Sing It to the NEA, Mr. Loaf!

The education news these days is a deafening roar of public school folks wailing and gnashing teeth over budget cuts and “tough times.” But maybe it’s not so bad after all.

From an article on the latest national employment report:

Nearly all of the major sectors of the economy lost jobs. The only industries that saw job gains in October were the education, government and health sectors — which are often considered recession-resistant. 

That’s a trifecta of security for public school nurses, but pretty good news for teachers and administrators as well. After all, two out of three ain’t bad!

Pay No Attention to the Man behind the Curtain

I’m sorry, but this just makes me ill. In a post he actually titled “The Magic Ballot,” Arjun Appadurai writes:

The word is MAGIC. On the night of November 4, it felt as if something magical had happened, and perhaps there were others, like me, who used that word. But it is not the biggest word in current public use and I wish it were more fully available to us now.

We’ve chosen someone to work for us. We’ve hired him. For a job. We did it through the (yes, rather nifty) process of democracy. And… That. Is. All. Barack Obama is an employee. He’s not a magician. We can fire him later if we like, and he’s not going to retaliate by turning us all into toads or shooting lighting bolts out of his eyes.

I know that many believe that priests can perform miracles, at least of certain kinds, but Obama isn’t a priest. Tuesday night did not and could not make him one. It’s superstitious, impious, or both, to think that something as common as a democratic election could endow anyone with magical powers.

I regret that we are forced to catch the special aura of this election without a deep and serious space for the idea of magic, magic as it used to be. It would help us fill this rhetorical void. It would let us name the un-nameable and it would let us enjoy our means even without certainty about our ends. It would let us enjoy this week without dragging it immediately into boring predictions about what Nancy Pelosi will do, about how many huge headaches Obama will face, about how heavy the coming storm will be, and how fragile our collective sources. We have hardly crowned Obama and we have promptly begun to mourn for him, as if he is has already been vanquished by his foes.

Crowned??? Sir, this is a Lockean republic, not a New-Age theocracy.

But wait, it gets worse:

Magic, anthropologists have always known, is about what people throughout the world do when faced with uncertainty, catastrophic damage, injustice, illness, suffering or harm, while ritual (also magical in its logic) is performed to forestall or prevent these very things. Magic is not about deficient logic, childish mental mistakes, clever priestly illusions or other mistaken technologies. It is the universal feeling that what we see and feel exceeds our knowledge, our understanding and our control. Can we deny that the infusion of 700 billion dollars into our banks is a magical act designed to make our banks rain credit again? Has it worked yet? Are we discarding our belief in banks and credit as a result? Magic is a method for deploying modest technical means to address outsize ethical challenges. Human beings have always done this and always will. We might as well have a grown-up word for this set of practices.

If we really just spent $700 billion on magic, then I want my money back. There’s probably a decent First Amendment challenge in there somewhere, wouldn’t you think?

Some of us, when faced with “uncertainty, catastrophic damage, injustice, illness, suffering or harm” do not resort to magic. We turn to reason, hard work, rectitude, compassion, courage, and thrift. We also note that the government so often tends to interfere with all of these things.

But I guess we don’t have to bother with any of that anymore: The Great Barack is going to save us — magically — from all kinds of disasters!

So the election of Barack [sic]… is also magical in a much more serious way. It has been performed and produced by voting citizens at a moment when America and the world face risks of an enormous order. We have named these risks frequently in the media and the public sphere in the last few weeks: risks of total financial meltdown, of global warm-up, of war without end and terror without faces and sources. And our existing tools for risk management have failed miserably. Should we be surprised that the American electorate has rediscovered magic without knowing it?

Surprised? If you’re right, we should be very, very worried. And no, my objection is neither partisan nor personal. If McCain had won, I’d have made a post mocking the near-religious qualities his followers had invested in him, too.

Whither Fusionism?

One of the victims of the Bush presidency, along with limited government and the Republican Party, has been “fusionism,” the idea that conservatives and libertarians ought to come together to oppose the forces of socialism (and The Left generally).  Indeed, this Tuesday’s election probably saw the highest-ever percentage of libertarians – depending on how you count them – vote for the Democratic presidential candidate (at least in the modern era, with the possible exception of the Nixon years).  This despite that Democratic candidate being commonly seen as the most statist major-party candidate in history.

Cato adjunct scholar Ilya Somin who blogs at the Volokh Conspiracy and in his day job is a law professor at George Mason (currently visiting at Penn) – Ilya being a popular name among libertarian legal community – today puts up a smart post on the state of the erstwhile libertarian-conservative.  Here’s a snippet:

Obviously, a lot depends on what conservatives decide to do. If they choose the pro-limited government position advocated by Representative Jeff Flake and some other younger House Republicans, there will be lots of room for cooperation with libertarians. I am happy to see that Flake has denounced “the ill-fitting and unworkable big-government conservatism that defined the Bush administration.” Conservatives could, however, adopt the combination of economic populism and social conservatism advocated by Mike Huckabee and others. It is even possible that the latter path will be more politically advantageous, at least in the short term. 

Indeed, if conservatives choose some version of the Huckabee-Palin route, fusionism is dead – and so, might I add presumptuously, is the Republican Party.  That just ain’t where the majority of the nation is, or where it’s heading (though, as Ilya says, that direction may be politically advantageous in certain parts of the country under certain circumstances).

But this type of discussion may be beside the point; libertarian-conservative (in the sense of socially conservative, economically squishy) fusionism may have run its course, a relic of the Cold War.  The new fusionism may well be fiscally conservative and socially tolerant (not necessarily liberal, just not wanting government to do anything about the way people live their private lives), including folks who might call themselves conservative cosmopolitans, crunchy cons, South Park conservatives, or indeed libertarians.  Or they might eschew labels altogether but are sick of the rot coming from (or to) Washington.  In other words: Purple America,

DEA in Afghanistan

As Ted Galen Carpenter has noted, the War on Drugs is active in Afghanistan. Below is a photo from the DEA website of Special Agents burning a bunker of hashish in Afghanistan. Repeat: These guys are DEA agents, not U.S. soldiers.

There is an undeniable connection between the narcotics trade and Taliban funding. However, any drug eradication should be pursued as a means of resource denial to insurgents, not as a goal in and of itself. We have to be smart about this. A major portion of Afghanistan’s GDP comes from the opium poppy trade – half in 2007, though down significantly this year. The quickest way to create an insurgent is to destroy a man’s livelihood. Opium eradication for its own sake will make the central government and Coalition forces increasingly unpopular and feed the insurgency.

The addition of the DEA into the equation makes this continued loss of rapport more likely. Some might make the case for having a good cop/bad cop strategy when dealing with local farmers – “tell us where the Taliban are or we’ll let the DEA torch your crops” – which would be persuasive if NATO troops weren’t already engaged in drug eradication. The addition of an agency with narcotics prohibition as its sole reason for existence guarantees that a focus on opium will continue with greater intensity and long after outliving its limited military utility.

For additional background, read this.

Nothing Innovative in Federal Education

I’m getting to this paper — a proposal from moderate-liberal, Democratic insiders Andy Rotherham and Sara Mead — kind of late because I was working on other things when it came out, but something in it begs for commentary, especially since folks like Rotherham and Mead will likely have at least part of President-elect Obama’s ear. The report is a call for a new federal role in promoting “21st Century educational innovation,” largely by funding “educational entrepreneurs” and developing “effective educational programs.”

Mike Petrilli over at Fordham has already done a pretty decent job of critiquing the proposal, so read his back-and-forth with Rotherham for a fuller treatment if you’re so inclined. For me, just one thing in the report goes a long way toward demonstrating how foolhardy it is to think that the federal government would ever consistently promote and scale-up truly effective education reforms: It’s never done so before. Indeed, Rotherham and Mead offer just two, lonely examples of past success — Brown v. Board of Education and The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act — and they don’t really apply.

Don’t get me wrong, Brown v. Board was a critical turning point in American history, and IDEA was important at least for ensuring that public schools don’t ignore disabled kids. Neither of these federal offerings, however, are remotely similar to scaling up, say, KIPP schools, or identifying and nurturing the world’s most inventive reading program. Brown was an achievement of a federal court — specifically, the Supreme Court — not a federal bureaucracy. IDEA was essentially a piece of civil rights legislation for the disabled. Neither had anything remotely to do with picking and expanding the truly most promising educational waves of the future.

Looking at much more analogous precedent demonstrates clearly that the feds are about as capable of promoting effective innovation as John McCain is of appearing calm in the face of economic crisis. I give you Diane Ravitch, speaking in 2003. She headed the Department of Education’s Office of Education Research and Improvement in the early 1990s, an office intended to do just what Rotherham and Mead propose, and she has a very definite assessment of how much true “innovation” the feds have supported:

My impression, based on the last 30 years, is that the federal government is likely to be hoodwinked, to be taken in by fads, [or] to fund the status quo with a new name.

Or look at the once-vaunted New American Schools, a federal initiative launched under President George H.W. Bush to identify and replicate “break-the-mold” school designs. The effort failed because, according to researcher Jefferey Mirel, the schools that got funded weren’t really new, but old models already beloved by the educators authorizing the grants:

NAS asked for revolutionary ideas and for the most part got the “revolutionary” ideas that educators have been trying to implement since the nineteen twenties. Invited to diagnose and reform themselves, schools found the problem to be a misguided public policy emphasis on measurable knowledge and skills, not faulty ideas about teaching. The notion that their pedagogical ideals were at fault was-as E. D. Hirsch puts it-“unthinkable.”

Quite simply, the federal government will rarely if ever be able to promote true innovation in education, especially since in education, unlike defense or health — which Rotherham and Mead point to as areas of successful federal innovation efforts — people can’t even agree on the final goals. Protect troops from incoming missiles? I think all us Generals agree. Find a cure for cancer? OK. Foster critical thinking or content knowledge? Uh-oh…

Ultimately, to think the feds could effectively promote true educational innovation would be to conclude that the Department of Education — and any office within it, such as Rotherham and Mead’s proposed Office of Educational Entrepreneurship and Innovation—would not be staffed with human beings who have preconceptions, opinions, or experiences that bias them toward one thing or another, and that educators don’t have biases that tend to be skewed in particular ways. They do, and that is why having a single entity try to pick innovative winners just results in “the status quo with a new name.” People know what they like, and when you make just one set of them into innovation gate keepers, what you tend to get is what they would have given you anyway.

With that in mind, file this proposal in the already overflowing “history ignored” drawer.

Bread Lines Form at Whole Foods

According to the Delaware News Journal, “hundreds of shoppers lined up early this morning hoping to be among the lucky few to get their groceries at the Brandywine Whole Foods store, taking their place behind about 35 others who had camped out overnight for a spot at the front of the line.”

Crazy, right?

Right.

The story’s lede actually reads: “Hundreds of parents lined up early this morning to sign up for the Brandywine School District’s school choice program, taking their place behind about 35 parents who had camped out overnight for a spot at the front of the line.”

In our free-enterprise economy, popular retailers and service providers simply expand when demand increases. The idea that there would only be a certain limited number of places at Whole Foods or Barnes & Noble is ludicrous on its face. But in our education system, which operates outside the free enterprise system, the best schools do not grow and open up new locations, buying out their failing competitors and stimulating the rise of others. So when parents are offered even some paltry degree of choice within their public school district, it must be rationed like bread at a centrally planned Soviet bakery.

What was it that happened to that Soviet economic system again?

Scholarship or Advocacy?

I was interested to see that AEI’s Michael Rubin has published a paper titled “Can a Nuclear Iran Be Contained or Deterred?”  Rubin makes several points.

First, he argues, there is a real chance that Iran may just launch an unprovoked nuclear first-strike against Israel: “There is reason to take the worst case scenario seriously.”  He bases this judgment on a quote from Rafsanjani boasting to a domestic audience that Iran may be willing to suffer the nuclear strikes that would result from any Iranian strike against Israel, and argues that the anti-nuclear war statements from numerous other Iranian officials (he only cites one) “should not be taken at face value. They may be taqiya, religiously sanctioned dissimulation meant to lull an enemy.”

What he ignores is the track record of diplomatic behavior in Iran indicating that the most basic imperative of international relations–national self-preservation–has figured prominently (alongside brinkmanship and risk-taking) in modern Iranian diplomacy.  Attempting to divine intentions from conflicting public statements or even operational plans (which reminds one of the “Team B” experiment) is far less helpful in ascertaining whether the regime values self-preservation than is evaluating what the regime has done when faced with overwhelming force.

Rubin offers two observations on nuclear deterrence, the first of which is either confused or problematic: that for deterrence to work, Iran’s leaders must “prioritize the lives of its citizenry above certain geopolitical or ideological goals.”  Rubin does not cite any academic research on this point, but it should go without saying that his deterring actor–the United States–would be unlikely to focus any response on a countervalue strike as opposed to counterforce.  That is, the United States would not focus on holding Iranian citizens hostage to deter the Iranian government from striking, but rather would hold the Iranian government itself and Iranian military capabilities hostage.  Rubin’s framing of the issue is skewed toward the former conception, which makes it look much more likely (“well, the Iranian government mistreats its people anyway”) that the Iranian regime could convince itself that it could disregard the enormous costs of American retaliation.  Any conceivable response to an unprovoked nuclear strike would mean, at a bare minimum, the end of the Islamic Republic and an end to its “geopolitical or ideological goals,” unless those goals are achieved with self-immolation and handing the mantle of Islam to the Sunnis.

Rubin’s essay makes a number of other highly questionable assumptions and judgments.  The unfortunate reality is that the paper appears to have been published without a literature review, which would have uncovered a number of previous studies that dealt directly with the subject of his study and came to different conclusions.  I published a paper on the topic in 2006, but there is also Barry Posen, the director of MIT’s Security Studies Program, who authored a paper on the same topic, also in 2006.  There is also Christopher Hemmer, a professor at the U.S. Air War College, who authored a paper on the topic in the Autumn 2007 issue of Parameters, the journal of the U.S. Army War College.

It is important when researching topics as central as these to examine the existing scholarly work to determine whether there have been previous discussions that could serve to refine one’s own thinking.  The fact that this study (and the study that Dr. Rubin coauthored for the Bipartisan Policy Center) has been published without a literature review raises serious questions about the standards backing up the scholarship.