“Miss Virginia” Shows the Dilemma Many Lower-Income Families Face on Schooling

Every once in awhile, a film comes along that you can’t stop thinking about long after the credits roll. Miss Virginia is such a movie. With superb acting and heart-wrenching emotion, it features the true story of Virginia Walden Ford, a Washington, DC, mom who simply wanted better education options for her child and who would not tolerate mediocrity and the status quo.

Any parent can relate to Walden Ford’s story, so get ready to feel her anger and sorrow followed by joy and triumph. It is a powerful new film that everyone should watch.

The DC Voucher Program

Walden Ford was instrumental in helping to launch the Washington, DC, voucher program, giving low-income children access to funding to exit unsafe and low-quality public schools in favor of private options. The film is rooted in her experience of craving choice and encountering bureaucratic obstacles.

When she removes her teenage son from a failing public school and enrolls him in a nearby private school, Walden Ford feels hope and optimism despite needing to clean toilets and scrub floors to try to pay the tuition. Her hard work isn’t enough to pay the bill, though, and she is forced to leave the private school and re-enroll her son in the district school, where his potential is squandered.

When Walden Ford learns that the DC schools spend twice the amount of money per pupil than the cost of her son’s private school, she refuses to believe the prevailing rhetoric that public schools are chronically underfunded, and she seeks to establish a local school voucher program that gives disadvantaged families the opportunity to opt-out of mandatory school assignments in favor of private options.

Indeed, these are the options that more well-off families, including the legislator who opposes Walden Ford’s initiative, exercise all the time. Education choice programs extend these options to all families regardless of zip code and socioeconomic status.

Cost-Effective Programs

The DC voucher program came under attack in recent years as previous assessments showed that achievement scores for voucher students were lower on average than district school students. But the most recent evaluation of the program, released last spring, showed no difference in achievement scores between voucher and public school students in DC while costing taxpayers about one-third the money.

Moreover, Corey DeAngelis, Director of School Choice at the Reason Foundation, has discovered that participants in the DC voucher program reported much safer learning environments. He writes:

Students that won the voucher lottery and attended a private school were over 35 percent more likely to report that their schools were very safe. And parents of voucher-using students were about 36 percent more likely to report that their children were in very safe schools.

Students in the DC voucher program also had higher overall satisfaction levels with their schools and significantly lower absenteeism.

Choosing safe and satisfying schools for their children is a key priority for many parents. Affluent families exercise this choice all the time, selecting private schools that focus on their children’s well-being or moving to communities with safer, better schools. Lower-income parents, like Walden Ford, want the same opportunity to choose safer, better schools. The DC voucher program and others like it across the country offer more parents greater choice and peace of mind.

Miss Virginia is a must-watch film. Click here for more information and viewing options. Be forewarned that I needed some tissues while watching, but it was well worth a few tears, and a few dollars, to learn more about this incredible woman, her remarkable story, and the promise of education choice for all families.

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If the Only Way You Can Get Your Great Idea Implemented…

Economics textbooks are full of clever-and-appealing policy proposals.  Proposals like: “Let’s redistribute money to the desperately poor” and “Let’s tax goods with negative externalities.”  They’re so clever and so appealing that it’s hard to understand how any smart, well-meaning person could demur.  When critics appeal to “public choice problems,” it’s tempting to tell the critics that they’re the problem.  The political system isn’t that dysfunctional, is it?  In any case, reflexively whining, “The political system will muck up your clever, appealing policy proposal,” hardly makes that system work better.  The naysayers should become part of the solution: Endorse the clever-and-appealing policy proposals – and strive to bring them to life.

When you look at the real world, though, you see something strange: Almost no one actually pushes for the textbooks’ clever-and-appealing policy proposals.  Instead, the people inspired by the textbooks routinely attach themselves to trendy-but-awful policy proposals.  If you point out the discrepancy, they’re often too annoyed to respond.  When they do, reformers shrug and say: “The clever-and-appealing policy never has – and probably never will – have much political support.  So we have to do this instead.”

Examples?  You start off by advocating high-impact redistribution to help poor children and the severely disabled… and end defending the ludicrously expensive and wasteful Social Security program.  “Unfortunately, the only politically viable way to help the poor is to help everyone.”  Or you start off advocating Pigovian taxes to clean the air, and end up defending phone books of picayune environmental regulations.  “Unfortunately, this is the way pollution policy actual works.”

Don’t believe me?  Here’s a brand-new example courtesy of Paul Krugman:

But if a nation in flames isn’t enough to produce a consensus for action — if it isn’t even enough to produce some moderation in the anti-environmentalist position — what will? The Australia experience suggests that climate denial will persist come hell or high water — that is, through devastating heat waves and catastrophic storm surges alike…

[…]

But if climate denial and opposition to action are immovable even in the face of obvious catastrophe, what hope is there for avoiding the apocalypse? Let’s be honest with ourselves: Things are looking pretty grim. However, giving up is not an option. What’s the path forward?

The answer, pretty clearly, is that scientific persuasion is running into sharply diminishing returns. Very few of the people still denying the reality of climate change or at least opposing doing anything about it will be moved by further accumulation of evidence, or even by a proliferation of new disasters. Any action that does take place will have to do so in the face of intractable right-wing opposition.

This means, in turn, that climate action will have to offer immediate benefits to large numbers of voters, because policies that seem to require widespread sacrifice — such as policies that rely mainly on carbon taxes — would be viable only with the kind of political consensus we clearly aren’t going to get.

What might an effective political strategy look like? … [O]ne way to get past the political impasse on climate might be via “an emphasis on huge infrastructural projects that created jobs” — in other words, a Green New Deal. Such a strategy could give birth to a “large climate-industrial complex,” which would actually be a good thing in terms of political sustainability.

Notice the pattern.

Step 1: Economics textbooks offer a clever-and-appealing policy proposal: Let’s tax carbon emissions to curtail the serious negative externalities of fossil fuels.  It’s cheap, it’s effective, it provides great static and dynamic incentives.  Public choice problems?  Don’t listen to those naysayers.

Step 2: Argh, Pigovian taxes are going nowhere.

Step 3: Let’s have a trendy-but-awful populist infrastructure program to get the masses on board.

So what?  For starters, any smart activist who reaches Step 3 tacitly concedes that public choice problems are dire.  You offer the public a clever-and-appealing remedy for a serious social ill, and democracy yawns.  To get action, you have to forget about cost or cost-effectiveness – and just try to drug the public with demagoguery.

Note: I’m not attacking Krugman for having little faith in democracy.  His underlying lack of faith in democracy is fully justified.  I only wish that Krugman would loudly embrace the public choice framework that intellectually justifies his lack of faith.  (Or better yet, Krugman could loudly embraced my psychologically-enriched public choice expansion pack).

Once you pay proper respect to public choice theory, however, you cannot simply continue on your merry way.  You have to ponder its central normative lesson: Don’t advocate government action merely because a clever-and-appealing policy proposal passes a cost-benefit test.  Instead, look at the trendy-but-awful policies that will actually be adopted – and see if they pass a cost-benefit test.  If they don’t, you should advocate laissez-faire despite all those shiny ideas in the textbook.

Krugman could naturally reply, “I’ve done the math.  Global warming is so terrible that trendy-but-awful policies are our least-bad bet.”  To the best of my knowledge, though, this contradicts mainstream estimates of the costs of warming.  That aside, why back a Green New Deal instead of deregulation of nuclear power or geoengineering?  If recalcitrant public opinion thwarts your clever-and-appealing remedy, maybe you started out on the wrong path in the first place.

Unfair?  Well, this is hardly the first time that Krugman has rationalized destructive populism when he really should have reconsidered.  Krugman knows that immigration is the world’s fastest way to escape absolute poverty.  He knows that standard complaints about immigration are, at best, exaggerated.  But he’s still an immigration skeptic, because:

The New Deal made America a vastly better place, yet it probably wouldn’t have been possible without the immigration restrictions that went into effect after World War I. For one thing, absent those restrictions, there would have been many claims, justified or not, about people flocking to America to take advantage of welfare programs.

Notice the pattern.

Step 1: You start with the textbook case for a welfare state to alleviate domestic poverty.  Public choice problems?  Bah.

Step 2: Next, you decide that you can’t get that welfare state without horrible collateral damage.

Step 3: So you casually embrace the status quo, without seriously engaging obvious questions, like: “Given political constraints, perhaps its actually better not to have the New Deal?” or even “How close can we get to the New Deal without limiting immigration?”

The moral: If the only way you can get your great idea implemented is to mutilate it and/or package it with a pile of expensive junk, you really should wonder, “Is it still worth it?”

Well, is it?

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US v. Sineneng-Smith: Does Immigration Law Trump Freedom of Speech?

Are you free to express your opinions? The First Amendment says yes, but 8 US Code § 1324 says no. A case currently before the US Supreme Court, United States v. Sineneng-Smith, will presumably clarify the matter, hopefully in favor of free speech.

Evelyn Sineneng-Smith, an immigration consultant, allegedly cheated her clients by charging them $5,900 to file applications for a permanent residency program she knew they didn’t qualify for.

In 2013, a jury convicted  Sineneng-Smith on three counts of mail fraud and three counts of “encouraging or inducing illegal immigration for private financial gain.”

Under that US Code provision, “Any person who … encourages or induces an alien to come to, enter, or reside in the United States, knowing or in reckless disregard of the fact that such coming to, entry, or residence is or will be in violation of law,” can be sentenced to hard time — five years in prison, ten years if it’s for financial gain, life imprisonment or even execution if someone is injured or put in jeopardy of death by that “encouragement.”

The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit set aside Sineneng-Smith’s convictions on those “encouragement” counts, ruling that the law is “unconstitutionally overbroad in violation of the First Amendment.”

Federal prosecutors appealed the Ninth Circuit’s ruling to the Supreme Court because that’s what federal prosecutors do .  Their case seems to be that we obviously can’t just have people out there saying whatever they want to say.

But we CAN, and SHOULD — in fact, according to the Constitution, MUST — have people out there saying whatever they want to say.

I encourage anyone and everyone who wants to come to the United States in search of work and/or safety to do so, and to stay here for as long as they please, whether the US government likes it or not.

I just broke the law.

And I did so partly for purposes of “commercial advantage or private financial gain.” I consider unfettered immigration an economic boon to everyone, myself included.

As the late economist (and apparent scofflaw) Milton Friedman noted, “Mexican immigration, over the border, is a good thing. It’s a good thing for the illegal immigrants. It’s a good thing for the United States. It’s a good thing for the citizens of the country.”

The Supreme Court should affirm the Ninth Circuit’s ruling.

If it doesn’t, I guess you’ll be waiting ten years or so for my next column.

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Are You Properly Enjoying Your Wealth?

I know what you’re thinking.

“I’m not wealthy. This blog post isn’t for me.”

Actually, it is. Historically speaking, you are one of the wealthiest individuals who has ever lived.

It takes relatively little effort to provide for your own really essential needs: food, water, shelter, clothing. Setting aside people who feel the need to give their kids or spouses lots of unnecessary doodads, vacations, etc, the “bare necessities of life” have never been cheaper, particularly if you live in the West. A small amount of labor can keep us alive – anything over that is just bonus.

But how many of us really appreciate or enjoy the freedom that comes with that wealth?

Commutes, 9 to 5 commitments, and inflexible job-centric living suck away most of our days. We spend the best parts – the sunny parts – inside. We plan to be tied down. We force ourselves to tolerate things and people we don’t enjoy. We worry about the opinions of those people. And we never quite experience the full fruits of the freedom we have.

I’ve been seeing some of that freedom as I’ve experienced voluntary unemployment. I feel rich – particularly in time. If I want to go browse an outdoors store or stock up on books from Goodwill, I just do (I did today). I don’t care if it’s 1 PM. I don’t have to worry about being at somebody’s desk. If I want to go to the cemetery and read a book in the sunshine, I can (I did that today, too).

I’m already doing hunting-gathering for income sources, so I’ll be adding some constraints back to my life soon. But just having this brief space of time is useful. Having full possession of my time now is showing me how I want to feel even when I don’t have all my time to myself. I want to feel as wealthy as I am in fact.

What about you?

Are you savoring that many of life’s best things (nature, time with friends, books) are free or cheap?

Are you savoring the time you save from not having to work all that much?

Are you savoring the fact that you can go anywhere you want anytime you want?

Are you savoring your freedom?

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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Martin Luther King, Jr.

Nobody asked but …

I am late for MLK’s birthday’s anniversary.  It happened a week ago according to a record source I have seen.  MLK’s real birthdate occurred on January 15, 1929.  Every year we are reminded of the contributions that Martin Luther King, Jr. made to our society.

What I fear now is that we are doing it wrong.  We gather in public places to observe this holiday, but we treat it as though this man was principally a patriot and his campaign was to elevate a noble characteristic among the citizens of the USA.  His real hope was to correct a grievous set of errors made by the original founders and their hand-picked constituents.  Let us never forget, that MLK wanted society reorganized to fit the formulation that the USA had been officially lying about for 200 years or more.

I suppose that the thing that galls me most is that politicians hi-jacked civil rights, and made the story about politicians, not the Golden Rule.

A few years ago someone said to me that Martin Luther King, Jr. was not a libertarian because he chose the state as his main tool for setting things right.  Malarkey!  There was likely no way that MLK could have achieved what he did while keeping the politicos at bay.

Reverend King never once asked for the state’s intervention.  Ironically until the old white boys club saw the handwriting on the wall, “political glory,” they stonewalled MLK and his constituents at every turn.  Then the worms turned.  The politicos were responsible for the bandwagon, and the self-congratulations.  Martin Luther King, Jr. was responsible for the conscience of America.

— Kilgore Forelle

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Playing Chess with the Market

I just talked to an entrepreneur friend of mine and he had a great phrase for what building a company is like.

Playing chess with the market.

I love this because building a business isn’t so much about right and wrong, luck or skill. The outcome is determined by a series of moves made in response to another player whose mind you can never read. There are causal chains, but they’re all theoretical. They assume certain actions by the other player that may or may not happen. In fact, it’s like a never ending series of chess matches against a rotating cast of random opponents, where moves that worked the first five times stop working the next, and patterns you learned change.

This framing reveals how hard it is and makes the challenge exciting. It also depersonalizes it a bit. Of course you won’t get every move right or win every game. But you try to learn each time. Treating it like a game is a huge cognitive relief.

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