27 June 2018

New York Public Schools: Spend too much, deliver too little

Stephen Kershnar
New York Schools: Overspending and Underdelivering
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
June 25, 2018

            When considering New York’s spending on K-12 schools, it is worth considering Stein’s Law: If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.  

New York spends a staggering sum on education. In the 2018-2019 academic year, according to Syracuse.com, roughly, the average (median) spending per student in upstate New York, outside of the five major cities, will be $26,000 per student. The five major cities (Buffalo, New York City, Rochester, Syracuse, and Yonkers) don’t vote on school budgets. It would be cheaper for taxpayers to give parents a new Honda Accord per child per year than to pay for his or her education. In comparison, the site reports, the U.S. average was $11,000 per student in 2015 (the most recent U.S. Census data available).

According to E. J. McMahon of the Empire Center, using 2016 data, the salaries and benefits of instructors drive New York’s out-of-control spending. New York spent an incredible $16,000 per student on these salaries and benefits. This is an incredible 120% above the national average of $7,000. In fact, McMahon points out, New York’s spending in this category alone exceeded the total per-pupil spending of all but six states.

When it comes to spending on bureaucracy, New York is no slacker. McMahon points out that in the category of “support services,” which measures the bureaucratic overhead of central and school administration, New York spent $6,000 per student. This was 7th in the nation and 49% above the national average.

On a per capita basis, New York state taxpayers are groaning in pain to carry this load. Relative to personal income, McMahon reports, New York’s elementary and secondary education spent $52.87 per $1,000 in personal income. This ranks it 3rd, behind Alaska and Vermont. Many New York counties have painful property taxes.

Nor is the out-of-control spending due to New York’s being richer than other states. This can be seen if we compare it to its neighbors. On a per-pupil basis, McMahon reports, New York’s school expenditures were 22% higher than New Jersey’s, 18% higher than Connecticut’s, and 43% higher than Massachusetts’ expenditures. These states are noticeably richer than New York in terms of per capita income (whether average or median).

For all this spending, New York gives its students a below average education. U.S. News & World Report rates it 31st in preparing kids for college. This ranking is generous as it ranks 33rd in National Assessment of Educational Progress math and reading scores and an embarrassing 39th in high school graduation.
The odd thing is that there is no good reason to socialize the cost of education at all, let alone at this princely level. Parents are responsible for paying for their children’s food, housing, and medicine unless they are poor or lower middle class and then they are given various forms of welfare (consider, for example, food stamps, subsidized school meals, Section 8 vouchers, and Medicaid). Even when the state subsidizes these goods and services, it usually pays private businesses, such as supermarkets, to provide them.

At the very least, parents should have to pay tuition for each child who goes to public school. Ditto on extracurricular activities.  

It is unclear why states force taxpayers to fork over money to parents so that they don’t have to pay for their own children’s education. We don’t do this for children’s food, housing, and medicine. The economic arguments for education socialism are surprisingly weak. As George Mason economist Bryan Caplan points, out, these arguments tend to fall into three categories. First, parents have too little money to pay for their children’s education. Second, parents are foolish or have bad values and so don’t care enough about their children’s education. Third, education benefits people other than the student (that is, has positive externalities) and so it is efficient to subsidize it. Even if these arguments were not empirically unsupported and insulting, it is odd that they are applied to education and not food, medicine, and shelter.

Clearly, New York needs to sharply cut the number of teachers and bureaucracy. There is no reason for taxpayers to have to pay for an army of in-house guidance counselors, nurses, psychologists, etc. when most parents would never do so if they were to have to pay for their children’s education. The same is true for classes in areas not central to being well-educated or productive. These include foreign languages, home economics, gym, music, studio art, and vocational education classes for students on the college track. Ditto for teams, orchestras, and plays. Even if you think instruction in these areas is worthwhile, it doesn’t follow that taxpayers should be the ones to pay for it. Again, if most parents would judge something for their children not worth spending money on, then taxpayers should not be required to do so.  

High school students, at least the better ones, should be put in college classes as soon as possible. There is no reason for better students to take calculus, chemistry, history, or physics in their senior year rather than taking these classes at a local college. Writing in The Atlantic, John Tierney claims that even AP classes don’t hold a candle to equivalent college classes.  From a taxpayer’s perspective, the subsidy per college student is a fraction of that of a K-12 student.

As an incentive for school districts to regain control of their spending, the state should cease subsidizing school districts that aren’t poor. There is no reason for taxpayers from the Adirondacks to subsidize schools in wealthy parts of Nassau and Westchester. The federal government should cut off all education aid to states that aren’t poor, such as Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York. This can be done in part by ending subsidies and in part by preventing property taxes from being deducted from taxable income.

New York spends too much on education, grinds down taxpayers to do so, and gets poor results. This cannot go on forever.

14 June 2018

Masterpiece Cake: Justice Kennedy Embarrasses the Court

Stephen Kershnar
Masterpiece Cake: Christian Expression as a Tar Baby
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
June 11, 2018

            A week ago, the Supreme Court decided Masterpiece Cakeshop, LTD v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, 584 U.S. ___ (2018). It made an ungodly mess of this case and future ones like it.

            The case involved a Colorado bakery owned and operated by Jack Phillips. Phillips refused to sell a cake celebrating gay marriage. The gay couple who requested the cake argued that refusing to design, make, and sell them a customized wedding cake violated Colorado’s anti-discrimination law. Colorado sanctioned Phillips. He responded by arguing that the sanctions violated his rights of free speech and free exercise of religion.

            Writing for the majority of the Supreme Court, Anthony Kennedy held that the commission that evaluated the case failed to give Phillips’ religious views fair and neutral consideration and so violated his right to free exercise of religion. The Court noted two types of evidence for its conclusion. First, the commission made hostile statements. One Colorado official stated that religious beliefs cannot legitimately be carried into the public sphere or commercial domain. Another said that religion has been used to justify slavery and the holocaust and “it is one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use to – to use their religion to hurt others.”

Second, the commission treated Phillips very differently from how it treated William Jack. Jack requested two cakes from three bakeries. One requested cake would have said “God hates sin. Psalm 45:7” on one side and “Homosexuality is a detestable sin. Leviticus 18:2” on the other. The second requested cake had the words “God loves sinners” and “Christ died for us. Romans 5:8,” as well as an image of two groomsmen covered by a red X. The bakeries refused to make the cakes. Jack filed a discrimination complaint against the bakeries and the Commission ruled against him.

In a cowardly decision, Kennedy failed to indicate how such anti-discrimination laws would be evaluated when they ran into freedom of religion cases in the future in which such hostility was not shown or, at least, not as obvious. Worse, Kennedy, didn’t even address Phillips’ right to free speech. These failures make this case have little precedential value. Consider the free speech issue.

First, the Court didn’t address whether Phillips’ cake-making is expression and this will produce a mess. The state of Colorado embarrassed itself when it decided that making a cake opposing gay marriage is expressive but one celebrating gay marriage is not (Jacks’ vs. Phillips’ cases). Justice Thomas noted that, as a Constitutional matter, many activities are expressive. Precedent establishes that this includes excluding gays from a public parade, flag burning, nude dancing, refusing to salute the American flag, and wearing a black armband to protest the Vietnam War.

Thomas also observed that an expressive activity need not communicate a particular message to be constitutionally protected. The Constitutional right of free speech, he argues, clearly protects Jackson Pollack’s painting, Arnold Schoenberg’s music, and Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky verse even though none of it has a particular message. Given that all of these activities are expressive, Phillips creatively designing and making a cake celebrating gay marriage is undoubtedly expressive. This is even more obvious because the cake might have a particular message (“Gay marriage is beautiful”) explicitly written on it. This is certainly how Phillips viewed his cake artistry.

The Court has repeatedly held that someone’s right to free speech is not diminished because he expresses himself in a commercial context. See Pacific Gas & Electric v. Public Utilities Commission (1986) and Virginia Bd. of Pharmacy v. Virginia Citizens Consumer Council, Inc. (1976). So whether Phillips’ cake-making is expression is independent of whether it is commercially done.  

Second, Kennedy’s principles will make these cases an ungodly mess. Kennedy asserted that the Constitution permits anti-discrimination laws because gay people may not be treated as inferior in dignity or worth. This suggests the test is whether a business is treating gay people in a degrading manner. Yet, it is black letter law that the government may not decide what opinions are orthodox (permitted) or what is offensive. See, for example, West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette (1943) and Matal v. Tam (2017). These principles conflict.

This area is murkier when one considers that the Court has said that the right to free speech protects degrading expressions toward gays. Examples include preventing them from marching in a public parade, dismissing them from boy scouts, or subjecting them to “God Hates Fags” signs. Again, the mere fact that expression is commercial does not weaken its free-speech protection.

Which is it then? Do people have an unfettered right to express themselves or may they express themselves, at least in a commercial context, only when doing so does not degrade gays. Importantly, deciding which messages degrade gays and thus are not constitutionally protected is exactly the sort of viewpoint discrimination that the Court has said repeatedly said that federal and state governments may not do.

Third, it is clear that the Phillips’ and Jack’s cases parallel each other. Both involve the refusal to express a message with which the bakers disagreed. Both involve a refusal that is independent of the person who made the request (that is, it is independent of whether the requester is a member of a protected class). So are bakers required to make both gay wedding cakes and “God hates fags” cakes? We don’t know.

This case is a mess. The Court evaluated commercial expression by whether it has a degrading message toward gays at the same time holding that the state may not evaluate the truth or offensiveness of a message. The Court lowered the bar for shutting down commercial speech while at the same time it gives the same protection to commercial and non-commercial speech. It allowed bakers and other craftsmen to avoid expressing ideas they find offensive in some cases but not others. Kennedy and several of his brethren embarrassed themselves.

01 June 2018

The Psychology of Me Too Bad Guys

Stephen Kershnar
The Psychology of Me Too Bad Guys
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
May 28, 2018

            Following the allegations against Harvey Weinstein, the Me Too movement burst forth. The movement was designed to publicize and reduce sexual violence and sexual harassment. It is associated with a hashtag (#MeToo) that in October 2017exploded onto social media.

            The movement highlighted allegations against over two hundred famous people. The alleged bad guys include many well-known leftists. Alleged rapists include former president Bill Clinton, hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, and movie producer Harvey Weinstein. Others are alleged to have committed violence, sexual battery (for instance, unconsented-to touching), and sexual harassment. This includes politicians (for example, former president George H. W. Bush and former senator Al Franken), actors (Ben Affleck and Dustin Hoffman), members of media (NBC’s Matt Lauer and PBS’s Charlie Rose), and others in the entertainment industry (David Copperfield and NPR’s Garrison Keillor).

My interest here is in only in those who are alleged to have committed multiple acts of rape, violence, or sexual battery, despite having repeatedly proclaimed the need to protect women from such mistreatment. Consider, for example, Clinton, Franken, Lauer, and Schneiderman. Some have even directed or acted in sensitive portrayals of violence against women (for example, Oliver Stone).

These men are very different from those who are merely alleged to have behaved rudely by repeatedly propositioning women, making sexual comments in the workplace, or doing inappropriate things like exposing themselves. Men who are alleged merely to have rude in these ways include, for example, Michael Douglas, Richard Dreyfuss, and NBC’s Tom Brokaw. In what follows, let us ignore those who were merely rude.   

What is interesting is how people who decry such behavior could themselves have done it. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman ripped into Harvey Weinstein for doing some of the same things he was alleged to have been doing. 

            Here are the issues regarding this seeming inconsistency. First, were Clinton, Schneiderman, etc. able to control their actions or were they overcome with lust or anger? Second, did they believe their public statements on women and social justice? Third, did they think that their actions contradicted their statements?

            On the first issue, the answer is almost undoubtedly “yes.” George Mason economist Bryan Caplan argues that these guys (for example, Schneiderman) were repeat offenders. If they knew they had a problem, they could have gotten help or taken precautions to avoid being overcome by lust or anger. If they didn’t, they probably weren’t and didn’t see themselves as out of control.

            On the second issue, again, the likely answer is “yes.” These men (for example, Clinton, Lauer, and Schneiderman) have been publicly saying and acting on these social-justice principles for decades. It is likely that their family, friends, and surrounding ruling-class members strongly believe in them. When people consistency say and publicly act on principles and when their family, friends, and peers all accept them, they likely do as well.

            The third issue, then, is whether men who could control their actions and believed that it is wrong and bad to rape, hit, and (without consent) grope women thought they were violating their own principles. One view such men might believe in is that the relevant principles apply to government not individuals. This would explain why some politicians support massive government redistribution of wealth, but do not give much to charity (sometimes until castigated for failing to do so). I doubt this is what these men thought. Such a view is rare. Also, we find no evidence in their statements, actions, education, or that of their family and friends. The position is made even less likely by its intellectual shakiness.

            A second view is that these men didn’t think they were doing the sort of violent behavior toward women that they public condemned. They might not have thought this because they rationalized much of what they did as in-effect consented to or permitted by the rules of the game when everyday women seek the attention of celebrities. This ability to rationalize such violence as not being rape or battery or, at least, not wrong is likely enhanced by their narcissism. Some of it might also have been part of rough sex, although this is not yet clear.

The lack of a conflict between what one says and does is also likely enhanced by the ability to self-deceive oneself about other clearly immoral behavior. For example, my guess is that Bill and Hillary didn’t see themselves as doing anything wrong with regard to the corrupt payoffs that occurred in the cattle-future, Whitewater, Castle Grande, and Clinton Foundation matters. If they didn’t see anything wrong in such corruption, it is a small step to think that Bill Clinton didn’t see violating Juanita Broaddrick and groping Kathleen Willey as a big deal. My guess is that a plurality of these guys rationalize away or deceive themselves in these ways.

             Still others likely suffered from weakness of the will. This occurs when a person judges it would be best to do one thing rather than a second, believes he can do either, and yet intentionally does the second. It is mysterious how this can occur if, as is often assumed, people intend to do what they judge it would be best to do. Still, many of us have had the experience of taking another slice of pizza after we tell ourselves that we’ve had enough. My guess is that a minority of the Me Too attackers fit into this category. They’re probably similar to priests who had consensual sex with teenage boys while believing that this is not what God wanted them to do.

A third category of rapists (for example, Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby) are likely so disturbed that their thoughts are barely recognizable to normal folk.

My guess, then, is that the Me Too bad guys could control their actions, believed in leftist principles, and often rationalized what they did. Others likely acted from weakness of the will.