John Locke Foundation

Subscribe to John Locke Foundation feed John Locke Foundation
John Hood opines daily on the important issues facing North Carolinians.
Updated: 2 hours 56 min ago

Headline reminds us about critical difference between charter, district schools

Tue, 2018-12-18 04:02

Plans to shutter Raleigh’s Hope Charter Leadership Academy generated a story in the Dec. 11, 2018, edition of the Raleigh News & Observer.

It’s hard to feel good about the following headline: “Charter school closing due to poor performance.”

But this observer has to admit to at least one positive reaction while reading the sad news spelled out in the Dec. 11 edition of the Raleigh News and Observer. While contemplating the story of Hope Charter Leadership Academy’s struggles, I couldn’t help but think: This is what’s supposed to happen to a charter school that underperforms.

The demise of Hope Charter, located near downtown Raleigh, offers a sharp contrast to traditional district schools that fail year after year. In almost every case, those schools continue to operate with no threat of closing. While Hope Charter students and families must seek other educational options, many of their counterparts in failing schools across the state remain stuck with the status quo.

Short of a shutdown, even efforts to shake up operations of a failing district school tend to face an uphill battle. Witness the protracted fights over placing two elementary schools — one in Robeson County and the other in Wayne — in the state’s relatively new Innovative School District. That district targets the state’s worst-performing district schools. It allows them to continue operating under new management.

Imagine the outcry if state or local education officials had recommended an alternative: shuttering those schools completely. It’s safe to say that option would not have proceeded as smoothly as the process that will lead Hope Charter to close its doors.

Charter school advocates often point to good news associated with these publicly funded schools that operate outside the control of traditional school systems. And they have strong evidence on their side.

The John Locke Foundation’s K-12 education expert, Terry Stoops, noted this fall that a higher percentage of charter schools (42 percent) earned A and B grades from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction in 2017-18 than their district school counterparts (35 percent). Charter schools made up 7.8 percent of those higher-grade schools, even though charters represent just 6.6 percent of the more than 2,500 graded public schools statewide.

On the other end of the scale, eight charter schools (5 percent) earned F grades, while 83 (4 percent) of their traditional district school counterparts failed to make the grade. Charters represented 8.8 percent of all failing schools, according to the state’s grading system.

One major difference, of course, is that each failing charter school faces the threat of following Hope Charter’s path to closing. Few, if any, of the dozens of failing district schools are likely to hear any suggestion that they shut down.

The prospect of closing forces struggling charter schools to innovate or disappear.

Innovation remains a realistic option. Ask Richard Vinroot, the former Charlotte mayor and Republican candidate for governor. Vinroot shared with state lawmakers this spring the story of Sugar Creek, the charter school he helped start in Mecklenburg County.

Sugar Creek’s early performance results fell well short of Vinroot’s expectations. He conveyed his concerns to school director Cheryl Turner. “Our numbers were exactly like the poor schools at [Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools] — no different,” Vinroot said. “We had no gym. No playground. I said, ‘Cheryl, we need to shut this darn thing down. Why are we taking kids in our school who aren’t doing any better than anywhere else? We need to shut it down.’”

As Vinroot recounted during his April legislative presentation, Turner asked for another year to find a way to boost the school’s performance. Two decades later, a school that started with about a quarter of its students meeting grade-level proficiency boosted that total to 60 percent.

In 2016-17, Sugar Creek’s African-American students scored 12 points higher on standardized tests than their CMS peers and 19 points higher than African-American students statewide. Sugar Creek’s Hispanic students scored 19 points higher than those in the surrounding school district and 21 points higher than the statewide average. Among all economically disadvantaged students, Sugar Creek topped CMS by 18 points and the statewide average by 21.

The school eventually expanded into high school grades. All 30 members of its first graduating class were expected to go on to college. As the school compiled these achievements, 94 percent of Sugar Creek students qualified for free or reduced-price lunches, Vinroot said.

It would be great to see repeat performances of Sugar Creek’s success story. State leaders would be wise to give new charter schools sufficient time to mirror Turner’s impressive turnaround.

But some charter schools won’t make it. Those that can’t find the key to success should shut down. Just as the top-performing charters offer examples for other schools to emulate, the shuttered charters should provide evidence of education approaches to avoid in the future.

Yes, it’s sad to read about a “Charter school closing due to poor performance.” But that’s a better headline to see than “Charter school lingers on despite repeated poor performance.”

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.

Categories: Public Policy

Fraud claims should trouble conservatives

Mon, 2018-12-17 01:01

While the term “whataboutism” may be relatively new — coined within the last few decades, and newly prominent in the age of Donald Trump — the logical fallacy it denotes is as ancient as politics itself.

The rhetorical trick goes something like this. A political leader or group is accused of doing something wrong. In response, a defender tries to change the subject. “You say President Trump lies,” for example, “but what about when President Obama said that under the Affordable Care Act, people could keep their health plans if they wanted? He wasn’t telling the truth, and you didn’t go after him!”

As it happens, Obama wasn’t telling the truth about that, as he and anyone else involved in health policy must surely have known. I lost my own health plan because of the Affordable Care Act.

But that example does not establish a defense of Trump’s dishonesty. In fact, to grant that it is wrong in principle for politicians to tell falsehoods is obviously to strengthen the case against any particular politician telling falsehoods, not to weaken it.

Indeed, whataboutism is formally known as tu quoque (“you also” in Latin), the appeal to hypocrisy. Hypocrites may deserve all sorts of scorn. But their inconsistency doesn’t disprove the value of the ethical standard they are violating. It’s a separate infraction, one might say.

Consider the election-fraud allegations in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District. Operatives working for the campaign of Republican Mark Harris allegedly went beyond the legal distribution and collection of absentee-ballot requests and illegally “harvested” the absentee ballots themselves, opening up the possibility that the ballots were tampered with or discarded in ways that benefited Harris.

Republicans have variously responded by pointing out that there are also credible allegations of ballot harvesting and other questionable tactics by Democratic operatives in Bladen County this year; that the key Harris contractor in question, McCrae Dowless, had also done absentee-ballot work for Democrats in recent election cycles; that his 2018 tactics may have been motivated by a broad perception that previous Democratic election fraud had never been seriously investigated, much less punished; and that Democrats in states such as California have actually fought to legalize and expand the use of ballot harvesting, which they used to great effect in defeating Republicans in 2018.

These are all correct statements, as far as I can tell. If made to provide context, and to challenge the absurd overstatements and “guilt by association” claims made against all North Carolina Republicans in the aftermath of the 9th District fiasco, they are warranted. But to the extent these claims have devolved into whataboutism, they fail. If Dowless did what is alleged, and Harris exercised poor judgment at the very least in hiring and incentivizing the Dowless crew, then they deserve what may be coming to them. That others may also deserve criticism or consequences for their own choices doesn’t change that.

If it is to stand for anything at all other than short-term electoral victories or “owning the libs,” the conservative movement must stand for standards, for the rule of law as well as for rules that may be tacit and lack the force of law yet make it possible for people with differing interests, values, and political beliefs to coexist in relative peace and security.

It’s not easy to defend rules when they feel inconvenient, delay immediate gratification, or provoke hypocrisy. The Silent Sam controversy at UNC-Chapel Hill is a case in point. Wherever you think the statue should ultimately reside, do you really want to live in a society where people think they can take the law into their own hands if they conclude that following the rules will not immediately get them what they want?

If you believe that the “other side” is being unreasonable or hypocritical, by all means call them out. But don’t lapse into whataboutism. Don’t let explanations become excuses. And don’t call people chumps for following the rules — particularly if your goal is to advance conservatism.

John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “NC SPIN,” broadcast statewide Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 12:30 p.m. on UNC-TV.

Categories: Public Policy

Why incentives’ sway didn’t bring Apple our way

Fri, 2018-12-14 01:49

Apple surprised the business world Thursday with an announcement it was investing $1 billion in a new campus in Austin, Texas. The announcement also included news of new sites in Seattle, San Diego, and Culver City, California, and expansions in Pittsburgh, New York, and Boulder, Colorado.

It also dashed hopes in Raleigh and the Research Triangle Park of securing the new campus, although expansion here is still possible. Which is just as well, since state and local leaders had already promised away the net benefits and then some of having a major Apple operation here.

Without such an exorbitant incentives package, a new Apple campus here would have been a net positive for the area. Usually growth more than pays for itself, which is why community boosters and leaders have always wanted growing, vibrant communities. But North Carolina’s “transformative” corporate welfare is such that it would’ve made the growing pains from the Apple project — paying for more needs in schools, roads, housing, police and fire protection, labor, etc. — fall on current residents and businesses, not also the newcomer.

Further, as attested to by the Amazon and Apple decisions, having super-mega-incentives in place for “transformative” projects is unnecessary. Economic research suggests that big corporation relocations are made for long-term business reasons, not predicated on government incentives, which tend to be much less actual incentive than mere cherry on top. This means Apple chose Austin instead of Raleigh or RTP for business reasons, not for lack of incentives.

Does that mean Raleigh, RTP, or North Carolina at large is not attractive to business? Cut to the chase: North Carolina lost again, so does that mean we’re losers?

Not in the slightest. Losing out two huge, headline-hungry big corporations’ projects is no more an indicator of the overall health of the state’s economy than would be capturing those projects with monster incentives. Don’t forget: 99.6 percent of businesses in North Carolina are small businesses. What are we doing in terms of incentivizing them to relocate here, expand, and grow?

To incentivize the 0.4 percent here, we have to adopt economic development policies at the expense of the 99.6 percent. If we want to chase everyone, then we should adopt economic growth policies.

The difference is essentially who gets to control private resources: the state reallocating them to a favored few (“economic development”), or the owners of those resources given greater freedom (via lighter tax and regulatory burdens) to direct them to areas they perceive as the most profitable.

Recent (and baffling) incentives expansions aside, in the last decade, North Carolina policymakers have adopted economic growth policies. We’ve witnessed impressive results from it. We’ve achieved the kind of economy any state wants to have. North Carolina’s leaders cut taxes, spending, and red tape, and now North Carolina is hailed by the Tax Foundation as a national model for tax reform. Last month Forbes named North Carolina the No. 1 state for business.

Even executives at corporations taking incentives from the State of North Carolina can think of many, many other factors they’d rather see before targeted incentives. According to research published in 2015 in Economic Development Quarterly, those include skilled labor, low regulations, low taxes, low costs of living, and good transportation infrastructure.

Researchers G. Jason Jolley, Mandee Foushee Lancaster, and Jiang Gao, surveyed executives from 150 companies that received economic development incentives from North Carolina and 465 companies that did not. Among other things, they found that out of a list of 19 important factors for North Carolina’s business climate, both groups of executives ranked state and local economic development tax incentives 15th and 16th. The only things they found less important than tax incentives were being able to access low-cost labor, mass transit infrastructure, and availability of unskilled labor.

Put another way, asked how important tax incentives were, North Carolina business executives said they could name 14 things more important to the state’s business climate:

  1. skilled labor
  2. state regulatory burden
  3. state corporate tax rate
  4. local property tax rates
  5. community colleges
  6. state personal income tax rate
  7. highways
  8. information technology infrastructure
  9. four-year colleges and universities
  10. housing costs
  11. environmental regulations
  12. land prices
  13. workforce training programs
  14. major airports

As if to drive home the point, executives of incentivized companies were asked which was better, for North Carolina to give “select incentives to certain businesses” or to “reduce taxes affecting business taxpayers and their owners.” Only one out of five (21.7 percent) said select incentives were better.

Twin disappointments from Amazon and Apple should not tempt state and local policymakers to draw the wrong conclusion, that we still didn’t offer enough by way of government tax incentives and other special treatment. Instead, they should renew interest into what would make relocation, expansion, and growth here a good business decision for them as well as the 99.6 percent of smaller businesses, the unsung heroes of the state’s economy who create jobs and fill tax coffers without fanfare.

Sometimes that means refocusing on empirically sound policies which help ensure skilled labor, low regulations, low taxes, low costs of living, and good transportation infrastructure. Sometimes it means simply understanding you win some, you lose some.

But it never means sparing no expense to “win” the few — and lose the unsung.

Jon Sanders (@jonpsanders) is director of regulatory studies at the John Locke Foundation.

Categories: Public Policy

For America, it’s closer to morning than midnight 

Thu, 2018-12-13 04:00

Clearly, 2018 was a Democratic year, as it should have been given a Republican was in the White House. The Democrats picked up 40 seats in the House and seven governorships. The Republicans’ veto-proof “super majorities” were broken in both chambers of the General Assembly. It wasn’t quite the “blue wave” Democrats were hoping for and, indeed, Republicans have strengthened their position in the U.S. Senate. But there is little doubt which party “won” the election.   

Enough time has now elapsed for us to ruminate on the midterms’ depiction of American politics more broadly. I think there are two particularly important takeaways. The first concerns the state of the parties. A glance at the Electoral College map from recent presidential contests reveals whole swaths of the country to be red or blue — the Northeast and West Coast are solidly Democratic, the South and much of “flyover country” Republican. Many observers have argued our parties are regional, not national.   

To some extent, the results of 2018 continued the trend. There will be only one Democratic senator from the South in the next 116th Congress, and the GOP will have no representatives among the House’s New England delegation. But if you dig deeper into the data, there is evidence Democrats are awakening in red states and Republicans in blue ones.

Democratic gubernatorial candidates snagged back mansions in the Trump states of Michigan and Wisconsin and secured an unlikely victory in Kansas. Democrat Joe Manchin easily won re-election to the Senate in West Virginia “coal country.” Very popular Republican governors were returned in Maryland and Massachusetts, and the party almost scored upsets in Connecticut and Oregon. In fact, near misses tell much of the story. Democratic gubernatorial candidates came close in Georgia and Florida and, the new darling of the left, Beto O’Rourke, gave Ted Cruz a huge fright in ruby red Texas’ Senate race.      

The results suggest a party label can be a burden in hostile parts of the country, but it need not be a death sentence. Smart candidates with the right message and an appealing biography can win just about anywhere. Republican governors Charlie Baker and Larry Hogan have persuaded liberals in Northeastern states that sound management and fiscal responsibility are desirable qualities in chief executives. Democrats recruited intelligently for many contests, persuading accomplished and experienced women, minorities, and veterans to run. The party’s biggest challenge will be keeping some new House members with extreme leftist agendas in check. Giving power to them will greatly tarnish the party’s national reputation. 

My second observation is of the campaigns’ deep pessimism. Democrats talked of Trump’s America, a dystopic world of creeping authoritarianism, growing racism and sexism, and rampant corruption. Republicans, most notably the president himself, projected a similarly dark image of American values and prosperity lost forever to the forces of socialism, rampant immigration, and divisive identity politics.   

I understand why the parties chose such negative messages. It is much easier to demonize opponents than provide reasons why you should govern. Describing an unknowable future is straightforward, explaining a complex reality significantly more difficult.   

Yet the narrative of decline was odd. We have our problems, to be sure, but important macroeconomic indicators are positive — growth is accelerating after a decade of near-stagnation, inflation is low but wages growing, and unemployment is non-existent. The employment and incomes data have been particularly strong for the working class, a claim we were unable to make during the Obama years. China’s economy is still less than two-thirds the size of ours and is slowing appreciably.   

The United States is not at war. The Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts have wound down and international terrorism — at least its direct threat on the U.S. mainland — seems to have abated.  The growth in the immigrant population has nearly leveled off after brisk acceleration between 1980 and 2010. Those who come are increasingly educated.      

Violent and property crime continue at historic lows. Racial and religious violence grabs headlines now and again, but FBI data show it has declined over the past 20 years and surveys suggest we are becoming more tolerant toward one another — except when we think of fellow citizens in partisan terms.         

Americans were an optimistic people, with boundless confidence in their abilities and more than capable of overcoming challenges the world threw at them.  They are individualistic but want unity and a sense of collective purpose. Despite — or perhaps because of — all the gloom, I think we are hungry for leadership that feeds these desires and recognizes our strengths. We got a glimpse of this in the nostalgia invoked by President George H.W. Bush’s passing.   

In truth, it is closer to morning than midnight in America. And I believe happy political warriors, like another former president, Ronald Reagan, can still win. This is something President Trump and his Democratic adversaries should keep in mind as they prepare for 2020.  

 Andy Taylor is a professor of political science at the School of International and Public Affairs at N.C. State University. He does not speak for the university.

Categories: Public Policy

Temper power with responsibility

Wed, 2018-12-12 01:01

Are you frustrated with our political dialogue at the moment? If your answer is no, you are in a distinct minority in North Carolina and beyond.

For example, in an October poll conducted by High Point University, more than two-thirds of North Carolinians said that people were “more divided than usual,” with an even-higher share (77 percent) agreeing that “most people have little patience with people who disagree with them.” Most of us seem quite worried about escalating levels of rancor, personal attacks, and politically motivated violence.

Except for the violence part (so far, at least), this broad public sentiment about declining civility in political discourse is to some extent a self-indictment. If most of us agree that our politics is broken, and that most people are having trouble separating their partisan disagreements from their personal relationships, it is mathematically impossible for the problem to be confined only to “those people” on the other side of the fence. Virtually everyone is implicated to some extent.

Is there a way out? No — by which I mean there is no single, sweeping solution to such a complex problem. The causes are many and difficult to disentangle. But certainly one solution must be to improve the conduct of our political leaders.

There’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg debate here. On the one hand, we know that politicians are self-interested to a significant extent, as are all human beings. They want to gain election, win reelection, and boost their stature by exercising power to advance their political agendas.

If we the people have become more polarized, more vitriolic, and more easily distracted, politicians may see it as serving their interest to ridicule dissenters, attack adversaries, and turn up the decibel level on their political rhetoric to attract, keep, and wield the support of their electoral constituencies.

But the causal arrow could point the other direction — with we the people, as political followers, tending to adopt the priorities, temperament, and positions of the political leaders from whom we take our cues. This model happens to have a great deal of empirical support. In his book Follow the Leader, for example, political scientist Gabriel Lenz provide many cases in which voters tend to adapt their sentiments to those of their leaders, rather than the reverse. This fact gives politicians “considerable freedom,” Lenz concluded.

That’s actually good news! It means that at least part of the solution will arise from convincing current and prospect political leaders to take responsibility for the problem and start doing something about it.

I am involved in several projects intended to do just that here in our state. The North Carolina Institute of Political Leadership (IOPL) focuses on the “front end” of the leadership pipeline. Each semester, IOPL provides rigorous training for North Carolinians who aspire to serve in elective or appointive office.

Another training initiative, affiliated with the John Locke Foundation, includes but is not limited to would-be politicians. The E.A. Morris Fellowship for Emerging Leaders provides young North Carolinians a yearlong program of retreats, events, and experiential learning that emphasizes how to build teams of individuals with differing strengths and backgrounds.

For those already serving as leaders in our state — not only state and local officials but also leaders of companies, trade associations, nonprofits, educational institutions, and religious congregations who help to shape the debate on critical public issues — the North Carolina Leadership Forum (NCLF) convenes a series of meetings to study and debate such issues while also forming valuable personal relationships. Based at Duke University, NCLF promotes constructive engagement across political differences, rather than pursuing a futile attempt to wish or wash such differences away.

In the 1953 Disney version of Peter Pan, the Lost Boys joyfully sing “following the leader wherever he may go” to the mischievous title character. While voters may not be exactly “lost,” they do entrust a great deal of power to those who lead them. These and other programs are designed to temper that power with greater responsibility.

John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “NC SPIN,” broadcast statewide Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 12:30 p.m. on UNC-TV.

Categories: Public Policy

Clash between economic growth, development plays out in incentives debate

Tue, 2018-12-11 04:02

It’s a safe bet that state Rep. Jonathan Jordan agrees with Republican colleagues Bill Brawley, Susan Martin, and Scott Stone much more often than he agrees with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the incoming New York congresswoman and newly elevated champion of the political left.

But not on the issue of targeted tax incentives.

When the conservative Jordan quipped recently, “I’m agreeing with a democratic socialist,” he did more than generate a few chuckles on the floor of the N.C. House of Representatives. Jordan, R-Ashe, also exposed a key dividing line within today’s Republican Party.

Jordan’s comments emerged during the House’s Nov. 29 debate over Senate Bill 820. That measure increased the cap on the amount of money a company could collect for each job created in connection with a state Job Development Investment Grant. The cap had been set at $6,500 per job. S.B. 820 boosted the limit to $16,000.

The bill had sailed through the Senate in less than five minutes with a unanimous, bipartisan 43-0 vote. House critics offered more resistance.

“One of the biggest corporate welfare and crony capitalism bills I think I’ve ever seen.” That was Jordan’s opening salvo. He then launched into a critique of the measure that lasted longer than the entire Senate discussion of S.B. 820.

The increased cap represented “a 246 percent increase in the bounty or price that jobs are going for now,” Jordan said.

“We’re told that the state makes money on this deal,” he added. “If that’s the case, why don’t we put this in place for every job? The small businesses in your communities, when they create jobs, when the local electrician hires an assistant, when landscapers hire workers, restaurants hire workers — kitchen and service staff — where’s their $16,000 per job? They created jobs for our communities. But only the big guys get the money.”

Jordan continued to speak up for the “little guy.” “If you’re for this bill, then you’re against the 99 percent — the 99 percent of businesses in this state that produce employment, the small businesses who are getting nothing from this.”

Cue the reference to Ocasio-Cortez. She has attracted national attention for her criticism of New York’s decision to award targeted tax incentives for Amazon’s HQ2 project. “She tweeted: Amazon is a billion-dollar company,” Jordan reminded colleagues. “The idea that it will receive hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks at a time when our subway is crumbling and our communities need more investment, not less, is extremely concerning to residents here.”

Jordan agreed. He was happy to find common cause on the issue. “Left and right, they’re against this,” he said. “Taxpayers ought to be against this, too, giving away their money to corporations. How dare we? How dare we do that?”

Division over S.B. 820 didn’t break along party lines. After every Senate Democrat supported the measure, all but two House Democrats followed suit. The only Democrat who spoke during the House debate used less than two minutes. He supported raising the per-job incentive cap.

Meanwhile, several fellow Republicans challenged Jordan’s arguments. Brawley, R-Mecklenburg, contended that lawmakers already had settled the incentives debate. S.B. 820 dealt with details, not the fundamental issue of using or rejecting incentives.

“What we are changing is what is the amount per job that we can pay for a corporate headquarters or a high-skill facility, where wages are higher than about $150,000 a year,” Brawley said. “And while I’m not in danger of being recruited for a high six- or seven-figure job, I certainly think the state is helped by having those jobs come to North Carolina rather than Atlanta so that we can collect those taxes — not another state.”

Stone, R-Mecklenburg, compared the incentive change to a signing bonus he might offer a new hire at his business. “What difference does it make to the employees who are being paid a fair market value and are getting a fair deal already if we’re recruiting somebody from the outside to come and make our company better?”

Martin, R-Wilson, suggested that opposition to targeted incentives works only in theory. “Unfortunately, the incentives are required,” she said. “This is the time that we need to be competing for these opportunities. They’re not always available.”

North Carolina must pair some incentive with other positive changes lawmakers have made in state tax rates and the business climate, Martin said. “This is peanuts compared to the other pieces, but it does matter.”

Martin’s side prevailed, 39-21, among House Republicans voting on S.B. 820. But Jordan was not alone in speaking against the bill.

“For years, I heard Republicans complain about corporate welfare and how we ought to take over state government and get rid of that,” said Rep. Larry Pittman, R-Cabarrus. “Then we take control and take it over as our own. I’ve never understood that or been willing to be part of it.”

Forbes has rated us again as the best place in the country to do business,” Pittman continued. “A big part of that is how we’ve reduced taxes and regulations. What we need to do — the right way to handle things — is to keep doing that.”

Neither Jordan nor Pittman used this language, but both argued essentially for state policies promoting broad-based economic growth, as opposed to narrow, targeted economic development.

North Carolina should continue cutting corporate taxes for all businesses, not offer targeted breaks, Pittman said. “This is like reversing Robin Hood,” he said. “This is like being on Prince John’s side and robbing from the poor to give to the rich.”

Rep. Michael Speciale, R-Craven, rebutted Stone’s comparison of a targeted tax break to a private-sector signing bonus. “If you’re the employer, that’s your money,” he explained. “You can spend your money any way you like. But we’re not spending our money. We’re spending taxpayer money.”

Speciale reminded GOP colleagues of their promises to voters. “When you campaigned, you said, ‘I believe in smaller government, and I want to keep your money in your pocket, and corporate welfare is a bad idea,’” he said. “But I forget that this is the end of November. The election is over.”

While 2018 legislative elections are over, there’s no end in sight for the internal GOP debate over incentives.

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.

Categories: Public Policy

Take time to broaden the mind

Mon, 2018-12-10 01:01

In the January 1953 edition of the magazine If: Worlds of Science Fiction, a fan of the genre from Texas, Marilyn Venable, made her debut as an author. “Time Enough at Last,” Venable’s story of a bookish man who survives a nuclear holocaust, made such an impression that Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling chose it as the first story not written by himself to be adapted for the initial season of his pioneering television series.

In the famous last scene of the 1959 episode, Burgess Meredith’s character Henry Bemis discovers with delight a public library full of books. Before the nuclear disaster, both his employer and his wife had interfered with his reading habit. Now, Bemis says to himself, there will be “time enough at last” to indulge it. Then his thick glasses fall from his nose and shatter. The conclusion of the written story is, if anything, more powerful than the final moments of the TV episode:

“He bent down, clawing blindly and found, finally, their smashed remains. A minor, indirect destruction stemming from the sudden, wholesale smashing of a city. But the only one that greatly interested Henry Bemis. He stared down at the blurred page before him. He began to cry.”

I’m not prone to weeping. Still, I’ve felt a certain kinship with the fictional Henry Bemis at times. During the first 30 years of my career as a columnist, author, and think tank executive, I read virtually every day. But it was work. I enjoyed the subject matter. Still, given my professional and family responsibilities, I lacked the time to delve deeply into other subjects.

Or, perhaps more to the point, I failed to make the time. That changed a couple of years ago. With the encouragement of my wife and others, I enrolled in graduate school at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

The program I chose was originally called the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies. As I entered it, the name changed to the Master’s in Applied Arts and Sciences.

No, this was not a conspiracy to keep a conservative from mastering the study of liberals. In their original conception, the “liberal arts” referred to the various disciplines that helped one become a free and responsible human being (from the Latin liber). The modern term “liberal studies” is a bit broader, emphasizing science as well as art and an interdisciplinary process for educating the whole person.

Alas, the core subjects of liberal study are not a growth industry on today’s college campuses. From 2011 to 2017, the number of degrees awarded in history, religion, literature, philosophy, political science, liberal arts, and the humanities declined markedly — by 20 percent or more in some cases.

I understand why many young people gravitate towards technical degrees promising immediate financial payoffs. Whatever else might be done in response, one thing we can do is encourage precisely the path I chose: a pursuit of liberal studies later in life.

Of course, I could have just assigned myself readings in such varied topics as religious and intellectual history, world cinema, strategic planning, physics, and philanthropy. But I wouldn’t have known which texts to study, how to interpret them effectively, and how they fit into a larger context.

In the case of Henry Bemis, he couldn’t take advantage of his opportunity to read and learn because, without his glasses, his vision was too blurred. In my case, a figurative blurriness would have come from trying to go solo, from a lack of guidance and stimulation from professors and classmates.

I suppose one might say, then, that one applied science I sought to acquire from my UNC-Greensboro studies, just now completed, was that of “intellectual optometry.” By taking courses in multiple fields, with professors guiding me through a diverse set of sources and subjects, I gained proper lenses so I could discern underlying lessons about the human experience. Fortunately, I found the time to get my scholarly vision corrected — time enough at last.

John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “NC SPIN,” broadcast statewide Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 12:30 p.m. on UNC-TV.

Categories: Public Policy

N.C. government spends two years squabbling over board only to finish where it began

Fri, 2018-12-07 04:00

Here we are, two years later.

We’ve taken many, arduous, often tedious steps.

Only to return to where we began, having gone nowhere.

In late 2016, as Gov. Roy Cooper was preparing to take office, the General Assembly decided it would change the makeup of the Bipartisan Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement.

Republicans lost the governorship, so it’s tough to argue the move by GOP lawmakers wasn’t an attempt to accumulate power — while at the same time removing power from the new governor, a Democrat.

It didn’t work.

Maybe that’s something lawmakers should have known. Nonetheless, we traveled hundreds of figurative miles and spent tens of thousands of real dollars on a perpetual roundabout.

Starting, stopping, starting again. Wait your turn. Much like rush-hour traffic on Hillsborough Street.

Before state lawmakers’ first attempt in 2016 to merge the state elections and ethics boards, state elections were administered by a five-member board. The governor’s party held three seats. The other major political party held the other two seats.

Lawmakers’ first move — two years ago — was to create an eight-member board divided equally among Democratic and Republican appointees, the legislature picking all members.

Cooper challenged the move on grounds that it violated separation of powers, and he won.

Subsequent versions of the boards gave some power back to the governor and added a ninth, unaffiliated member, selected by the board.

The courts didn’t like those ideas, either. Any of them.

A proposed state constitutional amendment to preserve changes to the elections and ethics board failed in November. Although Superior Court decisions from October ruled the board unconstitutional, midterm election voting had already started, the court kept the board in place until Dec. 3.

So, back to start.

Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, on Dec. 3 introduced House Bill 1117, which would reconfigure and split the Bipartisan Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement.

One element would be a five-member board overseeing the administration of elections. As with the original elections board, the governor would have control over appointments. Three of the five members would come from the governor’s party; state leaders in the other major party would nominate candidates for the two remaining spots.

County election boards would return to three members instead of four, with no more than two members coming from the same party. In odd-numbered years, the chair would be a member of the political party with the highest number of registered party affiliates, currently the Democratic party. During even-numbered years, the chair would be a member of the political party with the second-highest number of registered party affiliates, now the Republican party.

The second element would be an eight-member bipartisan board addressing ethics, campaign finance, and lobbying. Half the members would be appointed by the governor; the other half by state lawmakers.

Back to start.

Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin and Michigan are making efforts to usurp power from the respective incoming governors, who are Democrats. National writers and pundits are comparing those efforts to similar moves by N.C. Republicans two years ago.

North Carolina “wrote the playbook” to undermine democracy, a headline on one national news website reads.

Andy Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University, told Carolina Journal’s Lindsay Marchello that it looks as if lawmakers are abandoning their quest for a bipartisan board of elections and ethics.

“If you’re going back to what the [2016] status quo was, that seems as uncontroversial of a position as you possibly can get,” Taylor said.

So be it.

The fact lawmakers — and the governor, too — spent two years doing expensive circles isn’t lost on us. It won’t be lost on taxpayers and voters, either. We certainly don’t want more government, nor should we spend more time in court.

It’s time to, well, get real. At some point we must stop governing and fighting solely for the sake of partisan labels. This two-year quagmire over the elections and ethics board was much like a mirror, held up to all involved.

And they all looked very small.

Categories: Public Policy

George H.W. Bush: patriot, statesman, president. RIP

Thu, 2018-12-06 01:44

When I reflect on the “Greatest Generation,” I’m always amazed at the selflessness which characterized them. Men and women stood tall, rolled up their sleeves — and fought in Europe and the Pacific, saving the world from tyranny.

They knew the stakes, they understood their mission in combat or back home, and fought or worked to support the war effort.

President George H. W. Bush, who passed away Friday at 94, truly personified that generation.

Service to country may have been instilled in George by his father Prescott Bush. Prescott served in World War I and had a distinguished career in both politics and business.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, George enlisted in the Navy and became a naval aviator at age 18. After completing a 10-month course, Bush was assigned to a torpedo squadron as the photographic officer. Later in 1943 he was promoted to lieutenant and piloted one of four Grumman TBM Avengers that attacked Japanese installations in the Bonnin Islands, specifically the island of Chichijima.

During the mission, the Avengers encountered very intense anti-aircraft fire. Bush’s plane was hit by flak and his engine caught fire. But Bush and his two-man crew continued and released their bombs over the target, inflicting several damaging hits on the enemy. Still in peril, Bush flew several miles away from the island when one member of his crew bailed out of the plane. Sadly, the man’s parachute did not open.

As Avenger’s engine failed, it is unclear which member of Bush’s crew bailed out with him, as both crew members were lost in battle that day. It was reported that Bush waited at least four hours in a life raft while several fighters circled overhead until a lifeguard submarine rescued him. During 1944 Bush flew 58 combat missions, for which he received the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Home from the war, he got married and got his college degree. After college he became a successful wildcatter in the oil business and was a millionaire by age 40. He went on to become a U.S. congressman from Texas, ambassador to the United Nations, chairman of the Republican National Committee, and director of the CIA, before running in 1980 for president in the Republican Party primary and being nominated as Ronald Reagan’s running mate.

After the Reagan-Bush ticket won, Bush became one of President Reagan’s most trusted and able advisers. Never seeking the limelight, Bush gave advice privately to Reagan. And in Bush, Reagan found a loyal soldier and friend.

After being elected president in 1988, Bush successfully prosecuted the mission to bring to justice Manuel Noriega — the drug-dealing dictator of Panama. And in a mere 100 hours, the coalition led by Bush against Saddam Hussein pushed Iraq’s military out of Kuwait and back to Baghdad. Bush also presided as the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Empire collapsed.

While in office, the county experienced a mild recession, but by mid-1992 the country had its lowest interest rates and inflation in years, even though unemployment was the highest it had been since 1984.

In the 1992 presidential election, Bush lost to Bill Clinton by a margin of 43-to-37 percent. Independent candidate Ross Perot got 19 percent of the popular vote, votes most political observers think cost Bush a second term.

But consider this:

What would a second-term Bush presidency have looked like?

For sure, Bush’s first concern would have been for the country, and as president he would have continued to conduct himself with honor and grace.

Every day we lose more of the “Greatest Generation,” and with the passing of America’s 41st president, we are reminded of their selflessness, patriotism, and love of country.

Marc Rotterman is host of “Front Row with Marc Rotterman,” a weekly public affairs program on UNC Public Television and the NC Channel.

Categories: Public Policy

Silent Sam to get a fort

Wed, 2018-12-05 01:01

In response to the toppling in August of the Confederate Monument at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chancellor Carol Folt and other UNC leaders have proposed a controversial solution: a new $5.3 million building on campus that will cost $800,000 a year to operate.

Some are outraged that Silent Sam will be returning to UNC at all, as one of the exhibits in the new University and History Education Center. Others, inclined to defend the state’s Civil War heritage, dislike the idea of relocating the monument to a less-traveled corner of the campus. And taxpayers across the political spectrum are aghast at the multi-million-dollar cost.

North Carolinians ought to be outraged at that price tag — and the reason for it.

As the new report outlining the proposal makes clear, UNC considers itself quite literally besieged by radicals — many motivated by causes far afield from racial comity or historical accuracy, such as anti-capitalist revolution — who are willing “to use violence to further their political goal,” as one official put it.

Returning Silent Sam to its pedestal, the UNC team concluded, would produce repeated clashes with violent protesters that would pose constant threats to life, limb, and property. The report further concluded that “the capability of the UNC-Chapel Hill Campus Police Department to prevent civil disorder and violence is very limited.”

Although this observation was made without criticism, as a general statement about the inadequacy of campus law enforcement across the country, it rings a bit hollow for anyone who watched the video of Silent Sam’s toppling. Police officers did nothing to stop what was essentially a slow-motion crime happening before their eyes. Indeed, they seemed intentionally to stand back from it.

Why? Again, the report offered some clues. For one thing, because state universities are open to the public and routinely the site of nonviolent protests of various kinds, normal campus operations are poorly suited to the task of combatting the likes of cadres of masked anarchists with ropes and torches. The “crowd control tactics generally employed by law enforcement” to handle such threats “are fraught with sensitivities over any use of force by police” in places such as Chapel Hill.

For another thing, the protesters in question didn’t just show up with demolition equipment. “There was obvious evidence of preplanning and tactics that were designed to instigate violence between protest groups or draw an overreaction from law enforcement,” the report stated. “Objects such as smoke bombs, poles, frozen water bottles, paint balloons and metal objects were used by demonstrators as weapons.”

You have likely heard and will continue to hear lots of discussion about Julian Carr’s appalling speech at Silent Sam’s unveiling, what historical artifacts mean to various audiences today, the role of the state legislature in limiting the relocation of monuments, and alternative ways the university could have used the millions of dollars it proposes to spend on the University and Education Center (a concept, by the way, that has been on the drawing board for years).

But the immediate issue is the rule of law itself. Those desiring an alternative home for Silent Sam, or none at all, had a range of reasonable options available. They could have continued to press lawmakers to change the controlling statutes. If they truly believed the continued existence of the monument created a hostile educational environment under federal law, they could have sued. Or they could have brought greater public attention to their cause by engaging in true civil disobedience, such as sitting or standing around the monument and inviting arrest.

Instead, a mob took the law into its own hands, committing crimes while endangering participants and bystanders alike. Law enforcement was either powerless, unmotivated, or not allowed to stop the mob.

Silent Sam’s proposed new home will not be a shrine, as some critics have labeled it. It will be a fortress, built to fend off physical attack. Does that anger you? It should. As should the attackers who created this mess.

John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “NC SPIN,” broadcast statewide Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 12:30 p.m. on UNC-TV.

Categories: Public Policy

Beware claims about ‘unconstitutional’ voter ID

Tue, 2018-12-04 04:02

Voter ID is constitutional in North Carolina. And not just because more than 2 million voters, 55 percent of those casting ballots, said so last month.

Critics will spend the coming weeks and months continuing to question the constitutionality of a photo identification requirement. Yet the facts are clear. At the federal level, the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the basic concept of a photo ID rule as constitutional. At the state level, a solid majority of voters decided to build a photo identification requirement into the constitution. You can’t get much more constitutional than that.

I’m tempted to end the column here by repeating: Voter ID is constitutional. But the previous two paragraphs explain nothing about why North Carolina’s new voter ID requirement will undoubtedly face future legal challenges. Nor have the facts stated above explained why a state or federal court still could choose to strike down an ID law before it’s ever enforced in North Carolina.

Addressing those issues requires a greater level of detail.

‘Constitutional’ versus ‘good’

First, let’s remember to separate the question about constitutionality from a consideration of whether voter ID is good or bad. “Constitutional” does not function as a synonym for “good.” Likewise, one cannot substitute “unconstitutional” for “bad.”

Critics of voter ID don’t like the policy. They also recognize that the word “unconstitutional” carries a negative connotation. So they employ a more effective rhetorical tool when they label voter ID “unconstitutional” instead of “bad,” “unwise,” or “misguided.”

More effective, but not correct.

The highest court has ruled

Just 10 years have passed since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Crawford v. Marion County Election Board that Indiana’s law requiring voters to provide photo identification did not violate the U.S. Constitution. Six of the nine justices agreed with that outcome.

Three of the court’s conservative voices would have ruled that the nation’s highest legal body had no business meddling in a state election law involving photo IDs. But even liberal stalwart John Paul Stevens agreed that a photo ID requirement helped Indiana address legitimate state interests of “election modernization,” preventing voter fraud, and “safeguarding voter confidence.” Stevens wrote what turned out to be the main opinion in the case.

Another liberal voice on the high court, Justice Stephen Breyer, suggested in a dissent that he would support some voter ID laws while opposing Indiana’s specific requirements. Only two dissenting justices suggested that Indiana would have needed to provide actual evidence of voter fraud before establishing an ID law.

The Supreme Court’s membership has changed in the past decade, but nothing about those changes suggests Crawford’s precedent faces any jeopardy. In other words, it’s highly likely that the U.S. Supreme Court still would uphold the basic premise of a photo ID requirement for voters.

What about that ‘surgical precision’?

If seven members of the U.S. Supreme Court agreed in 2008 that voter ID can be constitutional, some of you are no doubt asking, why did courts strike down North Carolina’s first attempt to enact a voter ID law? The Raleigh News & Observer reported just last week that “A previous voter ID bill from 2013 was struck down in 2016 by a panel of judges who said it targeted African Americans with ‘discriminatory intent.’ The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the decision.”

Similar reports about the fate of the 2013 N.C. election law note the three-judge panel’s finding that it targeted black voters “with almost surgical precision.” Voter ID critics have employed the “surgical precision” language ever since state lawmakers revived the idea of establishing a new photo ID requirement. Last week’s voter ID protest outside the state Legislative Building featured signs highlighting the colorful phrase.

But the N&O, other media outlets, and protesters all miss the mark when they fail to distinguish the 2013 election law from the basic concept of voter ID. The 2013 law combined a photo ID requirement with other provisions. It restricted days and hours of early voting. It eliminated same-day voting registration and blocked people from voting outside their designated precincts. It ended preregistration for 16- and 17-year-olds.

That combination of election-law changes led Judge Diane Gribbon Motz to her conclusion about “almost surgical precision.” Writing for the three-judge panel of Democratic appointees, Gribbon Motz did not apply her medical analogy to voter ID itself. She was unwilling to join her two colleagues in striking down the photo requirement. A “reasonable impediment” provision added in 2015 convinced Gribbon Motz that North Carolina’s photo ID rules might withstand judicial scrutiny. She was willing to withhold judgment.

In summary, neither a federal trial court nor the U.S. Supreme Court ever has issued a ruling about a North Carolina law dealing solely with voter identification.

N.C. voters have ruled

One month has elapsed since 55 percent of North Carolina’s voters agreed to amend the state Constitution. Article VI, Section 2(4) now features the following language: “Photo identification for voting in person. Voters offering to vote in person shall present photographic identification before voting. The General Assembly shall enact general laws governing the requirements of such photographic identification, which may include exceptions.”

The new language follows a constitutional provision in Section 2(3) that disqualifies felons from voting. It precedes Section 3’s rules for voter registration. It’s pretty clear that the state constitution not only permits but actually requires photo ID for in-person voting.

This new requirement shuts down one potential legal challenge. No one will be able to argue in court that a photo ID itself violates a provision of the state constitution.

Amendment vs. law

So there’s an open-and-shut case in favor of a law implementing North Carolina’s constitutionally mandated voter ID requirement, right? Not necessarily.

As the new constitutional provision explains, the General Assembly “shall” place the meat on the bones of the voter ID requirement. When enacting “general laws” to meet that goal, lawmakers must comply with both the state and federal constitutions.

It’s hard for this observer to picture a voter ID requirement that would violate the state constitution’s new provision. But one suspects that sharp legal minds already are devoting time and energy looking for ways to challenge the specifics of the implementation law.

Meanwhile, it’s almost certain that the law will face a federal court challenge. Even though the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld voter ID as a concept, critics will latch onto any element of North Carolina’s law that differentiates it from the Indiana law. Those differences will serve as the basis for a fresh courtroom controversy.

As the legal maneuvers unfold, expect to hear critics decry North Carolina’s “unconstitutional voter ID.” This will represent imprecise shorthand for their argument that North Carolina has enacted an unconstitutional law while trying to implement voter ID.

That’s the only available argument. As noted above, voter ID — as a concept — clearly is constitutional.

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.

Categories: Public Policy

It’s not about urban versus rural

Mon, 2018-12-03 01:00

How should we respond to the urban-rural divide? The question has legions of politicians, scholars, journalists, and businesses scrambling for answers.

I respect their efforts. But I feel compelled to point out, respectfully, that the question is poorly conceived. Most people live in neither truly urban nor truly rural places. They reside in suburbs — in inner suburbs within a short drive of a truly urban downtown, in outer suburbs further out on the fringe of major metropolitan areas, or in the suburbs of smaller cities such as North Carolina’s Hickory, Salisbury, or Greenville.

Trying to make our economic and political conversations fit an “urban vs. rural” frame is wrongheaded. As Jed Kolko and other scholars of contemporary economic trends point out, most people see themselves in neither category. If you talk a lot about “urban” issues such as the optimal location of light-rail lines or “rural” issues such as the plight of family farms, most of the population will tune you out. You aren’t talking to them.

People who live in the suburbs, broadly defined, tend to reside in single-family homes and rely on personal automobiles for the vast majority of their transportation needs. That’s how most want it. These are personal preferences they have chosen to satisfy, not grim realities they’d rather escape.

In the aftermath of the Great Recession, there was an uptick in transit usage and in demand for downtown apartments and condos. Some excitable analysts thought these choices signified the beginning of a major turn towards “new urbanism,” perhaps driven by Millennials with fundamental different values and preferences than those of their parents and grandparents.

But Millennials aren’t so different, after all. As economic conditions and job opportunities have improved, many have been looking for opportunities to buy cars and homes, often in the suburbs where many would prefer to rear their anticipated or recently born children.

Downtowns are certainly more vibrant and contain more residences than was true a generation ago. But let’s not get carried away. The relevant growth rates have been high because they started from such a low base.

From a policy perspective, the resumption of an overall societal trend towards suburbanization has clear implications. For example, like many other states, North Carolina has inadequate road capacity to handle current and projected traffic. Over the past decade, state policymakers of both parties have made some real progress on the issue, both by boosting revenue from highway users and by significantly reducing the diversion of that revenue to non-highway or low-priority expenditures.

There is still a gap, however. Can we close it by getting people out of their cars altogether, by expanding transit service and bike paths while discouraging low-density development? If you think so, I would submit you are mixing up your urbanist dreams with our suburban realities.

As for politics, the 2018 midterms should have dispelled any sense that “urban vs. rural” adequately conveys the partisan competition between Democrats and Republicans or the battlegrounds where that competition is most acute. As a New York Times reporting team explained in a recent piece, many of this year’s Democratic gains in U.S. House seats — and, I would add, in North Carolina legislative seats in Mecklenburg and Wake counties — came in suburban areas with “an eclectic mix of preferences.”

Many voters in these places feel “more cosmopolitan than in rural areas and turned off by culture-war issues that animate other Republican voters,” the Times noted, but are also “more fiscally conservative than many urban voters, and opposed, for example, to the higher taxes some liberal policies would require.”

Suburban districts flipped in 2018 for a variety of reasons, including the effects of the president’s persona on the GOP brand as well as good candidate recruitment and message discipline by Democrats. The key point is that many of these Republican-to-Democrat flips were by small margins. They’ll be competitive again in 2020 — but only for candidates who avoid the rhetorical trap of “urban vs. rural.” That’s not the story here.

John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “NC SPIN,” broadcast statewide Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 12:30 p.m. on UNC-TV.

Categories: Public Policy

In high school, the easy ‘A’ is even easier 

Fri, 2018-11-30 04:00

Call it high-grade high school. When it comes to letter-grade earning power, high-schoolers are rich indeed. Grade inflation is real and it’s inequitable, padding the GPAs of wealthier students faster than others. Such are the findings of a Fordham Institute study that tracked grades in North Carolina public schools for over a decade. Increasingly, A is for average — and affluent. 

Are students simply smarter? Ah, if only that were true. Economist Seth Gershenson, author of Fordham’s study, found test scores can’t corroborate GPA growth. Just one in five students earning an A in Algebra scored in the top range of the Algebra End-of-Course exam. More than a third of B students were not even proficient. National assessments are similarly deflating. Scores on a trifecta of tests — SAT, ACT, and NAEP — have stagnated, notes Fordham.   

What about economic advantage? Controlling for test scores, Fordham found disproportionate grade inflation in affluent public schools. Median GPA rose from 2.73 to 3.00 between 2005 and 2016. In less-affluent schools, median GPA increased from 2.42 to 2.59.   

Grade inflation is occurring at public and private schools alike, according to College Board data analysis by Michael Hurwitz and Jason Lee. In 2016, nearly half of SAT test-takers graduated with an A average, compared to 39 percent in 1998. Grade inflation in private schools grew at triple the rate of public schools. 

Will college provide a reality check? Probably not: The most common grade is an A. This marks a shift from prior generations. In the early 1960s, A’s made up 15 percent of grades, according to Fordham. 

Why care when A’s abound? Grade inflation has high and hidden costs. Undeserved good grades obscure knowledge deficits. They dilute excellence, making it tougher to target true talent. Easy A’s discourage dogged effort — the kind that precedes the hard-earned A, which, in turn, fuels a sense of personal accomplishment. The easy A is the academic equivalent of sports’ participation trophy. What’s special about a distinction that’s no longer distinctive?    

Some schools are “reinventing” high school by ditching grades entirely. Their solution: a digital Mastery Transcript that reports proficiency instead. Spearheaded by the Mastery Transcript Consortium, the movement counts 219 public and independent schools as members.     

Launching in 2019-20, the Mastery Transcript relies on three principles: no letter grades; “no required standardization of mastery credits;” and a consistent format that allows for a two-minute review by college admission officers.   

The Mastery Transcript sounds promising. It piggybacks on the growing popularity of digital portfolios that retain students’ best work year-to-year. But here’s the problem: The Mastery Transcript movement implies that grades lack value. Despite their shortcomings, high school grades remain the best predictor of college outcomes. Colleges know this. In the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s new 2018 State of College Admission report, colleges reported high school grades as the top factor in freshman admission decisions. 

Is it time to reinstitute more grading rigor? Absolutely. It’s also right to scrutinize pressures causing schools, however unwittingly, to perpetuate inequity. Ignoring this is wrong and could prompt outside corrective action. Fordham notes, anecdotally, that some colleges already “take into account” that A’s come easier in affluent schools.   

Cultural shifts warrant attention, too. Parenting, writes New York Times columnist David Brooks, is increasingly a “meritocracy” in which children are praised and honed “to an unprecedented degree.”  More kids are becoming what educators call “fragile thoroughbreds,” whose sole purpose is to perform. Insulated from failure, they’re delicate, not sturdy.  

For now, all those A’s go down easy. But they delay inevitable life lessons. And those get harder.    

Kristen Blair is a Chapel Hill-based education writer. 


Categories: Public Policy

In high school, the easy ‘A’ is even easier 

Fri, 2018-11-30 01:19

Call it high-grade high school. When it comes to letter-grade earning power, high-schoolers are rich indeed. Grade inflation is real and it’s inequitable, padding the GPAs of wealthier students faster than others. Such are the findings of a Fordham Institute study that tracked grades in North Carolina public schools for over a decade. Increasingly, A is for average — and affluent. 

Are students simply smarter? Ah, if only that were true. Economist Seth Gershenson, author of Fordham’s study, found test scores can’t corroborate GPA growth. Just one in five students earning an A in Algebra scored in the top range of the Algebra End-of-Course exam. More than a third of B students were not even proficient. National assessments are similarly deflating. Scores on a trifecta of tests — SAT, ACT, and NAEP — have stagnated, notes Fordham.   

What about economic advantage? Controlling for test scores, Fordham found disproportionate grade inflation in affluent public schools. Median GPA rose from 2.73 to 3.00 between 2005 and 2016. In less-affluent schools, median GPA increased from 2.42 to 2.59.   

Grade inflation is occurring at public and private schools alike, according to College Board data analysis by Michael Hurwitz and Jason Lee. In 2016, nearly half of SAT test-takers graduated with an A average, compared to 39 percent in 1998. Grade inflation in private schools grew at triple the rate of public schools. 

Will college provide a reality check? Probably not: The most common grade is an A. This marks a shift from prior generations. In the early 1960s, A’s made up 15 percent of grades, according to Fordham. 

Why care when A’s abound? Grade inflation has high and hidden costs. Undeserved good grades obscure knowledge deficits. They dilute excellence, making it tougher to target true talent. Easy A’s discourage dogged effort — the kind that precedes the hard-earned A, which, in turn, fuels a sense of personal accomplishment. The easy A is the academic equivalent of sports’ participation trophy. What’s special about a distinction that’s no longer distinctive?    

Some schools are “reinventing” high school by ditching grades entirely. Their solution: a digital Mastery Transcript that reports proficiency instead. Spearheaded by the Mastery Transcript Consortium, the movement counts 219 public and independent schools as members.     

Launching in 2019-20, the Mastery Transcript relies on three principles: no letter grades; “no required standardization of mastery credits;” and a consistent format that allows for a two-minute review by college admission officers.   

The Mastery Transcript sounds promising. It piggybacks on the growing popularity of digital portfolios that retain students’ best work year-to-year. But here’s the problem: The Mastery Transcript movement implies that grades lack value. Despite their shortcomings, high school grades remain the best predictor of college outcomes. Colleges know this. In the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s new 2018 State of College Admission report, colleges reported high school grades as the top factor in freshman admission decisions. 

Is it time to reinstitute more grading rigor? Absolutely. It’s also right to scrutinize pressures causing schools, however unwittingly, to perpetuate inequity. Ignoring this is wrong and could prompt outside corrective action. Fordham notes, anecdotally, that some colleges already “take into account” that A’s come easier in affluent schools.   

Cultural shifts warrant attention, too. Parenting, writes New York Times columnist David Brooks, is increasingly a “meritocracy” in which children are praised and honed “to an unprecedented degree.”  More kids are becoming what educators call “fragile thoroughbreds,” whose sole purpose is to perform. Insulated from failure, they’re delicate, not sturdy.  

For now, all those A’s go down easy. But they delay inevitable life lessons. And those get harder.    

Kristen Blair is a Chapel Hill-based education writer. 

Categories: Public Policy

Who decides what public schools teach? 

Thu, 2018-11-29 04:00

I don’t write much about what happens inside of the classroom simply because there is so little information about it. Content standards adopted by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction outline the sequence, topics, and learning goals for each grade and subject. Curricula and instructional decisions are made on the district, school, and departmental levels. The imposition of statewide, uniform content standards doesn’t necessarily prescribe day-to-day instructional activities. Simply put, what happens in the classroom generally stays in the classroom, and the public is none the wiser. 

Occasionally, an assignment, worksheet, or exam question will migrate from the classroom to social media. Some of my favorite are funny test answers. What ended in 1896? 1895. Where was the Declaration of Independence signed? At the bottom. What is the highest frequency noise that a human can register? Mariah Carey. You get the idea. 

But classroom materials are also leaked because parents believe their child has been assigned tasks that have questionable educational value, or they object to passages included in required reading materials. In rare cases, teachers will air their objections to lessons imposed on them by school district staff or administrators. 

Such was the case when a seventh-grade English teacher in Wake County alerted me to a forthcoming unit based on the “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.” The narrative is an autobiography written by Douglass, a former slave who escaped bondage in 1838, became a central figure in the abolitionist movement before the Civil War, and championed civil rights after the war. The book describes the brutality of slavery, the cruelty of slave owners, and the dehumanizing effects of the peculiar institution. It is one of the most important anti-slavery books ever published in the United States, and unquestionably it deserves a place in the classroom. But is it suitable for seventh-grade students? Apparently, the publisher of the lesson, EL Education, and Wake County Schools believe that it is. The teacher is not so sure. 

Among a number of concerns he relayed to me was the brutality and graphic language in the book passages assigned to adolescents who may not have the maturity to engage the text with the kind of sincerity and reverence that it deserves. Among the excerpts that students are asked to read is the following: 

I have known him to cut and slash the women’s heads so horribly, that even master would be enraged at his cruelty, and would threaten to whip him if he did not mind himself. Master, however, was not a humane slaveholder. It required extraordinary barbarity on the part of an overseer to affect him. He was a cruel man, hardened by a long life of slaveholding. He would at times seem to take great pleasure in whipping a slave. I have often been awakened at the dawn of day by the most heart-rending shrieks of an own aunt of mine, whom he used to tie up to a joist, and whip upon her naked back till she was literally covered with blood. 

The lesson plan suggests that teachers ask students to read the passage and identify who was cruel and who is being whipped. 

Moreover, teachers are directed to have a conversation with students about racially charged language, including the n-word, which appears in the Narrative repeatedly but not in the excerpts assigned to students. The lesson plan directs teachers to “Refer to a list of terms posted on the board: African American, black, Negro, n…er, white, Caucasian. Ask students to think for a few minutes: Which of these terms are respectful terms to use today? Which of these terms are not respectful?” In the hands of an inexperienced teacher, this part of the lesson could go terribly wrong. The same is true for the “performance task” for the unit, which asks students to “write and illustrate a children’s book based on an episode from Douglass’ life.” 

I do not have the expertise to judge the quality of the lesson or assess its appropriateness, but I trust the judgment of the teacher who forwarded it to me. His reservations about it should be enough to warrant a review by his superiors and a discussion with parents. 

Dr. Terry Stoops is vice president for research  and director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation.

Categories: Public Policy

Redistributing income isn’t investment

Wed, 2018-11-28 01:01

Whether your frame of reference is a country, a government, a business, or your own household, being better off in the long run requires patience and discipline in the short run. To have more income tomorrow, you must deny some immediate gratification today. You must save and invest.

Capital is accumulated savings invested in a new or improved tool to make work more valuable. It could be physical capital such as buildings and equipment, intellectual capital such as invention and innovation, human capital such as job skills and creativity, or social capital such as trust and teamwork.

Combine hard work with useful capital and you get higher productivity, higher incomes, and a higher standard of living. But if you fail to save and invest sufficiently to maintain and enhance your stock of capital, you get lower productivity, stagnation, and frustration.

So far, I’ll bet that whatever your party or political ideas, you’re nodding in agreement. But if you are a progressive, we are apart to part company. Precisely because I place such a high value on savings and investment, I want to limit the scope and cost of government, particularly at the federal level.

To grasp, if not necessarily to accept, the conservative argument here requires some statistics. While there is certainly such a thing as public investment — government expenditures that create or enhance capital assets — it is far outweighed, in both quantity and quality, by private investment.

In 2017, for example, the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis estimated total domestic investment at about $4 trillion. At the same time, however, Americans used up $3.1 trillion of their fixed capital assets, so that the net domestic investment was about $900 billion.

Using these measures, about 84 percent of gross investment and 89 percent of net investment is private. It represents private institutions and households putting domestic or foreign savings to work in building or enhancing private assets. Of the remaining $100 billion or so in net investment by government, nearly all of it was done by states and localities — most on infrastructure such as roads and schools.

Does the federal government invest? Sure. It spends hundreds of billions of dollars a year on ships, planes, buildings, and research. But its operations also consume lots of capital. Net federal investment is low and likely to remain so regardless of who is in power in Washington. That’s because the federal government now primarily redistributes current income. In 2017, 72 percent of all federal spending went to transfer programs such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, pensions, and welfare. As the population ages, and unless there is a significant change in federal policy, this proportion will continue to grow.

Standard government accounting of investment expenditure does leave something important out: education. There is a good reason. Unlike buildings, equipment, vehicles, or even intellectual capital, those who invest in human (and social) capital do not necessarily acquire an ownership stake in it. In a free society, human capital is always individually owned, even if government subsidy is involved.

If we add expenditures on education and training into the mix, however, investment remains overwhelmingly private (remember that private households and firms spend a lot of money on them, as well) while states and localities continue to dominate the public part.

These facts shape conservative thinking about fiscal policy. Private investment is not only more common but also tends to be more productive. The incentives are more closely aligned with value. If households or businesses invest poorly, the consequences can be severe. Poor public investment rarely results in bankruptcy or unemployment.

There are clearly public investments worth raising taxes to finance. But after a certain point, higher taxes depress valuable private investment more than they increase valuable public investment. Conservatives believe we have already reached that point, that any additional public investment ought to be “paid for” with lower transfer spending (by means-testing entitlements, for example).

I find this argument sensible. Even if you disagree, perhaps now you at least understand it better.

John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “NC SPIN,” broadcast statewide Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 12:30 p.m. on UNC-TV.

Categories: Public Policy

Complaints about gerrymandering hide critique of basic American electoral rules

Tue, 2018-11-27 04:02

The debate over gerrymandering’s negative impact took a particularly silly turn this month, when some pundits credited the partisan map-drawing process for helping Republicans build their majority in the U.S. Senate.

All U.S. senators run in statewide races. They face no electoral districts subject to potential partisan map-drawing mischief. Thus gerrymandering plays zero role in U.S. Senate contests.

But even people with a better understanding of gerrymandering have tended to overemphasize its impact. They don’t seem to realize that addressing the gerrymandering problem wouldn’t necessarily generate the electoral outcomes they desire.

Take, for instance, the arguments two staffers at New York University Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice put forward recently in a Raleigh News and Observer column. The authors purported to explain, according to the headline, “How the Republican gerrymander blocked the blue wave in N.C.”

Before focusing on gerrymandering, it makes sense to address the notion that 2018 election results reflected any kind of “wave.” While Democrats definitely enjoyed an edge, their overall performance in U.S. House and Senate contests, as well as races for governor and legislative seats nationwide, fit fairly well with historical patterns for the first midterm of a new presidential administration.

“If we’re just going to count every time that one party does better than the other party as a ‘wave election,’ we’re going to be waving a lot,” as John Locke Foundation Chairman John Hood declared in a Nov. 12 post-election analysis.

Regardless of whether Democrats enjoyed a “wave,” “splash,” or some other aquatic event, they outpolled GOP adversaries in many electoral contests. But they made no dent in North Carolina’s delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives. Before the election, that delegation featured 10 Republicans and three Democrats. The 2019 Congress will maintain the same partisan split.

That’s the fact that bothers the Brennan Center writers. “Democrats won roughly 50 percent of the vote in North Carolina, their best performance in almost a decade,” according to the column. Yet “despite an extraordinary year,” Democrats were unable to flip a single N.C. congressional seat from red to blue.

Before delving further into the argument, it’s worth noting that these outside observers consider it “extraordinary” for Democrats to win “roughly” 50 percent of the statewide congressional vote. (Very rough, as it turns out. Democrats actually secured about 48 percent of the statewide congressional vote. In the authors’ defense, Republican Walter Jones ran unopposed in the 3rd District, allowing no Democrats to cast ballots to counteract his vote total. Democrats’ overall vote total was artificially low. Still, 48 percent support is not the same as a 50-50 split.)

The column also reminds us that Democrats accomplished this “roughly 50 percent” milestone for the first time in nearly a decade. Intentional or not, the authors admit that N.C. voters have tended to cast more ballots for Republican congressional candidates than for Democrats in recent years. This fact contradicts a narrative popular among some gerrymandering foes: that Republicans have won majorities among the congressional delegation only because of mapmaking malfeasance.

The columnists go on to make the following claim: “Democrats didn’t stand a chance of picking up a fourth seat unless they could net 52.5 percent of the statewide vote, something they achieved only once since 2000, in the 2008 election.”

That calculation might strike Mark Harris and Dan McCready as odd. Both of those men know well that it would have taken roughly another 900 votes for the Democrat McCready to have defeated the Republican Harris in the hotly contested 9th Congressional District. That’s a far smaller sum than the roughly 37,000 votes needed to change a statewide vote total by even a single percentage point.

The discrepancy highlights a problem common to gerrymandering complaints. Those issuing the complaints focus less on individual contests than on statewide vote totals. They suggest that the number of representatives each major party sends to Congress ought to mirror the total percentage of congressional votes cast for that party statewide.

If Democrats and Republicans wage a close contest for the total congressional vote in North Carolina, the argument goes, then the House delegation should alternate between a 7-6 margin favoring Republicans and a similar split favoring Democrats. Only if one party reached the rare milestone of securing more than 60 percent of the total vote would an 8-5 split be warranted.

That argument makes perfect sense for a state and nation that select members of the legislative branch of government through proportional representation. Under such a system, parties split legislative seats in rough proportion to their vote totals throughout the electorate.

Many countries use that system. The United States does not.

As recently as 2006, then-U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority in the LULAC v. Perry case: “To be sure, there is no constitutional requirement of proportional representation.”

Instead, this state and nation rely on a “first-past-the-post” system. Candidates, not parties, compete in specified geographic districts. The candidate who secures the most votes wins in each district.

That system can lead to wide disparities between a party’s statewide vote total and its share of the congressional seats. In North Carolina today, if Democrats won every congressional race by a margin of 50.5 percent to 49.5 percent, the delegation would feature 13 Democrats and zero Republicans. That result would have nothing to do with gerrymandering.

The liberal group Common Cause provided evidence supporting this argument in 2016. The group worked with Duke University and a bipartisan group of retired N.C. judges to devise a set of “fair” congressional election districts. The resulting map produced six “likely” Republican congressional districts, four Democratic districts, and three toss-up districts.

In other words, under normal electoral circumstances, with the two parties splitting the statewide vote evenly, the “fair” districts could produce a congressional delegation swinging anywhere from a 7-6 Democratic advantage to a 9-4 GOP edge. And that map took no account of the impact of incumbency or the relative strength or weaknesses of particular candidates.

This result should surprise no one who watched in 2016 as Republican Donald Trump beat Democrat Hillary Clinton in North Carolina. Trump won by a 52-48 margin, omitting third-party candidates, while also winning 76 of the state’s 100 counties. Had each of those counties corresponded to an electoral district, Trump’s four-point victory margin would have translated into a 3-to-1 electoral advantage. Gerrymandering would have played no role in reaching that result.

Geographic districts favor Republicans in this state in a way that proportional representation does not. People complaining that a closely split electorate fails to produce a closely split congressional delegation are taking issue with a basic element of our centuries-old electoral process. Their concerns about gerrymandering mask that larger complaint.

Regardless of the evidence tied to its own work on this issue, Common Cause is suing state legislative leaders. In separate cases in both federal and state court, the group and its allies challenge congressional and legislative election maps as unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders. The ultimate goal: new maps that produce an electoral split aligning more closely with results that reflect proportional representation.

Voters are likely to see new maps again in 2020. New census data will require new electoral maps again for 2022. But it’s unclear whether any new maps with geographic districts will produce results that satisfy Common Cause, the Brennan Center, or other critics of the longstanding first-past-the-post electoral system.

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.

Categories: Public Policy

Keep state spending in check

Mon, 2018-11-26 01:01

So far this year, North Carolina’s state budget is running a surplus. There’s nothing new about that — robust economic growth and fiscal restraint have produced a series of healthy surpluses since 2014. But both the Cooper administration and the General Assembly need to temper their expectations about next year’s budget.

I recognize that neither party may be in the tempering mood. Gov. Roy Cooper, now backed by larger Democratic minorities in the North Carolina House and Senate, talked during the 2018 campaign about significant spending hikes for education, health care, and other services. Some Republicans did, too, while others dangled the possibility of additional tax relief.

The context of state budgeting in 2019, however, argues against major new initiatives in either direction. Last year, the General Assembly gave public schoolteachers an average raise of 6.5 percent, plus significant raises for other state employees and increases in many other state programs. Total expenditures in the state’s General Fund went up by nearly $1 billion, an increase of between 3.85 percent and 4.5 percent (depending on how capital expenditures are accounted for).

North Carolina’s tax rates will also go down again without any additional action by the General Assembly. Thanks to budget bills already enacted, the state income tax is declining to 5.25 percent, down from about 5.5 percent, and the corporate rate will drop half a point to 2.5 percent.

Democrats may wish to refight the tax-cut battles of the past several years. Some Republicans may wish they’d been more careful about last year’s spending growth. But I don’t see the General Assembly going along with any proposal from Cooper to raise taxes, and I don’t see the governor — his negotiating position newly strengthened thanks to Democratic gains in the legislature — viewing with favor any major GOP initiative to pare back government in some areas to fund new spending in others.

One possible outcome could be an impasse that delays approval of a new state budget well past the July 1 start of the 2019-20 fiscal year. That won’t produce a fiscal crisis — current law allows North Carolina state government to continue operating at currently budgeted levels — but it will produce political turmoil and frustration.

A better way to proceed would be for both sides to enter next year with eyes wide open and appetites in check.

During the first third of the current fiscal year, the state collected $7.7 billion in General Fund revenues and spent about $7 billion on General Fund programs. Don’t get carried away by the apparent size of that operating surplus, however. Revenues and expenses aren’t spread evenly across the year. Upcoming spending obligations and tax relief will change the math. And the effects of recent storm damage on both sides of the budget are not fully priced in, yet.

So far, legislative fiscal analysts project that General Fund revenue is about $64 million higher than originally projected when the 2018-19 budget plan was enacted. That’s closer to a rounding error than a lucky strike in the context of a $23 billion General Fund and a total state budget in excess of $50 billion.

Keep in mind, as well, that America’s current economic expansion is long in the tooth by historical standards. A downturn would hardly be surprising at this point. North Carolina had $1.8 billion in its rainy-day reserve before the hurricane hit. Now it is $1.25 billion, plus some other reserves.

If recession comes, tax collections will fall short of the projected level and spending demands will surge far above it. Under that scenario, it will be good to have our current fiscal cushion. But it would be great to have even more saved up to cover the state’s core responsibilities while heading off any economically counterproductive tax hikes.

It’s not particularly exciting, I suppose, to go off to Raleigh as a newly elected or reelected lawmaker and then fashion a responsible budget without large-scale changes or dramatic new initiatives. Still, I think North Carolinians would prefer prudence to excitement.

John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “NC SPIN,” broadcast statewide Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 12:30 p.m. on UNC-TV.

Categories: Public Policy

Falsehoods common in political debate

Wed, 2018-11-21 01:01

The great British statesman and writer Edmund Burke was a critic of his government’s treatment of the American colonies in the years preceding the Revolutionary War. In particular, he insisted that when the colonists objected to taxation by Parliament rather than by their own elected legislatures, they were just standing up for their rights as Englishmen.

Among the arguments offered by Burke’s opponents was that the Americans had previously accepted their subservient status and had no business asserting a new right to colonial self-government. “I have disposed of this falsehood,” Burke replied wearily. “But falsehood has a perennial spring.”

That’s a wonderfully insightful phrase. Falsehoods — by which I do not necessarily mean intentional lies — have always been widespread in politics. Politicians employ falsehoods that fit their rhetorical needs, often without checking their sources and considering alternative explanations.

We are all prone to the temptation. Sometimes, a purported “fact” just feels like it must be true. It fits snugly within our preconceived notions. We repeat it, perhaps because we’ve heard others we respect say it. Still others then follow our lead.

Here are some often-repeated statements that, I would submit, are clearly contrary to the available evidence. See how many of these feel to you as if they must be true:

Poor people don’t pay taxes. This is unambiguously false. If we divide households into five equal parts based on reported income, the quintile with the lowest incomes pays about 13 percent of household income in taxes, on average. The effective tax burden for the highest-income quintile is 28 percent.

Notice that the issue isn’t whether the poor pay income taxes. Most don’t, at least not directly. But other federal, state, and local taxes do hit them directly, including payroll taxes, sales taxes, and excise taxes. Lower-income households also bear some of the incidence of taxes on business income (via lower wages or higher prices) and real property (via higher rents or prices).

North Carolina has below-average schools. You can’t just look at average test scores across the country, pick the highest ones, and then say those states must have the best school systems. Students come to school with a variety of advantages and challenges — the relative proportions of which are not equally distributed across the states.

Schools matter a lot, of course, but it would be silly to hold them fully responsible for educational outcomes. When state-by-state differences in student achievement are adjusted for student background, North Carolina ranks 12th in the nation in school quality. We can and should do much better than that — matching the performance of top-performing states such as Florida and Massachusetts would be no mean feat — but let’s get real.

We’ve made no significant progress in reducing poverty. Speaking of getting real, America has experienced a dramatic drop in poverty over the past half-century, but neither Republicans nor Democrats seem keen to admit it. The former want to declare the War on Poverty an abject failure and the latter want to justify vastly more spending on it.

Properly measuring the poverty rate means starting with household expenditures rather than income reported to the IRS, including the value of non-cash government benefits, and using realistic estimates of inflation. Properly measured, America’s poverty rate has fallen from about 30 percent in the early 1960s to about 3 percent today.

America spends more the other countries on health care without getting better results. The first part of this sentence is correct. The second part isn’t. Often-cited measures such as average life expectancy are influenced by a host of factors unrelated to the financing and delivery of medical services. After adjusting for America’s high rates of intentional and accidental deaths, for example, our average life expectancy soars to the top of the list.

Many years after the American Revolution, Edmund Burke wrote another gem: “Our patience will achieve more than our force.” Before enacting sweeping changes in government, policymakers should take the time to study issues carefully, separating demonstrable truths from familiar falsehoods.

John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “NC SPIN,” broadcast statewide Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 12:30 p.m. on UNC-TV.

Categories: Public Policy

Why aren’t we running out of turkeys?

Tue, 2018-11-20 04:00

In the United States, there are between 45 million and 46 million turkeys killed each year by profit-seeking farmers for consumption at Thanksgiving dinners around the country. In total, about 245 million turkeys are raised on American farms every year, with pretty much all of them headed for an afterlife of human consumption. Yet, it is never even suggested that because of these mass killings, we are running out of turkeys or that turkeys are headed for extinction.

On the other hand, we can compare this to some popular species of fish, such as cod or tuna. Many millions of pounds of these fish are harvested each year from the oceans by profit-seeking fishermen. These fish are also destined for an afterlife similar to those of the turkey. And yet, unlike the turkey, we are told the populations of these and other fish are dwindling dramatically. According to the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna, over the past 40 years populations of the Atlantic bluefin tuna have fallen by 72 percent in the eastern Atlantic and 82 percent in the western Atlantic. Governments have put in place aggressive recovery plans meant to stem this tide and hopefully reverse this trend.

So, the question arises, why are we running out of tuna and cod but not turkeys or chickens? Why is it that we can eat all the turkey we want on Thanksgiving and never be concerned about whether there will be enough turkeys available this time next year for our annual feast? To my knowledge, no one ever suggests that if we don’t start eating less turkey, there won’t be any turkeys left to eat one day. Yet, this is not true of Atlantic bluefin tuna. Articles like this one telling us to start eating more plentiful species of fish instead of tuna and cod appear quite frequently. Again, the question is why?

To answer that the problem is “overfishing” due to excessive demand, as is often done, is to beg the question. If oceans are being overfished, i.e., fished at a rate where the populations of the relevant fish cannot be sustained, why is this not the case for turkeys? Why aren’t turkeys being killed at a rate that cannot sustain the population of turkeys for future consumption?

The answer to these questions has everything to do with the alternative institutional and legal settings in which fish and turkeys are harvested for sale and consumption. Tuna are gathered and killed for market in a setting that gives rise to something called the “tragedy of the commons.” Fish in the ocean do not become the private property of the fishermen until they are removed from the ocean. Fish in the ocean are unowned. They are what is referred to as a “common pool resource.” This creates perverse incentives for fishermen. The unspoken mantra becomes “leave no fish behind.” If you want those valuable tuna swimming under the sea to become your tuna available for sale, your incentive (in the absence of some kind of punitive regulation) is to catch as many as you can as quickly as you can. The reason for this is that, with the ocean being a “commons,” if you don’t get the fish some other fishermen will. This is why large fishing trawlers have become commonplace in the fishing industry, and their use has been restricted.

This is the tragedy of the commons. There is no incentive to take care of, or husband, the resource.  There is no incentive to make sure that the habitat is, with respect to the fisheries, growth-enhancing or to leave any fish that has any market value behind, even if that fish might be more valuable at a later date.

What makes the tuna fisherman different from the turkey farmer? There is nothing inherent in being a fisherman or a farmer that would make one behave differently. The difference is that the turkey farmer faces a different institutional setting and therefore a different set of incentives.

Because the farmer owns his land and the turkeys that sit on it, his incentive, in terms of being a profitable farm, is not to gobble up as many turkeys as he can as quickly as he can. Rather, his goal is to raise the turkeys to maximize their market value. Before selling them for processing, he is incentivized by market demands to wait until they are the right size and weight. In the process of doing this, he can regulate their diet to make sure that they are getting the proper nutrients. And, because of the incentives created by the security of private property rights, he doesn’t have to worry about harvesting the turkeys before other farmers get to them. They are his turkeys on his land, and he can be secure in the fact that they will be there tomorrow. Because he wants his farm to be around and productive for years to come, he is incentivized to breed his turkeys in ways that ensure that future turkey yields will always be sufficient to meet market demands.

The good news is that the advantages of private property and the disadvantages of common pool resources are beginning to be understood by those who are trying to make a sustainable living in the fishing industry. Open ocean fish farms are beginning to spring up in an attempt to overcome some problems related to defining property rights to sections of the ocean. There are also attempts to mimic a market setting through what are called tradeable fishing quotas, which are being implemented for different fisheries. Of course, freshwater fish like catfish and tilapia have been raised and harvested on private fish farms, not all that different from private turkey farms, for many decades without any concern for over-harvesting or fish depletion.

So, when we sit down to our Thanksgiving dinner this year, one thing we should all be thankful for is the fact that turkeys are raised and provided to the market in an institutional setting dominated by private property. Because of this, we can be confident that we will have more than enough turkeys for all Thanksgivings into the foreseeable future.

Dr. Roy Cordato is senior economist and resident scholar for the John Locke Foundation.

Categories: Public Policy