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.

Pat Robertson Is an Expert on Deals with the Devil

January 14, 2010

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

You may be tempted to dismiss Pat Robertson’s remarks about Haiti on the narrow and pedantic grounds that Robertson is a crazy man. But before you do, you should know that when Pat Robertson talks about making deals with the devil, he speaks as an expert in the field.

1) He regularly cozies up to bloodthirsty dictators in nations where he has large financial interests – China, Congo, Liberia – praising them on the air as enlightened statesmen and inviting their mouthpieces onto his program to spread their propaganda. China has full and complete religious freedom! Falun Gong wants to eat your children’s eyeballs! It’s turning out that there are some things even Google won’t do for China – but not Pat Robertson.

2) The contract under which he sold his TV network to ABC (it became ABC Family) requires ABC to air his show in perpetuity, no matter how crazy he gets or how low the ratings go. He could be up there telling us to worship Mongo the Martian Monkey God and they’d still have to air it. That’s the price ABC paid to get the network. Rumor has it they’ve tried over and over again to buy the man out, and who can blame them? But he won’t sell – the only two things Pat Robertson loves more than money are his ego and his self-righteousness. And ABC put its blood on the signature line, so they’re stuck with him.

Of course, none of this is to deny that Robertson is, in fact, a crazy man. Check out this archive photo from the early days of his ministry:

It was after he shaved off the beard that his show really took off.

Ralph Teetor for Al Copeland Humanitarian of the Year

October 15, 2009


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

After careful consideration of various possibilities, including:

  • Richard Belanger, inventor of the sippy cup
  • Reiner Knizia, inventor of numerous board games
  • Edward Lloyd, inventor of modern business insurance
  • Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek
  • Charles V, preventor of the Ottoman conquest of Europe
  • Jay P. Greene, inventor of the Al Copeland Humanitarian of the Year award

. . . I have at last settled on my nomination:

Ralph Teetor, inventor of cruise control.

Cruise control makes driving far less burdensome, which not only makes our lives more enjoyable on a day-to-day basis, it also facilitates a great increase in long-distance travel and reduces shipping costs by reducing not only the labor burden but also the cost of gas (since cruise control is more fuel-efficient). The truckers have a bumper sticker showing a stork delivering a baby, with the tagline “everything else you have arrived by truck.” Well, if that’s true, then anything that lowers the cost of trucking must have tremendous reverberations throughout the economy – which is to say, we’ll never know just how much our lives have been enriched by it.

Oh, and it saves lives. Lots of them. The professional safety narcs strongly resisted the introduction of cruise control on grounds that it would lead to inattentive driving and more deaths. But in fact it led to more uniform driving, with everyone going the same speed and therefore a big drop in the frequency of cars passing each other, and thus a dramatic drop in deaths.

P.J. O’Rourke contacted some of the professional safety narcs to ask them whether they were sorry for having opposed something that turned out to dramatically increase safety. If memory serves, I believe they were unrepentant. No doubt they were worried they’d have to give back the Nobel Peace Prizes they’d won for opposing it.

I chose to focus on cruise control because I thought it fit the values of the Al Copeland award most closely, but it’s worth noting that Teetor was a prolific engineer and inventor – he and his cousin built their first car, with a one-cylinder engine, at age 12 – and contributed far more to our lives than cruise control. In his first job out of college he developed a better way to balance steam turbine rotors in the torpedo boat destroyers we used to kick the Kaiser’s kiester in WWI. Later he ran a company that made piston rings for car engines, supplying Packard, General Motors, Chrysler and Studebaker.

Teetor got the idea for cruise control after a jerky and uncomfortable car ride. His lawyer, driving the car, was an incessant talker and paid more attention to the conversation than the car’s speed, letting the car speed up and slow down as his attention wandered.

Teetor secured the patent for automatic car speed control in 1945, dubbing it Controlmatic. It would later be called Touchomatic, Pressomatic and Speedostat before finally being christened cruise control. The technology was first offered on three Chrysler models in 1958. By 1960 it was available on all Cadillac models.

Oh, and did I mention that Teetor did all this after being blinded in a shop accident – at age five?

I proudly nominate Ralph Teetor for the Al Copeland award.

Now if only he had developed a control for this kind of Cruise:


HT Symon Sez

Nominee for the Al Copeland Humanitarian of the Year Award — Fasi Zaka

October 14, 2009

After triumphing over Nazism and Communism in the 20th century, liberty faces a new threat in this century — radical Islam.  This threat is being counteracted (we hope) by diplomacy with potential allies, force against enemies, and high-minded speeches to remind all that the cause of liberty is right and the cause of tyranny is wrong.

In addition to all that, there is another essential element in the arsenal of liberty — ridicule.  Tyrants of all stripes, in addition to being monstrously cruel and evil, are also almost always laughably, pathetically, and outrageously ridiculous.

Charlie Chaplin realized this when he mocked Hitler in  The Great Dictator.  In Dr. Strangelove, Stanley Kubrick portrayed the communist leader as a weepy drunk and the war-mongering general as a paranoid suffering from ED.  South Park has portrayed Osama Bin Laden as the slapstick LooneyTunes villain, Wile E. Coyote.  The Daily Show and Colbert Report make their living off of puncturing the pomposity of politicians.  Humor may not be the best weapon against tyrants, crooks, fools, and all other kinds of politicians, but it is a very important one.

But Chaplin, Kubrick, Parker, Stone, Stewart, and Colbert have mocked tyrants from the safety of the free world.  Fasi Zaka does it from the front lines.  Zaka is a Pakistani radio DJ — a shock-jock — and host of a TV news parody show, News, Views, and Confused.  Given long stretches of military rule, government censorship, and death threats from extremists, Zaka can’t and doesn’t address oppression in Pakistan head-on.  Instead, he flirts with the issues, poking fun at the Taliban and corrupt and incompetent Pakistani leaders with social satire more than political criticism.

For example, Zaka mocks the Taliban for smelling bad rather than for beheading opponents and suicide bombings.  As an LA Times profile described his approach:

So when a guest host, a character named Mr. Enlightened Moderations, poked fun at fundos , slang for Islamic fundamentalists, it was not for any extreme religious views but for poor dress sense, aversion to after-shave and limited use of deodorant. “You sound like a  fundo,” he’d say accusingly to callers. “You doesn’t even wears a deo, smelly boy.”

By mocking tyrants and their followers Zaka makes them seem uncool.  Making them uncool may limit their power more than a speech on their logical errors.  Remember that young men were drawn to Nazism in part because they wore shiny boots and neat brown shorts.  It was a struggle whether people would perceive fascism as the trend of the future or a group of buffoons singing Springtime for Hitler.  Buffoons who smell bad don’t attract girls, so young men are much less interested in movements that are uncool.

Not everyone agrees with Zaka’s humorous approach:

Some critics say Zaka is squandering a golden opportunity to be constructive and foster moderation in a confused younger generation.  “It bothers me when people do silly entertainment shows when we really need people to make a difference,” says Mani, another radio host.

Radio hosts don’t have to be boring and didactic to get their message across, counters Zaka, pointing to frequent discussions on extremism, women’s equality and the violence sweeping Pakistan. “They presume preaching is the way for change,” he says. “It isn’t.”

Zaka can be serious.  He is, after all, a Rhodes Scholar who was educated at Oxford.  And he regularly writes op-eds with more standard political criticism.  But it is his humor and ridicule that are really advancing the cause of liberty.

I make no claim that  Fasi Zaka is as funny as Charlie Chaplin, Steven Colbert, and the others.  The parts not in English seem even less funny, but you can check out a clip of his TV show here:

And like Chaplin, not all of Fasi Zaka’s political views are necessarily desirable.  Again, Zaka is worthwhile because he mocks bad guys, not because he’s a sound political analyst.

While Zaka may not be the funniest of these satirists for freedom, he is clearly one of the most courageous.  Making crap of the Taliban and military dictators is a real contribution to improving the human condition and makes Fasi Zaka worthy of a nomination for the Al Copeland Humanitarian of the Year Award.

(edited for clarity)

Bud Light Makes an Ad about Ladner

September 9, 2009







(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Samuel Huntington (1927-2008)

December 30, 2008

I returned from vacation to learn that one of my graduate advisors, Samuel Huntington, passed away on Christmas eve.  Huntington was the type of broad intellectual that has become a vanishing breed in academia.  He had a knack for identifying the big themes that were worthy of our attention and had the courage to make bold arguments while always remaining respectful of those with whom he disagreed. 

Now we are mostly left with academics who dwell on the latest methodological technique rather than what is substantively important.  Just pick up a recent copy of the American Political Science Review and you will search in vain for anything important, useful, and accessible. 

And the public intellectuals who still attempt to ask the big questions too often give answers that have all the depth of a self-help book.  Has Thomas Friedman ever made an argument that was not already the bland conventional wisdom of the Rotary Club in a small midwestern town? 

Josef Joffe said it best: “But who will embark on projects of this kind of sweep, breath and depth? Or write as elegantly as Sam has done?  That’s over in American academia, as is that fabulous confluence between America’s rise to world power and the influx of some of Europe’s greatest minds, courtesy of Adolf Hitler. Never before has there been such a perfect match between the demand for and the supply of great talent. One hates to think what would happen to a young Sam today. He might still graduate from Yale at age 18, but would he have become a Harvard professor at age 23? With that independence of mind, that contrarian spirit, that relentless search for conventional notions to be slain? Would a young Sam still be able to ask the Big Questions? And sin against so many idols demanding fealty to contemporary standards of correctness?”

Huntington’s passing isn’t just the personal loss of a wonderful man, teacher, and scholar.  It also marks the end of an era.

Al Copeland: Humanitarian of the Year

December 15, 2008

Al Copeland  may not have done the most to benefit humanity, but he certainly did more than many people who receive such awards.  Chicago gave Bill Ayers their Citizen of the Year award in 1997.  And the Nobel Peace Prize has too often gone to a motley crew including unrepentant terrorist, Yassir Arafat, and fictional autobiography writer, Rigoberta Menchu.   Local humanitarian awards tend to go to hack politicians or community activists.  From all these award recipients you might think that a humanitarian was someone who stopped throwing bombs (sort of like the pleasure of stopping to hit yourself in the head) or who you hoped would picket, tax, regulate, or imprison someone else.

Al Copeland never threatened to bomb, picket, tax, regulate, or imprison anyone.  By that standard alone he would be much more of a humanitarian.  But Al Copeland did even more — he gave us spicy chicken.  You see, Al Copeland was the founder of the Popeyes Chicken chain.  Copeland was a humanitarian because he developed a product that people really wanted and voluntarily paid for.  The Dr. John jingle says it best — “Love that chicken from Popeyes!”

By developing a product that people enjoyed, Copeland was able to build a chain of restaurants that served millions of customers while employing tens of thousands over his career.  Making products that people want and giving people opportunities for employment isn’t just a good strategy for making a profit, it’s also a morally desirable activity.

I’ve intentionally selected the founder of something as mundane as a spicy chicken restaurant chain to make this point.  The entrepreneur doesn’t just benefit himself.  He or she also benefits humanity.  Making new and better things improves the human condition.  Even spicy chicken makes life better.

It’s true that the entrepreneur also benefits from making something new or better, but that in no way diminishes from his or her contribution to humanity.  Life is not a zero-sum game in which one person’s improvement necessarily comes at the expense of someone else.  When the entrepreneur succeeds, customers enjoy a good product, employees enjoy their wages, and the entrepreneur enjoys a profit.  The invention of something new or better allows everyone to win.  

Al Copeland  didn’t always win.  When his company acquired Church’s Chicken, they bit off more than they could handle and had to enter bankruptcy.  But bankruptcy doesn’t mean that you put assets in a big pile and blow them up.  Popeye’s restructured and continues to operate, so we continue to enjoy the legacy of Al Copeland’s creation.

Al Copeland enjoyed his legacy as well.  He spent his fortune on a fleet of racing boats and cars.  He decorated his Louisiana mansion with such an elaborate Christmas display that it attracted thousands of visitors as well as a lawsuit from neighbors.  Undeterred by the failure of his first two marriages, Copeland married a third time in a lavish ceremony complete with a fireworks display.  The man lived large.

The fact that he sometimes failed in business, failed in his personal relationships, and often spent his money on frivolous pleasures still does not prevent him from being more of a humanitarian than many who receive such awards.  No matter how he failed or wasted, he still developed something that improved people’s lives.

And let’s remember that the more typical recipients of humanitarian awards are not completely selfless.  Even if they don’t have money squirreled away in Swiss bank accounts like Yassir Arafat, or ego-gratifying constant attention like Bill Ayers, they usually receive some sort of compensation for their actions.  Being rewarded in no way diminishes their accomplishments any more than it does the entrepreneur.  The only question is whether they really do things that help humanity — even with something as mundane as spicy chicken.

Al Copeland passed away this year from a rare form of cancer.  As flawed as he was (and aren’t we all) he was a great humanitarian.

America Loses a Reform Titan

September 25, 2008

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

J. Patrick Rooney passed away recently, leaving behind a remarkable legacy.

The Los Angeles Times once described Rooney as “a wealthy man and politically eccentric conservative who also had championed civil rights throughout his life.” An Indianapolis insurance executive, Rooney fought racial discrimination in the insurance market and launched the nation’s first privately financed school voucher program.

Rooney told the Wall Street Journal “When all families, no matter how poor, have the freedom to walk away from bad schools, competition will force the public schools to improve.”

Rooney’s privately funded programs were the precursor to the creation of scholarship tax credits, originating in Arizona. Jack and Isabel McVaugh created the Arizona School Choice Trust, inspired by Rooney’s philanthropy. In 1997, the Arizona legislature created the nation’s first scholarship tax credit program in order to augment these efforts.

Today, there are seven scholarship tax credit programs in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island helping thousands of parents to choose the best school for their child.

Rooney’s impact stretches beyond these impressive education achievements. He is also known as “the Father of Medical Savings Accounts,” the precursor to today’s Health Savings Accounts. HSAs represent the most effective heath reform option on the table today, as they uniquely address the underlying problem of out of control costs.

Rooney left the world a better place than he found it, and it falls to us to see that his great legacy of progress continues to grow.

The Passing of a Giant

August 19, 2008


A guest tribute by Patrick Wolf


The education reform community lost a champion yesterday when John E. Brandl died of cancer on the eve of his 72nd birthday.  John was many things in his lifetime: gas station attendant, Army ROTC officer, Harvard-trained economist, McNamara “Whiz Kid”, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Education in the Johnson Administration, Minnesota State Representative and Senator, professor, Dean of Public Affairs, scholar, author, mentor, husband, father, and friend to many.  He is perhaps best known in education reform circles as the sponsor of legislation to develop and expand school choice in Minnesota, especially our nation’s first public charter schools.  In 2005 he received the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation Excellence in Education Prize for “Valor” and was saluted as the “godfather of school choice.”


He was my godfather as well, in fact and deed if not formally in name.  My mother and he grew up in the same neighborhood in St. Cloud, Minnesota, in the 1940s and 50s and remained close friends their entire lives.  I first met John on March 24, 1965, when I was two weeks old.  I was born in Washington, DC (my dad was working for the General Accounting Office at the time) when John was starting to explore strategies of education reform at the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.  One of my uncles was named my godfather, but he was not able to attend the baptism.  John stepped into the role, holding me while the priest delivered the sacrament, and never stepped out of it.  That was John.


When I was 13 I had a seemingly unquenchable thirst for knowledge about American history, politics, and public policy.  In a telephone conversation one day, my mom confessed to John that she was having great difficulty “feeding the beast” of my interests.  John had a simple solution, “Put him on a train to the Twin Cities and I will take him with me to the Legislature.”  John was a State Representative and a member of the Democrat-Farmer-Labor (DFL) majority at that time.  In the morning he gave me a quick walking tour of the State Capitol and allowed me to sit in on a DFL strategy session.  John and I then had lunch with the Speaker of the House, Harry “Tex” Sieben.  It was the second-to-the-last day of the legislative session, so dozens of important bills came up for a vote in the afternoon.  John found me a seat on the House floor, just to the right of the Speaker’s podium, and set me up with a copy of “House Orders” so that I could follow the action.  Periodically he broke away from discussions with his colleagues to sit down next to me and explain his vote on whatever bill was up for consideration.  For a social studies nerd like me, this was heaven.


John was an accomplished scholar as well as a law-maker.  Although he was an economist by training, the ideas that drove him were primarily Madisonian and Tocquevillian.  From Madison, John took the idea that the worse angels of our nature need to be checked and the better angels encouraged through government-designed incentive systems.  From Tocqueville he drew the insight that human needs are best satisfied by and within community institutions such as families and churches that are capable of loving the people they serve in a way that government organizations, unfortunately, are not.  Government should not ignore or neglect the needs of citizens, John argued.  It should provide resources and limited oversight to individuals and community institutions and allow them to deliver services to people in need.  Parental school choice fit perfectly within John’s intellectual framework for effective service delivery, and he championed all forms of it – vouchers, charters, tax credits, magnet schools, and open enrollment – throughout his academic and policymaking career.


The following statement, from one of John’s many Minneapolis Star-Tribune columns, effectively captures his policy vision:


Meeting social responsibilities through associations rather than through government agencies honors the Democrats’ commitment to building community.  In associations people are drawn by love or duty to help one another.  Often, powered by those heroic virtues, associations can carry out social responsibilities better than can either private firms or government bureaus.  Education is a good example.


John’s support for school choice came at a personal cost to him.  After he had moved from the House of Representatives to the Senate in the 1980s, I asked him what was next on his career agenda.  He said, “I’d like to be governor of Minnesota, but I can’t see how to get there from here.”  This was an artful way for John to acknowledge the political problem that school choice posed for him.  He was a Democrat his entire life.  He thought that Democrats should stand for educational improvement for disadvantaged children, and that school choice was the best mechanism for bringing about that improvement.  The teachers union disagreed with John on that issue, and their opinions held great sway in deciding the DFL nomination for governor.  John had to decide between a reform that he was convinced helped children and a public office that he aspired to fill.  It wasn’t even a fair contest, as John’s principles easily trumped his political aspirations.


John’s principles also made him a great husband, father, grandfather, and friend.  His nearly 50-year marriage to Rochelle, an accomplished child psychologist, was a model partnership of commitment and love.  He and Shelly raised three wonderful children: Chris (a home builder), Katie (a math professor), and Amy (a mid-wife).  In his later years he often spoke of his two grandchildren with great wonder and delight.  In June over 200 of John’s family members and close friends converged on the Humphrey Institute in Minneapolis for a dinner in his honor.  They included fellow politicians (anyone ever hear of Walter Mondale?), professors, former students, childhood friends, and even policy adversaries.  A common theme of the tribute speeches was how John was a master at effectively disagreeing with someone without being disagreeable.  He never backed down from a fight but he also never disparaged his opponent.  In his eyes, all people were equally dignified human beings and wondrous gifts from God, even if they couldn’t be persuaded to come around to his point of view.


I’ll always remember the last conversation I had with John Brandl.  It was last Thursday and it was clear that the end was coming.  I had something that I had to share with this man who had shared so much with me and with so many others.  I told him, “John, you probably know that you taught me a lot about how to be a public policy scholar.  What you may not know is that you also taught me how to be a man.” 


Rest in peace, my friend.  We, on the other hand, still have work to do.                  

%d bloggers like this: