Saturday, November 30, 2013

Julia Ioffe and the cure for Gell-Mann amnesia

Building on what seems to be a new subgenre of political journalism, the New Republic has a long piece about how the Heritage Foundation has allegedly changed under Jim DeMint’s leadership.

What caught my eye was reporter Julia Ioffe’s reference to the development of the Heritage immigration study I co-authored with Robert Rector. Here’s her sentence: “Policy analysts were shut out of the discussion, and the paper, which was written to conform with DeMint’s anti-immigration stance, did not go through the standard vetting procedure.”

All three claims in that sentence are flat-out false. But why worry about facts when you've got a great (made-up) story to tell?

One wonders how accurate the rest of her piece could be. I’m reminded of what the late novelist Michael Crichton called the “Gell-Mann amnesia effect”:

Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well…. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.

In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.... The only possible explanation for our behavior is amnesia.

Whenever I feel a bout of Gell-Mann amnesia coming on, I re-read articles like the one in the New Republic. Cured in no time!

Friday, November 29, 2013

Clarence Thomas is right about disclosure laws

In the famous Citizens United Supreme Court case dealing with campaign finance restrictions, Clarence Thomas was the only justice to argue that disclosure laws violate the First Amendment. Thomas's position was that political organizations have the right to keep their donors secret. I was initially skeptical. After all, if donors are so confident in their views, they should be willing to publicly defend them. Don't we have a "marketplace of ideas" for a reason?

Clarence Thomas
But I've come to agree with Thomas. Some views are so unpopular that people risk their livelihoods and even their personal safety when expressing them. What's troubling is that these views need not be considered universally heinous--they need only be unpopular among influential media figures or politically-connected lobbying groups. Consider the ongoing case of sociologist Mark Regnerus, whose scholarly research has questioned the "no differences" orthodoxy regarding the children of gay parents. I wrote about Regnerus for National Review recently:
Jennifer Marshall and I detail here the furious reaction that Regnerus sparked, but suffice to say that it involved hysterical condemnations in the press, a frivolous “scientific misconduct” investigation conducted at the behest of a blogger (!), emotion-laden joint statements, evidence-free accusations of corruption on the part of the journal, and more. Now the journal’s editor will have his e-mails scrutinized for the slightest inappropriate thought.
I went on to note that other researchers will be understandably leery of broaching this issue, given the harassment that Regnerus and his editor have endured. The same goes for grant writers and other donors interested in publicly supporting the research. Their case illustrates that the First Amendment must be about more than just a formalistic legal right to speak. The purpose of free speech in a democratic society is to ensure that all ideas have the chance to be heard and debated. By forcibly "outing" supporters through disclosure laws, the government effectively discourages speech that influential people don't want to hear.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Public schools do not need more money

As with most government functions, a political establishment has coalesced around public education. The establishment endlessly lobbies for more school spending, even as past experience and current evidence suggest it will not be helpful.
"Execute amendment sixty-six!"

This past Tuesday, Colorado voters dealt the education establishment a blow by rejecting Amendment 66, a ballot initiative that would have raised $1 billion in taxes for the state's public schools. I described the amendment for National Review:
Like most government agencies, public education in Colorado has historically received big budget increases, but supposedly remains chronically short of funds. Coloradans are being deluged with stories about schools that can barely afford to keep the lights on, but per-pupil spending in the state, adjusted for inflation, is up 20 percent since 1990 and about 10 percent since 2000. Where does the money go?...If current money is tied up in bureaucratic overhead, why not try to shift some of those funds into education programs before asking taxpayers for another $1 billion?...

The initiative also creates an “education achievement fund” paid for with the new taxes. It would enable passage of a separate bill that would use the new revenue on — in the words of the New York Times — “an educator’s wish-list of measures.” These include class-size reductions, professional-development classes, full-day kindergarten, state-sponsored preschool, and more. The cost effectiveness of all of these initiatives are, to put it mildly, dubious.
Colorado taxpayers won this round, but the establishment often uses the courts to achieve what it could not win at the ballot box. From a second National Review piece:
A favorite tactic of the more-ed-spending coalition is to bypass the democratic process via lawsuits. Judges will then use innocuous phrases in state constitutions — “effective public schooling,” or something along those lines — to seize control of education policy. Max Eden recently wrote on AEI’s blog about the Kansas supreme court, which used the word improvement in this sentence from the state’s constitution — “The legislature shall provide for intellectual, educational, vocational and scientific improvement by establishing and maintaining public schools” — to mandate that the legislature spend more money until test scores go up!
Colorado's supreme court recently rejected a similar lawsuit, but there are surely more to come.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

What government schools can teach us about government healthcare

Up with teachers, down with doctors?
One of the points made in favor of single-payer healthcare is that the government can use its "monopsony" power to reduce provider prices below market levels. Is that a sound argument? Let's think about another "single-payer" government function: public education. As I wrote recently for Forbes:
...The government clearly does not try to underpay for education. Quite the opposite, in fact. Spending more on schools is a perennial promise made by politicians of all stripes. Per-pupil expenditures have more than doubled in real terms since the 1970s, while test scores have barely budged. If single-payer systems are always effective at depressing prices, our public schools didn’t get that memo.
But if government did succeed in underpaying for services, would that be a good thing? In the context of public education, advocates of larger government would clearly say no.
It’s easy to see that there would be downsides to the “savings” generated in that scenario. If schools paid too little for teachers, the government would be unable to recruit and retain the best ones. Teachers (and principals and textbook writers) would increasingly leave the public schools rather than be paid below the market rates that their skills are worth.
This point is surely understood by those who constantly push for more school spending, particularly on teacher salaries. They never suggest that the government’s education monopoly could be an instrument for spending less rather than more.
There is a remarkable inconsistency here:
Imagine a politician proudly advertising his new plan to underpay teachers! Yet this is the argument made by single-payer healthcare boosters, with the word “doctors” implicitly substituted for “teachers.” The Economic Policy Institute (EPI), for example, has published several studies arguing that public school teachers are somehow paid below market levels, and that this has dire consequences for classroom learning. But EPI also touts its public health insurance plan, which would use “concentrated purchasing power” to force provider prices below market levels. In other words, underpaying teachers is bad, but underpaying doctors is good.
This irrational "up with teachers, down with doctors" mindset calls into question the entire cost-saving justification for single-payer healthcare. Read the Forbes piece here, and also see my blog post for National Review on the same topic.