Is This Coronavirus the End of the End of History?

I recently finished Ross Douthat’s The Decadent Society, a compelling argument that we live in a world that has become incapable of fundamental change.

From arts and culture (endless reboots – think Star Wars and Marvel) to political gridlock to technological stagnation (as Peter Thiel says, we wanted flying cars and got 140 characters), the world has remained shockingly same-ish since the 1970s. The international order in place since the end of World War 2 has continued with no significant signs of change, in what Francis Fukuyama once called “the end of history.”

Douthat ponders what might cause “the end of the end of history” toward the end of his new book. Could we finally break through with space travel, gene modification, or some other fundamental technological change? Will we have major religious revivals that stir the stale secular air? Will some new political ideology emerge to shake up how government is done locally and internationally? Douthat suggests it might be some combination of many scenarios, each feeding from the other. But he also argues that decadence – that fundamental lack of change – may be more resilient than we think. The inertia may continue for only God knows how long.

He may have spoken too soon. One of the more interesting things about the COVID-2019 coronavirus pandemic is how it might change the stable, comfortable routines that have existed in the US and the West largely untouched since the end of World War 2.

This does not necessarily entail good things. If large numbers of people are infected or die, or if quarantines continue long enough to kill of large sectors of private enterprise, or if governments or major corporations collapse, or if governments seize and hold major new powers over civil society, or if cities convulse with looting or martial law, or we will emerge into a different world and culture. This may seem hypothetical, but we’ve already seen a whole US state declare (relative) lockdown and major steps by the government to occupy voids left by the quickly evaporating economic sectors impacted by social distancing and home isolation.

Whatever happens, if trends continue, the world of the next few years will be very different from what has come before. And that is at least an interesting thing to watch.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

Open This Content

Villages to Cities to Villages?

Humans used to mostly live in villages. Clusters of families where the adults did work and the kids roamed and observed and played and learned work by being around it.

With specialization, mass scale production, and technological advances the arrangement changed. People lived in neighborhoods or cities that were often much larger, adults commuted to cities during the day vastly larger still, and kids were shipped off to huge age-segregated clusters, before smaller immediate families came back together for dinner in the evening.

The benefits of technological progress are astounding and I wouldn’t trade them. The benefits greatly outweighed the costs, which is why just about everyone who had the chance chose it. But shifting living arrangements were (often) one item on the cost side of the ledger. It was sometimes necessary, not necessarily optimal.

With increasing automation, software, robotics, and information access, the equation is changing again. Humans don’t need to cluster together en masse for economic production. That means one of the costs we had to pay to get the benefits of economic progress has been removed. Now there is choice. You can do the commute to cities and office buildings while kids commute to age segregated schools thing if you want. But you don’t have to.

This is a pretty new choice. And so far, only a handful of early adopters see an seize it. People can now live where they want with who they want with kids and adults alike doing their work and play near the home. Most people still do not realize this is an option. They are wedded to the status quo by inertia, not necessity.

Recent voluntary and forced quarantines are waking some people up to this possibility. More people than realized can work from anywhere. People also realize how they might want to change their living arrangements if they were to continue this more flexible, work and learn from home arrangement. For example, you might want to choose your neighbors more deliberately if you’re spending more time in a village-like setting. If you and your kids social life and work life and learning will be more local, spontaneous, and collaborative, you might change the kind of natural environment you’re in. Climate, house type, access to outdoors, etc.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see a slow steady uptick in deliberate village-like communities. Clusters of families with some shared interest, ideology, religion, or profession who have adults who can work from anywhere on flexible hours and kids roaming around learning through mixed-age play and imitation.

It’s possible the reason few people do this now is that few prefer it. It’s also possible the reason few do it now is because they’ve been conditioned for several generations into the assumption that it’s not on the table. More short-term experiments in this type of arrangement could inspire more to do it.

Open This Content

Families Today Have More Schooling Options Than Ever, But Nowhere Near Enough

I am a glass-half-full kind of person, so while we could focus on the criticisms and some of the setbacks related to expanding educational freedom to more families, there is much more to celebrate than to lament. As National School Choice Week kicks off, it’s a great time to spotlight the growing variety and abundance of education options available to parents and young people.

In its October 2019 national survey, EdChoice revealed a startling statistic: More than 80 percent of US school-age children attend a public district school, but fewer than one-third of their parents prefer that they go there. This represents a massive choice gap in American education, with many parents still unable to opt-out of a mandatory school assignment in favor of more preferable options. Still, there are signs of hope.

Vouchers, Education Savings Accounts, and Tax-Credit Scholarships

Education choice mechanisms, including vouchers, education savings accounts (ESAs), and tax-credit scholarships, continue to gain popularity in many states. Parents are being re-empowered to determine how, where, and with whom their children are educated.Vouchers enable parents to use a portion of their child’s tax dollars allocated for public schools toward tuition for private schools. I recently wrote about the powerful story of Virginia Walden Ford, the Washington, DC, mom who would not accept that her son had to be stuck in a failing district school and pioneered the Washington, DC, voucher program that gives low-income families the ability to exit their assigned school for private options.

ESAs are similar to vouchers in that they enable families to access some of the funds allocated to public schools, but they have the added advantage of separating education from schooling. Rather than only targeting tuition at a private school the way vouchers do, ESAs expand the definition of education beyond schooling, allowing parents to access funds for a wide variety of options, including tutoring, books and resources, classes, and tuition. Tax-credit scholarships, available now in 18 states, enable taxpayers to receive tax credits when they donate to approved non-profit scholarship organizations that then distribute scholarship funds to income-eligible families to use for tuition and other educational services.

The expansion of education choice mechanisms to more families may rely, in part, on how the US Supreme Court rules on the case of Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue. Last week, the Court heard arguments in this case, which exposes the 19th-century anti-Catholic Blaine Amendments that continue to exist in 37 states. This particular case focuses on a tax-credit scholarship established in Montana that allowed taxpayers to receive a tax credit when donating to a scholarship fund that would distribute those funds to children for private school tuition. Some parents, including the plaintiff, chose to use the scholarship money to send their children to religious schools, which the Montana Supreme Court said violated the Blaine amendment’s ban on funds to religious schools.

Writing recently about the case in The Atlantic, Nick Sibilla concludes:

In deciding Espinoza, the Court has the opportunity to do more than just settle the fate of one controversial tax credit; it could also junk Montana’s Blaine Amendment, finding it in violation of the Constitution’s religious-freedom and equal-protection clauses. In doing so, it would set a strong precedent against any law born of bigotry, even if other justifications seem neutral.

Homeschooling

In my Cato policy brief last fall, I found that some of the states with the most robust education choice mechanisms also had a large and growing population of homeschoolers. It makes sense: In an environment where parental choice in education is valued and expected and where a default school assignment is actively questioned, parents feel empowered to make more choices regarding their child’s education, and many of them choose homeschooling.

Nationally, homeschooling numbers hover near two million learners who are increasingly diverse along all metrics, including demographics, socioeconomic status, geography, ideology, and educational philosophy and approach. The majority of today’s homeschooling families choose this option because they are concerned about other school environments.

Hybrid homeschooling options, which include both private and public part-time programs, enable more families to choose homeschooling by providing some out-of-home, center-based learning and instruction that complements the central role of the family in a child’s education.

Charter Schools and Virtual Schooling

Despite periodic disappointments for charter school expansion, their popularity continues to climb. Charter schools are public schools that are often administered by private, usually non-profit organizations. They trade heightened accountability for more autonomy. The US Department of Education reports that the number of charter school students swelled from less than a half-million students in 2000 to three million students in 2016, or six percent of the overall K-12 school-age population.

According to a new poll ahead of the upcoming presidential primaries, voters are less likely to support Democratic presidential candidates who want to end federal charter school funding.The future of parental choice and educational freedom is bright. Virtual schooling, which is online learning that is often public and tuition-free for K-12 students, is also growing, as is blended learning, which combines online and in-person instruction.

While the education choice gap remains wide, and many families are unable to exercise school choice, education options continue to expand and diversify. Parents are being re-empowered to determine how, where, and with whom their children are educated. Policy and legislative efforts continue to extend access to education choice mechanisms, while entrepreneurs build new models and new marketplaces to catalyze choice and innovation. The future of parental choice and educational freedom is bright.

Open This Content

Building a “Family Wall” Against Oppression

In Forty Autumns, author Nina Willner tells a beautiful family history of life in a family divided by the wall between East and West Germany.

Particularly interesting were the coping tactics of her family in the totalitarian socialist East Germany. Her grandmother watched as this family weathered the arrival of the Soviets and the rapid transformation of East Germany into a surveillance prison state.

Neighbors were forced to spy on neighbors. And worst of all, children were trained to report on their own fathers and mothers. As a physical reminder of East Germans’ imprisonment, a border wall went up to keep citizens from escaping to the free West – best remembered in the form of the Berlin Wall.

In the face of this walled society, the family’s matriarch Oma begins guiding her family in building what she called a “family wall”: whatever politics might have prevailed outside, they weren’t allowed in the family. Even though Oma’s children were pushed through the Soviet-influenced youth programs and teacher training, within the Willner family itself there was none of the mutual distrust and betrayal and fear that hummed in the background of East German life.

Oma and her family put family – and doing the right thing – first, and it kept them sane and united until at last Germany reunited in relative freedom.

We can learn something from the Willners about surviving and resisting totalitarianism.

Organization is an important tactic for resisting totalitarianism, and the family is both the smallest and easiest group in which to organize resistance – even if that resistance is only psychological and internal. “A cord of three strands is not easily broken,” as the proverb says. It’s no wonder that family is always one of the first institutions to come under attack by those who would take power.

So it’s worth considering how to cultivate deep trust with those closest to you, even under better circumstances than those in East Germany. If you know you can trust a few people to put your wellbeing above ideology, above politics, and above even fear of an all-powerful state, you are better off than a great many people.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

Open This Content

The Fault Is Not in Our Stuff But in Ourselves

Bruce Sacerdote‘s NBER Working Paper, “Fifty Years of Growth in American Consumption, Income, and Wages” provides a nice update on the measurement of CPI Bias.  The punchline should be obvious, but it’s great to hear such an eminent economist say it: “Meaningful growth in consumption for below median income families has occurred even in a prolonged period of increasing income inequality, increasing consumption inequality and a decreasing share of national income accruing to labor.”

Highlights:

Table 3 shows estimates of annualized growth rates in wages by decade. The first column shows growth in real wages using CPI deflation. This column show real wages fell by 0.8 percent per year during the ten years January 1975-January 1985 and fell by 0.6 percent per year during the ten years ended in 1995.10 In the subsequent two decades wage growth is positive 0.8 percent per year and 0.7 percent per year respectively.

The next three columns calculate growth in real wages using a) PCE adjustment, b) an assumption of 20% upward bias in CPI growth, and c) Hamilton/ Costa adjustment to CPI. The picture looks progressively more optimistic as we move from left to right. PCE adjustment still has negative wage growth in the first two decades (75-85 and 85-95) but the decreases in real wages are smaller. Hamilton/ Costa bias adjustment implies annual real wage growth of 1.4% during 1975-1985, .2 percent per year during 1985-1995, 1.4 percent during 1995-2005 and .8 percent in the most recent decade.

The table in question:

More:

Consumption for below median income families has seen steady progress since 1960. My preferred point estimates are based on CEX measures of consumption where the price index has been de-biased following Hamilton and Costa. These estimates suggest that consumption is up 1.7 percent per year or 164 percent over the whole time period. These estimates of growth strike me as consistent with the significant increases in quality and quantity of goods enjoyed by Americans over the last half century. And my conclusions are consistent with the findings of Broda and Weinstein (2008). Estimates of slow and steady growth seem more plausible than media headlines which suggest that median American households face declining living standards.

The bias adjusted estimates also provide a more positive outlook on real wage growth in the last 40 years than standard media headlines. PCE adjusted wages appear to have grown at .5% per year during 1975-2015 while the de-biased CPI adjusted wages grew at 1% per year over the same time period.

Key caveat:

Importantly these estimates do not tell us anything about why wages grew more slowly than GDP or why inequality increased. CPI bias does not explain decreases in labor’s share of income (Krueger 1999) or the associated rise in inequality (Pikkety and Saez 2003). Adjusting the price index downward leads to higher estimated real wage growth and higher estimated real GDP growth.

The big unanswered question:

What I do not address here is why Americans feel worse off if consumption is actually rising. There are at least four important explanations that may be at work. First, I am only examining consumption within very large sections of the income distribution and there may be specific groups (for example less than high school educated men) for whom consumption is actually falling. Second, it’s possible that the quality of some services such as public education or health care could be falling for some groups. Third, the rise in income inequality coupled with increased information flow about other people’s consumption may be making Americans feel worse off in a relative sense even if their material goods consumption is rising. Fourth, changes in family structure (e.g. the rise of single parent households), increases in the prison population, or increases in substance addiction could make people worse off even in the face of rising material wealth. A deep future research agenda would be to understand how America has lost its sense of optimism about living standards and whether the problem is one of consumption, relative consumption (relative to other people) or something entirely different.

My favorite candidate for “something entirely different”: false consciousness.  Most people embrace a dogmatic pessimistic ideology, and believing is seeing.  Hedonic adaptation amplifies the problem.  After all, it’s easier to deny that your standard of living is great than to admit that you’re unhappy despite your affluence.  The fault is not in our stuff but in ourselves.

Open This Content

The History of Private Schools: How American Education Became a Political Battleground

“He alone, who owns the youth, gains the future.” – Adolf Hitler

Public schools are so ubiquitous and ingrained in American culture that one could easily be forgiven for thinking that we, as a nation, have always had them. However, public schools are a relatively recent invention. Federal funding for public schools is a recent anomaly, dating back to the days of President Jimmy Carter. His successor, President Ronald Reagan, famously tried to dismantle the Department of Education to no avail.

Public schools being an arm of the state are indoctrination centers. This becomes increasingly true as basic skills such as the old “three Rs” of “reading, writing and ‘rithmatic” are jettisoned in favor of climate changecritical race theory and gender ideology – all of which are now part and parcel of a public education in the United States. As if this weren’t troubling enough, public schools are largely funded by property taxes on housing. These taxes, which are paid generally on a bi-annual basis, are confiscated from people whose children do not even attend public schools. What’s more, these taxes require people to effectively pay rent on owned property under penalty of losing their homes.

We do not have to look far for an alternative to the world of public schools. Throughout most of American history, education has been the purview of parents, the church, and other private institutions. The rise of public education in the United States is a story of violence and coercion that is largely hidden from the public record. After reading this, you will never view public schools in the same light ever again.

Continue reading The History of Private Schools: How American Education Became a Political Battleground at Ammo.com.

Open This Content