The President’s Executive Order Is Vaporware

December 29, 2020

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

The executive order issued yesterday by the president, whose headline suggests it creates a federal school choice program for students whose schools have gone all-remote, is vaporware. It creates no program, and what it does do would require about a year of sustained bureaucracy-wrangling and lawsuit-fending-off effort by the White House and the HHS secretary before it would produce any real effect. As you may have heard, the present administration has just a wee bit less than that amount of time before it’s replaced by an incoming administration that will kill the effort before it’s even mature enough to be described as embryonic.

Nothing important will come of it.

It’s a good thing, too, because a national school choice program would be a disaster for the choice movement.

Yes, even if it were technically constitutional (which this wouldn’t be).

And especially if it came from the current president.

The order directs the secretary of Health and Human Services to “take steps, consistent with law, to allow funds available through the Community Services Block Grant program to be used by grantees and eligible entities to provide emergency learning scholarships to disadvantaged families for use by any child without access to in-person learning.”

If you know anything about how government actually works, you can see the problems immediately:

1) The program is supposed to be created by HHS, which, like all federal departments, is staffed by career civil servants who are, on a good day, just barely responsive enough to the existence of their nominal superiors to engage in minimal efforts to pretend to comply with their orders. Actually getting a federal department to do something big and difficult – as this would be – requires tons of riding herd with a strong hand. Alex Azar could not just whip this off himself in his spare time even if he were an education policy expert, as opposed to a career pharmaceutical executive with no experience in education policy. (The need to rely on the bureaucracy is the obvious reason this assignment was not given to Betsy DeVos in the Education Department.)

PS At least the president timed this to arrive just at the moment when HHS is drowning in vaccine-rollout challenges!

2) Because this is a flagrantly unconstitutional usurpation of congressional appropriations powers, the federal “program” here is not an actual school choice program, it is a set of federal regulations (those are always quick and simple to write!) governing how recipients of block grants under an existing program are allowed to use their grant money. In other words, Azar is not being directed to create a school choice program (hard enough, see point #1), he is being directed to rewrite federal regulations in a way that will in theory induce federal block grant recipients to do so. It’s like the difference between trying to build a steel refinery out of empty cereal boxes and glue in an hour, and trying to get fifty other people to each build their own steel refinery out of empty cereal boxes and glue in an hour.

3) The above assumes an actual effort to wrangle the bureaucracy would be made. Given that Azar is not champing at the bit to do this, such an effort would require the president to drive it personally. The current president neither could nor would drive any such effort, for so many reasons that it sets a new standard for “overdetermined.”

4) Did I mention “flagrantly unconstitutional usurpation of congressional appropriations powers”? Wow, sure is a good thing the school unions don’t have any friends on Capitol Hill. Or know any lawyers. (When Arne Duncan dabbled in these shenanigans, Rick Hess and I both warned that he was creating a precedent the other party could use to justify its own abuses.)

School choice belongs in the states. If the feds want to get in on the action, they have tons of legitimate options – make the DC voucher universal, create choice on military bases, provide an ESA as an employee benefit for federal civil servants.

Instead we get this, which will only create a PR headache for the movement while helping no kids.

Since I recently mentioned my first-ever movie post, in which I correctly argued that Speed Racer was a better movie than Iron Man, I think I’ll close with Speed’s immortal words to the cheating Cannonball Taylor: “Get that weak shit off my track.”

Pass the Popcorn: WW84 Is the Right Kind of Silly

December 26, 2020

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Movie theaters are safe, especially because everyone sits facing the same way, and WW84 is the right kind of silly movie to go see and remind yourself why we go see movies on big screens with big popcorns and lots of other humans.

Silly is not stupid. That’s an important mistake to avoid if you want to like movies. And as WW84 itself emphasizes, wanting in the right way is the key. It’s surprising, at least until you really get to know the deep parts of human nature, how many people who spend a lot of their time and money on movies don’t want to like them. Just like Anton Ego’s whole dysfunction was that he refused to “like” food. As C.S. Lewis said, “the world is divided not only into the happy and the unhappy, but into those who like happiness and those who, surprising as it may seem, really don’t.” That is WW84 in a nutshell, give or take an invisible jet.

As I wrote in my first-ever movie post, reviewing another movie that is very silly but not at all stupid – a movie should know exactly what it is, and signal to the audience up front what it is. “Here is the movie you have elected to see today,” is the ideal subtext for every opening scene. “If this is not what you want, get up right now and go see some other movie.”

WW84 makes it clear up front that it is a very silly movie. If that is not what you want, see some other movie.

But you’ll be missing out. In spite of its imperfect narrative structure, WW84 delivers exactly what it promises. A standard-issue superhero movie, including superhero-adjacent movies like James Bond, needs ten things to succeed. Here they are, ranked in descending order of importance:

1-7. A compelling villain.

8. Dialogue that isn’t stupid.

9. A hero who represents, magnified, some aspect of our Best Selves but is also at least reasonably relatable as a person.

10. A distinct moral perspective of the universe.

WW84’s villain carries the whole movie, and why shouldn’t he? That’s how superhero movies work.

“All you have to do is want it,” promises Maxwell Lord, who will destroy your life by granting you your fondest wish. As more and more people succumb to the seductive promise that you can have what you want, civilization itself collapses under the weight of ruined lives and incompatible visions. A world that defines reality based on what people want is a world where nothing is real, and above all nothing is fixed. Form dissolves into chaos, making both justice and beauty impossible, and mere absurdity reigns. In the final hour, when one man gains all power, there is nothing left for him to possess, for by the very act of gaining all power he removes all restraints, and thereby destroys the world.

All Lord’s power is in deception, for no one would take his deal if they understood what they were doing. But that’s the power of desire – the more powerfully we want, the less we understand our own desire. At last, the tyranny of desire destroys even our ability to enjoy the thing we desire, because we no longer really understand what it is we actually want. The more we tighten our grip on the thing we desire, the more we lose our true selves, and thus lose even the original form of the desire itself. In the end we lose even our humanity.

Anton Ego doesn’t like food, he loves it, and his love is more horrible than hatred.

It’s important to realize that this happens with good and right desires, not just wrong ones. Diana speaks for all of us when she cries out in desperation, “I give my all, every day, and I’m glad to do it. This is the only thing I’ve ever wanted, the only thing I would ever ask for. Why can’t I have this one thing?” Alas, that’s the trap.

The good news is that any of us can escape the trap at any time. No one is enslaved to Max Lord by anything except their own choice. You can have your life – your true self – back at any time. All you have to do is renounce your wish and choose to live in the truth. We can have the happiness that living in the truth affords, if only we abandon the desire to be happy on our own terms instead of happy on the terms life actually offers us.

And those who do choose to make the sacrifice will suddenly discover that they have new power that they never suspected, that they never dreamed they could have. The love that surrenders to death returns, in a new and glorious but completely unexpected form.

But this good news is bad news, because to renounce the wish is death to the natural self. We prefer to live a lie. Only a higher power (“the truth is greater than all of us”) can intervene to save mankind from itself, from its own evil and folly. And even that intervention doesn’t remove the need to choose truth over desire, to choose the death of the natural self; it only makes the choice possible for us.

But you knew all that already, because you saw the original Wonder Woman movie, where Diana learned that even Steve Trevor doesn’t deserve to be saved. That movie asked the question, “why kill yourself saving the world, when people are no damn good and they don’t deserve it?” The answer was “love.” What that movie did at the level of Homeric epic – titanic gods fighting each other for the fate of mankind – this movie does up close and personal, intimately.

And when people are intimate, it’s okay to be silly.

The Perfect Gift for Your Country

December 23, 2020

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Did you wait till the last minute to go holiday shopping for your country?

Are you desperately searching for the perfect gift for that special nation you love, and it’s too late for Amazon delivery?

Why not get that special country in your life a free, dynamic, entrepreneurial economy?

OCPA carries my latest, part 1 of 2, in which I defend the open economy against socialists and economic nationalists alike:

Witness, for example, the outrageous new law in California that strips the citizens of that state of their right to do more than minimal amounts of work in the “gig economy.” Designed to pay off corrupt taxi cartels and other special interests by arbitrarily shutting down superior competitors such as Uber and Lyft, the law crippled thousands of freelance drivers, writers, musicians, designers, and other workers.

Uber and Lyft just got themselves exempted from the law by backing a statewide referendum on Election Day, but everyone else is stuck under its thumb. Now, the state is making exceptions for some types of workers, piecemeal, based on who has enough political power or connections to move the whims of the iron-fisted political rulers. Musicians got themselves exempted by buttering up the egos of legislators with celebrity prestige—an industry group sent a personalized gold record to the law’s lead sponsor. But as far as the political ruling class care, writers might as well just give up and die, and reduce the surplus population. How this arbitrary privilege differs from, say, Julius Caesar’s rule over the Roman plebs is a question we can leave to the philosophers.

This is not about whether we can have reasonable regulations and welfare programs, etc. This is about whether the basic foundation of our system is human rights and equality under the rule of law, or the privilege of the powerful – whether of the Left or Right:

The basic issue here is whether we’re going to begin with a robust moral commitment to equal respect for human rights under the rule of law—rights to work, property, contract, and exchange—and then negotiate at the margins over such issues as taxes, public safety, welfare, and social stability. Or if we’re going to let politicians arbitrarily strip people of their rights, on a whim, like they’re Roman emperors sitting on their gold thrones (or California legislators hanging gold records on their office walls). Whether the justification is nationalism or socialism, that’s not right, and it’s not hard to see the social and humanitarian disaster it would create.

Coming after the holidays, part 2, in which I take up the more specific claim that the open economy is delegitimized by the legacy of slavery and segregation – that all the 18th-century rhetoric about property and contract rights is really just a mask for white supremacy.

Catch you on the flip side, and until then, enjoy the holidays and Happy New Year!

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on Education

December 7, 2020
Rabbi Sacks delivering a TED Talk on “How we can face the future without fear, together” in 2017.

(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

One month ago, the world lost a great light.

Like most observant Jews, I learned of the passing of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks zt”l, former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, just after the conclusion of the Sabbath, during which we refrain from using phones or computers. When I opened my email and saw the dreadful news, I literally leapt out of my chair and shouted, “No!” in disbelief and anguish. My startled family asked what was the matter and I could barely let out the words: “Baruch Dayan Ha’Emes [Blessed be the True Judge]… Rabbi Sacks.” My children instantly burst into tears and we all spent a long time hugging and weeping in our kitchen as we digested the news.

Rabbi Sacks was gone…

My family had never met Rabbi Sacks (the closest my wife and I were privileged to come was when we attended a lecture he delivered in the Boston area in 2012) and this year saw the passing of many (too many) great religious figures, yet none elicited such a response from my children. What made Rabbi Sacks so special?

If I had but a hundredth of his eloquence or insight, I might think myself worthy to the task of even attempting to answer that question. (See here and here, as well as below, for the superior tributes of others.) I can only answer it for my family. Rabbi Sacks was ubiquitous in my home. For the last decade, not a week went by without our studying his commentary on the weekly Torah portion. We devoured his books, holy day sermons, commentaries on the prayer books and Passover Haggadah, lectures, videos, podcasts, and more. He enriched our spiritual lives in more ways than I can adequately explain. At 72, he still seemed at his prime, publishing at least one book per year for the last three decades–including two this year, on morality and the life-changing ideas of the Bible–all deservedly best sellers. He was the teacher par excellence who not only taught us new ideas and new ways of seeing things but also inspired us to be better people.

Rabbi Sacks believed that Jews were called, as the prophet Isaiah put it, to be a “light unto the nations.” That meant not only being living examples of a covenantal society, but also sharing the transformative ideas and insights of the Bible and more than 3,000 years of accumulated Jewish wisdom and experience with the rest of the world. These ideas included ethical monotheism, the dignity of the individual based on our being created in the image of God, the sacredness of life, the centrality of love to morality, the centrality of forgiveness to ethics, the existence of free will, the balance of the universal and particular, the richness of covenantal life, the politics of hope, the dignity of difference, and the ethics of responsibility.

One area where Rabbi Sacks believed the world could learn from Jewish ideas and experience was in the realm of education. For Rabbi Sacks, education was central to Judaism and one of the secrets of the Jews’ ability to survive and even thrive during centuries of exile and adversity. “If you want to save the Jewish future,” he declared, “you have to build Jewish day schools – there is no other way.” As he wrote in Will We Have Jewish Grandchildren?, the greatest Jewish leader, Moses himself, was primarily recognized in the Jewish tradition as a teacher:

We don’t refer to Moshe as our liberator, lawmaker, or miracle-worker. Instead, we endear him with “Rabbeinu,” our teacher. The secret of Jewish continuity is that no people has ever devoted more of its energies to continuity. The focal point of Jewish life is the transmission of a heritage across the generations.

Education is not the role of leaders alone but of everyone, especially parents. Everyone is called upon to do their part to educate the next generation. In an essay titled The Teacher as Hero, Rabbi Sacks wrote:

Not only does [Moses] become the teacher in Deuteronomy. In words engraved on Jewish hearts ever since, he tells the entire people that they must become a nation of educators:

Make known to your children and your children’s children, how you once stood before the Lord your God at Horeb. (Deut. 4:9–10)

In the future, when your child asks you, “What is the meaning of the testimonies, decrees, and laws that the Lord our God has commanded you?” tell them, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.…” (Deut. 6:20–21)

Teach [these words] to your children, speaking of them when you sit at home and when you travel on the way, when you lie down and when you rise. (Deut. 11:19)

There was nothing like this concern for universal education elsewhere in the ancient world. Jews became the people whose heroes were teachers, whose citadels were schools, and whose passion was study and the life of the mind. [emphasis added]

In an essay on Chanukah, Rabbi Sacks developed these ideas further:

The Talmud tells us that in the first century, in the last days of the Second Temple, a Rabbi called Yehoshua Ben Gamla, established a network of schools throughout Israel. The result of this was that from the age of six, every child in the country received a publicly-funded universal education. This was the first education system of its kind anywhere in the world, and also a clear indication of the now familiarly Jewish commitment to education and to ensuring our children are literate in their heritage. According to the Talmud, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Gamla’s memory is blessed, because without his intervention the Torah would have been forgotten in Israel. Without him, there would have been no survival of Judaism and ultimately no Jews.

What Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Gamla and the other Sages understood, and what was not understood at the time of Chanukah itself, was that the real battle against the Greeks was not a military one, but a cultural one. At the time, the Greeks were the world’s greatest in many fields. They were unparalleled in their advances in art, in architecture, in literature, in drama, in philosophy. Even today, their achievements have never been surpassed. But Jews nonetheless believed, and surely history has borne this out, that there is within Judaism, within ancient Israel and still within its heritage to today, something special. Something worth fighting for. Judaism, with its emphasis on the sanctification of life, and the belief that every human being was created in God’s image, held eternal truths that we could not abandon. This was the unique distinction between the culture of the Greeks and the world of Torah and Judaism. As a result, Jews have always known that the real battle is not necessarily fought on the physical battlefield with physical weapons, but rather in the hearts and minds of future generations. [emphasis added]

In other words, the continued existence of civilization itself depends upon whether citizens succeed in educating the next generation about its ideas, ideals, and values. This lesson is especially necessary in an era in which “Year Zero” thinking is widespread. In an essay aptly titled, “To Defend Civilization, You Need Education,” Rabbi Sacks wrote:

Jews began to understand that the real clash between Ancient Israel and Ancient Greece was not political but cultural. To defend a country, you need an army. But to defend a civilisation, you need schools. [emphasis added]

Similarly, in “Freedom’s Defense,” Rabbi Sacks wrote:

What the Torah is teaching is that freedom is won, not on the battlefield, nor in the political arena, nor in the courts, national or international, but in the human imagination and will. To defend a country you need an army. But to defend a free society you need schools. You need families and an educational system in which ideals are passed on from one generation to the next, and never lost, or despaired of, or obscured.

Just any school is insufficient, of course. They must be schools that are intentional about the transmission of culture and heritage. If society fails to educate its children in its values, they will acquire other values by osmosis. In his 2007 book, The Home We Build Together, Rabbi Sacks observed that families in Britain were increasingly seeking out religious schools because the government-run schools were failing to inculcate the values that their parents cherished and believed were necessary for their well-being:

Why, generally, have faith schools become so popular in a profoundly secular society? One can only speculate. But the following might reflect the thoughts of many traditionally minded parents. The wider society is no longer congruent with our values. We do not want our children taught by fashionable methods that leave them bereft of knowledge and skills. We do not want them to have self-esteem at the cost of self-respect, won by hard work and genuine achievement. We do not want them to be taught that every difference of behaviour reflects an equally valid lifestyle. We do not want them to be moral relativists, tourists in all cultures, at home in none. We do not want to take the risk of our children taking drugs or alcohol or becoming sexually promiscuous, still less becoming teenage mothers (or fathers). Many parents do not want there to be a massive gap between their children’s values and their own. They do not want moral values undermined by a secular, sceptical, cynical culture. Nor do they believe that the countervailing influences of place of worship, supplementary schooling and home will be enough. For the values of the wider secular culture are not confined to school. They are present in the every-more-intrusive media of television, the internet, YouTube, MySpace, and the icons of popular culture.

Education is central to a free society because it is necessary for for human dignity. As Rabbi Sacks wrote in The Dignity of Difference:

Education – the ability not merely to read and write but to master and apply information and have open access to knowledge – is essential to human dignity. I have suggested that it is the basis of a free society. Because knowledge is power, equal access to knowledge is a precondition of equal access to power.

Rabbi Sacks may be gone but his ideas and vision remain. May his memory continue to be a blessing and inspiration for all those whose lives he touched.

A Collection of Tributes to Rabbi Sacks zt”l

Here are just a few of the innumerable tributes to Rabbi Sacks that I found particularly poignant or insightful:

  • The Jewish New (UK): A collection of tributes from Prince Charles, Tony Blair, UK Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, and many, many others.
  • Rabbi Meir Soloveichik: “Tributes to him have described his influence on the Jewish community; his globally popular writings on the Torah; and his many books in which he brilliantly expounded Judaic ideas. But he also was—for Europe in general and the U.K. in particular—the most gifted voice for biblical belief in his time.”
  • Rabbi Joshua Berman: “No figure has ever transmitted the wisdom of Jewish tradition to the world at large with such success. Indeed, no figure has ever even tried.” [If you’ve ever faced public criticism, read the last part of this tribute re: Rabbi Sacks’ advice for such a situation.]
  • Erica Brown: “For the Jewish community worldwide, Jonathan Sacks was the closest we got to royalty, a spiritual aristocrat with a regal bearing who inspired with his repeated calls for hope. […] People turn to his books, his weekly essays on the Torah portion, and his speeches to experience intellectual transcendence, to feel intimacy with an age-old tradition, to understand a difficult moment within a broad philosophical and historical sweep.”
  • Rabbi Samuel Lebens: “It is often said that Rabbi Sacks wrote and spoke with a prophetic voice. His command of language and the lofty heights of his ethical vision combined with his deep faith to give rise to prose that truly competes with the prophets of Israel.” [This one is long but it includes a very thoughtful meditation on some of the central themes of Rabbi Sacks’ ideas.]
  • Yair Rosenberg: “But for all the tributes from people like me in the media, Sacks didn’t just talk to those with large platforms or celebrity. I know firsthand from friends how he emailed personally with students, elementary school teachers, and others who sought his guidance. I can only imagine the amount of correspondence he must have received, and cannot imagine how he managed to fit it into his schedule between his dozens of books, online videos, and speeches and media appearances around the globe.”

To learn more about Rabbi Sacks and his teachings, visit

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

November 2, 2020

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

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.