August 9, 2019 2:24PM

School Choice Increases Earnings in Colombia

There’s an ongoing debate about how we should evaluate the effectiveness of school choice policies. Last month, two education professors argued that standardized test scores should be “the measure of success.” Other education researchersincluding myself – contend that we should take a more holistic approach by looking at other relevant long-term outcomes as well. After all, schools can do so much more than shape test scores. Here’s a case in point.

A just-released evaluation found that a school choice program Colombia improved vital long-run outcomes up to 20 years after students applied for private school vouchers in 1994.

The research team, led by Stanford University’s Eric Bettinger, found that winning a lottery to use a voucher to attend a private school in 6th grade increased earnings by 8 percent overall and 11 percent for females by the time the students reached around 33 years of age. In other words, it looks like school choice could help close the gender wage gap in Colombia. The program also increased adult earnings by 17 percent for students who applied to vocational schools.

Higher earnings should be enough to demonstrate this voucher program’s success. But don’t drop the mic just yet.

The study also found that winning the voucher lottery reduced the likelihood of having a child as a teenager by 18 percent. Voucher lottery winners were also 17 percent more likely to complete secondary school on time and 13 percent more likely to enroll in tertiary education than the control group. The authors also reported that these long-run gains “occur at a low or possibly negative cost to taxpayers,” implying the program has a positive return on investment.

We should consider all relevant outcomes when evaluating any education policy, especially since families don’t want schools solely focusing on standardized tests. Families want schools to help their children succeed in life. And it looks like private schools in Colombia are doing just that.

August 9, 2019 11:15AM

Who Is Peter Navarro?

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The Wall Street Journal's opinion page created a buzz yesterday with its editorial "A Navarro Recession?" It charged that, if the nation soon suffers an economic downturn, it would be the product of the trade wars President Trump has initiated on the advice of Peter Navarro, director of Trump's Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy. 

The lede:

Multiple reports out of the White House last week say President Trump overruled all of his economic advisers other than Peter Navarro when he decided to impose new tariffs on China. Global and American economic conditions have been heading south ever since, so perhaps we should call this the Trump-Navarro trade-policy slowdown.

Later yesterday, Navarro fired back at the WSJ, saying on Fox Business Network, "It doesn’t sound a lot different from the People’s Daily in terms of the news that it puts out," referring to the Chinese Communist Party newspaper. Clearly, the editorial has gotten under his skin.

It's been a long, strange trip for Navarro. At one time, he was a fairly orthodox, market-friendly economist, even writing on the virtues of free trade in his 1984 book The Policy Game (as well as contributing a couple of items to my publication, Regulation). Yet, somewhere in the 2000s, he developed Sinophobia and authored a series of books on the ostensible threat China poses to the U.S. and world economies. One of those books, 2006's The Coming China Wars, brought him to Trump's attention and ultimately led to his White House post.

If you're interested in learning about the strategist of Trump's trade wars and the problems with his current ideas, check out Pierre Lemieux's excellent article "Peter Navarro's Conversion," the cover story for Regulation's Fall 2018 issue. With Trump imposing tariffs left-and-right, Pierre's final graf is as timely today as it was a year ago:

The maintenance of economic freedom at home—which includes the freedom to import what one wants if one finds the terms agreeable—is the only individualist, coherent, and realistic policy. The young Peter Navarro seemed to understand that. Sadly, today’s Navarro does not.

August 9, 2019 9:41AM

What the Galveston Photo Means for Police Accountability

Earlier this week, a photo out of Galveston, Texas went viral across social and traditional media. The photo shows two white Galveston police officers on horseback leading a handcuffed black man down the street with a rope. For many, particularly African Americans, the image evoked collective memories of the bygone era of slavery, when fugitive slaves would be captured by armed patrols and marched back to their white owners in shackles. The Galveston police chief, Vernon Hale, apologized and took blame for the incident, attempting to deflect the massive public outrage at the two officers for exercising what he admitted was “poor judgment.”

Whether or not the two officers were cognizant of the racial implications of their actions at the time, the public parading of any handcuffed individual is degrading and humiliating. Like “perp walks,” warrantless roadside searches, and the gratuitous use of mugshots splashed across local news, presumptive innocence—that all arrestees have until they are convicted—is effectively ignored by law enforcement. The ability of police to impose public shame on individuals is an underappreciated aspect of how officers conduct themselves on a day-to-day basis, even when they are operating within the boundaries of the law. Put another way, just because the police may do something to someone doesn’t mean they should.

In a situation like this, the damage goes beyond this man and his family. Imagine that you are an African American in Galveston and you saw police treat a black man like that. The department said that the officers did this because there was no transport vehicle available to take him for processing. Maybe that’s true, maybe it isn’t. Regardless, you know what you’ve seen in your newspapers and splashed across the internet. You know the message that act sends to the black community, irrespective of the officers’ intent. Is that photo going to increase or decrease your belief that those officers will treat you fairly if you encounter them?

This incident, which has undoubtedly damaged the department’s reputation, is yet another example of what we in the Project on Criminal Justice call “self-defeating policing.” For a police department to be effective at closing cases for serious crimes, it needs the cooperation of residents to tell them what they know. As much as the police procedural television dramas rely on high-tech forensics labs or psychological profilers to catch killers, the reality is that cops need information from the communities where a crime happened. A community that does not trust its police force is far less likely to cooperate with them to bring violent people to justice. In this respect, the entire community of Galveston—and particularly its black residents—have been harmed by this sorry episode.

But returning to the man who was subjected to this treatment, he doesn’t have much recourse against the department. The officers didn’t violate any policy, so they cannot be punished, let alone fired, for their behavior—assuming, that is, their account of how this happened is true. There is no criminal law against police doing this to someone, so no criminal charges are possible. But, in a more just system, there is an argument that what they did to him was damaging and violative of his rights. If that were the case, he should be able to sue the officers for that violation. Unfortunately, we don’t live with that system.

Not only have the courts given police officers a wide-amount of latitude on the use of force and detention against individuals, they have insulated police further with the doctrine of qualified immunity (QI). Qualified immunity is a protection from civil liability for a rights violation that isn’t “clearly established” in the jurisdiction in which it happened. That is, if this man were to try to sue the officers for their actions, even if a court found they violated his rights, QI may prevent the lawsuit from going forward if another court in the federal jurisdiction hadn’t previously ruled this particular kind of incident was a rights violation. This is speculative, of course, but this illustrates the systemic lack of accountability for police officers—no administrative, criminal, and civil consequences—for what many citizens consider to be plainly wrongful conduct.

One might hope that the damage of this act would be limited to Galveston, as every police department is different and what happens in one jurisdiction isn’t necessarily indicative of what would happen in another. Yet, on Thursday, at least two police unions in Texas defended the officers. Via CNN:

“Contrary to what some have said, these officers did not use poor judgment. They did exactly what they are trained to do," said Kevin Lawrence, the Executive Director of the Texas Municipal Police Association.

Statements like this are not how you build trust in communities that have scores of reasons to distrust police. Police unions have an obligation to defend their members from unfair treatment by their employers, but they rarely consider the impact of their public excuse-making in the face of any criticism of police officers. The Galveston officers are in little danger of any serious repercussions from this incident, yet the unions are coming out defending their actions because, to them, it’s just fine to humiliate people like this. In polite society, when people are wronged, even accidentally, we expect—at the very least—an apology; an acknowledgment of the harm done to someone else. Police unions seem to be constitutionally incapable of admitting fallibility or error in even the most egregious circumstances.

So long as police officers are shielded from accountability for their actions against the public, they will continue to fail in their duty to serve and protect.

August 8, 2019 3:53PM

Dennis Prager, Big Government Conservative

Dennis Prager recently made a case for government management of social media in the Wall Street Journal. Prager is a conservative so it might seem odd to find him plumping for government control of private businesses. But he is a part of a new conservatism that rejects the older tradition of laissez-faire that informed the right. What could justify Big Government regulation for tech companies?

Prager argues that the companies have a legal obligation to moderate their platforms without political bias. He thinks they are biased and thus fail to meet their obligation. But the companies have no such obligation and to be charitable, it is far from clear that they are biased against conservative content.

Let’s look at the law first. Section 230(c) of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 says:

1)…No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.

(2) …No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be held liable on account of…any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected;

Section 230 did seek to promote free speech and to empower companies to moderate content on their platforms. Prager doesn’t see that promoting free speech requires exempting the companies from the legal obligations of publishers and speakers. A newspaper can review and edit material it publishes and thus should take responsibility for the harms it might do. Social media giants like Facebook have billions of users producing content. They can hardly review all of it before it appears. If they were held liable for the content, the companies would likely take no chances and suppress all content that might cause harm and legal liability. In other words, absent immunity from liability, the companies would sharply restrict speech on their platforms; the liability exemption thereby promotes free speech.

Of course, if they did not nothing at all, the platforms would become much less valuable to users. The law also empowers the platforms to restrict content that is “obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable.” Prager notices the obscenity part, but somehow misses the words “otherwise objectionable.” If YouTube decided Prager’s videos were neither violent nor obscene but were “otherwise objectionable,” the company could restrict access to them. In other words, the law empowers YouTube to be biased against Prager if they wish. And Prager thinks they do have it in for him and other conservatives. As you might have guessed by now, there is lot less to this claim than meets the eye.

Consider what Prager himself tells us: YouTube now hosts 320 Prager University videos that get a billion views a year. Indeed, a new video goes up every week. Not exactly the Gulag is it? He complains that 56 of those 320 videos are on YouTube’s “restricted list” which means (according to Prager) “any home, institution or individual using a filter to block pornography and violence cannot see those videos. Nor can any school or library.” In other words, YouTube has “restricted access” to materials on its site its managers consider “otherwise objectionable.” Was YouTube biased against Prager and other conservatives? Prager himself notes leftwing sites also ended up on the restricted list. But that’s different, he says, because their videos are violent or obscene while his are not.
Prager fails to mention that videos from The History Channel are restricted at twice the rate of his films. Hardly a bastion of left-wing vulgarity, The History Channel’s videos often discuss historical atrocities and totalitarian regimes. While these clips may be educational, Google seems to believe that the 1.5% of YouTube users who voluntarily opt-in to restricted mode wish to avoid even educational discussions of atrocity. Dennis Prager’s video about the Ten Commandments is restricted for similar discussions of the Nazi’s Godless regime. It is far from unreasonable to allow parents to decide how their children are taught about such horrors. A reasonable conservative might even applaud such support for the family.

Who gets to decide whether left wing videos or historical documentaries are different than Prager’s videos? The law says YouTube gets to decide. Imagine you took the words “otherwise objectionable” out of Section 230. Who would then decide about restricting material? In the past, conservatives would have said the owners and managers of private property decide how best to use their assets. But the times seem to be changing.

Prager cites a study by a Columbia University researcher that purports to prove online bias against conservatives. The study cites 22 cases covered by the press in which Twitter suspended the accounts of individuals, almost all of whom were Trump supporters. Prager is arguing that a sample of just 22 cases from Twitter alone proves systemic bias against…whom? Conservatives? The list of 22 suspended accounts is, “a who’s who of outspoken or accused white nationalists, neo-Confederates, holocaust deniers, conspiracy peddlers, professional trolls, and other alt-right or fringe personalities...It does not include any mainstream conservatives, unless, I suppose, you count recently-indicted Trump campaign advisor and ‘dirty trickster’ Roger Stone.” Is Prager broadening the big tent of conservatism here? If not, what does this study, as limited as it is, prove about bias against conservatives?

Prager’s other argument about bias comes in the form of a question: “Do they [conservatives skeptical of his views] think Google, Facebook and Twitter—the conduits of a vast proportion of the free world’s public information—don’t act on their loathing of conservatives?” This question nicely combines two kinds of logical fallacies. It assumes the truth of what is to be proved, the fallacy of pettio princippi while appealing to confirmation bias among Prager’s readers. Sadly, this may be the most effective rhetoric in the essay, notwithstanding its logical faults. But it does nothing for his case against Google.

The final paragraph of the essay is perhaps the most revealing about the new conservatism. He draws an analogy to the airlines who are treated as common carriers and expected to provide service to all. Of course, the airlines were also heavily regulated for many decades to the detriment of consumers. Prager gestures in this way toward a future of heavy regulation for social media, a future that will be novel if not conservative. “Not conservative” that is, if what conservatives said in my lifetime about the proper limits of government ever had any meaning at all beyond the moment they were spoken.


August 8, 2019 9:50AM

Managing Mutually Antagonistic Allies Is Like Herding Cats

One problem (among many) the United States has experienced in leading a vast array of allies and security dependents is that periodic quarrels break out among such clients. Even when the disputes are parochial and petty, the degree of animosity generated frequently is not. Not only does Washington then face the prospect of one or more of those allies breaking ranks and undermining U.S. policy objectives, but the danger exists that a confrontation might escalate to a cold war—or even a hot one.

Deteriorating relations between two of Washington’s prominent allies in East Asia--Japan and the Republic of Korea--are now creating a major headache for the Trump administration. As I discussed in an American Conservative article in late July, the ongoing bilateral disputes involve both economic and security issues—as well as matters of intense national pride. The quarrel already had reached an alarming level at that time, but it has grown noticeable worse since then. A full-blown cold war between Tokyo and Seoul is now a possibility.

The trade spat that had been simmering for months escalated sharply on August 2 when Japan removed South Korea from a favored trading nations list, disadvantaging ROK products and putting the overall bilateral economic relationship in jeopardy. That hostile move prompted Seoul to threaten retaliatory measures, including withdrawing from the military intelligence sharing agreement it maintains with Japan and the United States. Needless, to say, given the Trump administration’s ongoing delicate diplomatic dance with North Korea, U.S. officials are not pleased about the prospect of a disruption in intelligence gathering and cooperation between Washington’s two most important allies in Northeast Asia.

Japanese and South Korean quarrels have flared on numerous occasions before, and the United States has found itself pressed into the role of diplomatic peacemaker. Nor are those two countries the only troublemakers in the ranks of Washington’s allies. Since Turkey and Greece joined NATO in 1952, they not only have frequently pursued conflicting foreign policy goals, they also have nearly come to blows on several occasions, most notably during a confrontation over Cyprus in 1974. Washington was barely able to prevent an intra-NATO war on that occasion. Over the decades, Turkey also has made a habit of sending its warplanes into Greek airspace, stoking tensions. These provocations continue, with some 36 violations in a single day in December 2018. Although Washington views Ankara’s mounting security flirtation with Russia, marked by Turkey’s purchase of S-400 anti-aircraft missiles from Moscow, as a greater worry, concerns about Greek-Turkish animosity remain high on the list.

Rather than continue to be a referee between chronically quarrelsome allies who can barely abide one another, U.S. leaders need to ask themselves whether maintaining such hoary, cold war-era security ties really benefits the United States. That question certainly should be asked about the bilateral security pacts with Japan and South Korea. Those two governments certainly ought to recognize that they have important mutual interests at stake and need to foster close cooperation to deal with a rising China and a habitually disruptive North Korea. If they cannot or will not behave responsibly and instead choose to engage in dangerous posturing and grandstanding, then U.S. officials are merely serving as enablers. Trying to placate and pacify disruptive, mutually antagonistic allies is akin to trying to herd cats. Indeed, it may be even more frustrating and less rewarding.

August 7, 2019 3:24PM

WSJ, WaPo, NYT Spread False Internet Law Claims

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Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act is much debated and under bipartisan attack. The legislation, which includes the “26 words that created the Internet,” is attacked from the right by those who complain about alleged “Big Tech” anti-conservative bias and from the left by those bemoaning the spread of extremist content. Accordingly, Section 230 has been the topic of much discussion in newspaper pages. Unfortunately, the Fourth Estate has recently allowed misinformation about Section 230 to spread, which is especially regrettable given that falsehoods about Section 230 are already ubiquitous.

The most recent example of such misinformation is an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal by the conservative commentator and Prager University founder Dennis Prager. The first falsehood appears in the subhed: “Big tech companies enjoy legal immunity premised on the assumption they’ll respect free speech.”

This is not true. Congress did not pass Section 230 on the understanding that Internet companies would engage in minimal moderation and “respect free speech.” In fact, §230(c)(2)(A) of the CDA states the following:

No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be held liable on account of any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected.” (emphasis mine).

This portion of Section 230 explicitly states that companies as large as Facebook and those as small as a local bakery that includes a comments section on its WordPress site can take “any action” to remove content they consider objectionable. I am at a loss trying to figure out where Prager got the idea that Section 230 was premised on Internet companies respecting “free speech.” It’s possible that he’s considering one of Section 230’s findings:

The Internet and other interactive computer services offer a forum for a true diversity of political discourse, unique opportunities for cultural development, and myriad avenues for intellectual activity.

While this finding emphasizes the value of the Internet as an ecosystem capable of hosting  a diverse range of political views, it does not encourage specific sites to adopt politically neutral content moderation policies. Nor does it make such neutrality a necessary condition for Section 230 immunity.

We should keep in mind that oped page contributors rarely write their own subheds. But Prager makes the point explicitly in his oped’s text:

The clear intent of Section 230—the bargain Congress made with the tech companies—was to promote free speech while allowing companies to moderate indecent content without being classified as publishers.

But Google and the others have violated this agreement. They want to operate under a double standard: censoring material that has no indecent content—that is, acting like publishers—while retaining the immunity of nonpublishers.

There was no such agreement or bargain. Section 230 was passed in an explicit attempt to encourage moderation of speech. This portion of Prager’s oped also raises another myth that abounds in Section 230 debates: the “platform” vs. “publisher” distinction.

There is no legal difference between a “platform” and a “publisher.” Indeed, publishers enjoy Section 230 protection. The Wall Street Journal is a publisher and can be held liable for defamatory content oped contributors write. But The Wall Street Journal also hosts moderated comment sections, which do enjoy Section 230 protection. The comments section below Prager’s oped says as much.

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When Prager writes, “But Google, YouTube and Facebook choose not to be regarded as ‘publishers’ because publishers are liable for what they publish and can be sued for libel” he is making a significant error. Google, Youtube, and Facebook did not “choose” to not be considered publishers. Social media sites don't "choose" not to be regarded as publishers. CDA§230(c)(1) makes the decision for them:

No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.

These “26 words that created the Internet” include no provision that allows social media site to “choose” whether they’re “publishers” or “platforms.”

Section 230 was passed to encourage Internet companies to moderate user content and does not classify such companies as “publishers” or “platforms.”

Prager’s last important claim is that the fact that Youtube users who have opted into “restricted mode” can’t access dozens of Prager U videos because of an anti-conservative bias at Youtube. This claim doesn’t withstand scrutiny. Research by NetChoice demonstrates that that only 12 percent of Prager U’s videos are in “restricted mode,” compared to 54 percent of Daily Show videos and 71 percent of Young Turks videos. Prager may be correct to point out that these videos are restricted because of expletives, but expletives aren't the only kind of content that can result in videos being restricted. "Mature subjects," "violence," and "sexual situations" can also result in videos being unavailable to users in restricted mode. Anyone who takes a look at Prager U's Youtube channel can see content that would understandably put it out of reach of users who have opted into “restricted mode.”

It’s bad enough to get the facts of Section 230 wrong. Spreading falsehoods in pursuit of an agenda that isn’t supported by what the facts reveal is worse.

Dennis Prager is the most recent proliferator of Section 230 misinformation, but he’s hardly the only one.

Yesterday, The New York Times published a Section 230-heavy article which featured on the front page of its business section. The headline read: “Why Hate Speech on the Internet Is a Never-Ending Problem.” To its credit, The New York Times has since issued a correction and fixed the headline. As I discussed above, Section 230 doesn’t protect hate speech per se. You can thank the First Amendment for that. Rather, it allows companies to remove speech that violates their content moderation rules without becoming liable for everything posted by users. Footage of a white nationalist murdering someone would run afoul of Facebook’s content moderation policy, but it might be left up by moderators of a neo-nazi forum. Section 230 allows Facebook to remove the footage, which is legal under the First Amendment.

Last month, The Washington Post published an oped by Charlie Kirk, founder of Turning Point USA. The Kirk oped repeats the same “publisher” v. “platform” error often seen in Section 230 debates. But it also includes the following claim:

Social media companies have leveraged Section 230 to great effect, and astounding profits, by claiming they are platforms — not publishers — thereby avoiding under the law billions of dollars in potential copyright infringement and libel lawsuits.

Kirk’s comment on  Section 230’s interaction with copyright law is the opposite of the truth. Section 230(e)(2) reads:

Nothing in this section shall be construed to limit or expand any law pertaining to intellectual property.

At the time of publication neither The Washington Post nor The Wall Street Journal have issued corrections, editorial notes, or retractions related to the Prager or Kirk opeds. 

Useful policy debates only happen when participants can agree on facts. Sadly, some of the most reputable newspapers in the country have allowed for misinformation about an important piece of legislation to spread without correction. Anyone hoping for the quality of Section 230 debates to improve any time soon will be disappointed.

August 7, 2019 11:22AM

Tax‐​Hike Decade Looms

The Democratic presidential contest is revving up the tax policy debate. The candidates are calling for higher taxes on corporations, capital gains, wealth, and much else. In the second round of debates, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said he wants to “tax the hell out of the wealthy,” and that is a common sentiment in his party these days.

The tax issue had faded after Republicans passed their Tax Cuts and Jobs Act in 2017. Most people did not notice they received a tax cut, and Republicans have been lousy salespersons for their reform.

Going forward, taxes will reclaim center stage, but rather than tax cuts, there could be endless battles over tax hikes. Today’s surfeit of soak-the-rich ideas from Democrats may be just a prelude to major thrusts at hiking middle-class taxes down the road.

To read the rest, see The Hill.