Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Must we exclude the people to save the people?

Purple Wisconsin blogger Jim Rowen directs us to state Rep. Chris Taylor's diary of her attendance at the Chicago meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Conference. The left's obsession with ALEC as some kind of dark and secret conspiracy is, at best, silly and, at worst, a calculated bit of cynicism. Jim Rowen and Rep. Taylor know that there are many exchanges, forums and organizations that provide the type of networking and expertise for liberals that ALEC provides for conservatives. IF ALEC was operating in the "dark," it would have hardly have allowed Rep. Taylor into its bowels.

What struck me about Rep. Taylor's diary was her description of an exchange with someone promoting a constitutional amendment to require Congressional approval of federal regulations. She doesn't identify the man, but I am passingly familiar with the idea and pretty sure that I know who she spoke to.  She's either missing the point or deliberately burying it.

Rep. Taylor seems to think that "regulatory reform" would be an odd thing to put in the Constitution and is something that "the people" would not - and should not - care about. She should pay a bit more attention to constitutional theory and history.

Over the past fifty years or so, there has been a judicial erosion of the so-called "non-delegation" doctrine. The doctrine formally states that Congress may not delegate legislative authority to administrative agencies.  It is rooted in the recognition that it is Congress, the elected representatives of the people, who are to pass the laws and embodies the principle that democratic decision-making may not be frustrated by delegating this power to unelected federal agencies.

The problem is that the courts have not done very well in enforcing this principle, permitting Congress to authorize agency rule-making through broad directives that provide little guidance and few, in any limitations. In doing so, it has gutted the "anti-delegation" doctrine and gone a great way to "remove" the people from the process of making law. The agencies effectively determine policy by adopting regulations that have the force of law and that Congress never voted for.

Now if you want a lot of meddling by the federal government and ideological "experts" in our national life, this is no problem at all. Regulatory agencies, operating, for the most part, out of the spotlight and far more responsive to special interests and advocacy organizations than "the people," will manage to do things that could never get through Congress.

But to defend that view in the name of "the people' is passingly strange.

Cross posted at Purple Wisconsin

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Satan, speech and stickers

Yesterday, Dan Bice wrote about Steven Krieser,an official in the Walker administration who was fired for saying that when he thinks about illegal immigrants, he sees  "Satan" in a Facebook post. Gov. Walker promptly fired him.

Did he deserve to be fired? Yes. I dislike - really dislike - the mandatory paroxysms of disgusts that we are supposed to exhibit whenever someone makes a comment suggesting unapproved forms of bigotry (not all bigotries are unapproved). I think we are far too willing to judge a life by one ill considered statement.

Having said that, while it is preposterous to label people who believe that illegal immigration is harmful and should be stopped "racist," it seems equally wrong (if distressingly common) to turn a legitimate policy dispute into a battle between the forces of good and evil ("I see Satan") and to dehumanize illegal immigrants by likening them to the forces of darkness. It is uncivil, un-Christian and miles over the top. I might even say that there is a whiff of sulphur in the tendency of people to - in this case, literally - demonize their opponents.

So I'm sympathetic to the Governor. If one of my employees had done something like that, I'd be inclined to do the same thing.

Is it legal? I think so, but the question deserves to be asked. Firing a public employee is state action and we must consider how it squares with the First Amendment.  Under what circumstances can a public employee be fired for his or here speech?

You might think that, since no one has a right to a government job, the state can fire someone for saying something gobsmackingly stupid and, for many years, that's how the United States Supreme Court saw it as well.

But in more recent years, the Court has recognized First Amendment limits on the ability of the government to fire people based on their speech. Essentially, public employees have a right to speak on matters of public concern in their private capacity without adverse employment consequences - unless their speech substantially interferes with his or her capacity to do the jobs.

Thus, it was unconstitutional to file a lower level government employee for stating, shortly after the failed assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan, that she hoped they "get him" the next time.

This evolution of doctrine probably won't help Krieser. I don't know the particulars of Kreiser's job. But if he is a political employee or policy maker (as seems to be the case), it may well be that the expression of attitudes that are inconsistent with administration policy or which place the administration in a bad light do substantially interfering with his ability to do his job. (This suggests that lower level public employees can spew hate and, as a quick review of Wisconsin political blogs demonstrate, some do.)

Kreiser's comments were apparently prompted by an on-line discussion of the sale of a mock "hunting license" sticker or illegal immigrants at a Mobil station in Germantown. The "license" is an astonishing bit of dreck - hunting human beings is not funny. Whoever runs this particular Mobil station in Germantown is, at best, a first class idiot.

Rep. Gordon Hintz asks if we  "could not sell these stickers in 2013?" The answer is easy. The First Amendment allows us to sell them (the sticker does not amount to the type of imminent incitement of violence or offer to commit violence that might be constitutionally prescribed).

But we shouldn't. Again, I think reasonable people can differ about immigration issues. But I do not understand why it is funny to joke about shooting people because one doesn't like what they're doing. Not only does the sticker reflect poorly on station management, it insults the station's customers.

No, I don't think that the sticker is going to "cause" people to go out and commit violence but it's just one more contributor to the degradation of the public culture. It makes one long for the days before gas stations became convenience stores. 

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Getting beyond insults in the school choice debate

My latest Culture Con column in WI Interest can be found here. In it, I suggest that attitudes toward school choice tend to be rooted in pre-existing attitudes about the value of individual choice, diverse approaches and the competence of public entities to discern the best possible way to deliver a service.

Madison school board member Edwin Hughes doesn't like it. He writes a post claiming to get beyond "Esenberg and insults" by dismissing my column as "smug," "simplistic" and deserving of "mockery."

I'd hate to see how Mr. Hughes conducts himself when he isn't so committed to "civility" and "engagement"and "getting beyond insults."

He shouldn't be so sure of himself. The point of my column was this: Voucher opponents accept, in an almost theological way, that an entity called "choice" schools do "no better" than public schools and drain money" from public schools. There are numbers that support this view, but there is also substantial evidence - contained in the most comprehensive evaluation of the program - that choice schools do achieve, by some measures, superior results.

More fundamentally,  it makes little sense to view "choice schools" as a monolithic entity. They are not a "system" and consist of a variety of diverse schools adopting very different approaches. Some of very good. Others are not.

Once you recognize that the facts are confounded and the results differ from school to school, the question becomes whether low income families should be empowered to choose what might, for them, be a better option.

Mr. Hughes thinks not and apparently rejects my suggestion that his view could possibly be based on any of his foundational beliefs about the way in which the world works and his assessment of the relative merits of centralized and collective - versus diverse and individual - decision-making. His argument consists of two moves.

The first is to provide his readers with a - I'm sorry - rather sophomoric caricature of my point. He thinks I'm calling choice opponents grey apparatchiks reminiscent of Apple's old "drones" commercial from 1984 while choice proponents are free thinking rebels ready to rock and roll. This, he says, "invites mockery" and it might if that's what I said. But it's not. It is reframing my argument in this cartoonish way that is itself "simplistic."

Let me try to put it in a way that Mr. Hughes might like more. Choice opponents tend to place greater value on equality of result and less on individual liberty. They are more optimistic about  the ability of whomever we choose to recognize as elites to solve problems and less optimistic about the likelihood that solutions will emerge from something approximating a market, i.e., a diversity of approaches in which some succeed and others fail. They are more favorably disposed to a common secularity than what will necessarily be a more diverse (and potentially divisive) collection of faith based approaches. They are more optimistic about democratic decision-making and less concerned about the ways in which public choice theory tells us that such processes (particularly in an area like education) can be captured by special interests.

His second move is to offer a defense of the very philosophical predispositions that I suggest characterize opposition to school choice.

He begins, for example, by saying that choice opponents are concerned with quality of education and the way in which it is delivered.  Well, yes, so do we all. But "caring" cannot in and of itself tell us whether the best way to "care" is to confer, as far as low income families are concerned, an effective monopoly on a single entity.  To believe that a monopoly can offer the best option for everyone is to place a great deal of faith in the capacity of the monopolist to choose wisely.

In other words, as I said, one must be more favorably disposed to centralized decision-making.

He then makes the "diversity" gambit. It is, he says, important for students to be compelled to attend school with a diverse collection of classmates by which I take it he means students who look different but will be socialized to - at least in some ways that ought not be questioned - think alike.

Perhaps. But, at least in Milwaukee, both choice schools and public schools are predominantly minority and low income. They may differ in that a large number of choice schools incorporate (within certain limitations) a faith based component to their instruction. In other words, the distinctive is not that the choice schools do not "look like" their public school counterparts as much as it is that they think differently.

Again, whether you think this is a good or bad thing will depend on whether you value, for low income persons, the ability to choose a faith based alternative distinct from the secular monoculture of public education.

Finally, Mr. Hughes challenges the notion that parents can decide what is best for their children. The view that they know best is, he says, "magical thinking." Families, in the considered view of Edwin Hughes, don't value diversity (or at least the same type of diversity) as much as Edwin Hughes, They ought not be empowered to make these "poor" choices.

Whether or not he is right, we are left with, again, with the very philosophical divide that I identified. Mr. Hughes thinks that centralized and collective decision-making will more properly value diversity (as he defines it) and make better educational choices for children than their parents will.

Of course to describe a philosophical divide does not tell us who has the better of the argument. Mr. Hughes defends his position by relying on a 2007 "study" by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute which, strictly speaking, was not a study at all and had more to do with the impact of choice on public schools than its value to the families who participate in the program.

The 2007 WPRI publication collected no data on what was actually happening in Milwaukee. It simply took a national data base on the educational involvement of families and extrapolated it to Milwaukee based on the socioeconomic characteristics of Milwaukee families. It was, strictly speaking, nothing more than a calculation. If low income and minority families in Milwaukee behave like low income and minority families nationally, the calculation showed, then, based on certain assumptions, very few would engage in informed decision-making regarding their children's education.

It was an interesting and thought provoking exercise but one with an obvious limitation. It is not at all clear that national findings would extend to a city with a relatively longstanding and actively promoted choice program. It is possible that the existence of a greater array of educational choices would change the incentives and capacity of parents to engage in the informed and engaged decision-making that would otherwise not happen.

Beyond that, the fact that only a subset of families will exercise a choice tells us precisely nothing about whether they ought to have the opportunity to make one - unless you entertain a presumption against individual choice and a diversity of alternatives  in education.

Mr. Hughes argues that education is an "experience good" which is a fancy way of saying that it is something that consumers have a difficult time evaluating before deciding whether to buy it. But, again, the extent to which you think something is that type of good (many things are difficult to be sure about before you try them) and whether, having decided it is, you think that people should have someone else choose for them reflects very philosophical divide I'm concerned with.

My suggestion to Mr. Hughes is that he read - if he hasn't - Jonathan Haidt's provocative study of political reasoning, The Righteous Mind. While I don't agree entirely with Haidt (I think he mischaracterizes conservatives and diminishes the way in which foundational judgments reflect assessments of empirical facts), he does marshall some impressive evidence that the way we think about discrete political questions reflects a priori judgments about the relative weight to be according competing values and (at least, I think) assessments about how the world usually works.

Thus, we often form a position first and then look for evidence to support it. This does not mean that we can't be persuaded to change our minds. It does not even mean that we are hopelessly biased and unthoughtful. What it does mean is that understanding our opposing numbers may mean appreciating that they weigh values a bit differently than we do (even if we share the same ones) and have differing views about what works best.

It is then that we can get beyond insults.

Update: When initially posted, I identified Mr. Hughes as "Edward," I am informed that his name is Edwin. My apologies to Mr.  Hughes and thanks to a reader for the correction.

Cross posted at Purple Wisconsin

Friday, August 02, 2013

Fast food protests and the real world

Yesterday, we saw scattered protests at some fast food restaurants. (Well, you had to get pretty lucky to actually see one, but they were a few. It's in the paper.)

The point of the exercise was to argue that McDonald's (and other fast food joints) ought to raise the pay of all their restaurant employees to 15/hr because they can "afford it."

Is that true?

Recently, the Huffington Post breathlessly published a "study" by a University of Kansas researcher that purported to show that McDonald's could double the salaries of its employees and only raise its menu prices by 17%.

It took about no time at all for the "study" to unravel. It was done by a UK undergrad who made some rather large mistakes. He calculated that McDonald's expense for salary and benefits (which is largely, although not entirely, made up of pay and benefits for line workers in company stores) is only 17% of its total revenues. If you simply raised prices by 17%, you would bring in enough to double salaries. This, he said, would raise the price of a Big Mac by 68 cents.

There is so much wrong with this, it is hard to know where to begin.

First, the student failed to recognize that about one third of McDonald's operating revenue includes franchise fees. But the salaries and benefits of employees at franchise restaurants - which constitute the majority of McDonald restaurants - are an expense of the franchisee and not McDonalds and, therefore, not included in McDonald's financials.

When you do what he should of done and compare McDonald's salaries to the revenue from company stores, it turns out that McDonalds' salaries and benefits constitute 26% of revenue. So prices would have to go up by that amount to "double" salaries.

But the notion that you could raise prices by 26% - or even 17% - and sell the same amount of food is preposterous. It assumes that the demand for McDonald's food is completely "inelastic," i.e., unrelated to price. The fact is that, if a Big Mac goes up 26%, people are going to buy fewer Big Macs. Prices will have to go up even further to cover the additional labor costs and restaurants will do one of two things - they will either close or find ways to operate with fewer employees. If everyone makes $ 15/hr, labor replacing technologies become more attractive.

But, the rejoinder come, can't McDonald's simply keep the prices where they are (they'll have to if no other fast food chains raise their salaries) and make less money. There would still be enough.

First, it's not clear that there would be. Before the allocation of SGA expenses, McDonalds makes a bit over 3.5 billion in operating revenue (which, incidentally, is not the same as net profit) on its $ 18.6 billion in sales at company stores. Its cost for labor and benefits at those stores is about $ 4.7 billion. While I suspect that you would not have to double that number to reach an average wage of $15/hr, it is safe to that you would erode much - and maybe all -  of the company's operating profit. (Again, McDonalds would probably find ways to cut employment and save some of that revenue.)

So it turns out that better wages for fast food workers are not simply a matter of demanding them.

Cross posted at Purple Wisconsin.