Monthly Archives: April 2017

Smeared Science

A doctor walks into his practice’s waiting room and finds a man who tells him, “Doc, I have shingles.”

The doctor replies, “Shingles is a serious condition, but I know how to treat it.” And without performing any physical examination, ordering any diagnostic tests, or asking any questions to prepare a preliminary case history, the doctor starts writing prescriptions. The list includes antivirals, pain killers and the best balms and salves the pharmaceutical arts can offer. The doctor hands the prescriptions to the man and says “use these to fix the problem.”

The man takes the prescriptions, scratches his head and says, “Uh, okay, if you say so, I’ll use these to fix the problem. But what do you want me to do with the shingles?”

Now the doctor is confused. “Shingles? What do you mean what should you do with the shingles?”

“The shingles in my truck,” says the man. “I’m here to fix your roof.”

There’s an alarming and increasing number of elected officials who remind me of that doctor. These are lawmakers offering policy prescriptions without fully understanding the issue at hand and having only a dim grasp of how the solutions they are so eager to implement actually relate to the problem. They can often be spotted by their fondness for the phrase “I’m not a scientist, but …” What follows is usually the sort of twaddle that not only convincingly confirms the lack of lab coat cred, but also hints at a deep commitment to abetting alternative-fact moonbeam production. So in that spirit, let me just say that I’m not a phrenologist, but I’m pretty sure the knots on the lumpy heads blathering such babble and balderdash are not there to increase grey matter carrying capacity.

I’m not sure exactly when it became respectable to be anti-science, but boffin bashing has definitely gone mainstream. While America has always taken a perverse pride in its anti-intellectualism, just lately things seem to have progressed from needling the nerds to actively hunting them down. They once roamed across our social landscape in their thousands, rattling their horn rims, fiddling with slide rules, and engaging in arcane mating rituals involving hot Bunsen burners and flashy pocket protecter displays (a lot of scientists are involuntarily celibate). Not anymore. The people currently running the federal government—from the president on down—have pretty much declared open season on scientists. They are being systematically deprived of their primary source of nourishment–research grants–and being subjected to public censure, denunciation and even humiliation.

Near as I can figure, science has attracted this ire because it keeps supplying political discourse with an unending streams of data and facts that are irritating and inconvenient to a large swath of ideological policy preferences. This is particularly notable on—but far from limited to—science’s nosy parker prognostications on climate change. Science has reached a consensus conclusion that human society’s two-century long carbon fart is having a noticeable effect on the atmospherics of our collective planetary elevator (here’s 12,000 scientific studies with gory details). This sore distresses fossil fuel types and their political minions who were hoping the rest of us wouldn’t notice the stink, much less start agitating for the government to consider the corks-in-bungholes option.

The upshot of science’s insistence that the facts aren’t pointing in the same direction as certain ideological policy preferences leads to not just political discomfort, but to some truly jaw dropping acts of sophistry. For example, Jim Inhofe, a United States Senator, quite seriously argued that one unseasonable DC snowstorm convincingly disproved those 12,000 climate studies (he brought a snowball into the chamber to prove his point). So who’s correct on climate change? Well, on one side you’ve got a sizeable city’s worth of weather nerds sporting more advanced degrees than a thermometer. This lot have spent decades analyzing oceans of data and trying to sort signal from noise in peer reviewed research. And on the other you’ve got a legislator clutching a compacted fistful of frozen precipitate whose specious wuffling is not doing Bill Nye’s blood pressure any favors.  (BTW Jim, if you’re looking for extra meaningless data points, we had a very hot day hereabouts back in February).

That sort of comparison doesn’t put certain policy agendas, or certain policy makers, in a flattering light, and that fact almost certainly explains the attempt by the current leaders of the federal government to push science into the dark. That movement is truly scary. There are plans afoot to seriously cripple the scientific enterprise at the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, and even the National Institutes of Health (!). Academic labs at all the major research universities are facing cutbacks. The list of agencies and scientific research projects nervously awaiting the chop is depressingly long and is going to insulate public policy from sound science in a whole raft of critically important issue areas.

The only good news is that with science out of the way policymakers won’t have all those annoying empiricists mucking up their prescriptive plans with substance and knowledge. This will allow government policies to be pursued on the basis of good old fashioned ideological shamanism. Yep, that should work out well. Not.

There are those who might say that this is all being too hard on certain policy perspectives, and is being way too deferential to science and scientists who, let’s face it, are not always super-consistent in their conclusions and have been known to make a boo-boo or two. Fair enough, it is true that science is not correct 100 percent of the time, and it is equally true that perfectly competent and legit scientific studies can still reach conclusions that are incorrect. Plus we still haven’t got flying cars, meals in a pill, and I’m not sure if eggs are good for us this week or if they’re still avian cholesterol and cancer bombs. Yeah, sometimes scientists definitely got some ‘splaining to do. That is no reason, however, to substitute fact-fogging charlatanism for what is, for all its faults, the greatest knowledge producing process ever conceived.

The bottom line is that shooing science away from governance and public policy might usefully serve the political agenda of one side or the other in the short term. In the long term, though, substituting politics for science is to substitute blind faith for insight, soft ignorance for hard knowledge, and flights of political fancy for grounded reasoning. In short, if policymakers ignore and de-prioritize science they become that doctor in the waiting room instructing someone to fix a hole in the roof with prescription paper. And what with the climate changing and all, that’s likely to get us all wet.


It Ain’t That Simple

After chasing all those tea-swilling Red Coats out of America’s beeswax, the Founding Fathers took a good look at the country they’d just created and immediately got a serious case of the fantods. The economy was in the toilet, the states were at each other’s throats, and three European powers (the Spanish, French and Brits) were industriously conniving to swindle the Yanks out of their inheritance if not their independence. Trail bossing the new nation through these shoals was Congress, a dog’s breakfast of parochialism and pusillanimity held together by silk breeches, bad wigs, and dodgy IOUs. To put it mildly, things were complicated.

One of things driving the deep thinkers batty was the insistence by a large number of their fellow Americans that, all evidence to the contrary, democracy had simple answers to these complex problems. In some quarters, the universal salve proposed for any vexation of state was a populist poultice moistened with gallons of rhetorical incontinence. Just do what the majority wanted and, yada, yada, yada, problem solved. Some saw this faith in democracy as touchingly guileless. Big time Founding Parental Units like James Madison and Alexander Hamilton viewed it as base political quackery that needed to be squashed before it led to a serious migraine. They understood that politics is complex and convoluted, that democratic politics is tougher than acing the SAT, and that majorities frequently not only have no superior claim on wisdom but are often dumber than dirt. Making sure the grownups got to handle the complex problems with due diligence and rational thought while making good on the guarantee of popular sovereignty clearly required some delicate institutional finessing.

That sort of deft touch wasn’t much in evidence from state governments, who at the time were busy duking it out for the hotly contested title of Best Populist Suck Up of 1786 (Rhode Island won). After the Brits skulked off to Canada and took the royal prerogative with them, states had enthusiastically begun drafting constitutions. In practice this meant a lot of power-to-the-people fan boys putting quill to parchment and designing governments that made pretty much any serious thinking republican feel like soiling their breeches. Charles Carroll—best remembered as the last signatory of the Declaration of Independence to pop his clogs—examined a good deal of this fluff and flummery and concluded some lawmakers clearly were wearing their wigs too tight. In his judgement states were building “simple democracies,” governments set up more to function as the bowels of a republic rather than its heart or its brain. In other words, governments dominated by legislatures that would do little more than noisily masticate and pass through whatever crap the populace had just swallowed. Carroll concluded the only logical end to that sort of process was a big stink. Simple democracies, he declared, are, “of all governments the worst, and will end as other democracies have, in despotism.”

Luckily for us, in 1787 a group of know-it-all bluestockings managed to do something about all this at the national level, pulling off a remarkable feat of political engineering called the United States Constitution. This has served as a pretty reliable institutional prophylactic against the virulence of “simple democracy.”  It does this by making it infuriatingly complicated for the government to actually do anything. It is so complicated that even if populist piffle pushers manage to get elected they’ll find themselves unable translate their vacuous brain farts into legislation without first going through a serious learning curve. Chances are that while going through that process they’ll wise up and realize they should back off of following through on the moonshine they promised voters before it does any lasting harm. These institutional training wheels are far from infallible, though. And there still exists in the American populace a deeply held conviction that if government could just get out of the way, we could fix problems sans muss and sans fuss. This is at least partly how we ended up with Donald Trump in office, who ran on a promise that most problems had simple fixes. Build a wall, drop a bomb, cut a deal, and yada, yada, yada, America is great again.

Of late, though, he seems to be revising upward the estimated difficulty of, you know, actually governing. Just to mention a few examples, in the last few weeks the president has said “nobody knew health care could be this complicated,” admitted he just “learned about some very arcane rules in … both the Senate and the House,” shifted gears on North Korea because after a 10-minute chat with the Chinese president “I realized it’s not so easy,” decided that staying out of Syria really wasn’t an option, that NATO wasn’t all mooching excess baggage, and that forcing China to stop manipulating its currency wasn’t going to work because he just found out they stopped doing that years ago. Oh yeah, and the sweeping tax reform plan set to be unveiled months ago is nowhere to be seen because apparently writing a sweeping tax reform plan is harder than saying you have a sweeping tax reform plan.

The Trump game plan is flipping quicker than pancakes at a waffle house and flopping faster than an Italian soccer team. There’s a couple of ways to look at this. A lot of Trump supporters are not happy. And no wonder. The reality of governing makes all presidents deviate from the path promised on the campaign trail, but Trump is off-roading so far from his plotted course it’s starting to look like he lost his GPS (if had one to begin with). He was elected to end Obamacare, drain the swamp, cock the snoot at irksome furriners – from North Korean tin-pot tyrants to European NATO deadbeats to Mexican bad hombres— and put America first. His bellyaching that this is all harder than he thought isn’t cutting the mustard with his base. And that’s understandable. Trumpinistas haven’t got much choice but to double down on the bet that these problems still have simple fixes that do not require political experience, political knowledge, or, heck, even basic political sentience.  If stuff really is that complicated, then they just elected someone gobsmackingly unqualified to deal with the issues besetting the republic and have put the national interest at serious risk. Madison, Hamilton and Carroll spoke to exactly this sort of situation in their famous “No shit, Sherlock” joint declaration on pinhead populism. Okay, I can’t back that up, but I’m pretty sure I got the sentiment right.

The president seems to be going through a dawning realization that his easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy promises are just piffle and prattle of the lowest order. The learning curve has begun. At least, let’s hope that’s what’s happening. I say let the Trumpkins mutter of establishment illuminati plotting to remove their beautiful comb-over Rapunzel from his alt-right tower of alternative-facts and re-accommodate him in the real world. The rest of us should welcome these developments. Things are complicated—very complicated—and the farther we can get from the simple democracy thinking that put Trump in office the more distance we put between us and despotism.

 

The Big Problem With Tax Reform

It’s that time of year when millions of Americans can be found gazing disbelievingly at their tax returns and having sudden attacks of small-government conservatism.  It’s not just the fiduciary ouchie of Uncle Sam’s annual pocket book pinch that stirs up pique and vexation. Most people get that taxes are a necessary evil and we all have to cough up something. Less understandable is why the obligatory villainy has to be so damn unfair and complicated.

There’s no doubt we need tax reform. The United States tax code is currently a codex of bean counting hieroglyphics that not only takes our money, but also mocks our incomprehension. The cryptic incantations tax accountants annually sprinkle over spreadsheets animate the government’s extended palm alright, but they also raise the middle finger of its other hand.  This gets us all steamed. None of us really understand what’s going on, but we’re all pretty sure we’re getting shafted and that something really should be done about that. Well, be careful what you ask for. Something is about to be done.

The problem we have right now is not the clear need for tax reform, but the people who are about to take on the task. This would be President Trump and his (cough) loyal troops controlling Congress. Now under normal circumstances I’d be okay with the GOP taking point on a tax code touch up. But we’re not talking about a bunch of establishment and main street types with a strong sense of noblesse oblige taking on the job. Nope. Who we have chomping at the bit to blue-pencil the government’s revenue rulebook is a motley collection of corporate chiselers, Ayn Rand fanboys, and pettifogging market militants shilling little more than libertarian moonbeams. This will not end well.

A big part of the problem seems to be that this group has bought into the broadly shared assumption that tax reform is easy. It’s not. For example, most people who are not rich think those on the upper end of the income scale are a bunch of tax dodging ripe sucks. So the obvious and fair thing to do is just adjust the rules to squeeze a few more shekels out of the fat cats and silk stockings. And, fair enough, this crowd clearly has access to feats of tax dodging prestidigitation not available to mere mortals slogging through their 1040s with nothing more than coffee and a cheap calculator. But the rich already pay most of the taxes. The folks at the tippity-top of the remuneration pyramid—the 1-percenters—pay roughly half of all the income taxes collected.  The top 50 percent of earners pay pretty much all of the federal government’s income tax revenue. Roughly half of Americans pay zilch in income taxes, mostly because they haven’t got much income to tax—these are the working poor, the elderly living on social security and the like.

So, what’s a fair adjustment here? Shove more of the burden onto the wealthy? Well, it’s no secret where the sympathies of the Republican tax reform principals lie. They want income tax cuts, which basically means the moneybags will be paying less. Does it mean the poor will be paying more? Probably. The Trump administration is already trying to get rid of Meals on Wheels. If they’ll take away a hot meal from granny, I doubt they’d have scruples about skimming off her Social Security check too. And good luck with that. Regardless of the specifics, any demographic shift in tax burden—inevitable in any major tax reform–is going to be politically explosive.

Well, what if we forget about who is paying and what constitutes a fair share. Let’s just try to simplify the tax code, which all agree is a convoluted thicket of rules and laws, credits and deductions, all of it held together with loopholes and bookkeepers’ chewing gum. Why not just ditch all this deduction and exemption jazz and go with a flat tax, an idea that still has plenty of supporters in the GOP? Let’s say you pay 20 percent of everything you earn over $50K, and tack on another percentage point or two for income levels that get progressively north of that. That makes things simple, right enough. But that too is almost certainly going to bring about a big shift in tax burdens—under most flat tax proposals the rich are paying less and the bottom half are paying more. And we’re right back to the big political stink of the last paragraph.

Well, maybe we could just prune out some stuff. Problem there is where you see a thorn ready for the shears, others see a rose. Pretty much every group you care to mention has a big chunk of the tax code dedicated to its own self-interest. For example, the middle class loves the ability to deduct mortgage interest from income, a perk that costs the federal government nearly $100 billion in revenue every year.  Good luck prying that prized bennie out of the hands of middle-class homeowners. Those folks vote. Well, what about ending the deduction for state income taxes? Texans would be fine with that because they don’t pay state income tax. On the other hand, folks with state income tax rates at or near double digits—Iowa, California, Minnesota and New York—are going to howl because they’ll get dunned extra.

In fact, all reform paths lead to pretty much the same political pong – somebody is going to feel gulled and they are going to raise a stink. That inevitably leads to liberal applications of emollient special breaks, and exemptions, and exceptions … in other words just the sort of special interest sugar boogers that gets people all worked up in the first place. Here’s the bottom-line: the real problem with our tax system is not its complicated rules or its inequitable distribution of revenue burdens.

You see, we want a lot of stuff from government—social security, health care, education, the 82nd Airborne, interstate highways, crop insurance, someone to catch the baddies, and someone to help when Hurricane Obvious blows through and leaves that tree hugging smartass saying “I told you building in a floodplain was a bad idea.” All of that costs, in technical terms, a crap ton of dough, and most of us would prefer somebody else popped for it. That is the central, unavoidable problem of any attempt at tax reform: We want a lot from government and we want someone else to pay for it. Russell Long, a United States Senator from Louisiana and well-known tax law wonk, once summed up the central conundrum of tax reform in three lines of doggerel:

Don’t tax you

Don’t tax me

Tax that feller behind the tree

And there you have it. Tax reform is always sold on the promise that the fellow behind the tree is a mooch and we can make things right by making him pony up his fair share.  But there is no fellow behind the tree. Until everyone gets that, tax reform is always going to be political nitroglycerine. Before we try to rewrite the tax code what we really need is a grown-up conversation about what we want from government and what we are willing to pay for it. Then, and only then, can we meaningfully get down to the business of figuring out how to split the tab fairly.

Political scientists don’t know much (see our predictions on Trump’s electoral prospects). But we are pretty confident that we are not going to get that conversation. What we’re going to get is what usually happens with major tax reform efforts—a political bun fight that leaves everyone ticked off and convinced they are stuck paying for somebody else’s dessert. The only real guarantee is that whatever tax reform flummery the GOP whips up, that fellow behind the tree is not paying for it. Just you and me.

 

The False Options of School Choice

 

School choice is basically the idea that Walmart shoppers know more about public education than teachers do. Put parents in a big box of buyer options, the argument goes, and they’ll follow the fluorescent light of consumer desire right to the Tickle-Me Elmo score of educational excellence. Or something like that. It’s hard to keep track because the justifications for ditching traditional public schools flit around a bit. There’s the untie-the-market’s-invisible-hand idea, the parents-know-best idea, and, of course, the giving-teachers-unions-the-middle-finger-would-feel-so-good idea.

Regardless of the digits and dabs manipulating the choice argument, it’s all premised on the dubious notion of systemic public school failure. To listen to some people, public schools stink on ice. Period. If that’s the premise then there’s nothing to be lost by blowing up these failure factories. If all public schools do is suck up property taxes and turn out illiterates who get owned by the Latvians on international test comparisons, let’s just tear ‘em down and start over. Among the most vociferous of these sort of critics is Betsey Devos, secretary of the Department of Education, who thinks public schools are a “dead end.”

Not to worry, though. Public schools may be spinning ever faster around the scholarly sink hole, but the Fed-Ed poo-bah has the solution: School choice. Now, school choice can actually mean a lot of things. The mild version is public charters. These are boutique public schools within public schools, distinguishable from the standard article primarily by greater regulatory freedom and a lot of Teach for America, Thousand-Points-of-Light, let’s-really-teach-these-kids-something earnestness.

On the other end of the spectrum, the full Monty version of choice is a voucher system. This really does mean blowing up public education as we know it and it’s the option that Devos seems likely to champion as the nation’s top education official. In a pure voucher system there is no such thing as a public school. Parents get a coupon—a voucher—that they can cash in at any vendor doing business in the big mall of educational service provision. Competition for the cash those coupons represent will be fierce, and as everybody knows the only way to win in the Darwinian world of an unregulated market is by providing a better product with superior customer service. I mean, just look at what it did for air travel.

There’s really only two problems with Devos’ diagnosis of public education’s ills and her favored policy fix. First, she appears to know shockingly little about public schools and how they are run and evaluated. If you think that’s harsh, take a gander at her ignominious Senate hearing performance for yourself.  Second, she seems to know even less about the iffy results from the clinical trials of schools that have swallowed the magic market medicine she’s prescribing.

Here’s a news flash: the nation’s public education system isn’t failing, at least not any more than usual. Chicken Littles have been yipping and yowling about the deficiencies of schools at least since the Rooskies launched Sputnik. Way back in the fifties the Reds put an aluminum beach ball in orbit that could say “bing,”  a big technological accomplishment for the time. More to the point, public schools were faulted for not producing boffins with enough of the right stuff to make American satellites that said “bing.” Rather than buckling down and putting Ivan in his place, the coddled capitalist teens populating sub-par junior highs were apparently using their slide rules to flick boogers at each other. Don’t try to follow the logic here, it was a weird time.

Public schools have been routinely bashed pretty much ever since. They got flogged for the ills of the hippy-dippy sixties and the druggy seventies, with everything from forced busing and desegregation to whole language learning and the new math denounced for undermining the Republic. In the eighties the Reagan administration got the fantods and issued a scary tome called A Nation At Risk, whose basic precis was that 7th graders had cashed in their slide rules for calculators but only to employ them as technologically superior booger flickers. The cry of public school failure went on into the nineties and the aughties as school choice became a real thing and places like Milwaukee started implementing honest-to-god voucher systems.

Now, there’s no doubt that bad public schools exist—as a journalist and as an academic I’ve witnessed some firsthand. But there is also a ton of pretty decent to truly outstanding public schools, and by my accounting these make up the strong majority of the public education system. Somehow that gets lost. Someone sees pictures of a struggling inner-city school or reads that Finnish high schoolers kicked Yankee ass in the latest International Nerd Olympiad and all the good stuff falls out of view. We’ve got to upend the system to save our future.

People of Devos’ ilk have spent decades saying public schools are so bad we need to institute a system of choice to make things better. Yet in doing so they not only are conveniently ignoring the fact that the big majority of public schools are doing just fine, they are even more conveniently blind-eyeing a very long list of studies showing that school choice variants at best are no better than public schools, and not uncommonly are actually worse.

I know a little about the mountain of research done on the efficacy of school choice because I spent the better part of a decade hanging off its north face trying to belay down to the base camp of rational policymaking. I wrote a dissertation, two books, and a bunch of scholarly and popular articles, talked to teachers, students, parents, administrators, policy wonks and policymakers, I testified before state legislatures, talked to teachers unions and parents groups, crunched numbers and dissected data. If you’re really bored you can find the Cliff’s Notes summary of my years of work analyzing school choice here. It’s all pretty dated by now, but here’s a New York Times article on the three most recent big studies on school choice. They all conclude choice programs are pretty much a flop as a general policy tool to improve academic performance.

I predict the latest studies will have about as much impact on the choice debate as my humble contributions did, which is to say not much at all. School choice advocacy is remarkably resistant to empirical evidence of its shortcomings and to the many successes of public education. I’m pretty convinced that’s because this debate is not about the performance of schools at all. That’s just cover and justification. All the hoo-hah and debate is really about what schools are for. Many (not all) advocates of choice are anti-public schools not because of their supposed failure to get the literacy and numeracy of the nation’s youth up to snuff, but because of their inclusive e pluribus unum social mission. They want schools that exclusively transmit their particular religious, social and political values, and not just the values that are broadly agreed on by the collective. If they can get that and epic SAT scores, great. Educational performance, though, is just the gravy. The real meat of the choice argument is really about ideology, and that can be consumed raw and satisfy with or without the condiments.

I also predict that public schools will not be severely wounded by the choice brigade, even though one of their own now occupies the nation’s top educational office. The biggest problem advocates of choice have is that the vast majority of Americans went to a public school, live near a public school, know a public school teacher, and interact with public school students. And while some of them, or more accurately us, are indeed in trouble—sometimes big trouble—most of us and our public schools are doing at least fair to middling. And we’re probably not going to give that up for the dubious promise of getting the option to pick out our very own Tickle-Me Elmo education miracle. When push comes to shove, I’m betting that’s a choice we’re just not going to make.