity to hear from some of the lesser-known contenders, while the second of these debates—to be held at 9:00 p.m. EST—will feature those candidates who place in the top 10 of an average of the five most recent national polls, as recognized by FOX News, leading up to the debate. Tune in on Twitter for commentary from Emma Ashford, Alex Nowrasteh, Patrick Eddington, Michael Cannon, Jason Bedrick, and more. You can find a full list of scholars participating in the 5:00 p.m.  and 9:00 p.m. debates via the @CatoEvents Twitter account.

Tuning into the debates (or simple wondering how they might impact the policy debate)? Join the conversation on Twitter with #Cato2016. 

October 27, 2014 3:53PM

Two Lessons from the Tunisian Election

The victory of the secular party Call of Tunisia (Nidaa Tounes) in the parliamentary election on Sunday carries two lessons for observers of transitions in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The first one is broadly optimistic, but the second one should be a cause for concern, heralding economic, social, and political troubles ahead.

1. The Arab Spring was not a one-way street to religious fundamentalism.

In spite of the unexpected and often violent turns that political events have taken in countries such as Syria or Libya, the revolutions across the MENA countries were not just thinly disguised attempts to impose theocratic rule on Arab societies. While Islam is an important cultural and social force, most people in the region have little appetite for a government by Islamist extremists. In fact, much of the headway that Islamist politicians made shortly after the fall of authoritarian regimes in the region can be explained by their track records as community organizers or providers of public services.

Tunisia is a case in point. Already in 2011, the country’s leading Islamic party, Ennahda, featured numerous women candidates in the election, and following a political crisis last year it negotiated a peaceful handover to a caretaker government that led the country to yesterday’s election.

Tunisia’s new leading political force, Nidaa Tounes, may have gained as many as 80 seats in the 217-seat parliament. It describes itself as a ‘modernist’ party. It unites secular politicians of various stripes, including labor union members, or former officials of the regime of president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. The leader of the party, the 87-year old Beji Caid el-Sebsi (who served as interim prime minister in 2011) had a long political career prior to the revolution, including an ambassadorship in Berlin after Ben Ali’s ascent to power.

2. Don’t expect radical economic reforms.

For those who feared that democratization in the MENA region could bring about theocracy and extremism, the status-quo nature of Nidaa Tounes is probably good news. At the same time, however, it seems unlikely that the party, whose sympathizers largely overlap with those of the country’s influential labor unions, will bring about the deep institutional and economic changes that Tunisia needs in order to extend access to economic opportunity to ordinary Tunisians by dismantling Byzantine red tape and corruption and freeing up its economy.

For example, while it is certainly praiseworthy that the party has promised to improve the economic situation of women, one should worry that it plans to do so by what are likely to be popular yet ineffective measures: creating a new government bureau fighting discrimination, investing in social housing for young female workers, and extending statutory maternity leave.

More importantly, in many areas the exact economic platform of Nidaa Tounes remains blurry. The party promises to foster consensus among the government, civil society, labor unions, and employers. It also promised to cut public spending – in part by reforming the system of fuel subsidies – increase industrial exports and promote industries with high value added, most notably hi-tech and renewable energy, and to subsidize economic development in poorer regions by an amount of 50 billion dinars ($28 billion) over the next five years, 30 billion of which would be coming from the public budget.

Heavy on clichés and light on specifics, these promises are reminiscent of electoral manifestos of social democratic parties of Europe. Regardless of whether that would be a good thing under normal circumstances, what Tunisia needs now is a bold agenda of economic liberalization, as well as a Leszek Balcerowicz-like figure to implement it. With a mushy economic program and Mahmoud Ben Romdhane – former deputy head of Tunisia’s ex-communist party, Ettajdid –as the key economic policy figure on the party, Nidaa Tounes offers neither.

October 24, 2014 10:09AM

Fragility of Tunisia’s Transition

The upcoming parliamentary election in Tunisia comes at a critical time. For a while, Tunisia was seen as a poster child for a successful transition away from authoritarianism. In Egypt, a widespread disappointment with an Islamic government resulted in a military coup last year. In contrast, when Tunisia could not get through a political impasse, the Islamic Ennahda party negotiated a handover to a caretaker government earlier this year, which has led the country to an early election.

Regardless of whether Ennahda can repeat its electoral success from three years ago or whether secular forces take over, the new Tunisian government will be in an unenviable position: it will have to address a growing security crisis in the country. In the past two years, the country has seen the emergence of political violence and terrorism perpetrated mostly by radical Salafist groups. Those violent efforts include the killings of two opposition politicians, Chokri Belaid and Mohammed Brahmi, as well as a car bomb plot foiled just last week.

Tunisia has also become a fertile ground for the recruitment of fighters of the Islamic State (ISIS). Some estimate that over 2,400 ISIS fighters are from Tunisia, which would make Tunisians the most numerous nationality fighting for ISIS. Restoring basic security, order, and rule of law—and preventing the country from descending into a full-fledged internal conflict—will have to be a priority for the new government.

The political violence may have multiple roots, but Tunisia’s poor economic performance is clearly one of them. In recent years, many strikes and protests over economic conditions have taken a violent turn and led to attacks on local police stations, for example.

While the West is confronted with problems posed by aging populations, Tunisia, like other countries in the region, faces the challenge (and opportunity) of harnessing the economic potential of an extremely young workforce. Practically half of Tunisians are under the age of 30, and many of them are struggling. Although unemployment is slowly falling, the unemployment rate among university-educated young Tunisians is over 30 percent, making their situation precarious.

Because of a vibrant tourism sector and economic links with Europe, Tunisia has relied less on government ownership and industrial planning than other Arab countries and has long enjoyed the presence of many foreign investors. Still, its economy faces significant barriers to competition and market activity. Tunisia ranks 87th on the most recent World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report, compared to 32nd in the 2010–2011 edition. Its poor performance is driven mainly by its underdeveloped goods, financial, and labor markets, which are paralyzed by heavy-handed regulation.

Tunisia’s officials are aiming to bring the deficit down to 5 percent of GDP in 2015. The essential components of reining in deficit spending will include reforms to existing entitlement programs—the government has already increased retirement age to 62 years—and curbing the growth in public-sector salaries. Given the power of public sector unions, the latter effort is extremely contentious. While the country’s labor union, the Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail, is credited with playing an important role in the political settlement that led to this election, it has also opposed economic reforms, including reductions in the growth of salaries of civil servants.

However, structural reforms that would strengthen private markets and make them competitive are essential for accelerating the country's currently anemic economic growth. Regardless of who the Tunisians elect on Sunday, the country is overdue for a deep liberalization, improving its business environment and eliminating red tape and corruption. Compared to its neighbours, Tunisia performs relatively well on the World Bank’s Doing Business project, but its performance is glaringly inadequate in the domain of obtaining construction permits—obtaining a permit requires 19 official procedures, takes 94 days, and costs almost 256 percent of the country's per capita income—and in the area of accessing credit, where Tunisia is held back by poorly functioning financial markets.

What makes structural reforms imperative is not just that deficit reduction is unlikely to yield fruit in a prolonged absence of economic growth. More significantly, the Arab Spring, which started in Tunisia, was not only about deposing corrupt dictators—although the corruption of now-deposed Tunisian president Ben Ali was legendary. The Tunisian revolution was a response to a system of governance that was systematically failing young people and denied them access to economic opportunity. In order to deliver on the promise of the event of spring 2011, the government must give Tunisians the freedom to succeed without being subject to harassment of petty bureaucrats and union bosses.

September 22, 2014 8:50AM

Education under the New Swedish Order

Just over a week ago, Swedes threw out the relatively pro-market coalition that had goverened the country for the past 8 years, handing power (though not an outright majority) to a new left-of-center coalition. Swedish students' falling scores on international tests were a key cause of public dissatisfaction, and they have been widely blamed on a nationwide voucher-like school choice program introduced during the early 1990s. But as I point out in an op-ed in yesterday's Svenska Dagbladet, the facts simply don't support that narrative. Here's the English draft of the op-ed:

Sweden’s collapsing performance on international tests was clearly a factor in the recent election, and redressing that slide will be a priority for the new government. A good first step in charting the way forward is to understand what has gone wrong and what has gone right in the past. Unfortunately, the most popular narrative about Swedish education trends is badly mistaken.

Many have blamed Sweden’s falling international test scores on the proliferation of free schools, merely because the decline is thought to have followed their large-scale expansion. This would be a common logical fallacy even if the timing were correct—but it isn’t.

Between 1995 and 2011, Swedish math scores on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) fell by a massive 56 points. But the vast majority of that decline—41 points—had already taken place by 2003. In that year, 96 percent of Swedish students were still enrolled in government schools.

Another international test, the Programme on International Student Assessment (PISA), began in the year 2000 and has the advantage of breaking out the scores for government and private schools. The last PISA test was administered in 2012, by which time government school scores had fallen by 34 points while free school scores had fallen by only 6 points.

Anders Böhlmark and Mikael Lindahl’s long-term nationwide study helps to explain these trends: increased local competition from free schools actually raises the performance of students in both sectors—on both national and international tests. But, since free schools still enroll a small fraction of students nationwide, the benefits of this competition have yet to be felt in many areas.

Of course, none of this is to suggest that there are no bad private schools. There has never been an education system in history capable of producing only good schools. The best that can be hoped for is that unsuccessful schools close while good schools expand. And that is precisely what has been happening in Sweden.                                           

Much has been made of the failure of JB Education, which attracted too few students to remain financially viable, and was forced to shut down. This was regrettable for everyone directly concerned, in the short run. In the long run, it is better than any realistic alternative. In most countries, including the United States, atrocious government-run schools are able to continue operating indefinitely because they face no meaningful competition—the poor parents they most often serve simply cannot afford any alternative. These schools are numerous enough that a term has been coined to describe them: “dropout factories.” Swedish families are lucky that they can far more easily escape such schools.

Not only does the Swedish system pressure failing schools to close, it encourages good ones to expand. International English Schools is one of the highest-performing school networks in the country, even after controlling for the parental level of education and immigrant background of its students. It is also one of the fastest growing, now operating 25 schools serving nearly 18,000 students. IES has plans to continue growing so long as demand for its services remains unmet. But if IES’s emphasis on academics and civil classroom behavior seems too traditional for some families, there are many other options to choose from. Another large and successful network is Kunskapsskolan, which allows students to proceed through the curriculum at their own pace, combining tremendous student autonomy with weekly one-on-one meetings with teachers.

But not all good private schools grow. Specifically, non-profit schools tend not to build large networks, no matter how good they are. As a result, thousands of students who might benefit from their services never get the chance to do so. The only good schools that consistently “scale-up” in response to rising demand are those operated as for-profit enterprises. This is not a coincidence. Building a network is both risky and expensive. The profit-and-loss system provides both the resources and the incentives that allow and encourage successful enterprises to grow.  

Sweden is fortunate to have harnessed that system to spur the growth of its high performing schools. Chile does the same thing, and has become not only the highest-performing nation in Latin America but also one of the fastest-improving countries in the entire world on international tests. If Sweden wishes to become a fast-improving nation educationally, the evidence strongly supports preserving the entrepreneurial freedoms and incentives that promote the growth of successful education networks.

November 7, 2012 12:01PM

A Quick Round‐​Up on Education Policy and the 2012 Elections

Californians approved Prop 30, a $6 trillion dollar tax hike intended to save public schools from "devastating" cuts. In fact, the state is already spending around $30 billion more today on public schooling than it did in the early 1970s, after controlling for both enrollment growth and inflation---and SAT scores, the only academic outcome measure going back that far, are down. Prediction: this $6 billion will have little impact on children's education even if it does make it to the school level. Instead, it will further slow California's economy and drive a few more businesses out of the state.

Georgia approved a new charter school authorizer, which should lead to more rapid growth of charter schools in that state. Based on recent research published by the Cato Institute, this will increase generally mediocre options within the public school sector by, in part, cannibalizing generally better options in the private sector. Georgia can avoid a net reduction in educational diversity, freedom, and quality by expanding its existing education tax credit program.

Washington becomes the 43rd state to adopt charter schools. Initiative 1240 caps the state-wide charter school count at 40 over the next five years, however, so it will have little short term impact. If the charter cap is expanded before Washington state levels the financial playing field for private schooling through a tax credit program like Georgia's, the existing independent education sector in the state will be largely consumed by the competition from new "free" charter schools.

High profile Indiana state schools superintendent Tony Bennett has been defeated by his rival Glenda Ritz. Ritz not only opposes the statewide voucher program championed by Bennett, she is among the plaintiffs in a lawsuit to overturn it. Indiana's voucher legislation accords the state department of education the power to adopt rules and regulations pertaining to its implementation, including determination of students' eligibility to receive vouchers. If Ritz does not use these powers in an attempt to hobble and curtail the program, I will be shocked.

The political balance in New Hampshire's legislature has shifted toward Democrats strongly supportive of the educational status quo. This raises the possibility that there will be efforts to cripple or repeal a K-12 scholarship donation education tax credit in that state. Though the program is quite small, it was among the best-designed in the country and it would be an unfortunate turn of events for low-income children in that state if the program is killed.

None of these developments or possible developments are likely to derail the growing interest in expanding educational freedom in America as a whole, but they do suggest that reformers have more work to do in educating themselves and the public about what works and what doesn't in education policy.