“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.

Open This Content

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?

Open This Content

Walter Block: Defending the Moneylender (15m)

This episode features an audio essay written by economics professor and Austro-libertarian Walter Block from 1976, and which comprises Chapter 17 of Defending the UndefendablePurchase books by Walter Block on Amazon here.

Listen To This Episode (15m, mp3, 64kbps)

Subscribe via RSS here, or in any podcast app by searching for “voluntaryist voices”. Support the podcast at Patreon.com/evc or PayPal.me/everythingvoluntary.

Open This Content

On Business

Just as companies accept their employees labor in exchange for money, they also accept their customers money in exchange for goods and services cooperatively produced by their employees. Companies do not and may not take their customers money. We must never forget these salient facts. Companies accept, they do not take. Conversely, governments do precisely the opposite: they take our money in the form of taxation, and they take our labor in the form of conscription. (They also take our property in whole or in part in many other ways.) It breaks my heart that my fellow human beings can be so bamboozled into believing that the institutions who plunder and pilfer them must be used (and has their best interests in mind) to save them from the institutions who do not. It’s tragic, and that’s today’s two cents.

Open This Content

On Wages

It’s a common cry across social and popular media to deride one business or another for the way they model their wage structure. Most of my current income is earned by delivering food for companies like DoorDash and GrubHub. I do pretty well, but I’ve also spent a year and half learning how to do pretty well in my particular market. When these companies offer deliveries for amounts and distances below my professional standard, I simply reject them. What I don’t do is write articles decrying “predatory pay models” or other such signaling buzz words. It’s nonsense, and this is why: businesses do not and may not take our labor. Rather, they accept our labor in exchange for their money. We do the job at the wage agreed upon up-front, we get paid (at least) that amount. If we don’t agree, we don’t do it. If someone else does, good for them. If they can’t find anyone to agree, they increase the offer until they do, or cancel it. So long as it’s accepted willingly, everyone benefits. Third party opinions about it are totally irrelevant. If these companies are no longer profitable for you in your market, find a new company. Nobody’s forcing you to work for them. And that’s today’s two cents.

Open This Content

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.”

Open This Content