Thursday, May 7, 2015

Washington Post calls Rand Paul a liar for underselling his resume

Chapter 5 (or 6, if you count The Daily Beast) in the Rand Paul media bias chronologues returns to the aforementioned mid-February firestorm when the Washington Post’s Fact Checker series evaluated Paul’s statements on his college record. Their text is in blue italics.
Rand Paul’s claim — twice in one day — that he has a biology degree
By Glenn Kessler February 13 at 3:00 AM

“I have a biology degree, okay?” – Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), in remarks at the Lincoln Labs “Reboot Congress” conference, Feb. 12, 2015
We first spotted a version of this quote in a Bloomberg column by David Weigel, and then checked the quotes with our colleague Jose DelReal, who had attended the conference.

This is a bit of an odd one, given that Paul does not have a college undergraduate degree.

The Facts
Paul mentioned his alleged degree at the conference not once, but twice. First, in an exchange with TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington, Paul said:

Arrington: “Let’s talk about economics because maybe you can actually explain this to me. I have an econ degree which means I know just enough not to understand any of what our government is [inaudible]”

Paul: “Mine’s in biology and English so this is going to be a great conversation.”

Then, later in the conversation, expounding on what he considered the virtues of Bitcoin, Paul said:
“This is just me. I have a biology degree, okay? But with Bitcoin my concern always was whether or not something has real value. So I could imagine a kind of coin that was exchangeable. This gets back to the whole idea, does money have to be exchangeable for something to be of value?”

The interesting thing about these references is that previously Paul’s staff has blamed the media for misunderstanding his unusual educational background.

Paul attended Baylor University between 1981 and 1984 but never graduated. Yet he was able to attend Duke University Medical School and received a degree there in 1988. At the time, Duke’s medical school did not require students to have a bachelor’s degree, though the policy has since changed, according to a 2010 report in the Lexington Herald-Leader. (Ron Paul, his father and the former member of Congress, does have a biology degree.)

“In the jocular bantering with the host, Dr. Rand Paul mentioned ‘degree,’ but anyone who has read Dr. Paul’s official biography on his Web site can see that he was accepted early into one of the most prestigious medical schools in the country — Duke University School of Medicine,” said Brian Darling, Paul’s senior communications director. “Dr. Paul finished the requirements for medical school in two and one half years. While in college, Dr. Paul did study biology and English. He has no college degree and has a medical degree.”

Update: After this column appeared, Darling e-mailed a supplemental statement making the case that, in effect, a medical degree is a biology degree:

“It is unfair to give Senator Paul 3 Pinocchios because a M.D. Degree is the study of biomedical sciences according to the Duke University School of Medicine. In other words, a M.D. is a biology degree. Merriam-Webster defines biology as ‘a branch of knowledge that deals with living organisms and vital processes.’ Dr. Paul never said he had an undergraduate degree in biology, and it is accurate for him to say that he has a biology degree. You are making inferences from his statement that are unwarranted. It is common knowledge that the study of medicine is the study of human biology, and a MD has a doctorate degree in one area of study of the science of biology.”

The Pinocchio Test
This is the second time in recent weeks we have had to fact check something that Paul’s staff suggested was an off-the-cuff remark not to be taken seriously. We’d be more inclined to brush this off if Paul had not made this assertion twice in one day — or if his staff in the past had not blamed the media for misreporting on his college credentials.

Paul studied biology (and English) at Baylor, but he didn’t earn a degree. There’s no excuse for resume-inflation, even when it’s jocular. We can’t quite say this is worthy of Four Pinocchios, but the senator should be more careful in the future.

Three Pinocchios
Unsurprisingly, the cesspool of rabid nonsense known as Salon.com gleefully picked up this story with the headling “Rand Paul caught lying about his college record,” accusing that he “embellished” his resume. This isn’t the first time the media has given him flack for this. During his Senate campaign in 2010, Paul received critical headlines from the Huffington Post for failing to correct an interviewer who introduced him as “a graduate of Baylor University and the Duke University School of Medicine.”

There are three things wrong with this. The rebuttal supplied by Paul’s staff discussed the first: it’s highly debatable whether a Doctorate in Medicine counts as a form of biology degree. If a job has “biology degree required” listed on it, and he applied, Paul would almost certainly meet that criteria. Practicing medicine requires a masterful knowledge of human biology as a prerequisite, because the medical field interacts with the body in extraordinarily complex ways. Medicine includes the study of other things as well, but it’s reasonable to classify it as a specialized subfield of biology, or vice-versa.

But all of that is beside the point. Darling’s rebuttal missed the main reason the Washington Post’s article is bullshit: if Paul did misrepresent his academic credentials, he did so by understating them – not exaggerating them. It would be one thing if Paul was trying to poof up his ethos as a subject matter expert; had he been discussing healthcare, and said something like “I have a degree in biology, so I know a thing or two about vaccines,” perhaps the debate about whether a medical degree counts as that would be warranted. But in the context of a discussion on Bitcoin, Paul’s retort was clearly designed to demonstrate that he was NOT academically trained in the subject at hand. In response to someone who had announced his training in economics, he said “mine’s in biology” to illustrate only that he had a separate area of expertise than the field presently being discussed. Anyone watching that conversation understood that he referred not so much to his particular diploma as to his general concentration of study, and that he was doing so in a self-deprecatory manner – not a self-aggrandizing one.

Thus, this is yet another negative headline about nothing, which you would only think up if you were searching high and low to make a negative headline in the first place. That exemplifies media bias. To the Post’s credit, they did publish a follow up article three days later in which they announced this Fact Check had been one of their most controversial of all time, and published reader feedback on both sides of the debate. But they never apologized, and never took down the original article, which tells me they stand by their opinion that Paul’s quote was worthy of “Three Pinocchios.” I’ll let some of the comments from that article do the talking for me:

  • Misstating your academic credentials is a serious offense when it’s done for reasons of self-aggrandizement; it cost the CEO of Yahoo his job, for instance. Rand Paul didn’t do that.
    He colloquially understated, not overstated, his academic credentials. And he clearly did so to make the point that he was talking about a subject in which he had no academic training.

    There was absolutely no news here.  Period.

    Reporting this was plainly irresponsible, and pretending to show balance by adding a statement from his spokesperson doesn’t change that fact.  Both you and the editors of The Washington Post have shown exceptionally poor judgment with this article.
  •  I don’t usually give the politicians much slack, and I am by no means a fan of Rand Paul, but I’m inclined to give him considerable slack on claiming a biology degree. Even claiming an English degree doesn’t seem totally out of line, though that would depend on how far he got with it.
    There are many merged degrees that don’t fit the norm, such as the 6-year MD programs that have fallen out of favor. Rand went through college and completed a medical degree. While it may not be 100% accurate, it’s still totally reasonable for him to say that he has a degree in biology.

    I sometimes think that you go too easy on these guys, but in this case, for someone I don’t care for at all, I think you’re going way too hard on him.  The reasonable range in my perspective is 1 to 1.5 Pinochios at most, and only for mentioning the English degree.
  •  I think you are caught up a bit too much in semantics here.  No Rand Paul does not have an undergraduate biology degree. But an MD is a graduate degree in a biological science and would a sufficient credential for any job that requires a BS in biology, in fact leaving you overqualified for anything but graduate school. To contend Paul is “inflating his resume” by saying he’s got a biology degree is ignorant.
    This constant semantic navel gazing that you engage in is not furthering any public understanding of important issues.
  • A medical degree from Duke University so far exceeds some college bachelor’s degree based on a major in biology that it is absurd to be designating “three Pinocchio’s” for Rand Paul’s statements. You may not agree with his politics, but one has to concede that he is sufficiently grounded in biology to make informed statements on the subject. This is “gotcha journalism” carried to its most ridiculous extreme.
  • I neither like nor agree with Senator Paul but in this case I give him a pass. And I’m not inclined to ever give anyone a pass on saying they graduated from somewhere they didn’t. His matriculations are on the unusual and highly creditable side of things and in an exchange like the one described I think explaining it would be pretentious and interruptive to the point at hand. No, he doesn’t have an undergrad or other degree with biology on it but it’s not a stretch to me to equate an MD with “have studied biology extensively” which is connotation of “have a biology degree”.  And he does have a degree – an MD which is a higher and harder to get degree than an undergrad biology degree.  I would have given him maybe One Pinocchio for “Mine’s in biology and English.”

This leads me to the third reason the article is stupid: it’s counterproductive to the entire endeavor of fact checking. Dishonesty in politics is not just a matter of veracity, but of sincerity. If you’re clever enough with words, it’s rather easy to deceive people without uttering any particular sentence that is false. As such, obsessing over the literal factualness of out-of-context statements does not measure, and in fact may jeopardize, an important part of what modern voters yearn for in politicians: straightforwardness.

When Paul mentioned his “degree” in this instance, he did it as a means of humbling himself. Pausing the flow of his conversation to clarify the details of his complex academic history – perhaps saying something along the lines of “well, I actually completed only 3 years of undergrad, because I left early to go to Med School at Duke, which you could do back then but can’t now, so I know at least as much about biology as someone who majored in it as an undergraduate even though I don’t technically have a degree” – would have seemed so snobby and unnecessary to the point at hand as to defeat the intent of the gesture. Expecting a more precise degree of honesty from politicians than normal people use in everyday conversation places an unreasonable burden upon them. It contributes to an atmosphere marked by such intense scrutiny of every word they say that in many ways, it stands to make them less honest in the long run.

When people today fret politicians are not being honest with them, they don’t just doubt the literal truth of their claims; they doubt the authenticity of their message. We’re tired of phony-faced smiles by clean cut white guys with bad hair reciting safe, feel-good clich├ęs in front of a camera: that’s what makes us feel like we’re being deceived. Perversely, a media ready to pounce on every poorly phrased half-sentence all but demands this type of advertising. The ironic result is that politicians fearing of the next critical headline become so scripted they cannot speak freely, and so guarded that they cannot speak honestly.

So, Washington Post, what is the purpose of Fact Checking? Is it to prevent politicians from being two-faced and deceiving citizens to their own benefit? Or to nitpick out-of-context statements with “Well, technically…”-style corrections that are totally besides the point of what the politician was actually saying? The first enhances accountability and aids the public dialogue. The second detracts from it with pointless and potentially dangerous distractions.

Violence is neither an effective nor acceptable means of getting media attention

A quick addendum to my last post, rebuking the counterargument that protesters needed violence to draw the media’s attention. First, that’s just an ass-backwards conception of righteousness: the equivalent of a needy three year old knocking over his food plate just to get his mother’s attention (and then crying and complaining when he is punished for it). But secondly, violence doesn’t work either, no matter what poor historical analogies people bring up. Yes, the violence in Baltimore got people’s attention – but only on the violence, which isn’t very good publicity for the cause. Accordingly, the violence has not won anybody’s sympathy; it only incited their animosity.

It amuses me that the same people who either endorse or excuse violence as a strategy for winning the public’s attention then turn around and complain about how the media only focuses on the violence. Yes, I understand that reporting on the riots without context on what came beforehand is a simplistic and shortsighted view of the problem. But at the risk of sounding callous, this should not surprise us, and it’s not evidence of racial bias. Alarmism and sensationalism are normal for the media. If a bunch of poor white people in the south started ransacking Savannah, Georgia out of anger at the policies of Barack Obama, I’m fairly certain it would have made the news. And when it made the news, if there were hordes of rednecks looting shopping malls and live images of burning buildings to talk about, the cameras would not be pointed at the peaceful protesters. The content of their grievances would have been put on the back-burner, because footage of violence and destruction keeps people glued to their televisions. Ongoing economic problems in Baltimore are unfortunate, but they’re not breaking news in the same vein as confrontation with riot-shield-wielding policeman.

As adherents to this argument themselves seemed to anticipate, violence was the only thing uniquely newsworthy about these particular protests relative to all the others. There are 1,000 causes in the world, many in direct contradiction with one another, and each of the crusaders finds it infuriating that they don’t accomplish their movement’s goals right away. There are protests every week in every major city across the country, and all of them think it’s a travesty that the media does not give theirs a platform to preach. There was an anti-gay-marriage march in DC the same weekend as the original Baltimore protests; they, too, were angry for a cause. But nobody really cared about that, because most people are unconvinced by their actual position. Unfortunately, you can’t make people care about your movement just by burning shit, either. That’s the limit of mobilization – up to a certain point, no amount of public theater will change the minds of people who disagree with you. Social change is a longer process than that (which is sometimes good, because not all proposals for social change are sound or worth adopting).

If the protesters want to increase the public focus on their cause, I think they would be aided by making a list of proposals (or “demands” if they’re understandably not in the mood to be diplomatic), especially now that the upheaval has died down. The majority of Americans see why they have right to be angry. Now, what? Yes, everyone with an opinion worth listening to thinks black lives matter. Yes, we’re all dismayed by Freddie Gray’s needless death. Yes, we all want his killers brought to justice. But what, specifically, do you want us to actually do? The policemen who brought about Freddie Gray's death are being tried. That is a process, and the process is underway. What were you hoping the response would be, besides waiting for the process to pan out?

Personally, I think it’s important to adopt measures which might help prevent this from occurring in the future. I also think the conversation is lame without mention of the dire urgency for broader criminal justice reform. From ending the drug war to abolishing mandatory minimums to legalizing all victimless activities, libertarians are rather specific with our proposals for how to do this. I included several in my last post – what are yours? Is there a policy or set of policies you want implemented? Is there somebody you want fired? Whatever it is, saying it plainly will foster much more productive public discussion, in the media and elsewhere, than mere rabble rousing.

Denounce violence, without exception: Reflections on the Baltimore uprisings

I wrote much of this post from my dorm room in Baltimore last Monday night. I had plenty of time to write it, as I was prohibited from leaving the building: riots were erupting all around me. The following days were busy for me as I wrapped up my last week of classes, so I was unable to put the finishing touches on until now. Hopefully what I lack in timeliness is made up for from added days of reading and reflection. I have three main thoughts:
  1. The anger in Baltimore is a warranted response to unjust, excessive, ongoing state violence, and I have lots of ideas on how to address it.

A few months ago I wrote a long, introspective status lamenting the Eric Garner killing and the judicial inaction that followed. I want justice for Freddie Gray in the same way I wanted it for Garner, just as I wanted it for the 15 or so other victims of police abuse I mentioned then. I’m also very aware of the long history of racial abuse at the hands of policemen in Baltimore particularly, as well as the disenfranchisement and frustration that has afflicted poor Baltimoreans in recent decades. Accordingly, I support the mostly peaceful protests that went on two weeks ago at the victim’s family’s behest. The anger erupting in response to this is completely warranted.

I also have lots of ideas on how the Baltimore government could make things better moving forward. Specifically:

  • Put body cameras on all policemen everywhere, and enact severe, immediate and highly public discipline for all documented police misconduct. This is a good idea in every police force, but the events of recent years absolutely demand it here.
  • Abandon the massive, state funded development projects that require so many failed subsidies and tax breaks to cronies. Prioritize the wellbeing of everyday residents over the flash and pizzazz of development projects designed to spur tourism and beautification.
  • Also abandon failed state-capitalist ventures like ballparks and convention centers funded or subsidized by taxpayers.
  • Decrease property taxes. Baltimore’s 2.2% rate is the highest in the state, and it has allowed two tax exempt institutions – Johns Hopkins and the Catholic Church – to buy up much of the city’s land. This contributes to gentrification and marginalizes local families who lack such exemptions. Just as importantly, it scares away business and employment opportunities that might otherwise thrive, impeding upward social mobility.
  • Cease and desist with the eminent domain abuse that’s so central to both the development projects and gentrification more generally.
  • Pursue market-based education reform. Baltimore’s poverty is perpetuated by some of the worst schools and lowest high school graduation rates in the state, despite drastic and continual increases in education spending that now see them pay $18,000 per student per year. This is largely due to the public monopoly driving out competition and inhibiting market forces. This problem could be ameliorated through school choice, voucher programs, merit pay, and other reforms. Comprehensive reform would improve test scores, increase retention rates, and better prepare Baltimore’s next generation for productive employment. Reason made a Baltimore-specific case for school choice, as did Townhall.


Baltimore’s efforts would also be aided by deeper structural reforms on the state and federal level, including:

  • Comprehensive criminal justice reform. This means putting an end to all state and federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws. It means getting rid of three-strike laws that count trivial things as equivalent with serious crime. It means dropping the “tough on crime” political charade that for so much of the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and 00’s caused politicians from both parties to one-up one another on just how “tough” they were willing to go, and so produced incarceration rates that should be shocking in the so-called “land of the free”. It means combatting prison rape and prison violence by training guards to actually give a damn about it. And mostly, it means dropping our emphasis on punitive retribution and replacing it with a humane, rehabilitative, sensible sentencing attitude like the ones used by almost every other advanced democracy on earth. This may require building more prisons to reduce overcrowding as an interim measure, but in the long term, it means reducing the prison population by imprisoning fewer people, for less time. Democrats are generally better on this, but even conservatives are starting to come around.
  • Legalize marijuana. This is the most obvious, common sense, no brainer quick-fix to so much of what’s wrong with our police and court systems, particularly in places like Baltimore. Maryland decriminalized pot last year, which is a good first step, but it isn’t far enough. You can read my arguments for the full and immediate legalization of marijuana for any adult use here, here, here, here and here. As it relates to Freddie Gray-style incidents, legalization gives policemen fewer excuses to stop or search people, fewer contraband items to find when they do search, and fewer reasons to frequent neighborhoods they suspect illicit drug trade may be occurring.
  • End the war on drugs generally. This means disbanding the DEA and decriminalizing all drugs which can be taken without endangering those around you (perhaps as an interim pathway to their eventual legalization). It also means employing drug courts with an emphasis on rehabilitation, not misguided and hypocritical moral imperialism. Here’s an excerpt from one of my many writings on the subject:

    “Imprisoning peaceful people for victimless crimes destroys families and inhibits economic advancement, which in turn actually increases crime. When poor fathers are thrown in jail or killed in an unnecessarily dangerous drug world, their families become even more desperate and dysfunctional. Studies show that children growing up in these broken households are more likely to demonstrate aggressive behavior, to be delinquent, suspended or expelled from school, and to turn to crime themselves. Additionally, having a criminal record decreases one’s employment opportunities and lowers one’s earnings potential going forward. This ensures that people convicted of drug crimes have fewer places to turn besides crime upon their release. And by making the illegal drug trade so lucrative, prohibition has only increased the temptation to engage in illicit activities. Legalization would reverse both of these incentives. Firstly, it would reduce the appeal of crime by removing the underground…trade as a profitable option. And secondly, it would reduce the necessity of crime by decreasing incarceration and increasing the legal employment opportunities of would-be convicts.”
  • While we’re at it, also legalize gambling, loitering, prostitution, immigration, weapons possession, public drunkenness, and other victimless crimes to help keep people out of jail (and police away from the people) unless they really need to be there. This, in conjunction with the above reforms, would eventually help re-frame the public perception of police as the people there to protect you from actual danger, as opposed to that the people out to nail you for harmless, petty, morally subjective activity.

I could go on, but the main point I’m making is that Baltimoreans have every right to be pissed about how their city (and especially their police force) is treating them. What happened to Freddie Gray and so many before him is a horrible injustice, and nobody is more consistently critical of that police abuse than libertarians.

2. Racism in response to Monday’s events is inexcusable.

I’m all for anonymous free speech, and I often enjoy the irreverent revelry of places like 4chan and Reddit. But my YikYak feed last week was horrifying, not for the existence of trolls so much as the number of upvotes they were getting. Perhaps these people need reminding that not only do white people riot just as often, they often do it for much less justifiable reasons. The media coverage of these riots is vastly disproportionate, illustrating one of the hugest examples of white privilege: not being judged for the actions of people who look like you. If you bought into the narrative that Monday’s events reflect poorly on any broad group other than the rioters, you are a sucker at best, and an ignorant, oppressive douchebag most likely.

This is the shortest of my three thoughts here not because it’s less important than the other two takeaways, but only because it sort of goes without saying – I haven’t encountered anyone in my friend groups (besides the cowards on those anonymous sites) who believes projecting negative associations onto all black people is an appropriate response. I’m sure I could find plenty of examples by Googling it, but I prefer to engage with serious arguments from serious commentators, and don’t consider outwardly racist people to be that. I suspect those on who thought this mostly suppressed it in recognition it was racist, which I hope is an indication that the public discourse on this is progressing.

3. The riots that occurred on Monday are also inexcusable.


Sensitivity to the complaints that motivate these riots is only useful to help determine why they are happening – not to exonerate the rioters. If your first reaction to Monday’s events was to trivialize, downplay, excuse, ignore or in any way justify the crimes committed, you are not fighting the good fight. Sympathy for the plight of the perpetrators is okay; condoning their actions is not.

There were too many people in my newsfeed this week saying something to the effect of “I don’t support violence, but…” followed by something that frames Monday’s events as an unavoidable part of some heroic struggle. I suppose that’s better than those who dismiss calls for nonviolence altogether, but it’s still horrible. It was the same thing after the Charlie Hebdo shootings in January: “I don’t condone violence, but”…these guys kinda brought it on themselves (one of these critics even previewed this week’s battles by writing “I think that after extended periods of police violence, if a protester attacks a cop, that’s pretty understandable” as means of analogy for Charlie Hebdo’s murder). Last week’s shootings at a Texas Draw Mohammad contest provoked a similar response. The incidents differ in severity, but the principle is the same: that violence is less bad when it’s wielded against our enemies in a culture war. Ironically, it is this precise illogic which animates those who sympathize with police abuse: “He shouldn’t have shot him, but…” these guys were criminals, so they pretty much had it coming.

Being libertarian means there should be no but.

For most of Monday night, the City of Baltimore was quite literally burning to the ground. Police cars were being smashed and set on fire. Civilian cars were being smashed and set on fire. A new, $16 million senior center in East Baltimore – on pace to open ahead of schedule for once – was also set on fire, and thereby totally destroyed. That fire was so large it threatened to burn down adjacent houses, like the one owned by this terrified woman. There were 22 total fires across the city, and there would have been more had police not arrested other attempted arsonists in the act. One of these fires trapped somebody in his basement until he was rescued and hospitalized. A 14 year old girl doused this man in lighter fluid and attempted to burn him alive; when he escaped, they burned down his pizza shop instead. When firemen came to fight these fires, there are reports of their hoses being slashed, and videos of people throwing rocks at them.

That’s not the only people who had rocks thrown at them. The police, naturally, were so peppered with bricks and projectiles that 20 of them required medical treatment. As of the next day, two of them remained hospitalized, and one of them remained unconscious. At least five journalists were attacked and injured as well, including some from CNN and the Washington Post. Eyewitnesses reported regular civilians being dragged from their cars and beaten up for good measure. Camden Yards had to cancel a baseball game, sending thousands of fans home scared and disappointed, because brawls like this were happening outside the stadium. They also prohibited fan attendance at the next game.

Dozens of CVS’s, 7/11’s, Save-a-Lot’s, Liquor stores and Subways have had their storefront’s smashed and their goods stolen. Here’s a compilation of videos depicting this. Here’s another. Here’s a video of one of these store owners being dragged from his store, sucker-punched, and then stomped on while he lie on the pavement unconscious. The livelihood of all these business owners and employees is now in jeopardy. The violence also forced the mayor to impose a curfew, which ruined a week’s business for all sorts of other bars, clubs, and nightlife entertainment venues as well.

The police tracker mentioned several shootings in the brief time I listened to it. I didn’t fall asleep until 5am that night, at least in part because there were sirens outside my window every 5 minutes. Maryland had to declare an official state of emergency and activate the National Guard to come and secure the city, as if they were still occupying Bagdad after the invasion of Iraq.

For a period of about 12 hours, Baltimore descended into bedlam – and it was not the police’s fault.

There is an enormous distinction between causality, and culpability, which the left really needs to acknowledge. Causality can be indirect, and can be traced through systemic social conditions in an amoral, matter-of-fact way. Culpability deals with blame, and that blame can only be assigned to individual human beings. Being underprivileged does not exonerate you of blame, and individuals need not be in a position of power to warrant criticism. Understanding causality is necessary for crafting solutions, but understanding culpability is essential to rendering moral judgments.

Accordingly, what happened last week is not the fault of any system of oppression. It isn’t the fault of capitalism. It isn’t the fault of white privilege. It isn’t the fault of Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, nor of generations of Democratic rule in the City of Baltimore. Each of these things may have indirectly contributed to a set of circumstances in which anger erupted, or to a series of events from which bedlam became more likely to emerge. But there comes a point where personal responsibility matters more than historical context, and assessing violent crime lies beyond that point.

Rioting is not the inevitable consequence of sporadic police misconduct. Rioting is a decision: a series of individual choices to throw rocks, set fires, destroy businesses and steal things. Of course, these decisions did not take place in a vacuum, and were undoubtedly influenced by a sort of rebellious herd mentality. But from a moral standpoint, that doesn’t much matter. “My environment made me do it” is not a cogent excuse for arson. Beating up journalists cannot be explained away with poetic hand-waving about a history of racial tension and disenfranchisement.

Destroying other people’s things is not an unavoidable reaction to justifiable anger. It an unfair, and unnecessary, and disproportionate, and counterproductive, and altogether evil response to that anger, for which individual culprits can and should be held accountable.

If you are unwilling to condemn these actions, you are part of the problem.

If you cannot understand why the first reaction of most non-Baltimoreans, upon seeing this footage of hundreds of people sprinting into Mondawmin mall and running out with their arms full of merchandise, is not sympathy and solidarity with their cause, then your political allegiances have numbed your sense of right and wrong.

If you deflect blame from these perpetrators, it indicates that you are so wedded to your allegiance in a culture war that you’d rather abandon the most common sense principles of human morality than admit any wrongdoing on the part of “your” side.

If you are so blinded by confirmation bias that nothing about last Monday’s events was able to elicit from you a critical thought towards the individuals responsible, you need to problematize the maddening redundancy of your oppressed/oppressors dynamic.

If racial rivalry prevents you from applying a consistent code of conduct to the behavior of all people, it is you who is on the wrong side of history. For it is this mutual stubbornness in the face of mutual wrongdoing that has historically animated and perpetuated the most violent and intractable divisions between us.

Peace requires understanding, which requires communication. If the peace is to last, that communication has to be a two way street. Sometimes, that means listening to those you demand listen to you. In this case, it means at least considering that what prompted white outrage last Monday may not have been racism or ignorance alone. Even Ta Nahesi Coates, superstar of the far-left racial justice crusaders and culprit of some of the excusing, eventually saw fit to clarify: “I don’t want to come off as if I’m sympathizing or saying that it is necessarily okay, to inflict violence just out of anger, no matter how legitimate that anger is.” (He made these remarks here at Johns Hopkins University, where I’m studying. You should read the whole thing, because his comments were thoughtful and actually quite libertarian).

Violence is bad, across the board. Unless some thoroughly exculpatory evidence emerges, Freddie Gray’s murderers should be in jail. Anyone who stole, assaulted or set fires last week should be there with them.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Pro-Choice Schooling: Competition’s Essential Role in Effective Education Reform

Last semester I wrote a policy brief about how school choice can improve the US education system. I’ve reformatted it so that it’s presentable in blog format. Enjoy!

Executive Summary
Over the past 40 years, real per-pupil spending on K-12 education has tripled, with little to no increase in student performance. Yet more “investment” in education will not produce better returns absent significant structural reform. This inefficiency stems primarily from a major organizational flaw in K-12 education: the legally mandated link between where you live and which school you attend, which grants failing public schools a near monopoly on the right to educate low- and middle-income students. Thankfully, a variety of creative school choice initiatives offer proven solutions to this problem based on parental choice, differentiated instruction, and basic market principles. These solutions can be tailored to the unique circumstances of local districts, and are already improving educational outcomes in a variety of experimental settings. As such, state and local education decision makers across the country should commit to broad but customizable school choice initiatives based on open enrollment (severed from residence), competition between schools, per-student budgeting, greater autonomy and accountability for principals and teachers, and collective bargaining relief that makes it easier to close low-performing schools.

Throwing Money at the Problem
In a speech in Durham, NC last week, president Obama admitted that for all the progressive desire to invest in education, “not a dime of whatever new money we might spend would do anything – not so long as it is poured into schools as we organize them today. To make education work for all our kids,” he continued, “we need to tear up our current educational system and reorganize it from the ground up."

The president should be applauded for recognizing the complete discord between education spending and student performance. Although the performance of American students is middling compared to those in other wealthy nations, this is not because we spend less on education than they do (see Annex, Figure 1). And research by the National Center for Education Statistics compiled by Cato’s own Andrew J. Coulson indicates that as the real cost of K-12 public education has more than tripled since 1970, from $50,000 per pupil to $150,000, student math and reading scores remained stagnant over that time, while science scores actually declined (Figure 2).[i] Gains among minority students were more significant at first, but ended after 1990.[ii] There may be a point at which more funding improves outcomes, and perhaps in the poorest districts this remains true. But evidence indicates the average American school is well beyond that point, and is instead experiencing diminishing returns. Even in low-income areas, increased funding is clearly not a sufficient condition for improvement: in places like Cleveland, massive increases in school spending over the past decade have neither stopped an enrollment loss of 40,000 students nor fixed the shocking 54% graduation rate[iii].

Governments at all levels must temper the impulse to sidestep difficult, politically charged structural reform by throwing money at schools under the guise of improving them. Lack of funds is not what ails American schools, and curing them requires an accurate diagnosis.

The Trouble with Public Monopoly
The most injurious of the many maladies maligning American education is the use of residence proximity as the sole or primary factor in determining school attendance, ensuring that “students remain tied to the neighborhood school regardless of how bad its performance may be.”i For some, this has tragic consequences. When parents lack the freedom to customize their child’s education, dissatisfied families (especially those in low-income areas) are stuck in failing, one-size-fits-all institutions. Even worse, those institutions have little incentive to improve, innovate, or differentiate their product; since they are funded independently of student performance or contentment, they have “no need to convince students and parents to stay.” The result is a fiefdom of complacent and centralized public-school monopolies that trap the poor, shut out parental input, destroy experimentation, and yield deadening uniformity.

The Market Alternative
By contrast, when parents are given some say in where their child attends school, schools are made to compete for their favor – to the predictable benefit of students. The advantages of such a system were not lost on Milton Friedman, one of the greatest economists of the 20th century. “The only solution…to break the monopoly,” he opined, is to “introduce competition and give customers alternatives,” which would “do much to provide a healthy variety of schools.”[iv] Since “parents generally have both greater interest…and more intimate knowledge of their [children’s] capacities and needs than anyone else,” Friedman called for “a system in which every family…will be able to choose for itself the school to which its children go.” Education expert Jay Greene agrees: because “we’re not all the same [and] we don’t all have the same goals for what our education should be,” school choice “allows people to get the type of education they need for them.[v] Thankfully, there are a variety of ways to implement this.

Different Systems for Different Districts
Just as no school is perfect for every child, no school choice format is perfect for every locality: it’s important to understand that school-choice initiatives exist on a spectrum regarding how much choice is afforded, and to which parents that choice is accessible. On one end, voucher programs or individual tax credit give parents a sum of money to spend as they choose on their child’s education (either as a block grant or a tax deduction for approved education expenses). Their expenditures usually must be approved by some state official, but the program works best when parents can choose from a broad range of private, parochial, boarding, home or specialty schools, plus online learning and private tutoring options. A more limited version of school choice lets parents choose merely between traditional public schools and charter schools: publicly funded, nonprofit education upstarts founded by grassroots volunteers. Another variant involves so-called “magnet schools,” which have specialized curriculum designed to attract students interested in a particular field (healthcare, agriculture, trade school, etc.). Parent trigger systems offer a different sort of choice entirely: the ability to sign a petition to force reorganization of a school’s management, or conversion into a charter school format. And even within a single school, choices can be offered regarding which class subjects, difficulty levels, teachers, schedules or annual calendars are most appropriate.

We prefer initiatives with as few restrictions on parental discretion as possible. However, we also recognize that different levels of choice will be more appropriate and politically palatable in different places. Some choice is better than no choice, so we’re proud to endorse an “all of the above” approach.

When School Choice Works Best
That said, some conditions are essential if school choice is to deliver optimal results. First, districts should link funding to enrollment by attaching funds to individual students, who carry their funding with them to whichever school they choose. Special needs students can carry larger amounts to reflect the added expense their attention requires. Secondly, principals should be given the autonomy to spend those funds however they choose – from instructors to technology to supplies to after school activities – ensuring real variation in the education options parents choose between. With that autonomy comes accountability for the results: failing schools will drive away students until the school is eventually forced to close, freeing up resources to reinvest in the more successful varieties. Thirdly, as Snell writes, the adaptation to parent preferences should be somewhat rigid and emotionless: “Close failing schools. Open new schools. Replicate great schools. Repeat as needed.” The mechanism for judging schools and the period of their evaluation should be well publicized and consistently enforced, so the objectivity of closing decisions is more difficult to question.

Finally, this strategy may require significant collective bargaining reform in some districts. This is a major benefit of charter or private schools, which are often unencumbered by restrictive union regulations. Should public school principals determine that the only way to compete with these alternatives is to lay off underperforming teachers, implement seniority-neutral compensation, introduce merit pay, or trade small class sizes for fewer but better qualified teachers, they may incite the ire of teachers unions – but if they are to be held accountable for the outcome, they must be allowed to implement those strategies.

Addressing the Objections
Whenever school choice is first proposed in a new area, a handful of predictable objections are bound to resurface. One common complaint is that school choice only exacerbates problems with struggling public schools by allowing the best students to flee them, creating a “brain drain” and funding gap that perpetuates a cycle of failure. But the cycle only perpetuates if the failing school is allowed to stay open. If a school repeatedly fails to get results, it should be closed, and its students should be given the means to go elsewhere. Public education is only important to keep around for so long as it’s actually improving educational outcomes for students relative to the alternative. Besides, competition will actually be just as good for public schools as it will for private, pressuring both to respond to consumer demands and make needed changes to improve their product. No matter which schools win that competition, students always benefit.

A second common attack on school choice is that requiring a wide array of students to attend the same public schools inculcates important values of political and social tolerance. This advantage was cited by even the early public school advocates like Horace Mann, whose common school of the early 1800’s involved bringing together students from religiously diverse backgrounds and training them to be good citizens. Since private schools do not accept all comers and are sometimes sectarian, they are said to lack this benefit. But the truth is that far from fomenting tolerance and understanding, public schools often become a social battleground. Because “parents and educators clash over issues of pedagogy, curriculum, morality, [and] sexuality,” public school policies are often “a zero-sum game – since both sides can’t win, their best interest is in defeating the other, leading to resentment.”[vi] Neal McCluskey observes: "Rather than build bonds, public schooling often forces people into conflict. Be they over budgets, math curricula, school start times, or myriad other matters, everyone is probably familiar with divisive public schooling battles…They are often intensely personal, and guarantee if one fundamental value wins, another loses.[vii]" From sex ed to school prayer, public education pits rival factions against one another, threatening social harmony. By contrast, school choice allows families to select the schools that reflect their values. If they the presence of others with different priorities is no longer a threat to people’s own preferred livelihoods, it produces a greater willingness to coexist.

A Slew of Success Stories
All around the country, competition is making schools better in the places it’s been tried. In New York City, recent charter school expansion was bolstered by findings that charter students learned more reading and (much) more math in a given year than their public school peers.[viii] Greene reports that New Orleans found charter schools to be a wildly successful means of recovering from the 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster:
Louisiana’s burgeoning school choice movement is using transparency, standards, and accountability to improve student achievement and turn around low-performing schools. Nearly 60 percent of New Orleans’ estimated 26,000 students are in charter schools, and test scores have risen dramatically since 2005.
Overall, the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice reports that 23 states offer private voucher programs, while another 42 have charter school laws.[ix] Both figures have only increased over time, for the important reason that “when choice is expanded it’s very hard to take it away from people. Once they have it they like it and want to fight to keep it.”v With that much success, it’s no wonder school choice is winning bipartisan support, from New Jersey Senator Cory Booker to Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle. School choice is the way of the future, so those schools which adapt early will be giving their pupils a leg up on the competition.

Sources:





[i] De Rugy, Veronique. Losing the Brains Race. Reason Magazine, February 22nd, 2011. http://reason.com/archives/2011/02/22/losing-the-brains-race
[ii] Coulson, Andrew J. Addressing the Critics of This Purportedly No Good, Very Bad Chart. Cato at Liberty, September 29th, 2014. http://www.cato.org/blog/addressing-critics-purportedly-no-good-very-bad-chart

[iii] Snell, Lisa. Proven Policies to Fix Failing Schools. Reason, March 15th, 2010. http://reason.com/archives/2010/03/15/proven-policies-to-fix-failing

[iv] Freidman, Milton. The Friedmans on School Choice. Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. http://www.edchoice.org/The-Friedmans/The-Friedmans-on-School-Choice

[v] Greene, Jay. Jay Greene: “I’m very agnostic about what form choice must take.” Reason Foundation, April 19, 2011. http://reason.org/news/show/1011548.html

[vi] Bedrick, Jason. For a Free Society, Promote School Choice. The Heartland Institute, November 9th, 2014. http://www.cato.org/publications/commentary/free-society-promote-school-choice

[vii] McCluskey, Neal. Public Schooling Battle Map. The Cato Institute. http://www.cato.org/education-fight-map.

[viii] The New York Times Editorial Staff. Better Charter Schools in New York City. The New York Times. February 22nd, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/23/opinion/better-charter-schools-in-new-york-city.html

[ix] The ABCs of School Choice: The comprehensive guide to every private school choice program in America. Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. 2014 Edition. http://www.edchoice.org/School-Choice/The-ABCs-of-School-Choice/ABCs-Blue/2014-The-ABCs-of-School-Choice-Blue