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.

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