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Archive for February, 2012

I’ve recently returned from the New Hampshire Liberty Forum, held February 23-26 in Nashua, NH and sponsored by the Free State Project. The two evening keynote speakers were libertarian free-range farmer Joel Salatin and investor and recent U.S. Senate candidate Peter Schiff. In addition, session speakers included school-choice economist Angela Dills, former Libertarian Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Ken Krawchuk, jailed marijuana activist Marc Emery’s wife Jodie, economist John Lott, Institute for Justice litigator Clark Neily, libertarian-anarchist feminist Sharon Presley, and Laissez-Faire Books publisher and former Mises.org editor Jeffrey Tucker.

Unfortunately, I had to help take care of a sick child, and I missed most of the talks, including Joel Salatin’s Saturday-night address. However, I did get to hear Jodie Emery, Ken Krawchuk, and Peter Schiff, and, perhaps more importantly, to catch up with many New Hampshire friends. The event received a good bit of local press coverage. Some examples:

Wire NH:

Events like this and their annual summer Porcupine Freedom Festival not only serve to promote the Libertarian mindset, but also create conversation that Free State Project president Carla Gericke says is of the utmost importance to the group’s goals.

“We are striving to live as free as possible,” Gericke said. “With freedom comes great responsibility. Sometimes, when I think about the movement, it’s almost like a form of localization on steroids.”

Gericke believes the Free State Project is attractive to people because the idea of collecting Libertarians to make a difference in government is a practical one. She added that, since her election as Free State Project president in 2011—three years after her own move to New Hampshire—she has been less focused on getting signatures on the statement of intent.

“Some of my focus has actually moved toward attracting people to move,” she said. “It’s great that they signed the pledge, but in terms of things on the ground, the more bodies we have here, the more we can actually accomplish.”

Nashua Telegraph:

The forum, in its fifth year, is the annual meeting for the New Hampshire Free State Project. Free Staters already living in New Hampshire and those thinking about moving here make up most of the participants, but everyone is invited, said Chris Lawless, a Hopkinton resident and the Free State Project’s forum organizer.

“We want people to come meet us, see we don’t have horns growing out of our heads,” Lawless said.

Nashua Telegraph #2:

Freedom to live as one chooses is a powerful ideal, and a conference exploring the concept was worth the drive from New Jersey for Marcus Connor, 37.

“Liberty is dying every day in the United States,” Connor said.

The government is killing it, he said.

That view was espoused in speeches throughout the morning. It was the drumbeat that would sound throughout the various programs of the forum.

One of the day’s first speakers, John Bush, talked of the need to abandon the U.S. Constitution, which he said was written to protect the interests of the nation’s founding fathers, who were “the privileged elite at the time.”

Bush represented Agora 21, described as “a counter-economic approach to building a free society in the 21st century.”

Bush acknowledged the Constitution marked civilization’s best achievement toward limiting government, but added, “I think we can do better. I think we can do much better.”

Patch.com:

Keynote speaker Friday is economist Peter Schiff, CEO of Connecticut-based Euro Pacific Capital Inc., who will talk about the current economic business cycle (a sham), what mistakes have been made (too many to count), what to expect next (something worse than the last collapse), and what you can do to prepare (buy gold, vote for Ron Paul, invest in foreign currency).

As you may have guessed, if you’re looking for someone to paint a rosy picture of the country’s gradual economic recovery since 2008, Schiff is not your guy.

“The future is bleak,” said Schiff in a recent phone interview with Nashua Patch.

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Isn’t it a sad reflection on the state of the Republican Party when one is relieved that Romney wasn’t mortally wounded in yesterday’s Michigan primary?  Unless a convention fight is in the cards, isn’t Romney the least bad real choice still available (especially since he and Ron Paul keep playing footsie)?  Good thing there is a lot of ruin in a nation!

 

 

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David Brooks is very grumpy today, blasting the leaders of the GOP for hiding from their responsibilities and letting “wingers” and “protestors” take over the party:

In the 1960s and ’70s, the fight was between conservatives and moderates. Conservatives trounced the moderates and have driven them from the party. These days the fight is between the protesters and the professionals. The grass-roots protesters in the Tea Party and elsewhere have certain policy ideas, but they are not that different from the Republicans in the “establishment.”

The big difference is that the protesters don’t believe in governance. They have zero tolerance for the compromises needed to get legislation passed. They don’t believe in trimming and coalition building. For them, politics is more about earning respect and making a statement than it is about enacting legislation. It’s grievance politics, identity politics.

Good point, but what does it mean to be a party leader these days, anyway?  And who, really, are these people, these supposed leaders who are hiding behind the voting booths rather than keeping the unwashed Tea Party zealots from running the party ship aground?   Whoever they are, they are definitely “not honorable to kowtow to the extremes so [they] can preserve [their] political career[s],” says Brooks.   So, these dishonorable, kowtowing bunch of “mainstream conservatives” have lost control of the asylum, and now the lunatics are in charge.

I’m not sure which is more dishonorable, pretending not to be a moderate to win primaries (which Republicans do) or pretending to be a moderate (which is what Democrats have been doing for years).  In either case, politicians keep obeying the fundamental theorem of politics: if you don’t win, nothing else matters.   “Pandering” and “kowtowing” are pejoratives used by pundits to malign politicians for promising to do what voters actually want them to do.  Another word for it is democracy.

The latest news from Michigan is that Democrats are urging their rank and file to go out and vote for Santorum.  It is hard to know if this is a ploy to keep Obama from having to face Romney, or if it is one of those clever tricks to get Republicans to think that Obama is afraid of Romney, thereby encouraging more Republicans to vote for Romney.  Sort of a twist on my enemy’s enemy is my friend (but maybe that is just what Santorum wants you to think?).

The continuing story of the campaign is all the Super-PACS spending loads of money with no one supervising them.  Of course this is mostly the story in the media because no one is more threatened by Super-PACS than the mainstream press.  If everyone is out there saying whatever they want to, as loudly as they want to, with no one regulating them, it not only mutes the message of the official campaigns, but it provides further competition for the media, not to mention making their jobs harder (a chat with the campaign manager on the back of the campaign bus will no longer suffice).

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton is chipping in by warning that our political dialogue is inflaming passions among the Afghanis—like they really need sweater-vested Americans to become inflamed.    It’s like saying Mayor Bloomberg is responsible for inflaming the anti-Yankee passions of the Red Sox Nation.

Who is in charge here?   The thing that social engineers of all stripes hate about market economies is that no one is in charge.  Indeed, it is the lack of central planning that gives the free market its strength.  Does this work in politics, too?

Mr. Brooks longs for the old days when Democrats and Republicans got together over cocktails to hammer out new ways to raise spending on entitlement programs, following which they would go out together to dinner with New York Times columnists.  Those days are gone.

I keep wondering in my mind which would be the worst case scenario: Santorum getting the nomination and getting trounced by a President who will have to do little more than sound reasonable (something he is pretty darn good at); or Romney winning the nomination but entering the campaign so bloodied and bruised that he has little chance, which will lead the ignorant to believe that what the party really needed was a Gingrich, Bachman, Santorum or, God help us, Sarah Palin.  The really depressing thing is that regardless of which scenario plays out, Barak Obama gets to appoint the next Supreme Court justice.  [Ever notice that those who are most outraged about the Court’s disrespect for the Constitution are those most willing to sacrifice the appointment power in the name of ideological purity?]

This debate over strong leaders v. democratic processes goes back to the Founding.   When asked whether we were going to have a monarchy or a republic, Ben Franklin quipped,   “A republic, if you can keep it.”

This many years later, it is still not so clear that we can.

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John Heilemann has an interesting essay on the 2012 GOP primaries (“The Lost Party,” in New York Magazine) Core argument: Regardless of who the GOP nominee is (and here the choice is Romney and Santorum), a loss to Obama will and important implications for the future of the GOP.  If Romney wins—and then loses—the lesson will be clear: moderates can’t win. The party will gravitate toward the charismatic populist right. If Santorum wins—and then loses—the lesson will be equally clear, and would open the door to more moderate conservatives (e.g., Jeb Bush, Daniels, Christie).  For the first case, the historical analog is the shift from Ford to Reagan; for the second, the analog is Goldwater to Nixon.  One might disagree with the article’s characterization of Bush, Daniels, Christie et al as moderates–in fact they seem far more conservative than Mr. Romney.  But the overarching argument is nonetheless interesting and the article is a delight to read.

Heilmann ends on an interesting note, suggesting that those who believe that two credible governing parties are vitally important should wish Santorum luck.

A Santorum nomination would be seen by many liberals as a scary and retrograde proposition. And no doubt it would make for a wild ride, with enough talk of Satan, abortifacients, and sweater vests to drive any sane man bonkers. But in the long run, it might do a world of good, compelling Republicans to return to their senses—and forge ahead into the 21st century.

Perhaps.

Santorum and Romney most certainly differ on their overt religiosity and their level of comfort in rallying the culture warriors (although I suspect that Santorum is being somewhat mischaracterized by a press intent on repeating a very selective sample of his statements, quite aware that they are repellant to many moderate and independent voters). But on another dimension, both of the top candidates are quite similar: both are statists and neither makes anything more than a rhetorical case against social engineering and aggressive foreign policy. To the extent that this is the case, they have more in common with the incumbent than they do with libertarians who once again seem to find little of interest in the GOP.

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I commented earlier on the noble stand and relatively sophisticated views (for an athlete) of Boston Bruins goalie Tim Thomas.  But generally athletes and celebrities have little to add to public debate.  Here (in response to a question about the recent contraception rule controversy) is Danica Patrick espousing a view of government that belies reality and is fit for a nation of sheep rather than free men and women.  However,  it is more typical of what one would expect from a celebrity*:

“I leave it up to the government to make good decisions for Americans.”

Of course it is Thomas who was hammered in the media.  Wouldn’t want to disrespect the government since it is only trying to make good decisions for Americans and all.

* Though to be fair to Patrick – even though her argument is still worth castigating given its silly view of government and how (unfortunately) representative it is of the views of so many people – she wasn’t exactly looking to make a political statement when this reporter asked her such an off-the-wall question for essentially a race media event at the NPC.

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The following letter from Koch Industries, Inc. was sent out yesterday in response to the Obama campaign’s recent fundraising smear.  It deserves to be posted in full (and I would have done so yesterday except I didn’t want to bump Sven’s excellent post on education).  I’m sure Bill Maher, George Soros, and other liberals are outraged by rich men trying to influence political outcomes with their “disproportionate” wealth:

 Friday, February 24th, 2012

A Letter to the Obama Campaign

Mr. Jim Messina
Campaign Manager
Obama for America

Dear Mr. Messina:

Because every American has the right to take part in the public discourse on matters that affect the future of our country, I feel compelled to respond directly about a fundraising letter you sent out on February 24 denouncing Koch. It is both surprising and disappointing that the President would allow his re-election team to send such an irresponsible and misleading letter to his supporters.

For example, it is false that our “business model is to make millions by jacking up prices at the pump.” Our business vision begins and ends with value creation — real, long-term value for customers and for society. We own no gasoline stations and the part of our business you allude to, oil and gas refining, actually lowers the price of gasoline by increasing supply. Either you simply misunderstand the way commodities markets work or you are misleading your supporters and the rest of the American people.

Contrary to your assertion that we have “committed $200 million to try to destroy President Obama,” we have stated publicly and repeatedly since last November that we have never made any such claim or pledge. It is hard to imagine that the campaign is unaware of our publicly stated position on that point. Similarly, Americans for Prosperity is not simply “funded by the Koch brothers,” as you state — rather it has tens of thousands of members and contributors from across the country and from all walks of life. Further, our opposition to this President’s policies is not based on partisan politics but on principles. Charles Koch and David Koch have been outspoken advocates of the free-market for over 50 years and they have consistently opposed policies that frustrate or subvert free markets, regardless of whether a Democrat or a Republican was President.

If the President’s campaign has some principled disagreement with the arguments we are making publicly about the staggering debt the President and previous administrations have imposed on the country, the regulations that are stifling business growth and innovation, the increasing intrusion of government into nearly every aspect of American life, we would be eager to hear them. But it is an abuse of the President’s position and does a disservice to our nation for the President and his campaign to criticize private citizens simply for the act of engaging in their constitutional right of free speech about important matters of public policy. The implication in that sort of attack is obvious: dare to criticize the President’s policies and you will be singled out and personally maligned by the President and his campaign in an effort to chill free speech and squelch dissent.

This is not the first time that the President and his Administration have engaged in this sort of disturbing behavior. As far back as August, 2010, Austan Goolsbee, then the President’s chief economic advisor, made public comments concerning Koch’s tax status and falsely stated that the company did not pay income tax, which triggered a federal investigation into Mr. Goolsbee’s conduct that potentially implicated federal law against improper disclosure of taxpayer information. Last June, your colleagues sent fundraising letters disparaging us as “plotting oil men” bent on “misleading people” with “disinformation” in order to “smear” the President’s record. Those accusations were baseless and were made at the very same time the president was publicly calling for a more “civil conversation” in the country.

It is understandable that the President and his campaign may be “tired of hearing” that many Americans would rather not see the president re-elected. However, the inference is that you would prefer that citizens who disagree with the President and his policies refrain from voicing their own viewpoint. Clearly, that’s not the way a free society should operate.

We agree with the President that civil discourse is an American strength. That is why it is troubling to see a national political campaign apparently target individual citizens and private companies for some perceived political advantage. I also hope the President will reflect on how the approach the campaign is using is at odds with our national values and the constitutional right to free speech.

Sincerely,

Philip Ellender
President, Government & Public Affairs
Koch Companies Public Sector, LLC

Standard disclosure: I have received funding from the Kochs for educational purposes. However, I was defending “free minds and free markets” long before such a relationship began and this was likely part of the cause not the effect of that relationship.

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Value added?

I’ve been meaning to comment on the public release of teacher performance data since the LA Times did a major data release several months ago.  It is a complicated issue, and there are many reasons not to release the data.  Bill Gates discussed some of them in a NY Times editorial yesterday.

Today the NY Times released its own batch of data, after the teachers union failed in its effort to block the school district from doing so.  From reading the comments on the web site (many of them by teachers) I have come up with my own performance metric: every teacher who displays by their comments a fundamental misunderstanding of value-added measures should receive a negative evaluation.  Some of this is willful misunderstanding of the sort characterized by Upton Sinclair—“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it”—but much of it is just plain old-fashioned ignorance of the type people go to college to avoid.

Most these misunderstandings take the form of “so many factors affect test scores that the teacher doesn’t have control over.”  True enough.  But value-added measures (when they are based on sufficient sample sizes) by and large remove these factors since the value-added measures capture the change in performance from year to year.   The favorite thing to blame is socioeconomic status.  But a teacher who wants to improve their value-added scores would prefer to teach poor, troubled kids, since there is way more potential upside to improve scores—and it is only the improvement from year to year that matters in value-added measures.  The spoiled brats will do well regardless of teacher, so there is likely a much lower marginal return for teaching the privileged. 

It is dispiriting to hear such important, revealing measures being disparaged by people who have every incentive to understand them, but clearly don’t.  Equally unsettling is the notion that test scores don’t measure anything of value.  It has become conventional gospel among the teaching establishment and, more generally, critics of NCLB, that “teaching to the test” is this horrible thing that no decent educator would want to do.  But doesn’t it depend on the test and the subject?  Standardized test scores are not by any means perfect measures of learning, but they do some things fairly well.  And it seems hard to make the case that someone is a good teacher if his/her students consistently underperform on standardized tests.  Is there really the trade-off between test performance and other educational outcomes not meausured by tests?  I doubt it (and I doubt there is any evidence for it).

Put another way, is it too much to expect that our kids can think creatively and analytically and be able to divide fractions.  I would like my kids to understand things like why we would want to divide fractions in the first place and how fractions relate to the real world they live in.  But if they can’t actually divide fractions, aren’t the higher level analytical skills sort of meaningless?  And isn’t the best way to determine if kids can divide fractions is to give them some fractions on a test and see if they can divide them.  If teaching to the test means kids can actually take take two fractions and divide them and come up with the answer, while not teaching to the test means they can’t, then please, let us have teachers who teach to the test!

I have worries about disparaging and dispiriting teachers—most of whom work hard and do reasonably well.  But evidence is accumulating in study after study that improving teacher performance is the key to educational reform.  How to do that certainly isn’t as simple as publicly releasing data.  However, on balance, efforts to bring accountability into the classroom have to be promoted, however painful.

And one clear signal that releasing this type of data is a good idea is that teachers’ unions oppose it.  The best reform agenda that any public body could adopt is to go through the list of policy options that teachers unions hate and implement each one of them.

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