Topic: Government and Politics

Thomas Friedman’s New Math of Democracy

52237408AW011_Meet_The_PresThomas Friedman’s New York Times column today would be astonishing in its incoherence if only Friedman hadn’t long ago sapped us of our ability to be astonished by his incoherence. Like many capital-‘d’ Democrats, Friedman has soured on democracy for failing to deliver on his policy wish list.

Watching both the health care and climate/energy debates in Congress, it is hard not to draw the following conclusion: There is only one thing worse than one-party autocracy, and that is one-party democracy, which is what we have in America today.

Why does Friedman say the United States has one-party democracy? Because the Republican Party is effectively opposing the Democratic Party’s agenda! Not even kidding. Get this:

The fact is, on both the energy/climate legislation and health care legislation, only the Democrats are really playing. With a few notable exceptions, the Republican Party is standing, arms folded and saying “no.” Many of them just want President Obama to fail. Such a waste. Mr. Obama is not a socialist; he’s a centrist. But if he’s forced to depend entirely on his own party to pass legislation, he will be whipsawed by its different factions.

Only the Democrats are really playing! You might think that would mean they can do whatever they darn well please. But no! The Democrats can’t do anything! Because the other party’s opposition is so effective! So it’s exactly as if there’s just one party: nothing gets done!

My hunch is that the Times’ editors see Friedman aiming the gun at his foot, but watching a man stupid enough to actually pull the trigger is so fun they hate to intervene. That or they’re trying to explode the myth of American meritocracy.

So where were we? Oh, yes: one-party democracy is aggravating because sometimes one party can’t do what it wants because the other party gets in the way. Sooo frustrating!!! Why have democracy at all when all you end up with is a single party stymied by the other one! And so it is that Friedman comes to wax romantic about communist central planning:

One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century. It is not an accident that China is committed to overtaking us in electric cars, solar power, energy efficiency, batteries, nuclear power and wind power.

Nikita Kruschev, the enlightened leader of a now-defunct one-party autocracy, was also committed to overtaking the United States in technology and so much more. “We will bury you” is how he put it. At the time, more than a few left-leaning American opinionmakers suspected he was right. After all, how can inefficiently squabbling democracies possibly keep pace with undivided regimes wholly devoted to scientifically centrally planning their way into the brighter, better future? And that, children, is why we speak Russian today.

Research Shows $100 Billion Ed. Stimulus Likely Hurting Economy

Tomorrow morning, the president’s Council of Economic Advisers will release a report assessing the short and long-term effects of the stimulus bill on the U.S. economy. As with previous iterations, this report will attempt to forecast overall effects of the stimulus across its many different components and the different economic sectors it targets. In doing so, it ignores the clearest research findings available pertaining to a key portion of the stimulus: k-12 education.

The president has committed $100 billion in new money to the nation’s public school systems, and required that states accepting the funds promise not to reduce their own k-12 spending. The official argument for this measure is that higher school spending will accelerate U.S. economic growth. But a July 2008 study in the Journal of Policy Sciences finds that, to the authors’ own surprise, higher spending on public schooling is associated with lower subsequent economic growth. Spending more on public schools hurts the U.S. economy.

How is that possible? There is little debate in academic circles that raising human capital – improving the skills and knowledge of workers – boosts productivity. So an obvious interpretation of the JPS study is that raising public school spending must not increase human capital. While this possibility surprised study authors Norman Baldwin and Stephen Borrelli, it is consistent with the data on U.S. educational productivity over the past two generations.

Since 1970, inflation adjusted public school spending has more than doubled. Over the same period, achievement of students at the end of high school has stagnated according to the Department of Education’s own long term National Assessment of Educational Progress. Meanwhile, the high school graduation rate has declined by 4 or 5%, according to Nobel laureate economist James Heckman. So the only thing higher public school spending has accomplished is to raise taxes by about $300 billion annually, without improving outcomes.

The fact that more schooling without more learning is not a recipe for economic growth is confirmed by the independent empirical work of economists Eric Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann. Their key finding is that academic achievement, not schooling per se, is what matters to economic growth.

Based on this body of research, the president’s decision to pump $100 billion into existing public school systems is likely slowing the U.S. economic recovery.

President’s Campaign Speech to Kids

There are numerous reasons to take issue with the President’s address to kids, several of which I hit here. Just one is that this speech is essentially a big campaign stop for President Obama. As I watch the speech, this only seems more blatantly clear. Cheering crowds. Panning across the admiring throngs. “MY EDUCATION, MY FUTURE” backdrop. Powerful stories about President Obama’s life. It’s all there.

Of course, this is just about the kids…

If I Only Had a Crisis

Bloomberg News points out that President Obama needs a health-care crisis in order to impose a health-care “solution”:

President Barack Obama returns to Washington next week in search of one thing that can revive his health-care overhaul: a sense of crisis….

“At the moment, except for the people without insurance, we’re not in a health-care crisis,” said Stephen Wayne, a professor of government at Georgetown University in Washington. “You do need a crisis to generate movement in Congress and to help build a consensus.”

This administration has used Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine as a manual. Klein said in an interview that

The Shock Doctrine is a political strategy that the Republican right has been perfecting over the past 35 years to use for various different kinds of shocks. They could be wars, natural disasters, economic crises, anything that sends a society into a state of shock to push through what economists call ‘economic shock therapy’ – rapid-fire, pro-corporate policies that they couldn’t get through if people weren’t in a state of fear and panic.

Whether or not that’s true about the “right-wing” policies that she purported to analyze, the Obama admininstration has taken it to heart. Rahm Emanuel said, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.  And this crisis provides the opportunity for us to do things that you could not do before” such as taking control of the financial, energy, information and healthcare industries. Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and the president himself all echoed Emanuel’s exultation about the opportunities presented by crisis.

The financial crisis turned out to be shocking enough to let the federal government extend the power of the Federal Reserve, nationalize two automobile companies, spend $700 billion on corporate bailouts and another $787 billion on pork and “stimulus,” and inject a trillion dollars of inflationary credit into the economy. But now people are balking at further expansions of government, and the administration is longing for just a little more crisis to serve as a further opportunity.

Citizens United and Supreme Court Precedent

My old friend E. J. Dionne of the Washington Post writes that the Citizens United v. FEC rehearing on Wednesday is “A Test Case for Roberts.” Because, you see, Chief Justice John Roberts said in his confirmation hearings that “it is a jolt to the legal system when you overrule a precedent. Precedent plays an important role in promoting stability and evenhandedness. It is not enough – and the court has emphasized this on several occasions – it is not enough that you may think the prior decision was wrongly decided.”

Dionne says that if Roberts and the Court overturn the precedents that seem to point to banning a movie with a political agenda because it was produced by a nonprofit corporation, “he will unleash havoc in our political system and greatly undermine the legitimacy of the court he leads.”

I disagree with Dionne on the scope of the First Amendment’s protection of free speech. But I sort of admire him for staking out such a strong stand in favor of precedent and “settled expectations.” After all, a firm commitment to precedent can lead to some uncomfortable positions. Given the firmness of Dionne’s reliance on the importance of precedent and “settled expectations” to “the legitimacy of the court,” I assume he has opposed previous cases where the Court overturned settled law and its own precedent. Such as Brown v. Board of Education, which overturned a 58-year-old case, Plessy v. Ferguson. And Lawrence v. Texas, which overturned a 17-year-old precedent that had upheld state sodomy laws.

Or surely he does not mean that only precedents he approves of are deserving of respect and vital to the legitimacy of the court?

Reviving the First Amendment

The U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments this week in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.  The case features the Federal Election Commission ruling that for the group Citizens United to run its documentary on Hillary Clinton would violate McCain-Feingold.  The decision was a constitutional travesty, since this is precisely the sort of political speech that constitutes the core of the First Amendment.

Theodore B. Olson has given us a taste in the Wall Street Journal of the argument that he will be making before the Court tomorrow:

The idea that corporate and union speech is somehow inherently corrupting is nonsense. Most corporations are small businesses, and they have every right to speak out when a candidate threatens the welfare of their employees or shareholders.

Time after time the Supreme Court has recognized that corporations enjoy full First Amendment protections. One of the most revered First Amendment precedents is New York Times v. Sullivan (1964), which afforded publishers important constitutional safeguards in libel cases. Any decision that determines that corporations have less protection than individuals under the First Amendment would threaten the very institutions we depend upon to keep us informed. This may be why Citizens United is supported by such diverse allies as the ACLU, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the AFL-CIO, the National Rifle Association and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Persons of modest means often band together to speak through ideological corporations. That speech may not be silenced because of speculation that a few large entities might speak too loudly, or because some corporations may earn large profits. The First Amendment does not permit the government to handicap speakers based on their wealth, or ration speech in order somehow to equalize participation in public debate.

Tomorrow’s case is not about Citizens United. It is about the rights of all persons—individuals, associations, corporations and unions—to speak freely. And it is about our right to hear those voices and to judge for ourselves who has the soundest message.

Staid Speech Is Cold Comfort

After all of the rancor last week over his planned back-to-school address, it was predictable that in the end President Obama would offer a largely non-controversial speech about working hard and staying in school. If he sticks to the text released today, that is pretty much what he will do. Unfortunately, whether or not that was his original intent – and no one knows for sure but the President and his advisors – many Obama supporters will likely use the relatively staid final product as grounds to smear people concerned about the speech as right-wing kooks or out-of-control partisans. At the very least, such an outcome would be in keeping with a lot of the email I’ve gotten since the story first broke. But it will miss several critical points:

  • No matter how innocuous the content of the speech, this could certainly be an address with very political goals, intended to cast the president in the warm glow of a man who just cares about kids. From kissing babies, to photo-op reading sessions featuring cute tikes on classroom floors, this could be just another instance of the old practice of using children as props for political gain. And how presumptuous of the president to make himself – rather than the children, their teachers, and their schools – the center of attention on what is the first day of school for millions of kids. Finally, add the parts of the speech that sound like the President patting himself on the back for overcoming difficulties as a youth, and the speech could easily have political aims.
  • Many people feared, thanks to politically and ideologically suggestive lesson guides created by the U.S. Department of Education, that the speech would be an effort at indoctrination. Critically, it was only after very loud, initial outrage that the Department made changes to the guides and the White House announced it would release the text of the speech ahead of time. Yet administration defenders act like everyone knew from the outset that the speech would just be about working hard and staying in school. And who knows what the speech might have looked like had there not been so negative an initial reaction.
  • Despite its generally innocuous tone, the speech does contain some controversial political and ideological assertions, including that “setting high standards, supporting teachers and principals, and turning around schools” is the job of the federal government. Also, the things the President highlights as worthy aspirations are disproportionately government and non-profit work. And then there’s this self-aggrandizing assertion: “Your families, your teachers, and I are doing everything we can to make sure you have the education you need to answer these questions. I’m working hard to fix up your classrooms and get you the books, equipment and computers you need to learn.”
  • Ultimately, no matter what happens now that the speech has been published, one thing cannot be ignored or spun: When government controls education, wrenching political and social conflict is inevitable. Americans are very diverse – ideologically, ethnically, morally, religiously – but they all have to support a single system of government schools. As a result, they are constantly forced to fight to have their values and desires respected, and the losers inevitably have their liberty infringed. In this case, reasonable people who want their children to hear the President must fight it out with  equally reasonable people who do not want their children to watch the speech in school. It’s a situation completely at odds with a free society, but as we have seen not just with the current conflict, but seemingly endless battles over history textbooks, the teaching of human origins, sex education, and on and on, it is inevitable when government runs the schools. Which is why the most important lesson to be learned from this presidential-address donnybrook is that Americans need educational freedom. We need universal school choice or crippling conflicts like this will keep on coming, liberty will continue to be compromised, and our society will be ripped farther and farther apart.