Fairness vs. Innovation/Flexibility

UPDATED 10/29: I'm updating this post to link to Sarah Varney's fantastic deep dive piece on the bleak healthcare situation in Mississippi. Varney provides a stark example as to why there need to be federal minimal standards in state/federal programs to prevent vast inequality and unfairness. Mississippi's health care situations shows us what can happen when states are essentially left to their own devices. 

Often peopler summarize our political conflicts as being a battle between those who favor freedom and those who favor equality. I think this conceptualization is wrong. A better way of looking at these battles is to see them as pitting fairness against innovation and flexibility. 

This framing sprung to mind as I read Nick Confessore's fantastic piece on the political fight over school lunches. Well intentioned regulations designed and endorsed by experts to combat obesity, diabetes, and scores of other expensive and debilitating ailments had unintended consequences. Some kids stopped buying school lunches, and some went hungry because they refused to eat the fruits and vegetables that accompanied reduced portions of proteins and grains. 

Uniform rules and regulations implemented at the federal level pose several advantages. Their primary benefit is fundamental fairness and uniformity. The best examples of why legislating at the federal level is fairer than allowing states and localities to set their own policies probably come from criminal law.

Would it be fair for someone on one side of the Ben Franklin Bridge (which separates Philadelphia and New Jersey) to get arrested for, say, robbery, and get sentenced to 25 years in prison, while a person on the other side of the bridge commits the exact same crime in the exact same manner and is sentenced to 0 prison time? Is it fair when someone crosses a municipality line, or a state line only to get pulled over because the traffic regulations differ in some manner? 

Yet, because of our federal system this type of thing happens every day (albeit without such dramatic differences in sentences). We see this same unfairness in school funding, again because of its local base. Schools may spend dramatically different amounts per pupil in spite of being mere blocks apart. Wouldn't it be far fairer to distribute the money that we spend on schools in such a way that schools spend the exact same amount per pupil in every school district in the United States (at least when adjusted for cost of living differences)?

National laws give us one set of rules and regulations, and a uniform set of benefits. Not only is this uniformity fairer, but it offers the added value of discouraging people from moving to a new state to take advantage of far more generous benefits. Otherwise you have a system that essentially soaks the taxpayers in generous states because of the penury of other states. 

National laws also prevent a race to the bottom. For example, a Supreme Court ruling allowed credit card companies to charge up to whatever interest rate was the maximum allowed by law in their home state. This ruling explains why many of your credit cards originate in South Dakota. After the Supreme Court ruling, South Dakota changed its usury laws to eliminate the cap on interest rates and fees to attract Citibank (and subsequently other financial institutions). The result was that South Dakota rendered caps in other states meaningless by choosing to give companies carte blanche to charge what they wanted. 

Governing at the federal level, however, also has drawbacks. By their nature, regulation and legislation tend to be inflexible, and often fail to foresee potential problems and potentially disparate impacts. Vast bureaucracies also require rigid rules to guarantee consistent implementation, and these rules can only adapt slowly.

Additionally, governing at the federal level prevents states and localities from serving as laboratories of democracy. It's also hard to adjust the rules and regulations to state specific differences (even legislating at a state level poses this problem as the needs of major urban areas often differ from those of rural areas). 

This drawback has significant costs. One topic about which I plan to write either this week or next is the lack of innovation in policy. It seems to me that most policy ideas on both sides of the ideological spectrum are either stale retreads or proposals dictated by rigid ideology. 

Yet, attempting to innovate on the federal level can result in larger, more expensive failures when untested programs do not work as envisioned. These failures, in turn, can foreclose future opportunities to innovate. Opponents can also point to the potentially large costs of a new program, or warn that the program will inevitably cost far more than expected (as happened with Medicare in the 1960s)— which makes it far harder to enact programs. 

Innovating at the federal level also requires a functional federal government, which at the moment we only sometimes have. Even when bills can be pushed through by a partisan majority (as happened with the Affordable Care Act), the process is so broken that it is politically impossible to subsequently tweak and improve massive and complex legislation. 

How then should we balance the need to be fair to all Americans with the critical need to foster innovation? 

My view is that we ought to fund programs on a national level and probably set certain minimum standards as well. But we need a process through which the federal government grants waivers freely, and rewards states for experimenting. We need to encourage states and localities to serve as the laboratories in which we discover the next set of public policies. 

An example of this process at work is the way in which the Department of Health and Human Services allowed some states to take the money that would have been used to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act and use it to give the same population private health insurance. HHS has also allowed other states some flexibility in using this funding creatively to cover the designated population. If I had my way, we'd evaluate the outcome of these "experiments" in 5 years. 

We'd look, for example, at what provided better outcomes— Medicaid or private insurance? We'd look at the health of the policy holder, how much their policies covered, how satisfied they were with their policies, what complaints they had, whether Medicaid or private plans were more efficient and had more overhead costs, etc. While this wouldn't be a perfect experiment, it would give us knowledge as to which option worked better. From there, we could regionalize or nationalize. 

This method would allow us to create a more efficient and more effective government. By having minimum standards and federal funding, we would avoid states shirking their responsibilities, and guard against some of the worst inequality. By allowing states to experiment, we would reduce the drawbacks of one size fits all federal programs. 

So what would I do with the school lunch program? I'd keep the regulations in place, regardless of what companies they hurt, how many kids initially drop out of the program, and/or refuse fruits and vegetables, etc. Why?

Because the long term health costs of obesity, diabetes, etc., are worse. We need to teach our kids about healthy eating, and prevent crippling weight gain that can lead to debilitating health  problems later on (which can make it hard to keep a job and live a happy and productive life). All told, these ailments cost society a great deal of money. 

I have a weird ethos when it comes to the Nanny State. On the one hand, I tend to be fairly libertarian in impulse— if people aren't hurting others, let them do what they want. On the other hand, when we, the taxpayers, pay for a program (like the school lunch program), we should be able to attach conditions. It only seems fair. 

I'd also place chef Marc Vetri in charge of reconceptualizing the school lunch program and school lunches more broadly. He has done some amazing work towards making lunch time educational, while also improving students' diets, and teaching them that eating well can taste good too. 

American Health Care— Best in the World?

People (especially political conservatives) like to break out the claim that Americans have the best health care and health care system in the world. This claim makes me laugh. 

Yes, we've avoided the scourge of socialized medicine. We don't have government bureaucrats making rationing decisions about our health care. 

But instead, we've got private bureaucrats making these decisions (i.e. the pre-certification process). Instead of government bureaucrats denying a particular drug or treatment that your doctor orders, a private insurer does it. 

Just like the government in a socialized medical system, private insurers decide if cutting edge or experimental treatments should be covered. 

Additionally, as insurers narrow their networks of doctors in an effort to keep costs down, they are essentially choosing your doctors for you, because paying for out of network doctors is often cost prohibitive for most people. 

We also have a system in which many, many doctors feel as though they must pay inadequate attention to patients, and squeeze as many patients as possible into a day in order to make a living. 

We even have a system in which many medical decisions are made by residents who can work up to 16 hr shifts and 80 hours per week. To make matters worse, many programs expect these young doctors to do just as much work as they did under an old system in which they could work 30 hour shifts, and even longer weeks.

Even under this new system, medical residents are overworked and have too little time for sleep. I don't know about you, but I don't really love the idea of a doctor, no matter how talented, making decisions about my medical care in hour 80 of the work week. 

I'm not arguing that our medical care is bad. We have many cutting edge technologies available to us that aren't available in other countries. We also have fantastic doctors. I would never denigrate the quality of our doctors. 

Nor am I arguing for a socialized medical system. Those systems have their own flaws. 

I am arguing, however, for an acknowledgement that our system needs an overhaul that goes far beyond the reforms in the Affordable Care Act—one that refocuses it on how to provide the best care for patients. 

For starters, our insurers should be non-profits. Any dollar that goes to profit for the insurance company is a dollar more that people have to pay for an essential service, or a dollar less going to doctors who deserve the money, and might be able to provide better care if they could see fewer patients. 

Competition is good (which argues against socialized medicine). And there are other ways that we could structure insurance companies to incentivize innovation, without allowing companies to make large profits and/or to pay executives huge salaries, while premiums go up by large amounts each year. 

Second, we must reorient our system towards preventative care. My favorite example has always been insurers who don't pay for orthotics, but who cover the foot surgery that results from not wearing them. But more broadly, we need to reward doctors for catching problems early, and keeping their patients from needing expensive treatments. 

We should find a way to ensure that people get physicals every year (and all of the related tests and screenings) and to reduce premiums for those engaging in healthy lifestyles. 

We also need to reorient the winners and losers in our system. The New York Times has done a fantastic series showing how much more Americans pay for the same drugs and procedures than people do in other industrialized countries (see these pieces on colonoscopies and asthma inhalers). 

Right now, our system benefits some specialists (dermatologists being one), while punishing doctors in less lucrative fields—especially primary care physicians (if we continue on the current trajectory, by 2020 we will have a shortage of more than 20,000 primary care physicians). Most doctors take on huge amounts of debt to go through medical school, and thus, have to look for ways to charge the maximum amount to patients (I'm looking at you podiatrist who had me come in for a follow up visit, and then never examined my foot during that visit). 

Maybe we need to make medical education free to reduce the incentive to cram as many patients in per day, and to perform as many procedures as possible. All of the incentives right now encourage doctors to do more tests, more procedures, etc. 

Second, we need to pass sane hour limits for medical residents— how about a 50 hour work week with 10 hour shift limits? Why should we ask our most important professionals to work crazy hours, when they can't possibly be as sharp in hour 16 of the day, as they we'd like them to be?

I know that some medical professionals argue that this would result in residents who don't receive sufficient experience during their residencies. If that is the case, then the proper solution is to extend residencies, but to pay residents better to reflect how much of their career is spent as residents. 

Others argue that the increase in the number of handoffs caused by shorter resident shifts might hurt patients. But there is a simple solution to this problem— increase the number of doctors and nurses working in a hospital at a time, and stagger shifts. Already nurses have to fight for adequate staffing levels. 

While these proposals might be costly, they might also save money by reducing lawsuits that result from errors made by exhausted doctors and overburdened nurses who've been dealt a rotten hand. More importantly, they may save lives, and prevent errors that doctors and nurses make through no fault of their own. It also is far more humane to the poor residents whose work weeks are inexcusably long. 

These initiatives could also be funded by reallocating funds within the health care system. How should we do that?

I firmly believe that we need government price setting, or at least government using its purchasing power (through Medicare) to negotiate lower prices for procedures and drugs. Drugs shouldn't cost 10 to 20 to even 30x as much as they do in Europe. 

Pharmaceutical companies darkly warn that if we cap the prices on drugs, we'll stifle research and development. Well maybe it's time to stop having Americans pay for the entire world's research and development, while consumers in other countries benefit from these drugs, but pay far less. 

Here's another idea: maybe pharmaceutical companies should stop spending so much on advertising (one study found that drug manufacturers spend $19 on marketing for every $1 they spend on basic research. We also know that drug manufacturers spent $2.4 billion just on television advertising in 2011).

Outside of the First Amendment right to free speech (which likely prevents a law banning such advertisements), I'm honestly quite confused as to why a prescription drug should ever be advertised on television. Whether or not a patient needs a drug should be up to a doctor, and doctors don't find out about new medicines from television ads. 

There is something insidious (not to mention costly) with running ads for prescription drugs in an attempt to get patients to go to doctors and request them. 

If private companies won't have enough incentive to develop new drugs without 30% profit margins, then maybe we need to use public funds to undertake drug development. 

At the very least, it's time to end the practice of re-patenting— in which a company slightly changes a drug, for example making it a chewable pill instead of a pill that the patient swallows, in order to get a new patent that prevents the development of generic alternatives.

The New York Times offered a great example of this process— the federal government ordered the manufacturers of spray products to remove chlorofluorocarbon propellants, which harmed the environment. That allowed for new inhaler designs (even though the drug itself did not change), which allowed manufactures to get a new patent, which led to skyrocketing prices for inhalers. 

This process is unconscionable. It reduces the quality of life for many Americans, creates costly litigation, and drives up our healthcare costs. Those increased costs drive premium increases, keep doctors from seeing fewer patients, etc. 

Overall, we have a system that only sometimes serves patients well, asks more from doctors each day (in return for less compensation), but sees pharmaceutical companies make large profits, and health insurance companies profit (and pay executives multi-million dollar salaries).

That structure gets it all wrong. Healthcare should be affordable and treatment quality shouldn't be driven by wealth. While we must not allow bureaucracy to stifle development of new treatments and medical products, we also cannot let our desire to protect industry profits (under the guise of respect for the free market) harm the vast majority of Americans. 

Additionally, it's time to realize that the free market does not and cannot operate in the medical realm (when a doctor tells you that you need a procedure or a drug do you go and price shop? Is it even possible?)

As such, we must accept rational government intervention to protect the public interest, even if it harms specific companies. This intervention can occur without stifling innovation. Any argument to the contrary is a canard aimed at protecting large salaries and high profit margins.

Do we also need other reforms as well— including some form of tort reform that reduces how often doctors practice defensive medicine, turning hospitals into non-profits, etc— yes. 

We also must consider how much of our medical costs stem from our aversion to things like soda taxes or transfat bans that might limit our freedoms in limited ways, but would result in a healthier population with lower healthcare costs. 

Finally, we also need to have an adult conversation about end of life care (no, fear mongering about death panels doesn't count). According to one study, more than 28% of Medicare spending covers care during the last six months of people's lives. 

These changes might not be perfect— indeed we will need to continue experimenting and innovating as medical care advances and as we try policy ideas out. One problem with the Affordable Care Act is that the politics surrounding it have prevented any tweaks or subsequent improvements. 

Yet, I'm confident that they would improve many elements of our system, and reveal other potential solutions that we could employ in the future. 

 

One Way to Improve Teacher Salaries

Update 9/11/14:

In a bit of propitious timing, Tamara Hiller and Lanae Erickson Hatalsky of the Third Way released a new report today detailing the need for better loan assistance for teachers. They find that only 31.7% of teachers are even aware of federal loan assistance programs for teachers.

Additionally, they cite data showing that more than two-thirds of teachers have student loan debt. Teachers with only a bachelor's degree have an average of $20,000 in loan debt, while teachers with a Masters degree have a whopping $50,000 in loan debt. 

This report simply makes the proposals outlined below that much better of an idea. I also support Hiller and Hatalsky's proposals for streamlining loan assistance programs. 

I've also updated this post to include a link to a new study comparing American teachers to teachers in other countries that was just released. 

In yesterday's post on educational reform, I advocated for higher teacher salaries, and promised to offer one method of doing so today. Realistically, raising local taxes to boost teacher salaries isn't happening. Nor would that address the problem of low paid private school teachers.

As such, I thought that I'd offer a more realistic option that is based upon our history of governing, and our current economic situation. 

In addition to leading to better and more innovative teaching, increased teacher salaries would also provide a myriad of other societal benefits. The promise of increased salaries would also provide a powerful incentive for teachers to give up tenure voluntarily and take part in shaping a merit-based pay structure. 

How can we achieve this goal in our current economic climate? 

Congress should making teaching salaries fully tax exempt. Additionally, any person willing to teach at a school in a high risk area for 5 years ought to have all federal student loans forgiven.

Americans have long preferred what historian Brian Balogh calls Government Out of Sight, and as such, lawmakers frequently implement policy through the tax code (preferring tax breaks to government handouts).

Lobbyists’ superior knowledge of the tax code and legislative process has allowed them to add many tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans without scrutiny. By contrast, exempting teaching salaries from income tax would be a simple provision, easily understandable by the masses, beneficial to the 3.7 million American teachers (this number has likely increased in the last two years), and offering the potential to solve many major problems, including the flight of business overseas, poverty, and a failed educational system, all at a relatively low cost. 

    The educational system is inadequate partly because America’s best and brightest have little incentive to take up teaching because of the noncompetitive teacher salaries (the average starting salary was $36,141 in 2012-2013).

Great teachers could inspire youth who today have little hope for success, and who often turn to crime and delinquency out of desperation and hopelessness. Additionally, many students who don’t turn to crime often pay little attention in school because they simply aren’t inspired by their teachers.

Even the most skilled and experienced teachers can be uninspiring because they are forced to work multiple jobs to make ends meet. Thus they come to school exhausted and simply don’t have the time to lesson plan creatively or reach out to students. While their classes might be sufficient for naturally motivated and talented students, they simply cannot capture the imaginations of students who are less focused, confused, or who find school dry and boring.

In an increasingly competitive global marketplace we can no longer afford to lose these students, who often leave school without the skills they need to be economically competitive (and thus end up dependent on welfare programs). 

To get capable, energized, focused teachers, we must compensate them at a level commensurate with their training (a 2011 study reported that teachers make 14% less than their peers with similar training and educational attainment and a 2010 report indicates that primary school teachers make 67% of what the average college educated American worker makes. A new study also shows that American teachers work harder than their peers in other countries, and get paid less well for their extra effort)

That is a daunting prospect at a time when the local governments responsible for paying teachers are hemorrhaging red ink and voters are increasingly resistant to tax increases. By contrast, exempting teaching salaries from federal income tax would provide a large raise for teachers (an average of $14,095) without strapping local communities with further budget problems. In the scheme of the federal budget, the estimated maximum potential cost of this initiative is small.

At a cost $52.154 billion per year (likely it would cost far less because that estimate assumes that teachers pay a 25% tax rate on the average teacher salary of $56,383 — here's data on teacher salaries by state), the cost would represent roughly 1.4% (see this table for FY2011 government outlays) of what the government spent in FY2011.

Even loan-forgiveness would likely minimally affect the overall federal budget (which is likely be roughly $3.8 trillion in FY2014 including $1.1014 trillion in discretionary spending. This benefit could even be paid for by closing other tax loopholes that provide less widespread benefit to society. 

Unlike the phalanx of corporate loopholes, the provision would be easy to administer; teachers could simply submit evidence of teaching status in lieu of filing a tax return. 

This proposal also offers the added benefit of reducing the glut of recent college graduates struggling to find jobs that allow them to pay college loans (a 2013 report showed that 7 out of 10 college students have student loan debt, with the average debt being $29,400) and move out on their own (a 2012 study shows that 49% of college graduates between 2006-2011 failed to find full time work), thereby benefitting their parents, who have increasingly been asked to support children into their twenties and thirties. 

This proposal even incorporates the ideas of conservatives who oppose most government spending and who advocate school choice. Rather than being a handout, it rewards work that benefits our communities. Additionally, it applies equally to public and private school teachers, thereby benefitting private and parochial schools, without harming public schools and without running afoul of the Constitution’s Establishment Clause. 

 Why teachers and not say, police officers or firefighters? Those crucial jobs go to Americans with less education and training, and therefore, in many cases, fewer school debts, which necessitate higher salaries to survive. In an era of skyrocketing deficits, we must prioritize government dollars, and in a competitive marketplace, the only way to get our best young talents to eschew business, i-banking, or law for teaching is to pay them competitively.

Finally, unlike many other critical public service jobs, teaching is an investment in America’s future—better teachers will result in a more skilled work-force that can grow the economy, thereby resulting in more revenue to better compensate other important public servants. 

America is at a crossroads and the key to a brighter future is an inspired and well educated population, and this plan would help to achieve that goal.

A few more links detailing how out of whack our teacher salaries are, both in terms of what other professionals make and what teachers in other countries make: 

Mckinsey Report 

The Teacher Salary Project

A Prescription for Education Reform

The American education system from pre-K through graduate school is a mess. Countless problems abound, and rarely do I hear policymakers propose new or creative solutions to the problem. 

Their proposals are typically warmed over standbys like more accountability provided through standardized testing (which can produce mind numbingly boring classes aimed at getting students to memorize information that will appear on the tests). 

The most "innovative" recent idea may be the campaign led by the former journalist Campbell Brown and others to end teacher tenure and provide merit based pay. While I think an end to tenure and the transition to merit based pay is a great idea, I can't stand these groups.

They  pretend as though ending teacher tenure will magically fix our education system and transform inner-city public schools. In reality, tenure reform is only one element of a comprehensive solution. 

By itself, ending tenure will just allow localities to cut high salaried teachers, and replace them with cheaper, less experienced teachers (though they'll assure you that that isn't why the teachers are being let go) every time the local populace is angry about tax levels, or costs go up elsewhere (local politicians aren't any more courageous than national ones).

But the end of tenure as part of a total rethinking of our educational system might offer hope. As such, I offer my prescription based on 25 years inside of classrooms as a student and teacher. 

1. Abolish tenure— too often everyone from administrators to students to teachers to parents knows who the bad teachers are. I had high school teachers in 2001 or 2002 who were still using tests from the 1970s.

Once when I asked a teacher who was a former union official about bad teachers, he replied, "we know who they are, but the job of the union is to defend them." This sort of tone deaf thinking explains why teacher's unions and tenure, which serve very valuable functions, have gotten such a bad rap. 

2. Dramatically increase teacher salaries and tie pay to teaching quality— I'll offer one possible method for increasing salaries in a separate blog later today, but I don't see how we expect to attract the best and brightest in society to teaching if teachers are paid less than just about every other type of professional.

There is no substitute for attracting our best minds to teaching, because these people are more likely to be creative and think outside the box, instead of teaching to the test and offering the sorts of boring classes that we all hated in grade school. 

3. Less testing— I'll share a story. I had fantastic Spanish teachers in high school. We learned tons of Spanish. But they used a method that involved tons of pop quizzes and produced all sorts of stress. As such, when I got a 5 on the AP Spanish exam, and placed out of my college language requirement, I said hasta la vista to Spanish.

Who needed the stress and rote memorization? (I can see some of you out there shaking your heads, and thinking that I need to toughen up, but teaching someone something, and getting them invested in and passionate about a subject are two different things).

Standardized tests take valuable educational time away from students and teachers. They have their place, especially in elementary school when we need to ensure that all students learn the basics of reading, mathematics, science, and history.

Nonetheless, we have so overdone testing, as to potentially cripple our best teachers' ability to engage students (ask some really great teachers what they think about standardized tests if you don't believe me). 

4. More creative teaching and less one sized fits all education— the problem with so much testing is that it produces boring classes. It's easier to drill students on content than to let them blog, or to have them perform exercises that put them into the shoes of historical figures to evaluate their decisions. 

But drilling and memorizing are unlikely to spark a passion for the subject matter. Additionally,  there is only so much content that can be memorized, and over time, much of it slips away. We ought to be focusing on producing creative, adaptive thinkers, who can read critically, write well, and apply knowledge to new situations. 

Far better are methods that recognize the individuality of each student and offer them the opportunity to learn the same skills through real world experiences. 

If you force everyone into the same box, you risk losing students who might not be all that stimulated by the traditional course tracks, but who might be captivated by equally rigorous classes on different subjects, or by different ways of learning. 

What do I mean? Philadelphia's Workshop School (http://www.workshopschool.org and http://www.npr.org/blogs/ed/2014/07/22/327062946/getting-things-done-at-the-workshop-school) is a perfect example of a place that gets it.

Students have some traditional classes. But they also learn traditional subjects through experiential, project based learning (for example turning a closest into a recording studio, or building a miniature solar panel). Students generate their own questions and work together to solve them. 

To provide an example of my own, students who are passionate about food could build a business plan for a restaurant, grow their produce in the school garden, learn cooking techniques, etc. This exercise could involve skills from the traditional english, math, computer science, home economics, biology, and environmental studies classes. 

The downsides of this model are that it could be quite expensive, and it doesn't lend itself to traditional metrics like pen and paper tests. Financially, if such education, at least at the high school level, produces a more creative populace, it's not inconceivable that it might lead to a more robust economy, which would in turn produce greater tax revenue.

It might also require reexamination of our government spending. Some programs might need to be cut. But, again, we spend millions each year on programs designed to solve problems caused by our failed educational system, so we might save money in the long run. 

In terms of evaluation, I'm puzzled by the use of pen and paper examinations in general. They aren't how we're evaluated on a day to day basis in life. So why not create more realistic assessments?

Why not ask local professionals to contribute to schools by assessing students' projects in the way lawyers judge moot courts? To return to the example above, a local chef, an advertising executive, and a farmer might evaluate the work done by the students. 

What I know for sure is that the classes that most excite my college political science and history students are not the ones where I lecture at them. They are the classes where students get to do activities that make them think and debate, and that often help them to learn about the political process by experiencing it. 

5. Regionalize school funding. Do we really expect students to succeed in schools without libraries, nurses, guidance counselors, and countless other essentials? Some suburban school districts may spend 1.5-2x as much per student as urban school districts do.

To give examples from my own area, in the last year we have data, 2011-2012, suburban Lower Merion, Radnor, and Cheltenham spent $22,140, $18,117, and $17,922 respectively per pupil, while Philadelphia spent $12,351, in spite of having more impoverished students who often need more educationally because of deficits brought about by poverty)

Given the historical reasons that variances in property tax bases developed between cities and suburbia (white flight, redlining, restrictive covenants, and all the legal machinations tied to them—see Kevin Kruse's White Flight and Tom Sugrue's Sweet Land of Liberty among many others for details on these processes), this disparity in per pupil spending is immoral, and fails to reflect the fact that suburbanites take advantage of the city around which they live. 

6. Stop viewing charter schools as the solution to urban education problems. I like the general concept of charter schools. But the current model is broken. They divert funding from traditional schools without reducing costs for those schools  (for example, if each school in a district lost 25 students to a charter school, they would likely still need to offer the same number of classes, but without the funding attached to those 25 students). 

Additionally, charter schools should be used solely to experiment with innovative models and methods (for example something like the workshop school discussed above, or a performing arts high school).

But regular schools run by private charter school companies just make traditional schools try to do more with less. That's not to say that mismanagement isn't a problem in schools. It is in many places. But charter schools don't solve that problem. At most they are putting a band on a gash that really needs 10 stitches. 

7. Get corporate America more involved. Companies put their names on everything from stadiums to subway stops. Why not invest in schools? Lots of companies could use the positive PR boost from donating to local schools and/or buying naming rights to parts of a school. It's one method to generate more funding for our schools without raising taxes.  

Is this prescription perfect? No. But if we gave teachers more latitude to innovate and paid them at a level commiserate with what other professionals make, I suspect that we would solve many of our educational problems. 

It's mystifying that we so dramatically under compensate a profession doing one of society's most important jobs (which is why I'll devote an entire separate blog to one potential solution). 

It's also odd that so many of our educational methods remain static even as we see that creativity and innovation are the keys to success in 21st century (i.e. Apple and Google). 

 

Our Fundamental Policy Incoherence

For more than 30 years Americans have been fundamentally incoherent in their policy preferences. They have supported the Republican drive for low taxes, while also displaying no interest in the sorts of spending cuts required by such tax cutting. The result has been massive deficits.

Dating back to the late 1970s, the unending GOP push for lower taxes has been premised upon supply sided economics— essentially the notion that cutting taxes could lead to equal or higher tax revenue because it would spur economic growth, and/or that it would force policymakers to cut spending. 

The first rationale has been thorough debunked over the thirty five years since then presidential candidate George H.W. Bush dismissed it as voodoo economics. The second theory has proven to be equally misguided because of the whims of the American public. 

Even today, as large segments of the public express concern over budget deficits (though their concern admittedly comes and goes), Americans blanche at the thought of large scale tax increases that cover more than the wealthiest members of society. Yet, they also won't countenance real entitlement reforms and spending cuts that would substantially reduce the benefits provided by Medicare and other government programs. 

In theory, they support spending cuts, but whenever pollsters ask about specific programs, the vast majority of the most costly programs appear to be sacrosanct to the voters.

In essence, Americans would like to eat a giant steak, fries, and dessert every night (except for the nights they substitute a meal consisting entirely of items originating from the deep fryer) , have three drinks per day (and not Michelob Ultra or gin and diet tonic), never enter a gym, and maintain perfect figures. 

Politicians react to this confused public sentiment by doing what they always do: refusing to make tough choices, and adopting the rhetoric of their base supporters, who are most likely to vote in primary elections (today's politicians aren't exactly auditioning for a slot in a sequel to Profiles in Courage). 

The end result today, especially during divided government (which we've had for all but 8 years and 5 months since 1980), is gridlock. Republicans refuse tax increases and demand spending cuts, and Democrats demand domestic spending increases and higher taxes on the wealthiest Americans and investment income.

At one point during the 1990s, divided government resulted in compromise legislation (the 1990 Budget Act and the 1997 Balanced Budget and Taxpayer Relief Act) that neither party liked, but which eventually led to a balanced budget. 

Today, however, Republicans find tax increases so anathema that even when President Obama offered a deal in which spending and entitlement cuts would have constituted 70% of a massive deficit reduction package, the Republican leadership refuse and broke off talks (See this fantastically reported New York Times piece for details on the negotiations).

The parties are even less responsible when given unified control of government. Democrats largely ignore deficits, spend what appears to be necessary on domestic programs, and eschew tax increases, lest they risk being accused of being tax and spend liberals. 

Republicans cut taxes without making the kinds of tough programatic cuts that risk accusations of heartlessness and substantial political damage. In fact, George W. Bush and a Republican Congress actually ADDED an expensive prescription drug benefit to Medicare while also enacting two massive tax cuts and fighting two wars. 

Who is at fault? Arguably Republicans bear far more responsibility for the current deficit situation. After all, they have repeatedly cut taxes without concomitant spending cuts. They also, amazingly, rejected a deal that gave them 70% of a loaf at a time when they only controlled the House of Representatives (in contrast to Democrats who controlled the White House and the Senate). That's like being offered 70% of the food at an expensive dinner where you will pay 33% of the bill. 

Democrats are not without fault, as they rarely seem concerned with making tough choices that would let them fund their policy priorities, but might risk political costs (like eliminating farm subsidies, reducing the carceral state, etc). They also seem to be unable to convince Americans that government can represent a positive force in society and ought to be adequately funded by the taxpayers. 

But the better answer is that the American public bears the blame for the situation. At some point, Americans are going to have to make a choice: do we want to be a society of low taxes, but sparse government benefits, or do we want to be a society with higher taxes and a more robust welfare state (not to mention functional infrastructure) a la the industrialized nations of Europe? 

 

 

One Set of Election Laws

The United States needs one, uniform set of election laws for federal elections. 

By now, one sentence in, many conservatives are apoplectic. They are yearning to point out that Article 1, Section 4 of the Constitution quite clearly states, "The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof." 

I'm well aware of this provision and it is precisely why the federal government cannot just mandate one set of electoral rules absent a Constitutional Amendment. 

That doesn't mean, however, that the country wouldn't benefit from having one set of rules. A federal set of rules would end the game being played in states across the country in which Republicans attempt to implement stricter electoral rules and Democrats seek more lenient rules. The loser then appeals to the Courts to play referee (see today's decision halting implementation of voting changes in Ohio for an example of how this process plays out: http://tinyurl.com/mlthj9l). 

Partisans use buzzwords like reducing voter fraud or making it easier for people to vote. But at its core, both parties are seeking to manipulate the electoral system to benefit their party. Democrats want longer voting periods, more lenient registration rules, etc. because members of their coalition (minorities and young voters) vote in higher numbers when it is easier to do so. Republicans, by contrast, like voter ID laws because they reduce the number of minority and young people who vote. 

After all, if the goal was simply reducing voter fraud why would North Carolina's legislature have prohibited the use of college IDs, which have a picture and an expiration date, from serving as a form of acceptable identification for voting purposes? Showing these IDs would make it almost impossible to commit in person voter fraud. 

The crazy thing about these battles is that I see a very easy compromise that would allow both parties to get something that they want from the election laws.

Democrats should concede on an identification requirement to vote. Many of their legitimate concerns about such laws can be mitigated by making the documents necessary to obtain an ID free and readily accessible, and by implementing the law in, say, 5 years. 

As Republicans appropriately point out, there are a bevy of activities in society that require identification. An interview subject even reminded me that Democrats required people to present photo ID to enter their 2012 convention. Additionally, the bipartisan Baker-Carter commission recommended that Americans present an ID to vote. 

In exchange, Republicans should agree to online voter registration, same day registration, and expanded early voting. After all, you can buy just about anything on the internet, and we are regularly required to provide Social Security numbers, credit card numbers, etc. online.

In an increasingly busy society in which employers require longer hours, jobs require more travel, and people struggle to achieve everything that they need to get done each day, expanded voting opportunities also make sense.  

Expanded voting opportunities would also reduce the lines at polling places, which can stretch for hours in some places in hotly contested elections. 

Both sides would get something that they want and the system would be fairer because all Americans would vote under one set of rules. This uniformity seems especially desirable for presidential elections where, currently, some Americans vote weeks before others for the same office. 

The law should also encompass the recommendations of the bipartisan Ginsberg-Bauer commission. We need to take politics out of election administration to the greatest degree possible, and these recommendations would help accomplish that goal. 

How to achieve such an electoral scheme without running afoul of the Constitutional provision mentioned above? Use the carrot of federal funding to motivate cash-strapped states to adopt the uniform set of rules. The federal government has used this method to achieve many public policy goals (linking highway funding to the state drinking age, etc). 

What would an ideal system look like in my view? Americans would start voting 12 days before the first Tuesday after a Monday in November. Bowing to tradition, we would close the election period on that Tuesday. 

This period would mean that all Americans voted with the same basic set of information, while allowing flexibility for people who have work commitments. It would also provide two weekends of early voting, which would make it easier for the most time strapped Americans (especially those working multiple jobs) to vote. 

Americans should be able to register online and/or at the polls on election day. The technology exists to allow states to implement this recommendation. All Americans would also eventually have to show photo ID to vote. 

I'd also like to see a system that automatically restores the voting rights of all non-violent felons upon release from prison (and which provides a process for violent felons to petition for the restoration of their voting rights). This recommendation seems fair. 

Is this scheme likely to be implemented? No. But it would be beneficial to the country. It's also precisely the sort of compromise that Congress used to achieve with regularity, but today struggles to make happen.