“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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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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The Problem of Prediction

Nobody asked but …

Time is an abstraction.  It is not a thing.  More of us should understand this idea, and its implications.  I would recommend, highly, the book, Time: The Familiar Stranger, by J. T. Fraser for the beginning of understanding this idea.  (I first read this book about 10 years ago, but I continue to realize ideas from it frequently.)

There are events, each being an instance of the things that happen in time.  An event is both an abstraction AND a thing AND a set of things (people, places, connections, points in time, and other things) which help us to answer the questions who, what, when, where, why, and how.

The important individualist, voluntaryist idea is to take your proper place in the space-time continuum.  A few days ago, I was listening to the wonderful interview of Donald Boudreaux by Russ Roberts, presented as part of the Voluntaryist Voices podcasts on EVC, among other places. These two definitely have handles on locating things (including themselves) economically in the space-time continuum.

Another way to describe this type of orienteering is to say that one must know where and when you are in order to reference where and when anything else is.  If we are connected to reality, we have reasonable contact with facts, nature, and laws.  But the use of “reality” in this context refers to reality, not so much to news reports, books, movies, tv shows, and internet fare — the most confusing feedback we get is referred feedback.  Think about it … if you are a deer in the sights of a hunter’s rifle, you are experiencing reality, probably.  If you are watching Bambi, not so much reality.  First of all, one must shed the idea that “reality tv” bears any relationship to reality — other than it has some concrete, although perhaps misleading, parts.

Where is your portal to reality?  It is in the here and now, directly as accessed through your five senses?  The present is the only time and space you can sense as it unfolds.  You can only recollect the past, remembering with a fast fade the factual feelings you had just a few moments ago, and you can reconstruct that which you have been told — some correct, some accidently wrong, and a great deal absolutely wrong (often with malice of forethought).  Then it is with sensations of the present, and guidance from the past, that you can make fallible predictions about the near future, the very near future.  For instance, in traffic you know that a green light proposes a relatively safe passage … but not perfectly.  As soon as you try to go further into the future, your chance of being incorrect ascends exponentially.  A minute, an hour, a day are rapidly widening gaps.  In the end, all seers are totally wrong in substantial ways.

— Kilgore Forelle

 

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A Loophole for the Lawless: “Qualified Immunity” Must Go

On August 11, 2014, officers from the Caldwell, Idaho Police Department asked for Shaniz West’s permission to enter and search her home. They were looking for her ex-boyfriend. West authorized the search and handed over her keys.

Instead of entering and searching the home, though, the police brought in a SWAT team, surrounding the building.  “[P]olice repeatedly exceeded the authority Ms. West had given them,” a lawsuit she filed complains, “breaking windows, crashing through ceilings, and riddling the home with holes from shooting canisters of tear gas, destroying most of Ms. West and her children’s personal belongings.”

The “standoff” lasted ten hours. But it wasn’t really a standoff. The only mammal in the home larger than a mouse was West’s dog.

Then the cops went on their merry way, leaving West homeless for two months, with three weeks in a hotel as her only compensation.

She wants more, including the costs of repairing and replacing her ruined personal property, damages for pain, suffering and emotional distress, and punitive damages for the assault on a home she gladly authorized a search of, not an attack on. She deserves all of that.

She isn’t getting it — yet, at least — due to a loophole baked into a vile judicial doctrine called “qualified immunity.”

Qualified immunity protects government employees from liability for things they willfully decide to do while on duty, unless those actions violate “clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.”

The loophole is the phrase “clearly established.”

The Ninth Circuit US Court of Appeals ruled that “no Supreme Court or Ninth Circuit case clearly established, as of August 2014, that Defendants exceeded the scope of consent.”

How’s that for circular reasoning? “You can only sue over X if someone else has previously successfully sued for X. ” And no one CAN have successfully sued for X, at least since the loophole was introduced in 1982, because they would have been turned away on the same grounds!

The Institute for Justice wants the US Supreme Court to take up West’s case.

It should do so, and when it rules it should go beyond nixing the “clearly established” loophole and do away with the doctrine of “qualified immunity” entirely.

42 US Code § 1983 provides that “Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws” may be sued for damages.

Not just if someone has successfully sued on the same grounds before.

And not just if a “reasonable person” would have known better.

Government employees are supposed to know their jobs, including the limits on their authority. If they don’t, they shouldn’t be given guns and badges, let alone protection from liability when they exceed those limits.

“Qualified immunity” is the opposite of “equality under the law.”

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Two-and-a-Half Cheers for Elizabeth Warren’s Student Debt Plan

On January 14, Elizabeth Warren released a “Plan to Cancel Student Debt on Day One of My Presidency.”  Warren would use the US Department of Education’s “broad legal authority” to cancel up to $50,000 of debt on behalf of up to 42 million borrowers.

Warren’s plan makes a lot of sense politically.  She’s struggling for traction in the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination race. Big promises to  millions of borrowers and their families could make a big difference in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary.

As for the larger problem of college costs, Warren’s overall approach is a mix of some bad things ($150 billion in taxpayer money for Pell Grants and “minority serving institutions,” plus the costs of “universal tuition free public college”) and one and a half good things above and beyond her debt forgiveness plan.

The one good thing: She proposes to eliminate the “undue hardship” standard for discharging student debt in bankruptcy.

The half a good thing: She wants to ban federal funding for for-profit colleges.

That second thing would be a full good thing, instead of just half a good thing, if Warren removed the word “for-profit.”

There’s a strong historical correlation between easy availability of student loans and soaring costs of a college or university education.  It’s basic economics. By artificially lowering loan risk to direct money at a good or service, government increases debt and drives up the price of that good or service.

Under the present system, naive 18-year-olds are swindled into borrowing  more and more insane amounts of money to spend on less and less valuable college degrees. Then when they find themselves barely scraping by under the burden of repaying those loans, they can’t resort to bankruptcy.

Think about that for a minute.

I’m 53. If I go out tomorrow and take out a sub-prime mortgage on a home and a loan for a $40,000 car, then max out a bunch of credit cards, I can substantially get out from under that debt in bankruptcy court.

The 18-year-old who trusted others when they said “you need to go to college and here’s how” doesn’t have the same recourse as spendthrift Tom, who was old enough to know better and then some, but partied hearty anyway. That’s not right.

No, everyone does not need to “go to college.” That’s becoming more true than ever as inexpensive distance learning options and non-school certifications in various fields prepare Americans for many jobs better than seeking a degree does. We need to stop lying to America’s kids about both the costs and the benefits of a college education.

I’m all for Warren’s idea of “forgiving” a bunch of the existing debt. But any kind of lasting solution calls for less, not more, government involvement in general.

The Libertarian Party’s platform offers a better direction: “We support ending federal student loan guarantees and special treatment of student loan debt in bankruptcy proceedings. … Education is best provided by the free market, achieving greater quality, accountability, and efficiency with more diversity of choice.”

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