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 policy 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.

Adios to An American Legend

January 18, 2010
Another giant has fallen.  Glen Bell, the founder of Taco Bell, passed away yesterday at the age of 86
After serving in World War II, including fighting in the battles of Guadalcanal and Guam, Glen Bell returned to southern California to operate a series of hot dog stands.  He then graduated to taco stands, eventually launching Taco Bell in 1962 and then selling the franchised chain to Pepsico in 1978 from which it was ultimately spun out as part of Yum Brands.
Bell’s great innovation was the development of the hard-shelled pre-fried tortilla shell.  By cooking the shell in advance in its curved shape, stuffing the taco with ingredients could be mass-produced. 
Like Al Copeland, Glen Bell was a great humanitarian.  He’s not a great humanitarian because he served in World War II, or that he remained married for 54 years, or that he created Bell Gardens as a model farm for teaching “the importance of agriculture and how to preserve our natural resource.”  No, Glen Bell was a great humanitarian because he developed a company that delivers a tasty and very inexpensive food that millions upon millions of people have enjoyed.  As I’ve said before, humanitarians are people who actually do things to improve the human condition, such as offering tasty tacos, rather than the blowhard politician, activist, or former terrorist who more typically receives such honors.
If you don’t believe me that Taco Bell offers something that improves the human condition check out this blog post from last year by a Taco Bell enthusiast commenting on Glen Bell’s “recipes” for success:
#36) Control your growth or it will control you.

If there were a Taco Bell everywhere Taco Bell consumers wanted a Taco Bell, there would be Taco Bells everywhere. All retail space would be occupied by Taco Bell because all matter would be made up of Taco Bell, and the only thought would be Taco Bell because the entire universe, all of existence, would only be Taco Bell. So yeah, for the sake of life on Earth, it’s probably best that Taco Bell’s growth be controlled. Not for the sake of me getting some goddamned Taco Bell in Brooklyn, though.


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