And the Winner of the 2020 “Al” is… Nat Love

November 2, 2020
Natlove2.jpg

We had another thin set of nominees for this year’s Al Copeland Humanitarian Award.

Time-traveling Matt nominated Nick Steinsberger, who helped pioneer fracking techniques that greatly expanded global and domestic energy production, reducing manufacturing and consumer costs as well as exposing the US to fewer dangers to protect access to foreign energy. This is a very worthy innovation to receive The Al, but basically we already recognized it when we awarded the Al to George Mitchell, for whom Steinsberger worked.

Greg had two nominees: Charles Hull and Hans Christian Heg. Hull developed the 3D printer, which is admittedly really cool. But custom-manufacturing items one at a time is really handy on a space-ship where keeping large inventories would be impractical and re-supply is nearly impossible. It is almost certainly of much more limited utility here on earth. Manufacturing on a mass-scale is almost always going to be more efficient. So, I see 3D printing appealing to “maker-spaces” and niche industries, but otherwise a bit like the Boy’s Life promise that we would all one day have our own helicopters and helipads on every house. It’s really cool to think about but unlikely to happen.

Hans Christian Heg is a very strong nominee, given his commitment to abolition and sacrificing of his own life in the Civil War. But the fact that mostly white protestors in Madison are so ignorant of history that they would tear his statue down in their battle against institutional racism says more about their deficiency than his merit.

Instead, for the first-time ever, I will select my own nominee, Nat Love, as the winner of the Al Copeland Humanitarian Award. Love most closely resembles Copeland in that his authentic accomplishment is mixed with embellishment. But Love is highly worthy of this honor because despite all that he had suffered and seen others suffer as a result of America’s original sin of slavery, he still recognized what was special and worth preserving and improving in this country. For Love and countless others, this has been and hopefully will continue to be a land of freedom, opportunity, and meaning. People experiencing the stresses of this moment appear too willing to forget what is great about America. Nat Love reminds us and is therefore deserving of “The Al.”


An ESA in Oklahoma?

October 30, 2020
An Easy Button path to universal ESAs? Make it so!

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

We interrupt the exciting conclusion of Race to the Al 2020 to bring you my latest from OCPA, on how Oklahoma has a small program that could easily be “blown up” into a statewide universal ESA:

Governor Kevin Stitt has used funds from the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief program to create a program called Digital Wallet. It provides, well, a digital wallet for up to 5,000 families with K-12 students whose income is at or below the federal poverty line. Each family gets $1,500 to spend on educational supplies of their choice from 30 providers. Funds are deposited in a special account parents can log in and use.

This is almost an ESA. States with ESA programs also deposit funds in special digital accounts that parents can log in and use to further their children’s education. The common principle is recognizing that parents ought to be in control of their children’s education. The difference is, an ESA isn’t limited to school supplies. It can also be used to pay for education services. That includes tutoring and other supplemental support, but it also includes tuition for attending a private school.

There’s no reason to trust parents to buy educational products and not trust them to buy educational services:

Education is not supposed to serve the interests of employers and politicians. To educate a child means preparing a whole person for a whole life. Far from being something that’s too important to leave to parents, it’s something that’s too important not to leave to parents! If education isn’t controlled by the family, it will be controlled by business and the state—as we see under the current government monopoly on education. Today’s pedagogy is largely geared toward crushing independent spirits, teaching children to sit quietly and learn to be obedient employees and subjects.

Let me know what you think!


For the Al: Hans Christian Heg

October 29, 2020

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Here in Wisconsin the more recent rioting in Kenosha, five miles from my house, has supplanted memories of this year’s earlier rioting in Madison. But The Al has a long memory, and it’s worth harking back to that earlier moment. For while the overall damage was not as great, the Madison rioters did distinguish themselves by committing the single dumbest act in all that season of high stupidity. In the name of racial justice, they tore down a statue, erected not by taxpayers but by an immigrant community, of Hans Christian Heg, a heroic enemy of slavery and racial oppression – an immigrant who labored long and hard to destroy injustice, and finally gave his life to the cause.

Down he must come, because he doesn’t look like us. Or rather – because the violent mobs nationwide have been noticeably pale, and that trend was not defied here in Wisconsin of all places – he does not look like the people on whose behalf we have, with no warrant but our arrogance, set ourselves up to speak and act as public champions.

As I wrote after the riots in my community, there are many continuing legacies of injustice – racial and otherwise – worth protesting. But at the same time, our only hope to fight injustice is to preserve the patrimony passed down to us by heroic forefathers who stood in their time for justice, freedom, human rights, equality under the rule of law and constitutional democracy. These commitments are not “conservative” in the sense of creating a stable and static social world. But they are “preservative,” both in the sense that they are our only real safeguard against the abyss of endless violence and in the sense that they do not just spring up of themselves either from pure reason or spontaneous sentiment, like Athena from the head of Zeus. We must preserve them if we want them to preserve us.

Our failure to pass on our moral patrimony has created a culture in which history began yesterday, and people are not supposed to have heroes who don’t look like them. I am shocked by the near-total ignorance about Martin Luther King that prevails among people under 35 who are of European descent. He was a black man, and apparently that means knowing about him is for black people. A young pastor of pale pigmentation once shamefacedly confessed to me: “The only thing I know about Martin Luther King is that my father told me he had bad theology.” In some ways he did, but that is hardly the Fun Fact to Know and Tell about him.

A world in which history began yesterday and nobody is supposed to have heroes who don’t look like them will not be friendly to justice, freedom, human rights, equality under the rule of law and constitutional democracy. The desirability of these things is, of course, provable by natural reason and satisfactory to humane sentiment, and thus potentially discoverable in any age. But a social commitment to them that is strong enough to induce people to sacrifice individual happiness for them cannot be either argued or felt into existence. It is, as Lord Acton said, “the delicate flower of a mature civilization.”

Who was Hans Christian Heg?

In 1840 he and his Norwegian-immigrant parents moved to America and settled in Muskego – not all that far from Kenosha, as it happens. He lived there his whole life, except for a year of gold-digging in the Sacramento Valley during the California Gold Rush. In 1859 he was put in charge of the local state prison, “earning a reputation as a pragmatic reformer” by working toward rehabilitation of the offenders, according to the Wisconsin Historical Society.

A dogged enemy of slavery, Heg supported the Free Soil Party and later the Republicans. He was the statewide leader of the Wide Awakes, a youth organization that served – not to put too fine a point on it – as the paramilitary wing of the Republican Party. Officially, the Wide Awakes organized torchlight marches and provided security for anti-slavery speakers. Unofficially, they gave the bum’s rush to “slave catchers,” heartless men who hunted down escaped slaves under the Fugitive Slave Act. Heg put his position as head of the prison at political risk by sheltering Sherman Booth, a federal fugitive who had incited a crowd to attempt to rescue an escaped slave from forced repatriation.

When the war came, Wisconsin’s governor appointed Heg to lead the 15th Wisconsin Volunteer Regiment, known as the “Scandinavian Regiment” because almost all its members were immigrants from Norway, Denmark and Sweden. Heg raised donations and spent his own money to organize the immigrant unit, advertising for “Norsemen” willing to come to the aid of their country, and freedom.

Heg was wounded at the Battle of Perryville, but because of his excellent leadership, his unit suffered few other casualties while under heavy enemy fire. Heg was put in command of a brigade, and was being eyed for promotion to brigadier general. But he was summoned to the last full measure of devotion at the Battle of Chickamauga, where he died fighting for the adopted country and the freedom he loved.

(Does the Battle of Chickamauga ring a bell, Al fans? It should!)

As you can see in the photo above, Norwegian-Americans raised their own money to commemorate Heg. The statue was unveiled in front of Madison’s statehouse in 1926, where it stood until 2020.

The report of Heg’s death in the Madison State Journal of September 29, 1863 reads like the preserved breath of a lost civilization, because that is what it is:

The State has sent no braver soldier, and no truer patriot to aid in this mighty struggle for national unity, than Hans Christian Heg. The valorous blood of the old Vikings ran in his veins, united with the gentler virtues of a Christian and a gentleman.

Right reasoning and just sentiment were necessary for the new birth of freedom, but not sufficient. Emancipation was effected because the valorous blood of the Vikings had been refined through the centuries by high religion and cultured aspiration – “the delicate flower of a mature civilization.”

What could be more rational and fitting than to nominate this Viking Christian Gentleman for The Al?


“Freedom is Sweet” — Nat Love for the Al

October 27, 2020
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Nat Love was born a slave in Davidson County, Tennessee in 1854. As he recounts in his autobiography, “Life and Adventures of Nat Love, Better Known in the Cattle Country as ‘Deadwood Dick,’ by Himself: A True History of Slavery Days, Life on the Great Cattle Ranges and on the Plains of the ‘Wild and Woolly’ West, Based on Facts, and Personal Experiences of the Author, ” after the Civil War his father became a share-cropper and the family struggled to feed itself, especially after his father passed away.

At the age of fifteen, he decided “I wanted to see more of the world and as I began to realize there was so much more of the world than what I had seen, the desire to go grew on me from day to day. It was hard to think of leaving mother and the children, but freedom is sweet and I wanted to make more of the opportunity and my life than I could see possible around home. Besides I suppose, I was a little selfish as mortals are prone to be.”

Love headed West to make his fortune and had a series of fantastic adventures. He worked as a cowboy, encountering Frank and Jesse James, Billy the Kid, and Buffalo Bill Cody. He won a rodeo competition on the country’s Centennial in Deadwood, South Dakota, earning himself the nickname Deadwood Dick.

He was captured by Pima Indians after he ran out of bullets and was over-powered in manual combat. They nursed him back to health because, he speculates, they admired his bravery and identified with him racially, as many of them were of “mixed blood.” They soon offered him the daughter of the chief, Yellow Dog, as a bride, with a dowry of 100 ponies, which he feigned to accept while planning his escape. Eventually he found his opportunity, stole a pony, and rode 12 hours straight without saddle to return to his home in Texas.

He spent time in “Old Mexico,” where he quickly learned Spanish and was engaged to a Mexican beauty. But she died before the wedding and he drifted north to Denver, where he did get married. By that time, the railroads had taken over and the era of the cowboy was ending, so he became a Pullman Porter.

The Close of My Railroad Career

He crisscrossed the country on the railroad, receiving a $25 tip from a Rothschild, and marveling that “At present the American railway leads the world. In no other country does the traveler find so much comfort, so many conveniences, so much pleasure, safety and speed as does the dweller in this robust young country belonging to our Uncle Samuel.”

Scholars doubt the veracity of all of Love’s tall tales, but that really misses the point. Love, like Al Copeland, was quintessentially American. He was self-made, adventurous, and accomplished, even if some of those accomplishments were exaggerated. He had more than his share of hardship, but nothing could suppress his optimism for a better American future. As he put it, “I think you will agree with me that this grand country of ours is the peer of any in the world, and that volumes cannot begin to tell of the wonders of it. Then after taking such a trip you will say with me, ‘See America.’ I have seen a large part of America, and am still seeing it, but the life of a hundred years would be all too short to see our country. America, I love thee, Sweet land of Liberty, home of the brave and the free.”

During these times of political turmoil, recrimination, and deep pessimism about America’s past as well as its future, we could stand to remember the model of Nat Love’s life. He saw America’s faults up-close and was unafraid to describe them:

We had as task masters, in many instances, perfect devils in human form, men who delighted in torturing the black human beings, over whom chance and the accident of birth had placed them. I have seen men beaten to the ground with the butts of the long whips carried by these brutal overseers, and for no other reason than that they could not raise to their shoulders a load sufficient for four men to carry. I have seen the long, cruel lash curl around the shoulders of women who refused to comply with the licentious wishes of the men who owned them, body and soul—did I say soul? No, they did not own their soul; that belonged to God alone, and many are the souls that have returned to him who gave them, rather than submit to the desires of their masters, desires to which submission was worse than death. I have seen the snake-like lash draw blood from the tender limbs of mere babies, hardly more than able to toddle, their only offense being that their skin was black. And young as I was my blood often boiled as I witnessed these cruel sights, knowing that they were allowed by the laws of the land in which I was born. I used to think it was not the country’s fault, but the fault of the men who made the laws. Of all the curses of this fair land, the greatest curse of all was the slave auction block of the south, where human flesh was bought and sold. Husbands were torn from their wives, the baby from its mother’s breast, and the most sacred commands of God were violated under the guise of modern law, or the law of the land, which for more than two hundred years has boasted of its freedom, and the freedom of its people.

But Love could see beyond these severe flaws and enjoy America’s potential. For exhibiting the determination to make himself and this country better, Nat Love improved the human condition and is worthy of the Al Copeland Humanitarian Award.


For the Al: Charles Hull

October 21, 2020
L to R: New Chuck Hull, Diet Chuck Hull, Classic Chuck Hull

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Just think about this: 3D printing is revolutionizing all kinds of things, and is going to revolutionize them far more in the coming generation. It’s literally the replicator from Star Trek TNG, just not quite as fast and versatile yet. And you have no idea who invented it.

Or you didn’t, until you read this post!

Technically it’s “stereolithography.” Did I mention that it’s literally the replicator from Star Trek? People keep saying things like, “it’s 2020, where are my hovercars?” But this is better.

Chuck Hull produced the first-ever 3D printed part (above) in 1983. He got the idea while using UV light to harden the coating on tabletops. If you can harden plastic quickly with high precision using a concentrated beam of UV light, all you have to do is aim the light at a vat of liquid plastic and then use it to “draw” the object you want. He had a patent on the process by 1984, founding his company, 3D Systems – which he still co-runs – in 1986. Publicly disclosed salary information suggests that, like Al Copeland, he’s doing okay.

And rightly so! Check out some of the applications that have already emerged:

  • Rapid replication of drones to deliver supplies to disaster areas
  • Affordable housing: a 600-800 foot house can be 3D-printed in less than 24 hours for $4,000
  • Prosthetic limbs just got super cheap
  • Optimized aircraft parts save fuel and pollution
  • Replenishing coral reefs
  • Bioprinted” human organs
  • Restoring/rebuilding priceless cultural artifacts and architecture
A rapidly replicated drone for disaster relief
A $4,000 house
No need to lend this guy a hand

The early days of the pandemic were filled with 3D printing stories:

Maybe Hull can team up with Al winner Pete DeComo to make sure there won’t have to be any more midnight runs across the border for lung machines!

That’s just the first fruits. The long term will be much bigger. Even though scholarly articles lag real-time production of knowledge, a search in Google Scholar for “impact of 3D printing” produces 758,000 hits. Page one includes these titles:

  • The Impact of 3D Printing Technologies on Business Model Innovation
  • The Impact of 3D Printing Technology on Society and the Economy
  • Current and Future Impact of 3D Printing on the Separation Sciences
  • The Impact of 3D Printing Technology on the Supply Chain
  • The Impact of 3D Printing on Transport and Society
  • Evaluation of 3D Printing and Its Potential Impact on Biotechnology and the Chemical Sciences
  • Impact of 3D Printing on Spare Parts Logistics

That’s page one.

And…as for the even longer term…did I mention….?

In 2011 I wrote, “this finding’s been replicated more often than Picard’s Earl Grey,” and it’s still one of my favorite gags in 12 long years of gag-heavy JPGBing.

Thanks for inventing the Star Trek future, Chuck.

Image HTs: Top, 1st printed part, drone, house, arm


School Spending Research Needs More Skepticism and Humility

October 19, 2020

There has been a flurry of research recently claiming to find compelling causal evidence that increasing school spending would significantly improve student outcomes and avoiding cuts in spending would prevent significant harm.  This research has been embraced so quickly as settled fact that over 400 researchers and advocates signed a group letter citing it while urging the federal government to provide financial support to local schools during the COVID recession. The confident conclusion that spending more is the path to improving education is so appealing that the research behind that claim has received remarkably little scrutiny.

A new study by Jessica Goldstein and Josh McGee begins to remedy this lack of skepticism by carefully attempting to replicate the most recent school finance study co-authored by Kirabo Jackson with Cora Wigger and Heyu Xiong, which is forthcoming in American Economic Journal: Economic Policy and has appeared in Education Next.  Jackson, Wigger, and Xiong examine the effect of K-12 spending cuts during the Great Recession by comparing the downturn in states where much of the funding comes from state revenue to states where more funding comes from local sources.  The idea is that state revenue is more sensitive to a recession, and so cuts would be more severe in states that were more reliant on state sources, even when the effects of the recession on the state’s economy were the same. Using this technique, they conclude that K-12 spending cuts hurt student outcomes.

Goldstein and McGee are able to reconstruct what Jackson, Wigger, and Xiong report, but they find that their results are highly sensitive to the non-standard ways in which they construct their statistical model and disappear or even change direction when trivial changes are made.  Goldstein and McGee also highlight some serious problems with the data used in the original study. 

Because these may sound like minor technical disputes, let me describe some of the issues in non-technical language so that readers can more easily grasp how much this replication effort undermines confidence in the original claims.  As Goldstein and McGee put it, “Econometric models can be constructed in a variety of ways, and many modeling choices may be somewhat arbitrary or theoretically unimportant. However, if the model’s estimates represent the true causal impact, they should be consistent across many different reasonable ways of constructing the model.”  The replication effort convincingly demonstrates that the original results claiming significant harms from spending cuts are not robust to these kinds of changes.  Of the many theoretically reasonable ways the original study could have constructed their model, its authors managed to find one that would yield significant positive results out of the many that would have yielded null results.

To compare states that are highly reliant on state revenue for K-12 spending to those that rely much less, Jackson, Wigger, and Xiong divide the 50 states and DC into three groups: those with more than 67% of K-12 spending coming from state sources, those with less than 33 percent coming from state sources, and all others in the middle.  Dividing states in this way places only four states in the high-reliance group and three in the low reliance group, with the remaining 44 states in the middle. The main results they present are based on the difference in outcomes between the top four and bottom three states.  This thin slice of states contains the two strange cases of DC and Hawaii, both of which only have a single school district and where state versus local revenue is not at all meaningful.  Goldstein and McGee try changing the thresholds for states being classified into the high and low categories to see if the results remain the same if they compare top versus bottom quartiles or deciles of states.  The exact grouping of states into high and low categories should not make much of a difference, but the replication shows that researchers would get null results if they had tried these reasonable alternative ways of categorizing states.

Similarly, the original study recognized that it is important to separate the effects of spending cuts in certain states from peculiar changes attributable to the time periods for all states.  Ideally, they would introduce a dummy variable for each year, which they say they tried but it yielded insignificant results.  Instead, they choose to group years into pre-recession, recession, and post-recession periods to control for idiosyncratic effects of changes over time.  The years that they label as pre, during, and post-recession, however, are not consistent with the official designation of the recession by the National Bureau of Economic Research.  So, the replication makes slight adjustments in how years are categorized and discover that doing so yields null results, sometimes with negative estimated effects of spending on student outcomes.  Again, real results should not disappear when these kinds of trivial changes are made.

The replication also considers the original study’s claim that spending cuts reduce college-going in the year following the spending change.  The theoretical mechanism by which this effect is produced is unclear given that college-going is likely the result of more than a decade of educational investment, not just the previous year’s spending.  Goldstein and McGee offer an alternative pathway by which college-going might be reduced, which is state expenditures on higher education.  As it turns out, states that rely heavily on state revenue for K-12 spending are also places where higher education relies heavily on state spending.  When those states cut K-12 spending during the Great Recession, they also cut higher education funding.  The replication substitutes higher education for K-12 spending in the original model, which yields similar effects on college-going rates.  This clearly demonstrates that the original study had not isolated the causal effect of K-12 spending cuts from the similar effects of higher education reductions. 

Lastly, the replication reveals several problems with the data used in the original study.  For example, the original study reports Vermont as having 68.3% of K-12 spending coming from state revenue while the Census, the data source they cite, indicates that figure should be 88.5%.  Similarly, Arkansas’ state share of spending is listed as 75.7%, which is consistent with the Census figure, but is almost 20 percentage points different from the number provided by the National Center for Education Statistics.  It is not obvious which is the better figure to use and these disparities reveal that identifying the state share of K-12 spending, on which the entire analysis depends, is problematic.  Most alarmingly, the results Jackson, Wigger, and Xiong produce in Figure 3 of their Education Next article claiming to show the effects of comparing results for states above and below the national median of reliance on state revenue could not be replicated by Goldstein and McGee (see Figures 7-9) and are almost certainly in error. Done correctly Figure 3 should show no effects on student outcomes from spending cuts.

It is disconcerting that neither the reviewers at AEJ-Policy or the over 400 researchers who signed the group letter were able to detect these data problems or raise questions about the unusual way in which states and years were grouped in the original study.  Before quickly embracing desired findings, the field needs to restore the traditional scientific virtues of skepticism and humility and apply those more generally to the new research on school spending effects.


We’ve Got the Time Machine Under Control, So Post Your 2020 Al Copeland Humanitarian Nominations

October 9, 2020

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Well, the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize was announced this morning, so you know what time it is – time once again to post your nominations for the only prize anyone anywhere really covets, the Al Copeland Humanitarian of the Year Award.

The Al Committee would like to extend its thanks to the Nobel Committee for upholding the cherished tradition of making a silly award – giving the prize to a titanic UN anti-hunger bureaucracy – so the authentic value of The Al will stand out by comparison. We look forward to many future years, and generations, of continued cooperation in the shared work of building up more and more PLDDers through the Nobel, so that the absurdity of the PLDDers can be exposed through The Al.

(No more of that nonsense like in 1970 when the award went to the real enemy of hunger. But that was before The Al.)

The Al Committee would also like to apologize for the glitch in our secret time machine that caused one of the nomination posts to go up before the nominations were open. We’ve got our totally nonexistent time machine under control now, and are going to fix the timeline quickly so that post appears at the correct time and becomes eligible.

Hopefully it will also stop raining.

Nominations can be submitted by emailing a draft of a blog post advocating for your nominee. If Jay likes it, he will post it with your name attached. A winner will be announced after Halloween.

The criteria of the Al Copeland Humanitarian Award can be summarized by quoting our original blog post in which we sang the praises of Al Copeland and all that he did for humanity:

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… 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.

The 2019 winner of The Al was Mildred Day, inventor of the Rice Krispie Treat. In the fine tradition of Al Copeland himself, Day made the human condition better by bringing us great food. Her treats are not only delicious, they’re easy to make, so they are often among the first cooking projects that parents do with their children. Parents connecting with their children over something yummy is just about the best thing there could be. Day was favored over political pranksters Chad Kroeger and JT Parr, and Bob Fletcher, who helped three Japanese-American families in California keep their farms after WWII-era internment.

The 2018 winner of The Al was Joy Morton. Like Al Copeland, Morton promoted the good by doing well. It was known that small amounts of iodine could prevent goiters, but no one was doing anything about this until Morton saw a way to gain a competitive advantage for his salt company: adding iodine to salt, and advertising its health benefits. The bumper crop of nominees in 2018 also included Great Course lecturer Elizabeth Vandiver, musical disintermediator Leo MoracchiloliMagic: The Gathering inventor Richard Garfield, scofflaw tech recycler Eric Lundgren, lemonade-stand paladins Adam Butler and Autumn Thomasson, and George Henry Thomas, a Virginian general in the Union army.

The 2017 winner of The Al was Stanislav Petrov, who literally saved the world from nuclear destruction by refusing to follow Soviet orders to retaliate against what he suspected (as was later confirmed) was a false warning of a US strike. It’s not quite spicy chicken, but it’s close! Petrov was selected from an excellent set of nominees, including Whittaker Chambers, witness against communism, Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon, creators of Rick and Morty, and Russ Roberts, author and host of EconTalk.

The 2016 winner of The Al was Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds, who prevailed over a very competitive field of nominees, including Tim and Karrie League, founders of Alamo Drafthouse movie theaters, political humorist Remy Munasifi, and humorous political journalist Yair Rosenberg. Edmonds stood up against fascists at considerable risk to himself by declaring that he and all of his fellow prisoners of war were Jews, to foil the Nazis’ effort to separate Jewish prisoners. It is this type of courage in the face of illiberalism that we need more of in these times.

The 2015 winner of The Al was internet humorist Ken M.  Ken M did more to improve the human condition than just make us laugh by making idiotic comments on social media (although that would have been enough). His humor reveals the ridiculousness of people trying to change the world by arguing with people on the internet. Given how much time education reformers waste on social media, especially Twitter, Ken M’s humor is a useful reminder that many of the people reading your posts are probably not much swifter or influential than the Ken M persona. Ken M beat a set of strong nominees, including Malcolm McLean, inventor of shipping containers, Gary Gygax, creator of Dungeons and Dragons, and John Lasseter, founder of Pixar.

The 2014 winner was Peter DeComo, the inventor of the Hemolung Respiratory Assist System. To save a life, DeComo drove all night to retrieve a lung machine from Canada, then thought quickly when border control officials at first denied him permission to bring it home because the device had not yet been fully approved by the FDA. DeComo won over a worthy field, including Marcus Persson, the inventor of Minecraft, Ira Goldman, the developer of the “Knee Defender,” Thomas J. Barratt, the father of modern advertising, and Thibaut Scholasch and Sébastien Payen, wine-makers who improved irrigation methods.

The 2013 winner of The Al was musical satirist Weird Al Yankovic. Weird Al brings joy to people of all ages, while puncturing the pretensions of puffed-up celebrity entertainers. He beat an impressive set of nominees, including performer/skeptics Penn and Teller, crowdfunding website Kickstarter, and WWII industrialist Bill Knudsen.

The 2012 winner of The Al was George P. Mitchell, a pioneer in the use of fracking to obtain more, cheaper and cleaner natural gas. Mitchell won over a group of other worthy nominees: artist Banksy, car creator Ransom E. Olds, first-down-line inventor and two-time Al nominee Stan Honey, and Alfred Fielding and Marc Chavannes, the inventors of bubble wrap.

In 2011, The Al went to Earle Haas, the inventor of the modern tampon. Thanks to Anna for nominating him and recognizing that advances in equal opportunity for women had as much or more to do with entrepreneurs than government mandates. Haas beat his fellow nominees: Charles Montesquieu, the political philosopher, David Einhorn, the short-seller, and Steve Wynn, the casino mogul.

The 2010 winner of The Al was Wim Nottroth, the man who resisted Rotterdam police efforts to destroy a mural that read “Thou Shall Not Kill” following the murder of Theo van Gogh by an Islamic extremist. He beat out The Most Interesting Man in the World, the fictional spokesman for Dos Equis and model of masculine virtue, Stan Honey, the inventor of the yellow first down line in TV football broadcasts, Herbert Dow, the founder of Dow Chemical and subverter of a German chemicals cartel, and Marion Donovan and Victor Mills, the developers of the disposable diaper.

The 2009 winner of The Al – in the first year the award bore that name – was Debrilla M. Ratchford, who significantly improved the human condition by inventing the rollerbag. She won over Steve Henson, who gave us ranch dressing, Fasi Zaka, who ridiculed the Taliban, Ralph Teetor, who invented cruise control, and Mary Quant, who popularized the miniskirt.

Also noteworthy from 2009: History’s greatest monster, William Higinbotham, was declared permanently ineligible to receive The Al. He remains the only individual thus disqualified. In (dis)honor of Higinbotham, The Higgy award has been bestowed on (un)worthy candidates annually since 2012.

Al Copeland himself was honored in 2008 as the official humanitarian of the year of Jay P. Greene’s Blog. The award was renamed in his honor the following year.

Happy nominating, watch out for time bandits, and whatever you do, don’t touch the pure evil!


On Violence and Education

October 7, 2020
Photo of what was done to my community from the Kenosha News

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Not gonna beat around the bush, folks, my latest column at OCPA is personal:

I live about five miles from the area of Kenosha, Wisconsin, that was recently devastated by rioting. The human cost of unjust and unlawful violence in our community, which has come from radical rioters and from abusive police and vigilantes, simply won’t go into words. What will go into words is the long-term educational problem represented by a society that has failed for generations to reproduce in its young people a commitment to even its most basic civilizational ideals: equality under the law, and respect for other people’s rights.

Functionally, the deepest roots of the culture war that has crowded out community and moral imagination are in educational failure:

What the two sides have in common is not simply that they fail to apply our shared moral rules to their own side, but that they do not speak in terms of shared moral rules at all. That is, unless you count the law of the jungle as a moral rule. The moral patrimony is no longer a patrimony, for we have failed to pass it on.

We employ millions of people and spend many billions of dollars a year on K-12 schools and higher education, but the most important lessons aren’t being learned. They haven’t been for generations.

But right-wing assaults on left-wing agitprop in schools could not solve the problem – not merely because they will continue to fail, for the same reasons they have failed consistently for fifty years, although it would profit us to think about that as well – but because they would only deal with the symptom, not the cause, of the problem:

Our schools were ripe for capture by ideology because they were first civilizationally bankrupted by a great narrowing of their purpose. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, we stopped thinking of schools as extensions of the family, cultivating human beings for a life that would be whole and meaningful. Instead, we began thinking of schools primarily as extensions of the economy, training workers, and of the state, indoctrinating citizens into values chosen for them by their rulers. Quackery and claptrap rushed in to fill the educational vacuum created by this impoverished notion of what education is.

At the K-12 level, the great narrowing came when a big left/right coalition came together for government monopolization of schooling…

Reforms like school choice are a step in the direction of restoring the older, family-centered model of education, which is a necessary precondition of any moral restoration in education, which is in turn a necessary precondition of sustaining any alternative to the Nietzschean nightmare of mobs and vigilantes stamping on each other forever.

Happy reading!


Universal Choice or Bust!

September 23, 2020

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

OCPA carries my column on why the school choice movement should make a clear commitment to universal choice:

The choice movement has gained a great deal. A supermajority of U.S. states—30 of them—have school choice programs, plus two territories as well (the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico). Eighteen states, including Oklahoma, have two or more programs! As a result, over half a million students attend private schools using public funds. That’s a long way from the tiny voucher program in Milwaukee that launched the modern school choice movement in 1990.

The question is, what is the choice movement going to do with that success? Keep racking up programs that are limited in the number of students they can serve, and in the schools those students are allowed to choose? Or think about what it would mean to take things to the next level? There are almost 51 million K-12 students in public schools; while I have no doubt that a lot of them are in the right place, and wouldn’t exercise choice if they had it, it seems like the time has come to aim higher.

Universal choice isn’t just the right thing on the merits. It’s also politically expedient:

One of the great ironies of life is that the least pragmatic thing to be is a pure pragmatist. “Forget about high ideals and just do what works” may get you by in the short run. In the long run, however, the only thing that actually “works” is high ideals. Without them, cynicism and distrust erode social cooperation, and there is no basis on which to settle disputes about what is permitted.

We see that principle illustrated in the history of the modern choice movement. The more we’ve compromised the ideal of universal choice, the more headaches we’ve ended up with. Bigger and broader programs are more stable and thrive better.

Exercise your universal choice of free speech to let me know what you think!


CC Broke the Law, So Does Defunding Schools Using 1619

September 6, 2020

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

When some Republicans pushed a federal school choice law recently, I wrote that I was “looking forward to the retractions and apologies from all the right-wingers who opposed Common Core on federalism grounds. Including – gosh, will you look at that! – one of this bill’s primary sponsors.“

Now the president has announced he will have the DOE withhold funds from schools that use the 1619 Project. Which is different from Common Core how, exactly?

Federal law unambiguously forbids the DOE from attempting to influence curriculum. The text of the law does not empower the department to make exceptions in cases where the curriculum in question is [insert the various defects of the 1619 Project here].

We’re either a nation of laws or we ain’t, folks.

Want to clean up curricula? Get your lazy asses out and hustle the issues in those school boards and state legislatures. If you come crying to Momma Fed instead, what you’re asking Momma to do is spelled C-O-M-M-O-N C-O-R-E.