Monthly Archives: October 2007

markets, schools, and hypocrisy

This afternoon, I’m off to Paris for a few days of meetings, about which I hope to blog (if the rules of the conference permit disclosure). I won’t be online again until Monday. Meanwhile, a thought about vouchers:

I found Megan McArdle‘s argument for school vouchers via what appeared to be a very strong endorsement on Kevin Drum’s liberal blog. It turns out that Drum didn’t mean to endorse McArdle’s essay, but it is still worth attention. She analogizes education to iPods, asserting that if everyone had the ability to choose schools–as the rich do today–then many excellent institutions would spring up to fill the demand. It is hypocritical, she says, to exercise school choice by putting your own kids in a private school or by moving to a suburb, while opposing vouchers that would offer the same opportunity to poor families.

I am open to vouchers, in principle, and I favor more experimentation. As a parent of a DC Public School student and a spouse of a DC Public School teacher, I can vouch for the negative part of the argument: some big urban school systems are dysfunctional, and we ought to consider radical alternatives.

However, the analogy to iPods isn’t satisfactory. The market for electronic goods is a classic one. Apple wants to sell as many iPods as it can, and customers want the best devices at the lowest cost. There are powerful incentives for quality and innovation. The situation is different for prestigious private schools. Parents choose to apply to these institutions, but the schools select their students. In other words, “choice” is exercised by the schools, at least as much as by the parents–which is not the case in the market for electronic goods.

The motives are different, too. Fancy schools don’t want to maximize the number of customers; if anything, they want to be able to admit the smallest possible percentage of applicants. Selectivity means prestige. Besides, kids actually benefit from being in highly selective company, surrounded by other students who are above grade level, very well behaved, and raised in wealthy, highly-educated homes.

Based on close observation, I do not believe that private schools add more value than public schools do–at least, not on average. The “product” isn’t any better. Instead, kids benefit from being enrolled with other privileged kids. If more parents had the opportunity to pay for private schools, new institutions would spring up. But the ones at the top of the pecking order would certainly not admit children who had discipline problems or academic “issues.” On the contrary, they would continue to skim the top 5% of applicants.

Thus I don’t think it’s hypocritical to send your own child to a highly selective private school while opposing vouchers. You’re not benefiting from a good that would be available to others if only the government provided vouchers. You’re benefiting from a good that exists because private schools are allowed to select their student bodies, and your kid has value in the market. This may be morally problematic, but the problem isn’t hypocrisy. Nor can the problem easily be solved by law, because private schools are associations that have (in my opinion) a constitutional right to select their own members.

social accountability and public work

(En route to Baltimore) “Social accountability” means various techniques for getting citizens involved in monitoring government. The World Bank has published a booklet called “From Shouting to Counting” (pdf) that provides examples. In Uganda, the government provides detailed information about how it actually spends its education funds, disseminating the data by radio and newspaper. At the same time, control over education has been somewhat decentralized. Armed with detailed information, Ugandans are able to demand efficient performance from their local schools. In more than 100 Brazilian cities, the municipal government empowers large, basically voluntary citizens’ councils to allocate a proportion of the municipal budget through a process called Participatory Budgeting (PB). And in Rajasthan (India), a non-governmental organization began demanding public records and holding informal public hearings to uncover waste and corruption.

I suspect that it would be wise to embed social accountability in a broader concept of “public work” (see Boyte and Kari, 1996). Here’s a table to clarify what I mean:

  Social accountability as a stand-alone process Social accountability as part of "public work"
example Project in Malawi in which citizens are recruited to audit public spending Project in the Philippines in which citizens monitor the distribution of school textbooks and (when necessary) physically move them to schools
major analogy Citizens as legislators or jurors Citizens as voluntary workers
nature of power Zero-sum: more for citizens means less for the state. Thus power must be granted by, or seized from, the state Potentially expandable: by working together, citizens create greater capacity
intended outcomes More efficiency and less corruption in the administration of a government program. Defining and addressing a community problem
state and civil society Two sectors that exchange information and negotiate Lines are blurred: government employees are seen as citizens
options when problems are uncovered Legal remedies (lawsuits, calling the police); public disclosure and shaming Legal remedies and public disclosure; direct voluntary action to remedy the problem
accountability By government, to citizens In principle, by everyone to everyone
recruitment Representative sample of citizens is recruited for the task of monitoring government Members of an association take on a voluntary task. They also develop the next generation of active members
preconditions Legal rights of assembly and expression; formal system for accountability Legal rights of assembly and expression; active voluntary associations

civic blogs

(In Cambridge) I’ve been blogging since early in ’03, and I didn’t used to have much company in the civic field. But I’m very happy to say that there are now several active and well-established civic blogs:

Cindy Gibson’s CitizenPost consists of provocative mini-essays (with apt illustrations).

The Study Circles Resource Center has Democracy Space, with regular news and analysis.

The Center for Democracy and Citizenship at the University of Minnesota has unveiled its new By the People blog, mostly devoted to the Center’s own civic activity.

Mike Weiksner’s Connected Conversations bridges technology, deliberation, and civic engagement.

The Democracy Movement is a group blog devoted to public deliberation and related topics, with good mini-essays.

Smart Communities is Suzanne Morse’s very substantive blog, based mainly on her important projects that get citizens involved in addressing crucial issues.

Redeeming Hope presents Rich Harwood’s thoughtful reflections on current issues from a civic perspective.

And coming soon: the blog.

rumors greatly exaggerated

(In Cambridge) Anthony DeStefano quotes me in a NY Post article about Simonetta Stefanelli. This actress starred in “The Godfather” at age 17 but is now dead, according to several prominent websites. This upsets her, since she is actually alive and well. DeStefano asked me about the prevalence of false information online and what we should do about it.

One of the offending sites was Wikipedia, which can easily be corrected, as I pointed out. Indeed, the Wikipedia page on Stefanelli now says: “She is alive, and not dead, as reported previously.” So that’s one answer: there’s false information online, but you can correct it. Unfortunately, Signora Stefanelli and her family didn’t know how to edit Wikipedia, and it took a newspaper article to prompt the correction.

Sometimes people give another answer: we need to teach students how to differentiate reliable from unreliable sources. I’m skeptical about this idea, because I don’t want to load an additional teaching function onto our overburdened schools. I also doubt that there are special techniques for identifying reliability online. Instead, I suspect that the ability to tell which websites are reliable is a direct function of one’s general literacy and factual knowledge .

Nevertheless, I believe it’s worth building websites that are comprehensible, comprehensive, up-to-date, and reliable. Then at least we can steer potentially naive readers to safe places. An example is MedlinePlus, the US Government’s medical portal, which costs the federal government money to build and maintain but seems worthwhile. I am, as DeStefano says, “an advocate for funding by government and institutions of reliable Web portals.”

global warming: three responses

(In Cambridge, Mass.) I presume that human beings are causing the world to warm by burning carbon fuels. I know this the same way I know that evolution occurred, that the earth goes around the sun, and that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare — not from direct personal experimentation or a deep immersion in the scholarly literature, but basically because I trust certain institutions, such as major newspapers and universities.

Still, this premise permits at least three responses:

1. The damage from global warming will be very serious, but it could still be tangibly mitigated if we cut carbon emissions. Individuals do not have to pay when they damage the planet by burning carbon. Therefore, they have an incentive to burn carbon as long as the benefit exceeds the price of the coal or oil that they consume. The only way to reduce emissions substantially is to tax carbon on a global scale. (Cap-and-trade systems, by the way, are simply efficient taxes.)

2. Although the previous point is partly true, it’s also true that people want to cut the cost of the fuel they burn. If we invested heavily in technology that increased fuel efficiency, people would happily buy and use that technology. Subsidies for efficiency can at least partly replace taxes.

3. The cost of reducing carbon emissions will be enormous, and the payoff will be unsatisfactory. The world will be worse off as it grows warmer, yet the marginal benefits of money we invest in reducing emissions are too small to matter. It is more efficient to mitigate the damage by, for example, allowing Chinese factories to burn as much coal as they like but protecting Bangladesh from floods.

I lean toward response #1 for reasons of temperament and ideology. (I am cautious and tolerant of state action). But it would be wrong to presume that response #1 is the only morally acceptable one–it all depends on the facts.