School Choice Going, Going, Gone Bipartisan (In Some States)

The USA Today takes note of the fact that support for school choice is growing among Democratic, often black, politicians:

While vouchers will likely never be the clarion call of Democrats, they’re beginning to make inroads among a group of young black lawmakers, mayors and school officials who have split with party and teachers union orthodoxy on school reform. The group includes Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, Newark Mayor Cory Booker and former Washington, D.C., mayor Anthony Williams.

I’d only add that this broadening support is hardly limited to black Democrats, and that support for education tax credits is spreading even more quickly among Democrats. And while choice might never become a Democratic “clarion call,” it just might become the new consensus among serious education reformers in both parties.

For instance, a Democrat-controlled and, I assume, mostly white legislature in Rhode Island passed a donation tax credit. And Democratic governor and legislature in Iowa raised their tax credit dollar cap by 50 percent in 2007. The paper mentions black mayor Corey Booker’s support for school choice in New Jersey, but the white, former Democratic state party chair, and current state Senator Ray Lesniak is also pushing for a donation tax credit bill.

The model case is Florida. When the Florida legislature passed its education tax credit program to fund private school choice in 2001, only one Democrat supported the measure. Last year, the state legislature expanded the program with the votes of one third of statehouse Democrats, half the black caucus and the entire Hispanic caucus.

In the past few weeks, nearly a third of Senate Democrats and half of House Democrats voted to significantly expand the program’s revenue base. Virtually all Republicans did the same, and Republican Governor Crist is expected to sign the bill soon. In all, 43 percent of state Democratic legislators in Florida voted in favor of education tax credits.

The toothpaste is out, and the teachers unions can’t put it back in with all the dues money in the world.

Obama’s Broken Toaster

APTOPIX ObamaRecently on Leno, President Obama compared some financial products to an exploding toaster. His words:

When you buy a toaster, if it explodes in your face there’s a law that says your toasters need to be safe. But when you get a credit card, or you get a mortgage, there’s no law on the books that says if that explodes in your face financially, somehow you’re going to be protected.

So this is – the need for getting back to some common sense regulations – there’s nothing wrong with innovation in the financial markets. We want people to be successful; we want people to be able to make a profit. Banks are critical to our economy and we want credit to flow again. But we just want to make sure that there’s enough regulatory common sense in place that ordinary Americans aren’t taken advantage of, and taxpayers, after the fact, aren’t taken advantage of.

While I think we would all like to get to “common sense” regulation – arriving at such is unlikely if one’s understanding of the very problem is flawed, as seems to be the president’s.

Unlike broken toasters, mortgages and credit cards do not fail to pay themselves – borrowers fail to pay, almost always for a reason that has little to do with the characteristics of the loan itself. There is a wealth of empirical data documenting the causes of bankruptcy, mortgage and credit card default – much of which has been assembled by those on the left (take a look at any of Professor Elizabeth Warren’s work on bankruptcy). The fact is that the number one cause of all of these events is job loss. If the president has a plan for a mortgage that protects you from losing your job, I would love to see how that’s going to work. After job loss, comes unexpected health bills and divorce.

My hope had been that Obama’s talk about broken toasters was just a little pandering and could be safely ignored. However, judging from the structure of his foreclosure relief plan, he appears to believe that if we just lower the borrower’s rate, all would be saved. The sad truth is that his foreclosure plan does nothing for those really in need – who have lost their job for instance – they are simply out of luck. But then helping people who have lost their job would undermine the argument that it is all the fault of the product.

Handicapping the Justicial Horserace

The increase in chatter in Washington about Justice Souter’s replacement is a clear signal  that pundits have gotten about as much mileage as they can over speculation and want to have an actual nominee to dissect.

Even though the administration has been evaluating candidates since the inauguration (and before), there’s no real reason for President Obama to announce a replacement before the Court’s term ends in late June.

The only limiting factor is that the president needs to have a new justice in place by the time the Court resumes hearing cases in October. So, clearly, this politically savvy president will be weighing his legislative priorities against the relative amount of political capital he’ll have to spend to confirm possible nominees. Similarly, Republicans seem to be keeping their powder dry, hopefully in preparation for a serious public debate of competing judicial philosophies and theories of constitutional interpretation.

As far as handicapping goes, the smart money is now on Solicitor General Elena Kagan—because she was recently confirmed by a comfortable margin, has significant support in the conservative legal establishment, and is young (49)—but don’t count out either Judge Diane Wood or Judge Sonia Sotomayor. Or dark horse candidates like Senator Claire McCaskill. It’s really any woman’s ballgame at this point, and will be until Barack Obama—who famously holds his cards close to his vest—announces his pick, on his time.

For a geometric discussion (X-axis = desirable criteria; Y-axis = confirmability) of the above political calculus, see here.

Do I Agree with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan?

Well, sort of. From today’s USA Today:

Duncan recently acknowledged D.C.’s woes, calling its public schools “a national disgrace.” But he added: “We have to be much more ambitious for ourselves and have higher expectations — we have to help every child in D.C. The answer is not vouchers for a few. It’s massive change, massive reform for all, absolutely as quickly as possible.”

Yes! They are a disgrace, and we do need quick, massive change from the current government-run system!

So Secretary of Education Arne Duncan supports broad-based education tax credits or a massive expansion of the DC voucher program, right? What radical change! He is the heroic reformer everyone says he is!

Oh … wait … by “massive reform for all, absolutely as quickly as possible,” he means another pipe-dream 5-year plan to brow-beat a huge, unwieldy, and ossified government school bureaucracy into thriving mediocrity while killing a voucher program that actually brings immediate improvements to the more than 1,700 students who won the lottery for educational opportunity in the District.

Way to set your ambitions so high, Arne!

We’re Not Talking about Socialized Medicine — I Swear

According to an unnamed “top White House official”:

It’s hard to talk about socialized medicine when the hospitals, doctors, insurers, the private sector players are working with us at the White House.

Let me get this straight.  A president who is ideologically committed to socialized medicine is negotiating with an industry that’s committed to making as much money as possible off of socialized medicine.

But don’t worry.  If there’s one thing they’re not discussing, it’s socialized medicine.

McChrystal and Direct Action

Fred Kaplan and the New York Times say that the decision to replace General David McKiernan with Lt. General Stan McChrystal as the principle US commander in Afghanistan is another step in the COINification of the Pentagon under Robert Gates. They say we’ve replaced a conventional warfare guy with an unconventional warfare guy.

That’s too simple. McChrystal is known for his mastery of the sharp or kinetic end of the counterinsurgency mission. The command he headed from 2003 to 2008 – Joint Special Operations Command – is essentially the operational component of Special Operations Command, which has really become a fifth service. JSOC organizes special operations missions in war zones.  According to many officers, JSOC has also become enraptured with direct action. That means using intelligence from various sources to plan raids, often kicking down doors in the dead of night, interrogating people to generate more intelligence, doing it again immediately, and eventually capturing or killing insurgent leaders with the intelligence gleaned. 

Bob Woodward’s latest book argues that JSOC’s role in employing these tactics in Iraq was crucial to the supposed success of the surge. But some informed observers beg to differ, arguing that standard counterinsurgency tactics and the contributions of Iraqis themselves mattered far more.  Some complain that JSOC’s aggressive tactics and limited coordination with those in the regular chain of command undermined pacification efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the (recently released!) book on the post Cold War evolution of the US military that I co-edited, Colin Jackson and Austin Long have a chapter discussing the politics of special operations command. They argue that the direct action theory of victory in counterinsurgency is a close relative to the air force’s theory of decapitation, which says you can defeat a nation by attacking its leaders from the air.  They explain that direct action has long been the favored tactic of secret or “black” SOF organizations like Delta Force, but that the wars made it the dominant mission in SOCOM as a whole, crowding traditional “white” counterinsurgency missions like population protection, force training, and civil affairs. To them, that is a problem, because the direct action theory of victory is badly flawed.  You can’t kill your way to victory in these sorts of wars, they argue. That’s particularly true in Afghanistan, I’d add, where distance and poor roads make the exploitation of intelligence far more time-consuming.

I don’t know to what extent McChrystal shares the black SOF worldview. He would probably say that direct action is just part of the toolkit.  It is possible, however, that his appointment reflects a decision to downplay nation-building in Afghanistan and focus more on killing raids and training Afghan soldiers.

It is also interesting to speculate about what Michael Vickers (the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations, Low Intensity Conflict and Interdependent Capabilities) had to say about this. Vickers – a key advisor to Gates and a carry-over from the Bush administration – is said to be skeptical about troop surges in counterinsurgency, preferring to train local forces.

According to Greg Grant of DoD Buzz:

In a speech before a defense industry gathering last month, Vickers said he foresees a shift over time from the manpower intensive counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan to more “distributed operations across the world,” relying on close to 100 small teams of special operations forces to hunt down terrorist networks, part of a “global radical Islamist insurgency.”

I don’t like the across the world part, but if this appointment means more limited objectives in Afghanistan, it’s good news.

A final note on McChrystal: he reportedly runs many miles a day, sleeps only a few hours, and avoids eating until evening to avoid sluggishness. Apparently the iron-man thing goes over well with Rangers, but I think commanders, whose job is mostly thinking, should get a good night’s sleep and three square.