James K. Polk’s Way of the Future

September 15, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I am in the middle of reading a fascinating book about James K. Polk called A Country of Vast Designs. Stow that scoff soldier! Any reader of this book will quickly reach the conclusion that Polk has been hugely underestimated. This book details non-stop intrigue within Polk’s Democratic Party, political warfare between the Democrats and the Whigs, and Polk’s high stakes gambit to obtain sole possession of the Oregon territory (disputed by the world’s then preeminent military power), the Republic of Texas and the American southwest. Polk risked simultaneous war with both Great Britain and Mexico and national ruin in the process. Love him or hate him, Polk was a man of purpose and resolve that played a huge role in creating the country we live in today.

In any case, 132 pages in the book contains a striking passage describing a national zeitgeist that seems sadly diminished today:

The United States that accepted James Polk’s leadership in March 1845 was a nation on the move, animated by an exuberance of spirit. The population, having roughly doubled every twenty years since the Revolution, now stood at 17 million, equivalent to that of Great Britain. The national economy had been expanding at an average annual rate of 3.9 percent. Not even the Panic of 1837, for all of its destructive force, could forestall for long this creation of wealth. And throughout the land could be seen a confidence that fueled national success. “We are now reaching the very height, perhaps, to which we can expect to ascend,” declared the Democratic Wilmington Gazette of Delaware. “Every branch of industry is receiving its reward, and a just, settled policy…is all that is required to prolong, if not perpetuate, such blessings.”

The faith in the future produced an explosion of new technological developments, most notably steam power and Samuel F.B. Morse’s magnetic telegraph. Steam was propelling people and goods across the country at speeds never before imagined-over rails connecting more and more cities and through the waters of America’s many navigable rivers and man-made canals. By the 1830s, during Jackson’s Presidency, the country had 450 locomotives pulling trains over 3,200 miles of track. Now the country’s track mileage exceeded 7,000, and train travel over vast distances had become routine. Henry Clay’s first trip to Washington from Lexington Kentucky, in 1806 had taken three weeks; now he could make the journey by rail in four days-and with much greater comfort.

As remarkable as this was, it seemed almost commonplace alongside Morse’s ability to send information across vast expanses almost instantaneously-“the improvement that annihilates distance,” as Thomas Benton put it. Morse had strung his famous wires from Baltimore to Washington in time for the Democrats’ nominating convention the previous May, and had thrilled Washingtonians with the latest news of developments there. On the rain-soaked day of Polk’s inauguration, Morse had been on the platform, hunched over his little gadget, clanking out detailed descriptions of the inaugural events an expectant crowd in Baltimore and for subsequent readers of newspaper extras rushed to the streets with unprecedented immediacy.

Now the idea was emerging of those wires crisscrossing America along with the expanding ribbons of locomotive transport-connecting North and South and stretching westward with the human migrations then becoming an increasingly powerful element of the American story. All this served as a resounding reply to the hidebound skeptics who asked whether America’s expansionist impulse would eventually outstrip the country’s ability to govern itself. The answer was no: Just as America was encompassing ever greater distances, technology was obliterating the sluggishness of distance.

And so the impulse of exuberant expansionism continued-sending more and more citizens westward and into ever greater cities; fueling an entrepreneurial spirit and technological inventiveness that in turn generated an ongoing economic expansion; spreading a sense of national destiny. “America is the country of the Future,” declared Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1844. “It is a country of beginnings, of projects, of vast designs and expectations.”





Where Have You Gone Mr. Moynihan? Our Nation Turns its lonely eyes to you

March 12, 2013

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The lovely Mrs. Ladner gave me Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary for Christmas. Once I started reading it, a found it quite difficult to put down the 702 page tome. DPM’s career as advisor to Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ambassador to India and the United Nations and United States Senator is interesting in itself. The real value of the book however lies in the letters of the scholarly Senator providing a first hand account of how Washington elites wrestled with the issues that still consume us today.

Despite the fact that Johnson viewed DPM somewhat suspiciously as an Irish Catholic “Kennedy man” Moynihan’s memoranda to President Johnson especially jump off the page. Moynihan laid out in detail why the path to the Civil Rights Act was comparatively easy compared to what faced the nation going forward. Americans broadly support equality of opportunity he explained but the reform coalition would inevitably fragment over attempts to provide equality of condition.

Citing data from the United States Armed Services exam, he attempted to steel the resolve of the Johnson administration that American Blacks had been so profoundly damaged by the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow that they were poorly situated to thrive in an atmosphere of free competition. DPM estimated that the nation faced a 50 year project to right this wrong, and that it would be enormously controversial, but that the administration may as well get on with it.  You can judge for yourself whether this was a wise course to follow, but Moynihan’s clear-eyed prescience regarding everything leading up to the Civil Rights Act having been the easy part of the struggle is breathtaking in its stark clarity.

During this same period however Moynihan began to sound the alarm concerning the dissolution of the Black family, predicting that the trend would ultimately undermine anti-poverty efforts. DPM gained lifelong enemies on the left for having dared to speak such a truth, only some of whom ever apologized to him years and even decades after it had become abundantly clear that he had been quite correct.

DPM’s cross-species jump to become a prominent policy advisor in the Nixon White House is amusing to watch. Many of DPM’s memos contain dark warnings concerning the New Left campus radicals. While DPM clearly viewed such people as illiberal thugs, as someone born in 1967 I can’t quite decide whether he genuinely viewed such people as a threat to democracy or whether he was simply manipulating a group of gullible Republicans.  Perhaps both and someone who lived through this era should let me know what they think. Regardless, Moynihan paints a vivid picture of a deeply chaotic and misguided America which I am quite happy to have left to others to endure.

DPM’s writings of the time reveals the Nixon administration as deeply concerned with issues of poverty and race along with Moynihan’s growing disenchantment with the Vietnam War. Repeatedly he warns Nixon that what had been Johnson’s War in the public’s perception steadily transforming into Nixon’s burden. DPM pushed Milton Friedman’s proposal for a negative income tax hard, hoping to defuse what he saw as a catastrophic cycle of resentment over welfare programs.

Welfare reform remained Moynihan’s white whale throughout his career in the Senate. He championed meaningful reform legislation in 1989, and led a desperate effort to get the Clinton administration to address the subject in the early 1990s. Moynihan seemed to carry the Hillarycare bill primarily to leverage stronger action on welfare reform, and eventually he turned on the administration. At one point he even set up a meeting between Hillary Clinton and economist William Baumol in an effort to explain the doom of the approach. Later to her credit Senator Clinton graciously admitted that she ought to have listened.

In the end, DPM passionately opposed the Personal Responsibility Act of 1996, coming across as misguided in the process to this reader. Unfortunately it does not come across clearly in the book exactly what sort of welfare reform DPM would have pushed in 1993 if given the chance. In any case, the country will once again be facing these sort of issues as we face the painful task of putting the nation’s fiscal house in order.

It is impossible to read this book without yearning for Moynihan’s trained mind, keen intellect and above all moral courage to return to our national politics.  Moynihan’s lifelong passionate support of parental choice served as simply one example of these towering qualities. Just in case no one else is going to suggest it, a Daniel Patrick Moynihan Institute dedicated to pursuing the still unfinished business of the Senator’s career could greatly enrich our public debate.

Whether you agreed or disagreed with him, Moynihan was one of the great figures of the United States Senate. When will we see another?

Happy 100th Dr. Friedman

July 31, 2012

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Milton Friedman. Thomas Sowell, a former student, has a column in the Investor’s Business Daily marking the event, as does Steven Moore in the WSJ.

I’ll never forget the single chance I had to meet the Friedmans. Dr. Friedman came to testify in favor of a school voucher bill in Austin in 2003. Out of respect to Dr. Friedman’s advanced age, the legislative committee allowed him to sit at the table with them.

The barriers to entry in the Texas legislature are fairly high, and some of the members are accomplished attorneys and businessmen-quite bright. Some members made the mistake of making ineffectual attempts to cross swords with the great man on the subject of vouchers, only to find themselves quickly dispatched. A large crowd of Hispanic parents cheered the aged intellectual gladiator on as he easily disposed of his foes.

A few years ago I had the chance to author a paper on Dr. Friedman’s influence on education policy, and then to attend a symposium with five other authors who focused on different policy areas. I did not fully appreciate Milton Friedman’s greatness until I participated in that symposium. Doug Bandow’s paper on Friedman’s role in ending the draft literally made me laugh out loud on my flight to San Fransisco.

Friedman was a determined opponent of the draft, and served on a commission appointed by President Nixon to study the transition to an all volunteer force. General Westmoreland took time out of his busy schedule of mishandling the war effort in Vietnam to vocally oppose an all-volunteer military. He made the mistake of asserting that he did not want to lead “an army of mercenaries” in a public forum. Dr. Friedman unloaded on him. Friedman described the scene in Two Lucky People:

In the course of his [General Westmoreland’s] testimony, he made the statement that he did not want to command an army of mercenaries. I [Milton Friedman] stopped him and said, ‘General, would you rather command an army of slaves?’ He drew himself up and said, ‘I don’t like to hear our patriotic draftees referred to as slaves.’

I replied, ‘I don’t like to hear our patriotic  volunteers referred to as mercenaries.’ But I went on to say, ‘If they are mercenaries, then I, sir, am a mercenary professor, and you, sir, are a  mercenary general; we are served by mercenary physicians, we use a mercenary lawyer, and we get our meat from a mercenary butcher.’ That was the last that we  heard from the general about mercenaries.


Dr. Friedman showed us all how to go about our tasks-calm, rational and fearless devotion to logic and evidence. Happy Birthday Milton- we still need you, but will have to do our best on our own. We are in your debt.

Vaclav Havel, Hero of Freedom

December 19, 2011

Sworn in as president of Czechoslovakia

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

It’s a busy couple days for death posts. Vaclav Havel is dead at 75.

I’ve already written my tribute to this hero of freedom – and what education reformers can learn from him – here.

If you want a great laugh and also a poinient deconstruction of the absurdity of trying to rule people by force, do yourself a huge favor and read The Memorandum. (Bonus: It’s short!)

Update: A few more links here.

School Choice Champion Ted Forstmann Passes

November 21, 2011

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Ted Forstmann, co-founder of the Children’s Scholarship Fund and Wall Street pioneer, passed away after a battle with cancer. Forstmann played a big role in the early stages of the parental choice movement and will be missed.

Jeb Bush wins Bradley Prize

April 10, 2011


(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The good news just keeps rolling in: The Bradley Foundation has awarded former Florida Governor Jeb Bush a prestigious Bradley Prize.

“Governor Bush has been at the forefront of education reform,” said Michael W. Grebe, president and chief executive officer of the Bradley Foundation.  “During his administration and since, Florida students have made incredible gains.  He has also been a vocal advocate for school choice.”

Congratulations to Governor Bush and to the entire Florida reform team!

Coulson in the WSJ

April 2, 2010

Cato’s Andrew Coulson has an excellent piece in the Wall Street Journal today eulogizing Jaime Escalante.  Andrew correctly identifies the lesson from Escalante’s experience.  The dysfunction of our educational system is caused by perverse incentives, not ignorance of effective techniques or the complete absence of effective people.

Here’s the meat of the argument:

In any other field, his methods would have been widely copied. Instead, Escalante’s success was resented. And while the teachers union contract limited class sizes to 35, Escalante could not bring himself to turn students away, packing 50 or more into a room and still helping them to excel. This weakened the union’s bargaining position, so it complained.

By 1990, Escalante was stripped of his chairmanship of the math department he’d painstakingly built up over a decade. Exasperated, he left in 1991, eventually returning to his native Bolivia. Garfield’s math program went into a decline from which it has never recovered. The best tribute America can offer Jaime Escalante is to understand why our education system destroyed rather than amplified his success—and then fix it.

A succinct diagnosis of the problem was offered by President Clinton in 1993 at the launch of philanthropist Walter Annenberg’s $500 million education reform challenge. “People in this room who have devoted their lives to education,” he said, “are constantly plagued by the fact that nearly every problem has been solved by somebody somewhere, and yet we can’t seem to replicate it everywhere else.” Our greatest challenge is to create “a system to somehow take what is working and make it work everywhere.”

The most naïve approach has been to create a critical mass of exemplary “model” schools, imagining that the system would spontaneously reconstitute itself around their example. This was the implicit assumption underlying the Annenberg Challenge and, with donor matching, more than $1 billion was spent on it. As a mechanism for widely disseminating excellence, it failed utterly.

President Obama wants a government program for identifying and disseminating what works. In his blueprint for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act released in March, he proposed the creation of “‘communities of practice’ to share best practices and replicate successful strategies.”

He’s not the first to advocate this approach. The secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education pursued the same idea—in 1837. Horace Mann, father of American public schooling, thought that a centrally planned state education apparatus would reliably identify and bring to scale the best methods and materials in use throughout the system. Despite a century-and-a-half of expansion and centralization, this approach, too, has failed. Without systematic incentives rewarding officials for wise decisions and penalizing them for bad ones, public schooling became a ferris wheel of faddism rather than a propagator of excellence.


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