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School choice: A practical, pragmatic response to school failure

Fix a problem now, or hope for a resolution a decade or more away?

The Atlantic magazine has a lengthy article about families in Detroit who use Michigan’s law (“schools of choice”) that make it possible for thousands of schoolchildren to attend a school outside their district.  The article talks about parents who spend a lot of time and trouble getting their children to schools.

Tough life? Certainly. Worth it? In her mind, yes. Here’s one parent:

“I told him, ‘We’re going through these extra steps and it’s a lot to get you to school, but if this is going to help better prepare you, not only for high school and for college, but for life, then it’s what we’re going to do.’”

The sophisticated version of an anti-school choice argument is an extention of the classic work, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: When people who care the most about changing an unsatisfactory status quo leave the system, they deprive everyone else of their power to make a difference.

Yet this argument assumes that parents who see a bad situation must wait years for improvements to come, and if they don’t, well, too bad. Michigan’s schools of choice program, as well as its charter school sector, provide parents in Detroit and elsewhere with options to improve their children’s situation now, not years down the road.

Public pension math

There’s science, and then there’s political science. Likewise, there’s math, and then there’s political math. Political math can be deadly to the fiscal health of a political unit, whether it’s a city, state, or country.

Underfunded public pensions are one of those problems that dog governments, but which most people don’t know about. It’s simple, really: Politicians buy labor peace by offering generous pension benefits to government employees. Then they please everyone else by not putting in the contributions required to make the plans meet the projected benefits.

Why does this please everyone else? Money not paid into pension funds can be used for any number of programs and purposes, including hiring more government employees.

Sheila Weinberg has a great quip in a commentary on the pension mess that Illinois has, perhaps one of the worst in the nation: “Former SEC official Peter Chan said, ‘I sometimes wonder whether people understood the math.’ The governors and legislators understood that the political math they were using allowed them to claim they were meeting the constitution’s balanced budget requirement—and get re-elected—by providing increasing services and benefits without losing votes due to the tax hikes necessary to cover these expenses.”

Hello world (really)

“Hello world” is the name, if I remember correctly, of a dummy post that appears when you first set up a blog with WordPress.

In this case, “hello world” is simply a greeting that I’m using to update this site. Obviously, it’s been a while since I wrote anything original here. That’s because my interests have taken toward writing stuff that isn’t related to public policy. And when I have been involved in policy lately, it’s been more with the proofreader’s or editor’s pen than the writer’s. In one case, yes, it was actual with a pen, though usually I use a computer keyboard.

That’s all for now. By the way, if you’re interested in “who” versus “whom” and other such questions, as well as some advice on how to improve your writing skills, may I offer a recommendation? Garner’s Modern American Usage.

Initiatives and referenda: The overlooked part of elections

Initiatives and referenda are often overlooked in the red shirt/blue shirt post-game analysis. But I find them fascinating. USA Today has a quick review of some ballot measures across the nation. I see that Mary Jane did well, winning approval in Alaska, Oregon, and Washington DC, though not in Florida. Oh well. It’s getting to the point that when our economy tanks, we can all light up to make the pain go away. Even as it becomes more difficult to purchase legal products (continue reading), we’re making it easier to take one toke over the line. Freedom!

In neighboring Wisconsin, voters approved a measure to (allegedly) “prevent the state transportation fund from being siphoned to pay for other needs.” That sounds great, though I’d like to look at the details. Voters in Milwaukee said that it’s just find and dandy to regulate political speech–and they did so by greater than a 2:1 margin. Illinois approved a question that prohibits voting-related laws that have a disparate impact on selected groups of people. That sounds like a law with a lot of unanticipated consequences. Voters in Arkansas decided to let “dry” counties remain that way, should they choose. Score one for local control, and one against personal choice. The campaign was enough to remind one of the theory of baptists and bootleggers, though in this case, established liqour distributors stood in the place of the bootleggers. Michael Bloomberg and Bill Gates scored a win in Washington state, where voters approved an initiative to impose more regulations on the purchase of guns. Finally, voters in Berkeley, California, approved a soda pop tax. Who says that liberalism is (just) about providing free stuff?

This was first published at Look True North. For more information, see the Initiative and Referenda Institute, which has a handy compilation (PDF) of the results from the 2014 election.

Minnesota in the bottom 5 for tax climate, again

How is Minnesota like the Chicago Cubs? They’re both “lovable losers.”

Another season of Major League Baseball will soon expire, and the Cubs will have failed, again to even make it to the World Series. And as another year has passed, a tax-policy organization has once again said that Minnesota is a cellar-dweller.

The Tax Foundation recently released its annual State Business Tax Climate Index, and Minnesota came in with a low score. Its position of 47 puts it just ahead of California, New York, and New Jersey.

The report attempts to compare all of the 50 states against each other, using 100 factors that are grouped into five broad groups: corporate taxes, individual income taxes, sales taxes, unemployment insurance rates, and property taxes. Taxes are not the only factor that individuals and businesses consider, but in a competitive world in which people and businesses have options, they do carry some weight. And in the case of Minnesota, the tax system has been a weight.

Minnesota shows up several times in the index, and not for good reasons. It has fourth-highest corporate income tax rate, for example, and the third-highest state sales tax. It also gets nicked for complexity. For example, it is one of a few states that has an alternative minimum income tax. It exempts clothing from the sales tax, but taxes materials that businesses use to make their products—which are then taxed again. In other words, Minnesota’s tax system is skewed towards high rates, applied to a small base, which is the opposite structure of what economists recommend. And for sheer frustration, the state’s tax laws vary from the federal tax code in several key ways, further adding to complexity come tax time.

The state is still riding its glory days of large companies that could handle high tax rates and tax complexity. Some of those, such as Cray or Lockhead, have disappeared. Others, such as 3M, have aggressively expanded elsewhere. Yet still others, such as Medtronic, have even talked of leaving the country.

While Minnesota has been raising income tax rates and imposing new taxes such as the warehousing tax, some other states have been lowering rates and simplifying their tax code. Even though New York scores even lower than Minnesota overall, its position on the corporate tax component of the index will move from 24 to 20 as a result of recently passed changes. Colorado will move from 20 to 12, and North Carolina will gain five spots.

North Carolina shows that it is possible to make dramatic changes in a state’s position relative to other states. On the overall index, the its position rose dramatically, from 44 to 16. How did this happen? It flattened its personal income tax system, made sales taxes more uniform across the state, and reduced the corporate income tax by 13 percent.

If there’s a default way that Minnesotans have of improving the tax climate, it may be to offer special incentives to select businesses. See, for example, the deals offered up to the Vikings and the Mayo Clinic. But again, North Carolina is instructive. It lavished tax incentives on Dell Computers, which announced just four years later that it was leaving the state. It’s better to create a system that works well for all rather than pin hopes on a few politically connected players.

Can Minnesota ever make it to the top ten states, which start out with Wyoming, South Dakota, and Nevada? With some work and hard work, yes. It’s true that some states in the top ten have unique qualities Minnesota cannot hope to replicate. It’s not going to be able to offload the tax burden on tourists (Florida) or people who buy its petroleum (Alaska). And the political climate won’t let it join the ranks of states with no income tax, such as South Dakota or Nevada. But Utah and Indiana are in the top ten, and they, like Minnesota, have both a state sales tax and a state income tax. What have they done? They have kept the base broad and the rates low. Again, this is the opposite of what Minnesota has done.


First published by Center of the American Experiment

Political speech prolongs policy difficultiles

One benefit we can expect from Tuesday’s election is that some misleading, hyperbolic, and outright fraudulent advertising will come to an end. Granted, political speech is an essential part of our form of government, so you might say it’s a cost of democracy. Unfortunately, though, campaign speech shapes the political culture, making it that much harder to fix outstanding problems. I would give some examples, but they all blur together at this point. So I say, “bring on election day!” On Wednesday morning, we will stay face misleading, hyperbolic, and outright fradulent advertising. But it will be limited to advertising put out by commercial interests, which, unlike government, we are often free to ignore.

First published on True North.

The practice of medicine

Today I received a political mailing, targeting a candidate on healthcare.

“Who should be in charge of YOUR healthcare decisions?,” it asks. “Politician [name] OR Doctors?” The flier then criticizes the politician in question for votes to create a state insurance exchange.

It’s a legitimate criticism, but nothing new. The political process has been making health-related decisions for a long time, including scope-of-practice laws, certificate-of-need requirements, and insurance regulations.

You might say, though, that insurance companies are also involved in the practice of medicine. That, in turn, goes back to politics. Not only do state governments regulate health insurance, but the federal government has encouraged a “fourth-party” system of health care financing that makes health care a much more complicated affair than simply doctor and patient.

Fourth-party? Yes. Avik Roy explains:

For most Americans, health care looks something like this: A patient purchases health insurance, or receives it from his employer. The insurer then directs the patient to use physicians in its network, with whom it has negotiated reimbursement rates. The patient is given little or no information about the comparative cost or quality of any particular doctor. The patient then visits his doctor. After an interview and an examination, the physician orders tests, procedures, or medications on the patient’s behalf. The insurance company reimburses the doctor for a large share of these costs, though it might occasionally haggle if it feels the doctor has spent too much on the patient. The patient receives a bill in the mail from the insurer for his part of the expenditure; that bill is only vaguely related to the services rendered to the patient, and is generally presented in a way that makes it impossible to decipher the relationship between services and costs.

Patient. Insurance company. Employer. Medical professional. Four parties.

Employer-sponsored insurance is in large measure a create of the federal tax code. ObamaCare, or the ACA if you will, could in theory lead us toward a system of personal, portable insurance. But there are so many poor features of it that patients are going to be mired in public and private bureaucracies for quite some time.

Pensions “could be adjusted,” says bankruptcy judge

Across the country, states and cities face difficult fiscal situations, aggravated by the fact that they have over-promised and under-funded pension plans. As cities and other units of government consider bankruptcy, judges and others must ask whether those promises have a superior standing over promises made to vendors, bondholders, or citizens as a whole.

The city of Stockton, California, is in bankruptcy court, and offered Franklin Templeton Investments one cent on the dollar, while doing nothing to reduce payments owed to pensioners. Franklin filed an action with a federal bankruptcy court, and accused the city of picking and choosing winners, pleading poverty to some while making others whole.

In an opinion released this week, federal bankruptcy judge Christopher Klein said, “I’ve concluded the pension could be adjusted.” Though this is a significant statement, it’s not a formal ruling, which will come later this month. Klein also said “California public employee retirement law … is simply invalid in the face of the supremacy clause of the United States Constitution.” He went so far, in his oral presentation, to ask, “Is CalPERS [the state pension administrator] a state unto itself?”

The question in California and elsewhere is this: Should pensions receive a superior status over all other claims on city finances? There are several factors to consider, including prudence: The city has said it cannot attract and retain workers without an iron-clad guarantee. But a city also needs functioning capital markets to work, and Franklin Templeton has financed the city’s firehouses and some of its parks, as well as financed a move of its dispatch center, things from which all citizens benefit. If lenders get burned often enough, the results will not be good for the public at large, as they will require higher interest rates, or in the extreme, choose to not lend money.

As for the legal argument, “pensions,” the LA Times reminds us, “have no specific protections under the [federal bankruptcy] code, but they do often get favorable treatment during bankruptcy negotiations, both for practical reasons — they are usually a large, sometimes the biggest, creditor — and for emotional ones.” The “emotional” reasons, of course, have to do with the problem of concentrated benefits (due to pensioners) and diffused costs (to citizens as a whole). Once again, a financial problem caused by political logic may end up being “fixed” by … yet more political logic.

This is certainly a case that concerned citizens everywhere should keep an eye on.

First published by the Center of the American Experiment

Ideas versus people

Remember the cliche about stopped clocks? When it comes to public policy–or anything involving some thought, for that matter–we ought to keep that in mind.

Three recent incidents illustrate some unhealthy habits, in which we focus on people and not the ideas they express.

The first incident involves the Common Core States Initiative. There are reasonable arguments to be made for and against it, and overall, I oppose it. On the other hand, Bill Bennett recently penned an op-ed in which he said conservatives ought to support it. Out came the knives: Bennett was paid to say what he did, so conservatives (or anyone for that matter) ought to ignore him. Never mind examining the substance of his argument. He got paid to say it; toss his essay in the trash!

Bennett, though, worked as the secretary of education for the U.S. government, and has written books on education. Doesn’t this suggest that he can make an informed judgement on the merits of the Common Core–and that his argument should be examined based on whether or not it is logical and true?

When it comes to public policy, the question of “who benefits” is not entirely out of bounds. When we consider a policy option, it’s reasonable to ask whether this politician, that union, or a business over there will financially benefit as a result. Bring it out to the open in the interest of knowing as much as we can about the costs and benefits of the policy. But don’t discard the idea out simply because so-and-so will reap a financial reward. We need to apply some other principles, too. (Example: Don’t say “I don’t like Coca-Cola; Coca-Cola supports the Export-Import Bank and reaps financial gain from it. The bank is a bad thing.” Instead, it’s possible to build an opposition to the bank on the broader principle that government should not substitute its judgment for those of private-sector financial actors.)

The second incident involves Peter Bell, a black man (it’s relevant, just wait) who recently penned an essay about disciplinary policy in the Minneapolis public schools. He’s concerned that recent changes by the school system will drive middle-class families away. When the Center of the American Experiment (where Bell and I both serve as policy fellows) posted the essay  on Facebook, one public commenter simply dismissed Bell as an Uncle Tom. No matter that his argument could be criticized on several grounds–or might even be right. Nope. Shout “Uncle Tom,” and close down the theater.

Finally, from the left side of the political spectrum is Ezekiel Emanuel, who wrote an essay with the provocative title, “Why I hope to die at 75.” Emanuel discusses American attitudes toward sickness and death, and concludes that at some points in his life–sometimes at 75, sometimes sooner–he will refuse medical treatment. He’s careful to say that this is his idea and not necessarily for anyone else.

The headline aside, there’s really nothing unusual going in in the essay; questions about when and why to obtain treatment have been with us for a long time. But here again, I’ve seen an honest evaluation of an argument short-circuited by something external to it. In this case, it’s politics.

Emanuel was an intellectual godfather of the Affordable Care Act (“ObamaCare”). Therefore–so some of my conservative friends say–we should simply dismiss the essay. Worse, some of my friends turn snarky, invoking the idea that “I’d be happy to be on HIS death panel.” (For my Christian friends, I’d remind you of someone who said “love your enemies.”)

Regardless of how you view his conclusion, Emanuel raises some interesting points that can be considered quite apart from politics alone. American lifespans increased a lot in the last century, mostly because we have reduced childhood mortality. We’ve also increased the portion of time that we spend with chronic diseases and disabilities; is this an unalloyed good? One may wave this latter observation off as a quality-of-life ethic, but it’s a startling one nonetheless.

Fear of ObamaCare and death panels aside, Emanuel is right: we’re all going to die sometime, of something. It would be best if we think ahead of time of what we want for treatment for as well as what we want to accomplish with our lives–two thoughts Emanuel dwells on. But we lose the opportunity to wrestle with those questions by shouting “Death panels! Death panels!”

When I chided one Facebook acquaintance of mine for camping on the politics of ObamaCare rather than address the merits of specific arguments in the essay, his response was, to paraphrase, “you may not care about politics, but politics cares about you.” He refused to go deeper into the article. Again, that’s a pity. For one thing, it interjects politics into everything–something a conservative should reject.

I understand that ideas have consequences. So let’s discuss them, and point out why they’re right–or wrong–instead of ending the examination with a cursory attack on the person bringing forth an idea.

There’s an “all over the Internet” quote that applies, and it comes from Eleanor Roosevelt: “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.” I don’t know when or where she said that, but I like it, and I wish more people would take it to heart. Instead, our discourse too easily resorts to team colors and personalities.

Freedom and vitality of religion

While Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s,” Germany practices what might be dubbed “Render under God what is God’s, through Caesar.”

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal describes an unpopular move by government to increase the enforcement of the church tax. Church tax? Yes. People who “registered” with a church pay a church — Catholic or Protestant– a tax of 8 or 9 percent. The government–at the behest of the churches– has taken steps to strengthen the enforcement of the tax. Banks, according to the journal, “”will be required to report their customers’ religious affiliations, rather than wait for customers to volunteer the information.”

The change has caused a spike in the number of people who have left their churches.

Leave the church? Yes. While some American preachers stress the importance of tithing, German churches do more than exhort: “Church membership hinges on a citizen’s willingness to pay the tax. Refusing to pay it can lead the clergy of both Christian churches to withhold rites such as baptism, communion and funeral rites.” Now, I’m not an expert on Catholic theology, but this sounds like paying this particular tax could send you to hell.


There are a lot of questions the Journal article leaves unanswered–or asked. Which units of government collect the tax? Is it the federal government or the state governments? How much of a cut does the tax man keep? The tax collects $13.2 billion last year, but how much money have people given voluntarily to churches?

But the Journal notes something odd: “Despite emptier pews across Europe, the church tax is a hallmark of the close financial bond that remains between church and state on many parts the Continent.”

Might it be the “close financial bond” is one reason why the pews in Europe are empty?