Topic: Government and Politics

Can Arne Duncan Fix All the Schools?

Education Secretary Arne Duncan, responding to a new study showing that District of Columbia students using vouchers to attend private schools outperformed their peers in public schools – a study that he has been accused of keeping under wraps until after Congress voted to end the D.C. voucher program – told the Washington Post of his concerns:

“Big picture, I don’t see vouchers as being the answer,” Duncan said in a recent meeting with Washington Post editors and reporters. “You can pull two kids out, you can pull three kids out, and you’re leaving 97, 98 percent behind. You need to help all those kids. The way you help them is by challenging the status quo where it’s not working and coming back with dramatically better schools and doing it systemically.”

But why would vouchers only serve two or three percent of the kids? Only because Congress limited the size of the voucher program. Thousands more families have applied for public or private vouchers than there were vouchers available. If the District of Columbia took its mammoth school budget and divided it into equal vouchers or scholarships for each child in the city, Arne Duncan could bet his bottom dollar that a lot more than two percent of the families would head for private or parochial schools. His fear is not that vouchers only serve two percent of the kids, it’s that a full-scale choice program would reveal just how much demand for alternatives there is.

But note also: Duncan says that he wants to “help all those kids … by … coming back with dramatically better schools.” But he ran the Chicago schools for seven years, and he was not able to make a single school good enough for Barack and Michelle Obama to send their own children there.

Wouldn’t the 97 or 98 percent of the kids in Chicago whose parents couldn’t afford the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools have benefited from having a choice?

New at Cato

Here are a few highlights from Cato Today, a daily email from the Cato Institute. You can subscribe, here

  • The new edition of Regulation examines the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), the legal drinking age and climate change policies.
  • In The Week, Will Wilkinson argues that the Obama administration should rethink its drug policy and that prominent marijuana users should “come out of the closet.”
  • Gene Healy points out in the Washington Examiner why the Serve America Act (SAA) is no friend to freedom.
  • The Cato Weekly Video features Rep. Paul Ryan discussing the Obama administration’s budget.
  • In Wednesday’s Cato Daily Podcast, Patri Friedman discusses seasteading and the prospects for liberty on the high seas.

Will the Military Industrial Complex Save American Foreign Policy?

Missing from most of the commentary on the Secretary of Defense’s big defense spending speech yesterday is the fact that the program cuts he proposed are largely a result of freezing the topline – keeping defense spending level (once you adjust for inflation) for the next decade.

For nearly a decade the country has really had two defense budgets – one for imagined conventional wars against states like China, another from nation-building, peacekeeping and counterinsurgency. The first budget requires a small ground force and lots of big platforms operated by the Air Force and Navy. The latter requires much larger ground forces, a few niche capabilities like intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, and less high technology wonders.

The current American love affair with counterinsurgency has resulted in a gradual shift of dollars from the conventional budget to the unconventional one. We are reversing the old idea that the American way of war is to replace labor with capital, or manpower with technology. We are becoming a land power first.  We have been increasing manpower in the Army and Marines – adding 90,000 new troops – and paying them way more (compensation per service member is up by almost half since 1998). Personnel costs are taking more of the budget.  And for more complex reasons, including health care costs, the operations and maintenance part of the budget – essentially the day to day cost of running the military – has also been growing fast when measured per service member.  (For details on these issues, read this testimony by Stephen Daggett of the Congressional Research Service.)

That was bound to squeeze the other big parts of the defense budget – research, development and procurement of new weapons systems. There is too much future cost in the budget for everything to fit without topline growth, so something had to give. Big weapons programs are where the most give is, if you don’t want to cut manpower.

That conflict was delayed while the budget topline grew, but now that it is flat, it erupts. The manpower intensive military that follows from our current policies is eating into the conventional military that delivers manufactoring jobs across the country and the high-technology dreams of our military leaders.

What will be interesting to see is whether this shift encourages those leaders and their friends on the Hill to take up the arguments that people like me have been making for years: that small wars are mostly dumb wars.  Preparation for these wars didn’t much hurt the military industrial complex before, now it does. 

An additional note: Gates’ criticism of the acquisition process was on the mark. Rather than blaming out of control weapons costs on the kind of contracts we write or crafty contractors, as the President seems to, Gates noted correctly that the trouble is the requirements process – what we want, not how we buy it.

National Defense, Keynesianism, or Just Pure Rent-Seeking?

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) is fighting hard to maintain production of the F-22 Raptor fighter jet, which happens to be made by Lockheed Martin in Marietta, Ga. But Isakson insists that he’s not fighting for the plane just because it’s made in Georgia. No, he tells NPR, it’s important to recognize that it’s actually made by 90,000 workers in 49 states, and you don’t want to lose those jobs at a time of high unemployment.

In a letter to President Obama, he spelled out his argument, albeit with slightly different numbers:

Over 25,000 Americans work for the 1,000+ suppliers in 44 states that manufacture the F-22. Moreover, it is estimated that another 70,000 additional Americans indirectly owe their jobs to this program. As we face one of the most trying economic times in recent history it is critical to preserve existing high paying, specialized jobs that are critical to our nation’s defense.

To be sure, Isakson does insist that the plane is vital to national security, an argument that Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Cato’s Chris Preble challenge. But it doesn’t say much for Republican arguments against President Obama’s wasteful spending when Republican senators argue that we should build a hugely expensive airplane as a jobs program.

New at Cato Unbound

This month’s Cato Unbound continues our tradition of stirring up controversy. The lead essay is by Patri Friedman, who challenges the advocates of liberty as follows:

I deeply yearn to live in an actual free society, not just to imagine a theoretical future utopia or achieve small incremental gains in freedom. For many years, I enthusiastically advocated for liberty under the vague assumption that advocacy would help our cause. However, I recently began trying to create free societies as my full-time job, and this has given me a dramatic perspective shift from my days of armchair philosophizing. My new perspective is that the advocacy approach which many libertarian individuals, groups, and think tanks follow (including me sometimes, sadly) is an utter waste of time.

Argument has refined our principles, and academic research has enlarged our understanding, but they have gotten us no closer to an actual libertarian state. Our debating springs not from calculated strategy, but from an intuitive “folk activism”: an instinct to seek political change through personal interaction, born in our hunter-gatherer days when all politics was personal. In the modern world, however, bad policies are the result of human action, not human design. To change them we must understand how they emerge from human interaction, and then alter the web of incentives that drives behavior. Attempts to directly influence people or ideas without changing incentives, such as the U.S. Libertarian Party, the Ron Paul campaign, and academic research, are thus useless for achieving real-world liberty.

Cato isn’t called out by name, but it easily could have been. Like I said, Cato Unbound tries to be controversial.

What’s needed, Friedman claims, is not more study or advocacy, but a change in the deeper institutional structures that give rise to government policies. Competition among states (and non-state agents!), new technologies, and new intentional communities may just induce old-fashioned governments to behave a whole lot better. By contrast, just recommending somewhat better policies won’t do very much, not if all we do is write about them. (Friedman seems particularly skeptical about blogs. Ahem.)

Is this just a young person’s impatience? Or has Friedman found a serious weakness in libertarian activism? One reply I might make is that Cato scholars have researched quite a few topics that Friedman would probably find worthwhile. It’s important to document these things, and much of this work directly furthers the kind of structural reform that Friedman favors.

Consider the many Cato scholars who have heralded the rise of tax competition – in which states feel increasing pressure to deliver a low-cost product when their taxpayers can move elsewhere. Or consider Bryan Caplan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter, a book whose conclusions inform Friedman’s own project. This book began with a series of discussions among public policy scholars (on a blog no less!). Cato actively promoted Caplan’s work, and we would hope that Friedman would find this an effort well-spent. An upcoming event with author James Tooley shows how the world’s poor are founding their own schools to educate themselves, admirably free from any state interference – a new, private social practice bests an incompetent government! These things matter, I’d say, and they matter even if we accept Friedman’s premises. (We’re also giving a platform to Friedman, both here and at an event on April 7.)

In any case, this a big and very important discussion for the libertarian movement, of which the Cato Institute is only a part. Cato Unbound will have a remarkable series of panelists commenting throughout this week and next, including Jason Sorens, founder of the Free State Project; Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal and noted philanthropist; and Brian Doherty, who has researched and written about more forms of libertarian activism than most of us can even recall. Whatever side of the debate you end up taking, be sure to stop by to catch this month’s edition of Cato Unbound.

Congressional Bonuses

The Wall Street Journal reports,

While Congress has been flaying companies for giving out bonuses while on the government dole, lawmakers have a longstanding tradition of rewarding their own employees with extra cash — also courtesy of taxpayers.

And at the very time that Congress was mishandling the financial crisis and trying to direct popular outrage at Wall Street, not Washington, the bonuses were getting bigger:

Capitol Hill bonuses in 2008 were among the highest in years, according to LegiStorm, an organization that tracks payroll data. The average House aide earned 17% more in the fourth quarter of the year, when the bonuses were paid, than in previous quarters, according to the data.

LegiStorm is a pretty scary website for congressional staff members and privacy advocates. It makes readily available not just staffers’ salaries but their financial disclosure forms, including their spouses’ sources of income, as the Washington Post reported this week. I used LegiStorm myself (or technically interns Schuyler Daum and Jonathan Slemrod did) to write about how the Republicans shoveled bonus money to their staff members before they lost control of committee budgets after the 2006 election. Now that bonuses have become a focus of outrage, maybe Congress should impose 90 percent clawbacks on the bonuses of congressional staffers — and bonuses to other federal employees. After all, they’ve mismanaged the government’s finances far worse than AIG employees mismanaged that company.