Low Times for Higher Ed

According to Philip Arthur Fisher, twentieth century super-investor and all-around smarty pants, “the stock market is filled with individuals who know the price of everything, but the value of nothing.” These days it’s not just the stock market infested with such philistine philosophies. Fiduciary myopia, the propensity to be all penny eyed and pound mulish, dominates the public sector.

Here’s an example. Let’s say I know of an investment opportunity with a guaranteed annual return of 800 percent. Sure, it sounds like too-good-to-be-true Bernie Madoff bunkum. But it’s not a Ponzi swindle, it’s real. For every buck you put in, you get eight bucks back. Year. After. Year.  After. Year. You’d probably say sign me up for some of that action. So you’re clearly not an elected official, especially a state governor with a business background. Then you’d basically be saying, “A whole buck? Let’s make it 75 cents and save a quarter!” And then you could boast to the taxpayer about saving them four bits. Or, to put it another way, cost them two dollars.

The investment whereof I speak is higher education, which is being shorted big time by the wolves of Bawl Street. Indeed, it’s gotten so bad that some public universities are essentially being privatized by the governments that own them.  This huge disinvestment in higher education–I’ll get to the numbers in a bit—has, no doubt, saved some governments some dough and cut the tax dunnage of the average Jane and Joe by a few pennies. But it’s costing the lot of them more than they can imagine.

Public universities are kind of astonishing institutions. Most people think of them as academies of advanced learning. And, yeah, they do a lot of educatin’. Right now, roughly three-quarters of students in college are enrolled in dear old State U or its equivalent. But public universities do a lot more. For instance, they are also in the bidness of bidness. In a single year public research universities will spin off more than 500 start-ups, apply for more than 10,000 patents, and generate untold billions in local business sales.

Public universities are also prodigious idea factories, with tons of useful stuff constantly percolating out of their R and D shops. The internet, for example, which was birthed in Leonard Kleinrock’s lab at UCLA. Other stuff we find useful that was significantly or primarily developed by public research universities include LEDs, ATMs, laser eye surgery, bar codes, and sonic toothbrushes. Whatever the problem or challenge society faces—anything from a need for a longer lasting lightbulb to better dental hygiene—you can bet your bippy some public university is all over the search for a solution.  They’ve developed new antibiotics, gene therapy and the wetsuit. They came up with the McRib sandwich fer cryin’ out lout (you’re welcome).

Oh yeah, they are also the closet thing American society has to an escalator to the middle class. The median mid-career salary of a graduate at a university like mine is eighty-two grand. True, on that salary you won’t be swilling cocktails at this weekend’s Mar-a-Largo crass bash. But that’ll get you a reasonably comfy middle-class billet. These days a college degree may be no golden ticket to easy street, but it’s still the closest thing to an all access pass to main street.

Add all this up and it’s clear that public universities are a good deal. Especially for the states that house them. The eight-to-one bang for buck ratio mentioned above is based on an economic analysis of the impact of the University of Nebraska. Now, NU is a big expense for the state – it dumps in north of a half-billion dollars annually into the university system, which is somewhere between eleven and twelve grand per student. The economic impact of that system, though, is roughly $4 billion – an 800-percent return. The university accounts for about 4 percent of state GDP, accounts for one out of every 36 jobs, provides most of the doctors and nurses, and it also houses the most sacred religious site in all of Husker Land – Memorial Stadium, a football temple that, no foolin’, becomes the state’s third largest city on football Saturdays.

Keep in mind that 800-percent return is just the economic impact. The social and cultural impact of educating a huge swath of citizenry, sparking innovation, launching careers, and generally opening eyes and minds is tougher to monetize. While I haven’t got an exact number to point to here, it’s safe to say that in technical terms the impact here is, like, mega-big.

While any honest crunching of numbers shows public universities to be a good deal, many state governments no longer consider them a good investment. Pretty much every state in the union has been dis-investing in higher education over the past decade, in some cases drastically.  Here at the University of Nebraska, for example, per-pupil state funding has dropped by a fifth in inflation-adjusted terms since the turn of the century, and higher education spending a proportion of the budget has been in a pretty linear nosedive for a couple of decades.

And public universities in Nebraska, comparatively speaking, are doing well. Nationally, states are spending about 20 percent less per-student than they were eight or nine years ago, and higher education spending as a proportion of state budgets has shrunk nearly a third over the past 15 or 20 years.  Some big flagship state universities already get so little support they are already effectively privatized. For example, only about 16 percent of the University of Michigan’s general fund budget is taxpayer supported.

State leaders are not exactly hiding what they’ve been up to with higher education budgets. Some of the squeeze was unavoidable (we had that whole Great Recession thing), but some governors wear their cheeseparing as a sort of ideological merit badge. Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Susana Marinez in New Mexico, Sam Brownback in Kansas, Pete Ricketts in Nebraska—there’s a long list of state leaders loudly and proudly pinching pennies in ways that inevitably lead to unburdening their constituents of untold pounds.

The most obvious effects of all this budget beggaring is program cuts and tuition increases—the two primary options public universities have to deal with eroding state support. The end result is not just that we’re producing an entire generation of loan drones, millennials whose social and economic opportunities are pretty severely constricted by debt taken on to pay for school. It also means that for many, college is just not an option. Economic diversity is shrinking at public universities, primarily because those on the lower end of the economic scale can’t afford it. We’re taking the most powerful engine of upward mobility our society has devised and restricting the fuel intake to two cylinders.

Now there is a legitimate debate to be had on whether the average Joe or Jane should be coughing up an extra few bucks so the kegger brigade down at the U can keep itself solvent. Fair enough. What about sonic toothbrushes, though, what are they worth to the average taxpayer? LEDs? The internet? The antibiotics that might save that same Joe and Jane? What about the dang doctor you need to administer those antibiotics? What about the thousands of indirectly supported jobs that help keep the economy humming? What about the football team for chrissake? (There, I said it).

The point is public universities are worth a lot more to the states that own them than people realize. That includes a lot of elected officials. This crowd often knows what higher education costs. They are often clueless about its real value.

Whatever Happened to Conservatism?

William F. Buckley is rightly remembered for his witty prolixity, a certain ability to enliven political discourse by unzipping the Oxford English Dictionary’s big boy pants and letting fly an epic stream of loquacity. Buckley often spritzed this legendary lexical incontinence over various angry sparks of right-wing nut jobbery, a deliberate effort to dampen the influence of dogma drones and conspiracy whackos threatening to hijack conservatism and spirit it off to cuckoo-ville.

While the primary target of his verbal strafing undoubtedly was the political left, he remains an instructive character for contemporary politics exactly because of his consistent willingness to take on his own side.  Buckley arguably did more than any other single individual to shape the modern conservative movement, to supply its cerebral ballast, to trial balloon its more popular tenets, and he certainly provided the campaign’s most influential megaphone (he founded the National Review). The ascension of Ronald Reagan and the subsequent mainstreaming of conservatism as a political force was built in no small part on the decades of preparatory work undertaken by Buckley.

Part of that labor was a conscious and ongoing effort to save conservatism from the worst instincts of its own allies. The National Review for decades was the outlet of conservative thought. As editor Buckley was the pilot in conservatism’s cockpit and he had definite ideas about approving the passenger manifest. He excommunicated Ayn Rand, arguing that her “hard, schematic, implacable, unyielding dogmatism” was not just intrinsically objectionable, but incompatible with conservatism. He chased out the John Birch Society crowd by publicly pointing out they were all at least two beers short of a six-pack. Buckley’s basic case against the Birchers was that trafficking in nutty conspiracy theories and interpreting your own subjective wannabes as objective fact is no basis for a sustainable political movement. He described Robert Welch, co-founder of the John Birch Society, as having “a very special set of views which reality rejects.”*

As a conservative, Buckley instinctively sought to defend the status quo rather than advocate change, but he was curious about the world, had a healthy respect for facts and intellectual inquiry, and was willing to change his mind if persuaded of the case to do so. He once faced down a group of moral majority flap and doodle mongers (Rev. Jerry Falwell among them) incensed at his forceful advocacy for drug legalization. He justified himself thus to his skeptical conservative audience:  “It is a sovereign responsibility of rational people to take empirical data into the general reckoning. I was against the position I am now taking until I became convinced by the data that it was a futile position” (you can see a video clip here). Buckley never lost an abiding conviction that a “conservative seeks to be grounded in reality.

Yeah, I wonder what happened to that. I’m not sure when conservatism decided to stop questioning itself, became so quick to get the wobbles in the face of data and facts, and got so willing to abandon not just intellectual honesty but intellectual curiosity. But it has. Don’t take my word for it, plenty of conservatives are saying more or less the same thing. David Brooks. Charlie Sykes. George Will. Bill Kristol. The conservative movement and the Republican Party, the political vessel which has carried its water for five decades or more, is shot through with phonies, Pharisees, and fib merchants, it is bedeviled by shallow thinking and deep delusions. And the heirs of Buckley know it.

Right now there is a case to be made that Buckley did not really make conservatism safe for mainstream politics, he just helped create a Trojan horse for the distasteful extremes he tried to shoo away. The characters he spent decades trying to fence out of the conservative political project are now in charge of it, their most unsavory tendencies fueled by populism’s oxygen and glowing fire-furnace hot.  At the core of this seems to a lot of angry white guys who define conservatism as little more than me-first nationalism.  I think that it is  more something Buckley would mourn than support.

For example, questioning the cause these days is not considered a healthy exercise in intellectual self-examination, it is apostasy. Inconvenient facts, be they significant (climate change) or trivial (crowd size), are simply substituted with more convenient alternative-facts. Deep thinking on policy has been reduced to a repetitive chant of “tax cuts good, government bad, Democrats evil.” Violence against journalists questioning the party line is trivialized or openly celebrated. Entire swaths of elected conservatives sell out their creed for fealty to a president trafficking in tweet cheats. The national voice of the movement now belongs to bumper sticker bully-boys like Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, people whose framework for intellectual debate is insult, incite, indict, then yell, grunt, and repeat. There’s not a lot of characters in that crew that could be described as possessing traits of genuine curiosity, of intellectual seriousness and flexibility, of respectful garrulity, wit, and humor. In other words, it’s hard to see a space where a Bill Buckley type would fit in contemporary conservatism.

And that’s a shame. I say this without an atom of sarcasm or mockery: Having a movement centered on a principled (emphasis: principled) case for the limits of government is a good thing for the Republic. Not because I agree with it—on many issues I just don’t buy the arguments. But because it keeps the other side intellectually honest, because it forces the case for government action to be clearly articulated and justified, and might even prevent unwarranted or harmful statist over-reach. And given the rumblings over in the Bernie Bro and Liz Warren bloc of pie-eyed lefties, the complete hash Trump is making of his presidency, and the GOP’s embrace of much that reality rejects, we’re likely to need it sooner rather than later.

There still exist plenty of principled elected conservatives (Ben Sasse), conservatives with bags of intellectual candle power willing to ask tough questions of their own side (Brooks, David Frum), and platforms where serious long-form policy analysis rather than sound-bite point scoring is still a hallmark of conservative intellectual endeavor (the lads over at the National Review are still chugging along, if not necessarily all in the same direction). So the chances for a revival of Buckley-type conservatism are far from zero, even if they are not particularly good. It’s a matter of numbers, and the Buckley-ites currently do not have them.

So unless there’s some as yet unknown Buckley avatar waiting in the wings, conservatism—and, as long as conservatives are in charge, the rest of us—will just have to ride out its contemporary smoochie-poo embrace of its own distasteful underbelly. What a pisser.

 

*These quotes are pulled from a Buckley essay entitled “What Is Conservatism.” I couldn’t find an online link, but it’s included in The Jeweller’s Eye, a book of his collected speeches and columns that can probably be found under a layer of dust in most large-ish libraries. And before I get button-holed on this, I’m well aware Buckley had some pretty big political skeletons of his own—a big flirt with McCarthyism, for example, and, at least in his early days, some pretty wince-inducing views on civil rights. Still, his willingness to constructively engage with those he disagreed with and a genuine (if far from perfect) embrace of empiricism makes him, in my own humble opinion, a useful and enlightening foil to examine contemporary conservatism.

 

Upside Down Politics

We humans are a disagreeable bunch. Put two of us together and give us the job of making a decision that’s binding on both and sooner rather than later you’ve got an argument. What movie to watch, what pizza toppings to order, what color curtains to buy, whatever the issue at hand we’ll find a way to bang heads about it. And that’s just two of us. Imagine trying to split hairs among 320 million opinions on really important stuff like tax rates, social security, and access to healthcare.

Luckily for us we have a specialized set of institutions to handle these big collective conflicts. That’s basically all a representative democratic system is, just a big conflict management mechanism. That mechanism has worked pretty well in the United States, repeatedly showing itself strong enough to handle Defcon Level Three magnitudes of dissent without the wheels coming off.  Sure, there’s plenty of sturm and drang during election season, and ample rations of finger pointing and policy caterwauling by opposing political teams in between full-on ballot box clashes. In the normal course of things, no big deal. Democratic systems swallow  differences, masticate them into the bitter paste of compromise, and digest them into a painful legislative bowel movement. Everyone agrees that the end result stinks, but, boy, it sure makes everyone feel better.

That process works best, though, when disagreement takes a particular form. Take any given policy issue—gun control, taxes, education, welfare, whatever—and imagine different preferences on what the government should do about that issue. Take gun control as an exemplar. The range of opinions on gun control is massive. On one end is the firm belief that government should not regulate guns at all, that the only thing standing between us and jack- booted totalitarian dystopia is Uncle Fester and his private stash of military-grade weaponry. On the other end is the equally firm belief that Uncle Fester is a nut bag. He’s not making anyone safer, including himself. His concealed shooter will never bag the baddies of his fevered Chuck Norris delusions, but there’s a decent chance it’ll blow off his own butt cheek while he’s dropping trou in the Walmart crapper. For folks on this end of the spectrum, the government should control access to things that go bang very tightly, maybe even regulate them out of existence.

In between those two extremes there’s a lot of room for degrees of difference, a sort of gun regulation policy dial with multiple settings. I’m not suggesting that any one of those settings is better than the other, I’m just saying consider what that big range of opinions looks like.  Because the distribution of preferences on gun control, or any other issue, can take on very different shapes. And that shape helps determine how, or even if, our democratic institutions can handle our disagreements on that issue. What political scientists would consider a nicely behaved shape would look something like this:

This is a normal curve, and in reality a lot of policy preferences (and a lot else in the world) roughly approximate this distribution. If opinions on policy issues look like this in the general population and that distribution of preferences is actually represented in a legislature, then representative democracy is in business. If we take this shape as representing preferences on gun control, on one end of the distribution we’ve got libertarian firearm fetishists and on the other we’ve got fainting daisies who want trigger locks on Nerf guns. Most opinions, though, are piled up in the middle, i.e. most people think guns should be regulated, but not to the point that gun ownership is onerous to the average law abiding citizen. Because that center is where most opinions (and most votes) reside, representative legislatures will naturally gravitate to that as the law making sweet spot.

The problem is that on many issues, that particular distribution of preferences doesn’t exist, at least not as they are represented by legislators. These days most lawmakers are elected to office as tribunes of the right or left, and do not represent the beliefs of the moderate and less ideological center. Well, no worries, our democratic institutions can deal with that. Say we do not have one normal distribution of preferences, but two distinct distributions, one for conservatives/Republicans and another for liberals/Democrats. So the range of opinions we might actually see represented in a legislature look something like this:

 

Here there really isn’t one middle ground, but two. The average conservative lawmaker prefers something fairly distinct from the average liberal lawmaker. Things tend to get a lot more partisan and contentious in this situation, but as long as those two curves have a reasonable amount of overlap a legislature can still converge to a point in between the two sets of average preferences. True, getting there can involve a lot of nasty kicking and screaming. Both sides are more likely to describe the resulting law or policy as snatching bread from the mouths of babes and mothers than a reasonable half-a-loaf. But compromise is still possible. Friction on the democratic gears might be high, but the machine itself grinds on.

That friction gets higher the further those two distributions move apart. In the extreme case the two curves cease to overlap and there’s no middle ground at all. People standing on the extreme tails closest to each other might be able to talk to each other, but the rest of their tribe isn’t going to let their wacko moderates actually build bridges to the other side. In this sort of a situation the democratic machine tends to just lock up.

That’s bad enough, but what we’ve got today is something even worse. On a lot of issues we’ve got upside down politics. Take a look at the first figure and imagine it upside down, something like this:

This inverted normal curve would represent a situation where preferences are split in two and piled up at the extreme ends of the distribution. Not only is there no middle ground between the two sets of preferences, there’s no middle ground on either side. The distribution of preferences now falls into a dichotomy—you’re either with us or against us. Here compromise isn’t the normal price of dealing in democratic politics, it’s surrender. Any attempt to accommodate the other side’s interests represents unforgivable apostasy.

Disagreements characterized by an inverted preference curve are intensely resistant to compromise. This is the politics of first principles, where the other side doesn’t simply have a different point of view, the position they hold is morally repugnant and they must be defeated, not bargained with. Democratic institutions aren’t designed to deal with this, they basically just lock up. The only way to unfreeze the machine is for one side to get a big enough majority to ram its preferences through without any input from the other side. Of course if the other team wins come next election, they’ll ram through exactly the opposite. This can be even worse than a complete lock up because the system is redlining as it lurches from one extreme to the other. At some point the engine will burst a gasket or throw a rod and the whole thing will blow up like my extended mechanical metaphor.

Does this mean there’s no hope for a more civil polity? Hardly. That upside down curve is an uncomfortably accurate description of contemporary policy legislative preferences in Congress and an increasing number of state legislatures. What it doesn’t describe – at least not yet – is the shape of public opinion among the actual electorate. On most issues, peoples’ beliefs still look pretty normally distributed (picture 1), or at most as two reasonably distributed sets of preferences with plenty of overlap (picture 2). So why do we have legislators practicing upside down politics (picture 3)? The simple answer is we let the people on the far end of the distribution pick our legislators. It’s those guys who actually bother to show up in primaries and determine our choices in a general election.

If we want the system to get back to working better then we in the big not-so-ideological middle need to vote in lawmakers who actually represent a reasonable distribution of preferences. Is that likely to happen? Right now I doubt it. But it’s high time the voters threw the system a normal curve.

The New Abnormal

The 44 men elected to serve as chief executive officer of the United States are a bit of a mixed bag.* They range from superlative statesmen (Lincoln, FDR) to mumping mediocrities (Pierce, Dubya), from embodiments of national aspiration (Reagan, Obama) to symbols of national damnation (Hoover, Nixon).  They’ve included everything from paragons of public probity (Washington) to dolly-pronging cad lads congenitally incapable of keeping their plonkers holstered (Clinton, Harding, JFK).

Yet despite all the differences of party, policy, and personal peculiarity, all presidents have, at least until this point, shared a certain a certain deference to the office they occupied. This included respecting the institutional niceties, genuflecting before democratic norms, and generally at least trying to act like they were serious adults doing a serious job. And even if they weren’t serious adults, they at least tried to keep whatever sordid, sleazy, stupid, criminal, or bat shit crazy shenanigans they were up to behind the Oval Office’s tightly drawn curtains.

Then we got Donald J. Trump. He not only gleefully waggles his non compos mentis in front of open windows, he gooses it nekkid across the White House lawn. Just a few months into his administration and the standard norms of the presidency are being abandoned faster than an inconvenient campaign pledge. Trump is giving us a new normal for the presidency, or perhaps more accurately a new abnormal.

A recap of recent events: Trump fired the head of FBI saying it was on the recommendation of the Department of Justice. Then he basically admitted it was because of an FBI investigation into his campaign’s Russia ties. Then he tweeted veiled threats to the agency head he just canned. Then he owned to passing on classified information to a government hostile to the interests of the United States—and doing it in the Oval Office, no less. He also claimed to have invented the phrase “priming the pump” (we’re still trying to get economists jaws off the ground), and told Time he gets two scoops of ice cream while everyone else at the White House table gets one.

Now, in and of itself, nothing in the previous paragraph marks Trump as a particularly precedent-busting president. Plenty of his predecessors racked up impressive records of scandal, silliness, and engaged in stuff that was weird or creepy. Nixon started firing people when they got too close to the truth of Watergate. Reagan had a guy selling missiles to Iran out of the White House basement. Jimmy Carter said he was attacked by a vicious rabbit (seriously). Lyndon Johnson was notorious for—and I’m being quite literal here—willy waving. Johnson called his johnson “jumbo”, which might explain why so many people thought LBJ was such a dick. And, BTW, sorry for phallic theme that seems to be developing here, but it’s sort of inevitable given that the voters keep limiting this club to Y-chromosome carriers. Boys and their toys and all that.

What makes Trump such a harbinger of the new abnormal is not necessarily what he’s done, but how much of it he’s managed to cram into so short a period of time. What makes that paragraph above so cosmically gobsmacking is not that it packs in enough scandal and impropriety, fib and fabrication, and kook and crazy to leave lasting marks on a presidential legacy. It would certainly do that if it was spread out over four-year administration. What marks Trump as different is that all came out within the past twelve days. It’s kind of hard to process. Minds more agile than mine are working overtime to keep pace with the boggle.

And that’s just some of the most recent stuff. The scandals, misfires, gaffes, blunders and general epic levels of ineptness are multiplying faster than Jimmy Carter’s rabbits. Last week The New York Times editorial board put out a list of mortifying presidential precedents Trump has set, which include attacking private citizens on social media, charging an immediate predecessor with criminal activity without providing any evidence, intimidating congressional witnesses, undermining the legitimacy of the judiciary, refusing to release tax returns, engaging in bald ass nepotism, and going golfing most weekends at a staggering cost to the taxpayer. The Times’ list was extensive, but mostly notable for two things. First, it was representative not comprehensive, in other words it left out a lot. Second, the Times’ felt compelled to update it only 48-hours after publishing it because, well, that’s plenty of time for the Trump administration to produce another three or four solid claimants to any catalog of presidential shame.

I know how the Times op-ed scribes feel. In the hour since I started writing this—I completely kid you not—another scandal hit. This was the one about Trump asking the FBI director not to investigate Mike Flynn, the national security adviser pink slipped for fibbing about his contacts with Russian officials. By the time I post this I wouldn’t be surprised if that was old news, a distant three-scandals-ago-memory languishing in the outer reaches of our twitter feeds. To heck with it, though, I’m not even going to try and stay current with the expeditiously moving target of Trump administration peccadillos. I can’t keep up and tallying the crises (plural) de jour isn’t the point.

The point is that in just a few months Trump has sullied the presidency in ways that it took his most nefarious predecessors’ years of dedicated skullduggery to equal. He has literally managed to set the bar so low for presidential behavior that making it through 24-hours without a major shite cyclone is now considered a political win by legislators in his own party. Here’s a selection of quotes from GOP senators made in the past few days: the White house is “in a downward spiral”; Trumps tweets “take us off in a ditch”; the scandals are “Watergate size”; “we could do with a little less drama from the White House; and, my favorite, “can we have a crisis free day? That’s all I’m asking” (respectively Bob Corker, Lindsey Graham, Mitch McConnell, John McCain and Susan Collins).

Again, that’s just the Republicans we’re talking about. The Dems are past tut-tuts and disapproving harumphs and ready to get their impeachment on. That it got to this point in less than four months—four freakin’ months—shows just how removed from normal the Trump administration is. Now in fairness, Trump was not elected to be normal, to carry on with politics as usual. But jeez, I don’t think any serious grownup contemplated this. This is less about draining a swamp than sinking into one.

I suppose, though, we all better get used to it. It’s the new abnormal.

*Little known fact: though Trump is officially the 45th president, only 44 dudes have actually had the full Hail to the Chief treatment. Grover Cleveland won election to non-consecutive terms and was technically the 22nd and the 24th president.

 

 

 

Trumpcare Treats the Winner’s Curse

I’m a political centrist receptive to certain conservative arguments, but since big chunks of the Republican Party took the cuckoo train to looney town I’ve had a hard time finding common ground with the GOP. This past week, though, I’ve been surprised to find myself sharing certain attributes with the House Republican caucus on a critically important political issue. To be specific, like most Republicans in that chamber I have neither read the American Healthcare Act of 2017 (ACA) nor do I have an inkling of its real implications.

I’m not surprised I know jack about the ACA. My general impression is that it’s a tangle of bosh and baloney, the sort of legislative sneaky beaky undertaken by partisan bagmen and interest-group special ops. But who knows. It’s a heavy read (full text here) and it’d take days for me to parse out even its broad-stroke ramifications. I can’t be bothered because we professional observers of politics just have too much else on our plates these days. The Trump White House’s typical daily schedule of a morning Twitter calumny, a noon-time peccadillo, the three o’clock scandal, the five o’clock firing, all topped with a busy evening of minions competing for victory in the arch madness bracket, just doesn’t leave us much time for anything else.

So there, I admit I know diddly about ACA except what’s reported in the media, and I’m pretty skeptical about that because I guarantee most of the professional gum-flappers haven’t read the bill either. If you and I lack a full and nuanced understanding of a complicated piece of legislation, though, it’s not supposed to be a big deal. We have tribunes representing our collective interests and they get paid to pay attention to these details on our behalf. So it’s galling in the extreme to discover that scads of them just voted to re-order a sixth of the nation’s economy and adjust the probabilities of millions getting health care coverage without reading any of the fine print or, I’m pretty sure, even the large-print Cliff’s Notes cheater card.

And it really does seem to be the case that many cast votes for this bill while being unburdened by any real understanding of its potential consequences. There was no independent analysis of its costs, no hearings, and it was being heavily amended the night before it was frog marched out onto the House floor for a vote. The ACA was the legislative equivalent of a 300 pound churro and there’s no way anyone choked that down in a few hours. This was never going to end well and it didn’t. Republicans initially took a victory lap, crowing that the ACA was the dog’s bollocks plus a bag of chips. Then reporters started asking all the high-fiving gloaters what was actually in the bill and what did it all mean and the umming, and ahhing began. It became pretty clear, pretty quickly that whatever was in the bill, it was at best a half-baked dogs breakfast and almost certainly political kryptonite for the GOP.

Late-night comedians pounced, and the sheer ineptitude of some of the spluttering gas passers who yayed the proposal nearer to law would be funny if the issue wasn’t so serious (here’s John Oliver making the point). A dawning recognition that they’d just dropped themselves into five fathoms of poo sent the Gang that Couldn’t Toot Straight slinking home for recess and hoping voters didn’t notice the stink. The few Republicans brave enough to face their constituents this week got the rotten tomatoes treatment, egged on by Democrats who were busily organizing schadenfreude squads. Most GOP House members just laid low, only mingling with constituents whose sycophancy qualified as a pre-existing condition. As for the rest of the voters, the GOP crew mostly seemed to be hoping they’d suffer a mass attack of convenience amnesia and forget what a colossal cock-up the House just made of things.

Well, good luck with all that. The real question is why did the House Republicans do this? Forget all the bumpf and babble about how the bill is going to be a huge improvement on what we currently have. Outside the House, even most Republicans don’t buy that. Plenty of GOP Senators, for example, are treating the bill the House just handed them like it was the towel used to clean up after an epic case of the bad-churro squits.

Any way you cut it, the ACA is bad press, bad politics, and almost certainly bad policy. Yes, the jury is still out on exactly what the bill costs and how it will shape health care access and delivery, but the uncertainty is mostly about whether it’s merely awful or catastrophically dire. Voters are ticked at House Republicans, pretty much the entire swath of healthcare-related interest groups are ticked at House Republicans, and even Senate Republicans are ticked at House Republicans. It seems puzzling that the majority of an elected legislative chamber would load both barrels, pull the trigger and perforate their lower extremity with such deliberate gusto.

I think the primary reason for the eagerness to commit this self-inflicted wound boils down to a variant of the winner’s curse. To social scientists, the winner’s curse technically describes the tendency of people to overpay in auctions of common value. Roughly translated into actual English, that basically says that people who aren’t fully aware of the value of something (or its cost), tend to bid up its price. This leads to buyer’s regret, the feeling you get after blowing a hole in your wallet on something that turns out not to be the dog’s bollocks and a bag of chips. That’s the winner’s curse.

And that’s what I think House Republicans have on healthcare. Over the past eight or nine years they have ridiculously bid up what they can fork out for a healthcare plan. They’ve argued Obamacare is a disaster that’s failing and that only they can fix the problem and win the nation a shiny new, super-duper most-definitely-not-Obamacare health plan. Complicating their bid was the spreading realization among voters how much they liked at least bits of Obamacare, especially stuff like preventing insurers from denying coverage, requiring coverage of pre-existing conditions, and keeping children on parental coverage into their mid-20s. And the millions who got healthcare thanks to Medicaid expansion definitely want to keep that.

Well, no worries said the Republicans, you can have all that, plus you won’t have to pay for it. That’s a pretty damn high bid and as long as Obama was in the White House the GOP didn’t have to worry about having it called. Then they won. Everything. And having so fervently promised their frothing base how Obamacare was all death panels and socialist overreach, they had to make good on their bid or look like pikers of the highest order. Problem was, all they had to back their bid was the political equivalent of wooden nickels and monopoly money. They had to lay their currency down, of course, burning through pretty much all their political capital to purchase the bill they so desperately wanted. And finally having closed the sale on an Obamacare repeal they now own it. Indeed, as Nancy Pelosi said, they positively “glow in the dark” with it. They are also belatedly starting to realize their shiny new phosphorescent purchase isn’t worth what they paid. In precise political terms its value is diddly and squat.

Carrying that into the next election really is likely to be a curse, one Republicans cast upon themselves by winning.

Swill Me Some Bumbo James Madison

James Madison was a bit of a wuss. He topped out at 5-foot 4-inches and needed the weight of the republic on his shoulders to tip the scales past a hundred pounds. He spoke in a high pitched whisper, had scads of (often imagined) health problems, and could at times be a goody-goody priss.  He once lost an election to the Virginia House of Delegates because he refused to “swill the planters with bumbo,” which in the modern vernacular roughly translates as declining to pick up the tab so the voters can get shitfaced.

Today these sorts of traits probably would preclude a political career. An altitude-challenged cream puff sniffling sotto voce sussurations on democratic theory? That’s not exactly a combination calculated to get the hearts of contemporary voters thumping. And more fool us, because whatever else he lacked Madison incontrovertibly had brains in copious abundance. Buckets of the stuff, great stonking piles of fizzing synapses that through some astonishing act of mental electrolysis kept precipitating republican gold from the feculent solution of politics.

And thank goodness he did, because right now pretty much the only thing standing between us and some of the more dire consequences of unchecked populism are the products of Madison’s fertile IQ factory. Let’s hope the institutional dike that brainiac put up can still hold its water because there’s some serious waves starting to hit the levee. Just this week the president of the United States bashed Congress and/or the Constitution–his splintered syntax left the precise target open to interpretation–as “an archaic system” that is “really bad for the country.” He also declared the government needed “a good shut down.” Gulp.

He also took time out from deprecating the institutions of government to launch another salvo of smoochies at his positional role model, President Andrew Jackson. This isn’t that surprising as, at least in some ways, Jackson was a man after the current president’s own heart. He ran for president as a champion of the average Joe and promising to deal with the “corrupt aristocracy” in Washington, D.C. He mistrusted pretty much all federal agencies and put the lot of them under investigation. He also is remembered for instituting the spoils system, a management method notable for staffing the executive branch with fanboys, toadies and suck-ups rather than people who actually know what the hell they are doing. Anything there sound familiar?

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America author and not a bad sort for a Frenchman, summed up Jackson by saying he craved popularity, leveraged popularity into power, having got power wasn’t exactly sure what to do with it, and ended up doing stuff no one else would dare, including pursuing sulfurous relations with most of the grownups in government and seeking to trample “on his personal enemies, whenever they cross his path, with a facility without example.” Anything there sound familiar?

That brand of politics, the sort practiced by Jackson and Trump, is exactly what Madison was trying to constrain as he labored to blueprint a system of government that, with due revisions and compromises, emerged from a 1787 mega-committee meeting as the Constitution of the United States of America. Believe it or not, the Constitution was specifically designed to create an institutional shield against populism and populist movements. Yep, the idea was to create a government that could take an incoming wave of populism and prevent it from drowning the republic.

Ever wondered why we have no direct election for president? Every wondered why the Senate has such long terms of office? Why such a massive population is represented by only 435 tribunes in the “people’s” House of Representatives? Ever wondered why the Constitution had to be amended to allow direct election of the Senate? Okay, probably not. Luckily for you, though, somebody was thinking about all this stuff before any of those parts of government existed. That dude was (mostly) James Madison.

He knew all too well that populism was a bad idea because in the late eighteenth-century state governments were giving it an enthusiastic try. The result was an economy in the crapper, an armed uprising (Shay’s rebellion) in Massachusetts, and an erosion of competence and comity in the public sphere so severe it threatened to bloom into an existential threat to the nation. Madison knew the likes of Jackson and Trump would come along because voters being voters–read the motto at the top of the page—it was inevitable that mountebanks long on we-the-people canards and short on competence were going to get elected. If you can’t rely on people–and let’s face it, you can’t–government institutions and processes needed to be sound enough to make sure things periodically don’t go smash.

The basic system he came up with was kinda complicated. It has no main spring, and to actually get the ship of state moving requires different people in different parts of the government to be cranking numerous institutional gears in synchronized harmony. That makes it damnably hard for the government to do anything. The upside is that it also makes it hard for one person or party to do anything damnably stupid with government. Madison considered that a fair trade if it gave the populist peacocks plenty of room to flash their tail feathers while preventing them from doing anything too featherbrained.

And for the most part Madison’s system has worked. Yes, all those complicated institutions and processes, and especially the people capable of mastering them, really get the goat of the Jackumps (Trumpsons?) who think running a government is sort of like getting the star turn in The Godfather. Lucky for us, though, those institutions have held. At least, they have so far. The waves coming in these days, though, look kinda scary.

I’m pretty sure the product of Jimmy boy’s nuclear noggin will continue to keep us reasonably safe from both Jackumps and ourselves. Just in case the levee falls, though, I want to go on record now as supporting a revival of swilling the planters with bumbo. I pay attention to government and voters for a living and, goddam, I could really use a drink.


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.