The Unbearable Lightness of Being Barack Obama

May 21, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So my favorite part of the entire Georgetown poverty discussion was when the American Enterprise Institute’s Arthur Brooks- alone against the President of the United States, a leading public intellectual/academic and a moderator sympathetic to their point of view- nevertheless took their best shot and then put them on the canvass.

President Obama laid out an indictment about a tax-dodge for hedge fund managers, how he had sought to close this loophole in order to tax hedge fund managers at the normal rate, and that he had planned to invest the additional revenue in high-return fashion to advantage poor children. Sounds pretty damning, unless you can think. Arthur Brooks can think:

MR. BROOKS:  Yes, sure.  Fine.  These are show issues.  Corporate jets are show issues.  Carried interest is a show issue.  The real issue?  Middle-class entitlements — 70 percent of the federal budget.  That’s where the real money is.  And the truth of the matter is until we can take that on — if we want to make progress, if the left and right want to make progress politically as they put together budgets, they’re going to have to make progress on that. 

Now, if we want to create — if we want to increase taxes on carried interest, I mean, that’s fine for me — not that I can speak for everybody, certainly not everybody on the Republican side. 

So if we want to make progress, I think let’s decide that we have a preference — I mean, let’s have a rumble over how much money we’re spending on public goods for poor people, for sure.  And Republicans should say, I want to spend money on programs for the poor, but I think these ones are counterproductive and I think these ones are ineffective, and Democrats should say, no they’re not, we’ve never done them right and they’ve always been underfunded.  I want to have that competition of ideas.  That’s really productive.

But we can’t even get to that when politicians on the left and the right are conspiring to not touch middle-class entitlements, because we’re looking at it in terms of the right saying all the money is gone on this, and the left saying all we need is a lot more money on top of these things — when most people who are looking at it realize that this is an unsustainable path.  It’s an unsustainable path for lots of things, not just programs for the poor.  We can’t adequately fund our military. 

I think you and I would have a tremendous amount of agreement about the misguided notion of the sequester, for lots of reasons, because we can’t spend money on purpose.  And that’s what we need to do.  And when we’re on an automatic path to spend tons of money in entitlements that are leading us to fiscal unsustainability, we can’t get to these progressive conversations where conservatives and liberals really disagree and can work together, potentially, to help poor people and defend our nation.

I’m forming the Arthur Brooks fan club over here by the way. Obama, Putnam and Dionne are no match for him.


The Importance of Being < Earnest

May 15, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

HT to Jon Gabriel for alerting us to an interview on Morning Joe in which Josh Earnest addressed President Obama’s hand-wringing over the non-existent crisis of kids going to private schools. See the video here. Joe basically asks Earnest why the President would be critical of people for sending their kids to private schools when, er, he is a private school graduate and sends his daughters to private schools.

EARNEST: His point is that even if you send your kids to private school, we all have an interest in making sure we have good high quality public schools available to everybody. It’s not that far from the White House that we do have some of the best public schools in the country over in Fairfax County, Virginia.

That is an example. That is also a more wealthy than average county in the country. That is an example of a society of a community that has invested in a common good for the benefit of their community and that’s the kind of thing that we need to see all across the country. Whether that is something as simple as investing in our national parks or local parks or public schools or making sure that every single American has access to quality health insurance.

Ok, so if I am following Earnest here, the President supports public funding for K-12 along with 99% of the rest of us. I have not noticed any movement out to exempt people who send their kids to private schools from paying state and local taxes for the rest of their lives. Did Guam pass a law like that while I wasn’t looking, with it poised to spread across the country like wildfire? Did I miss that somehow?

Schools can’t run without money. It however strikes me as incredible to suggest, as the President did, that the magic high-impact dollars would be on the way to save poor children if only we could overcome our “cynicism” inspired by decades of increased spending with precious little to show for it nefarious right-wingers.

People have honest and deeply felt disagreements about how much we should be spending on public education. If you want to champion the interest of poor children in the K-12 system, you must be willing to ruthlessly pursue efforts to extract the maximum possible amount of value from each dollar invested. Bill Clinton was fond of a certain Einstein quote about the definition of insanity, and it certainly applies here.

Don’t worry my skeptical friend, the dollars in your pocket are magic fireproof dollars- test it out!

 

 


President Obama is Entitled to His Own Opinion but Not His Own Facts on Poverty and Education

May 13, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

It is a shame that the only thing that seemed to draw headlines from a recent panel discussion on poverty including President Obama was a silly throw away line about Fox News. The entire discussion, which included Robert Putnam and AEI’s Arthur Brooks deeply deserves your time. The event transcript can be found here.

Go read it. Like now. All four participants had very interesting things to say, far more than can be reflected upon in a blog post.

So this quote from President Obama got my attention:

Now, part of what’s happened is that — and this is where Arthur and I would probably have some disagreements.  We don’t dispute that the free market is the greatest producer of wealth in history — it has lifted billions of people out of poverty.  We believe in property rights, rule of law, so forth.  But there has always been trends in the market in which concentrations of wealth can lead to some being left behind.  And what’s happened in our economy is that those who are doing better and better — more skilled, more educated, luckier, having greater advantages
— are withdrawing from sort of the commons — kids start going to private schools; kids start working out at private clubs instead of the public parks.  An anti-government ideology then disinvests from those common goods and those things that draw us together.  And that, in part, contributes to the fact that there’s less opportunity for our kids, all of our kids.

Now, that’s not inevitable.  A free market is perfectly compatible with also us making investment in good public schools, public universities; investments in public parks; investments in a whole bunch — public infrastructure that grows our economy and spreads it around.  But that’s, in part, what’s been under attack for the last 30 years.  And so, in some ways, rather than soften the edges of the market, we’ve turbocharged it.  And we have not been willing, I think, to make some of those common investments so that everybody can play a part in getting opportunity.

This is an interesting quote on multiple levels- the first of which being that it has factual assertions that are demonstrably false. Let’s start with the strongly implied notion that we have disinvested from public schools. Our friends at the Heritage Foundation have a delightfully on point chart addressing what actually happened:

 

Now I could just as easily show a chart of inflation adjusted public school spending per pupil rising ever higher, but this chart qualifies as more interesting in my book as it shows what was done with the money. In short, we bombed districts with additional money and they used it to hire vast numbers of school employees especially non-teachers. These numbers come right out of the National Center for Education Statistics Digest of Education Statistics, and they demonstrate conclusively that President Obama was wildly off base when discussing the commitment of the American taxpayers to public education.

What about this idea of “kids start going to private schools” assertion? Let’s just for the sake of jovial discussion overlook the fact that President Obama himself attended private schools, and sends his daughters to one of the most exclusive private schools in the country. Again this notion is demonstrably false: private school attendance rates have been falling over time. Ironically the sort of class based segregation that all three participants acknowledge is indeed going on, but it is largely going on within the public school system itself through a system of highly economically segregated district schools- aka the leafy suburbs.

Later the President says “I think it is important for us at the outset to acknowledge if, in fact, we are going to find common ground, then we also have to acknowledge that there are certain investments we are willing to make as a society, as a whole, in public schools and public universities.” With regards to K-12 however the President has constructed an argument on a demonstrably false premise: while the ability of the country to go on making the same level of investment in public education in the future may be in doubt, there can be no doubt regarding the massive increase in resources devoted to public education in recent decades.

Bob Putnam joins with the President on the trends in public school spending:

For most of the 20th century, all Americans of all walks of life thought that part of getting a good education was getting soft skills — not just reading, writing, arithmetic, but cooperation and teamwork, and so on.  And part of that was that everybody in the country got free access to extracurricular activities — band and football, and music and so on.  But beginning about 20 years ago, the view developed — which is really, really deeply evil — that that’s just a frill. 

And so we disinvested, and we said if you want to take part in football here, or you want to take part in music, you’ve got to pay for it.  And of course, what that means is that poor people can’t pay for it.  It’s a big deal — $1,600 on average for two kids in a family.  Well, $1,600 to play football, or play in the band, or French club or whatever — it’s not a big deal if your income is $200,000; but if you income is $16,000, who in their right mind is going to be paying 10 percent of their family income?

I’ll interject here to say that the public school system has more than enough money to pay for football helmets for poor children but that in some cases they may have placed a much higher priority on other spending. Like for instance, bloating out their non-teaching employment (see Figure 1 above).  When staffing growth increased at a rate more than 10 times greater than enrollment growth, it is hard to think anything else. Are there kids priced out of extracurricular activities in American public schools? I’m confident there have been. Is it because the public has disinvested in public education? Hardly.

Later the President returns to his theme:

If, in fact, the most important thing is character and parents, then it’s okay if we don’t have band and music at school — that’s the argument that you will hear.  It’s okay.  Look, there are immigrant kids who are learning in schools that are much worse, and we’re spending huge amounts in the district and we still get poor outcomes, and so obviously money is not the issue.  And so what you hear is a logic that is used as an excuse to under-invest in those public goods.

And that’s why I think a lot of people are resistant to it and are skeptical of that conversation.  And I guess what I’m saying is that, guarding against cynicism, what we should say is we are going to argue hard for those public investments.  We’re going to argue hard for early childhood education because, by the way, if a young kid — three, four years old — is hearing a lot of words, the science tells us that they’re going to be more likely to succeed at school.  And if they’ve got trained and decently paid teachers in that preschool, then they’re actually going to get — by the time they’re in third grade, they’ll be reading at grade level. 

And those all very concrete policies.  But it requires some money.  We’re going to argue hard for that stuff.  And lo and behold, if we do those things, the values and the character that those kids are learning in a loving environment where they can succeed in school, and they’re being praised, and they can read at grade level, and they’re less likely to drop out, and it turns out that when they’re succeeding at school and they’ve got resources, they’re less likely to get pregnant as teens, and less likely to engage in drugs, and less likely to be involved in the criminal justice system — that is a reinforcement of the values and character that we want. 

And that’s where we, as a society, have the capacity to make a real difference.  But it will cost us some money.  It will cost us some money.  It’s not free.

Where to begin? Let’s start with the fact with the blinding ubiquity of incredibly well-funded schools that are also catastrophically dysfunctional. President Obama attempts to waive this problem away while confidently assuming that the next round of public school spending will produce fantastic gains for disadvantaged students. President Obama for instance seems either blissfully or willfully unaware that random assignment studies of Head Start released by his own administration demonstrate (yet again) academic fade out before 3rd grade. The bigger point in my mind is that given the massive investment in public education the greatest opportunity for improvement by far lies in increasing the ROI for the funds we already invest in the system. Any blithe would-be technocrat that effectively wants to write off the current investment as stuck in place while making snake oil salesman style promises regarding the profound efficacy of new spending deserves our profound skepticism.

The unacknowledged elephant in the room- the inescapable fact that the poor have been the primary victims of the failure of the public school system to produce a decent return on investment for the massive increase in public K-12 spending. Several generations of Americans have attended public schools increasingly generously funded and staffed over the decades, and always at globally enviable levels. I’m at a loss to imagine how anyone can blame inter-generational poverty on under investment in public education when such investment can only be described as both substantial and increasing for many decades

If someone would like to explain why I should view this viewpoint as something other than demonstrably shallow and willfully ignorant of the real issues in public education and their equally real consequences, feel free to leave a comment. The problem in my view is not that we have put too little in to public education, but rather that our 19th Century Prussian factory model gave us far too little back in return.

Public education, in short, badly needs an update.


Responding to the President on Choice Media

February 24, 2014

ResponseToObamaVoucher

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Recently, the president claimed that “every study” shows voucher programs aren’t highly effective. Choice Media has posted a short clip in which a legend in the field (Paul Peterson), the leader of voucher research conducted by the president’s own department of education (Pat Wolf), and a modest chorus in the background (yours truly) contest the president’s claim.


Bipartisan Contempt for Unconditional Tenure

January 24, 2012

 

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

From President Barack Obama’s 2012 State of the Union address:

At a time when other countries are doubling down on education, tight budgets have forced States to lay off thousands of teachers. We know a good teacher can increase the lifetime income of a classroom by over $250,000. A great teacher can offer an escape from poverty to the child who dreams beyond his circumstance. Every person in this chamber can point to a teacher who changed the trajectory of their lives. Most teachers work tirelessly, with modest pay, sometimes digging into their own pocket for school supplies – just to make a difference.

Teachers matter. So instead of bashing them, or defending the status quo, let’s offer schools a deal. Give them the resources to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best ones. In return, grant schools flexibility: To teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test; and to replace teachers who just aren’t helping kids learn.

Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels Republican response:

The status of ‘loyal opposition’ imposes on those out of power some serious  responsibilities: to show respect for the Presidency and its occupant, to  express agreement where it exists.  Republicans tonight salute our  President, for instance, for his aggressive pursuit of the murderers of 9/11,  and for bravely backing long overdue changes in public education.

The moral isolation of K-12 reactionaries continues to grow…


Politics and Schools, Part MCCXXIII

September 1, 2010

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Neal notes the connection between Arne Duncan’s now-infamous embrace of Al Sharpton and the president’s continuing his new tradition of broadcasting a back-to-school message to America’s classrooms, coming up later this month.

Duncan didn’t just embrace Sharpton in his personal role as a citizen. He mobilized the U.S. Department of Education to support Sharpton by encouraging employees to attend Sharpton’s anti-Glenn-Beck rally.

Whatever you think of Glenn Beck, Sharpton cut his teeth as a professional purveyor of incitement to murder. During the Crown Heights race riots, with blood running in the streets, he said, “if the Jews want to get it on, tell them to pin their yarmulkes back and come over to my house.” He had to tone it back after the Freddy’s Fashion Mart murders, when people began making connections between Sharpton and the killings that kept following in his wake. But tone it back was all he did; he’s never repented.

Duncan spoke at Sharpton’s rally and urged his employees to attend.

A department spokesperson lamely tried to evade responsibility by saying “This was a back-to-school event.” Really? Here’s a sample of Al Sharpton’s back-to-school message for America’s youth, courtesy of the Washington Examiner:

[Conservatives] think we showed up [to vote for Barack Obama] in 2008 and that we won’t show up again. But we know how to sucker-punch, and we’re coming out again in 2010!

…and do your homework!

This is obviously intimately connected with the presdient’s decision to make it an annual tradition to use America’s government school monopoly to broadcast a message to the nation’s children. Other presidents have done so before, though none has made it an annual tradition. But it was equally wrong whoever did it, and this Duncan/Sharpton rally shows why.

Neal is trying too hard when he strains to describe Obama’s message to students as “politically charged material.” Joanne Jacobs rightly notes, “Last year’s speech raised a lot of fuss, culminating in a big fizzle as Obama told students to work hard in school.” No doubt this year the president will be equally anodyne.

[Update: Neal points out below that it was the accompanying materials sent to schools, not Obama’s message itself, that he described as “politically charged.” Fair enough! I read his post too quickly. Yet it’s worth noting that even those accompanying materials were focused on anointing Obama as a role model rather than pushing an overtly political agenda.]

The connection is rather that politics can’t be hermetically sealed. The president does have some role to play as the representative of the entire nation. But he is never just that; he is also a politician with an agenda. He will always stand for things that many Americans oppose; that’s just the nature of political life. And this president in particular seems to have more of a tendency than most presidents of associating himself with criminals and race-haters.

It doesn’t matter what Obama says. In fact, the less political his message, the worse it is. If Obama’s message really were “politically charged material,” many students would recognize it as such. The more anodyne he is, the more he gets what he really wants – to be anointed as a role model. With all that entails.

It’s wrong enough to have a government monopoly on schooling. To have the government monopoly anoint the president as a role model for our children is a hundred times more wrong. It would be wrong even if the president were relatively uncontroversial, because no president can avoid having many associations to which many parents will reasonably object. With this president – well, words just fail.


“Just Call Me Mister Butterfingers!”

January 22, 2010

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

President Obama says health care socialization has “run into a bit of a buzz saw.”

Jim Geraghty asks: What’s the survival rate for people who run into buzz saws?


More Humanitarian of the Year Awards

October 9, 2009

 
At first I thought it was a joke, but no… the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Barack Obama.  He can now join unrepentant terrorist, Yassir Arafat, and fictional autobiography writer, Rigoberta Menchu,  in having received that honor.
 
Regardless of what one thinks about President Obama’s strategy for producing greater world peace, I think all can agree that it is a strategy that has yet to produce meaningful results.  It seems quite strange that the Nobel Peace Prize has gone to someone who hopes to produce peace without having achieved much of anything in the way of actual peace. 
 
There’s been no change in the situation with regard to Israel and the Palestinians.  There’s been no (positive) change with respect to Iran’s nuclear ambitions (and there have been some considerable negative developments). The situations in Iraq and Afghanistan have deteriorated significantly over the last year.  Other than a bunch of speeches, what good has actually been accomplished?
 
I just have to repeat that Al Copeland, the founder of Popeye’s Chicken, is more worthy of this kind of prize.  At least he actually did something to improve the human condition — like give us spicy chicken.

Obama Serenades Rabbis: “Deutschland Uber Alles”

August 27, 2009

Obama at AIPAC

“Deutschland, Deutschland, uber alles . . . uber alles in die welt!”

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Getting a lot of attention: Barack Obama’s statement, during a national conference call with a thousand rabbis on the subject of the proposed government healthcare monopoly, that “we are God’s partners in matters of life and death.”

Not getting a lot of attention: While waiting on hold for the call to begin, the rabbis were serenaded with the traditional German folk tune “Deutschland Uber Alles.”

Deutschland Uber Alles

No, I didn’t make that up. His staff makes a blunder like this and he still thinks government can run the whole nation’s health care?

On the other hand, maybe he’s trying to tell us something. What was that again about “death panels”?

HT Kausfiles


Racial Excuses: What Obama Says v. What DOE Does

July 27, 2009

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Continuing the theme of Jay’s excellent post this morning on the debauching of the nation’s rhetorical currency, Pajamas Media carries my column on how the president’s denouncing of racial excuses in education to the NAACP stacks up against how the DOE has started making racial excuses that will pave the way for quotas in AP courses. I also had something to say about the NAACP’s own debauching of the currency:

The fact that [the NAACP attendees] feel the need to applaud is a good sign. Hypocrisy really is the tribute that vice pays to virtue — and when do nations make payments of tribute? When they’ve lost a power struggle with a stronger neighbor. The all-excuses culture of the NAACP pays tribute to the “no excuses!” culture of Barack Obama because it knows it has lost the fight for public opinion.

If only the Obama administration lived up to the “no excuses!” culture promoted by its president.

At almost the same time Obama was giving that speech to the NAACP, Russlynn Ali, the new head of the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Education, gave an interview with Education Daily (subscription only, but you can see coverage here) in which she implicitly signaled that school districts had better make sure they have enough minority students in advanced courses, such as AP courses.

Backfill; HT Mike Petrilli.