The School Choice Deplorables

Are you now, or have you ever been, a supporter of the right of parents to choose their children’s schools? Then you’re a school choice deplorable.

At least, that’s what some school choice opponents want us to believe.

It’s no secret that President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos are long-time school choice supporters. Opponents are fighting back by portraying private school vouchers, and by association those who use or support them, as racist.

On the heels of DeVos’ confirmation as Education Secretary, the “progressiveCentury Foundation fired an opening salvo with a report suggesting that vouchers could hurt school integration. Shortly thereafter the also “progressiveCenter for American Progress released a study proclaiming that the origins of private school vouchers are “racist” and their history is “sordid.” A few days later American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten referred to private school choice as a polite cousin of segregation. And just last month The New York Times ran a column purporting to expose what “government school” critics are really all about, namely, segregation.

But their strategy is backfiring in a big way.

Tax Reform I: Expand the IRA

As Congress turns its attention to tax reform, one desirable change would be to expand the availability of IRA accounts to more taxpayers, with higher limits, and for purposes other than retirement. I’ll follow up with more tax reform recommendations in later posts, and apologize for making my first suggestion a somewhat technical one.

Current tax law places a double tax on saving, unless the saving takes place within certain specifically created accounts, like IRAs, 401(k)s, 403(b)s, and other plans offered by (some) employers. The reason most saving is double-taxed is that saving comes out of income that is subject to the income tax, and then when interest, dividend, and capital gains income is earned off that saved income, it is taxed again. The big advantage those specifically created accounts provide is that they tax savings only once. For the most part, no income tax is paid on the saving when it goes into the account, and then income tax is paid on the money that is taken out. Roth IRAs and other Roth accounts tax the money that goes in but money can be withdrawn without paying taxes again. These accounts eliminate the double tax on saving, which is both fair and creates more of an incentive to save rather than consume income.

Because of the perks that come with their jobs, upper-income people typically have many options for participating in these savings plans and eliminating the double tax on saving. That’s not so true of lower-income people. They can choose to open their own IRA accounts, but there are contribution limits that constrain how much money they can put in. And, except for the Roth accounts, contributors face financial penalties if they withdraw money from their accounts before they reach age 59 1/2, which further discourages contributions.

Checks and Balances: Assessing Trump’s First 200 Days

President Donald Trump’s administration has passed the 200 day mark, a milestone that might make it reasonable to look at what he’s accomplished after making big promises in his campaign. No Obamacare repeal. No tax reform. No NAFTA repeal. No wall. No immigration reform (although he did issue some executive orders that were partially undone by the courts).

Unless one counts the excitement of reading President Trump’s often-amusing tweets, the first 200 days of his administration hasn’t brought with it many changes.

In fairness to the president, many of the policy changes he campaigned on are not within the power of the president to change. The lack of progress in Trump’s agenda is (partly? mainly?) a result of the checks and balances that are a built into the constitutional design of our government. Regardless of one’s views on Trump’s campaign promises, the constitutionally limited powers of the president must be viewed as a desirable feature of our government–one worth preserving, even though it has been eroded over the centuries.

As a corporate CEO, Trump faced fewer checks and balances. Whatever he said, those below him acted on. In business, the “check and balance” is the bottom line. Businesses that produce more value than they take out of the economy enjoy profits; those that don’t suffer losses. What the boss says, goes.

Government isn’t like that in the United States, at least not yet. We are not like Putin’s Russia, or Maduro’s Venezuela.

I’m not sure Trump had a good understanding of the limited power of the presidency when he took office, or the need to cooperate with legislators to push his agenda. But that’s a bit of a tangent from the point I want to get across here.

The checks and balances we have in government are valuable because they keep us from becoming like Putin’s Russia, or Maduro’s Venezuela, and they have been weakened since the Constitution was written.

President Obama didn’t get everything he wanted, to the disappointment of some; President Trump isn’t getting everything he wants, to the disappointment of others. But everyone should realize that eventually, someone they don’t like will get elected president, so everyone should support maintaining and strengthening the checks and balances designed into the Constitution.

We don’t want it to be easy for politicians to redesign public policy. I liked some of Trump’s campaign promises and didn’t like others, but I’m not unhappy that he’s facing (constitutionally designed) difficulties turning his promises into realities.

Forgive and Forget Won’t Fix College Debt

“Free” college and loan forgiveness are increasingly popular ideas. According to a recent AOL News poll, for example, 49 percent of respondents believe every state should offer free four-year public college tuition. Another poll by found that nearly 42 percent of respondents favored forgiving all student loan debt.

Such results are understandable. After all, who doesn’t like forgiveness and free stuff?

The ones paying for it, that’s who–especially since the bill’s probably going to be pretty steep.

Total student debt now tops $1.4 trillion, and there’s growing evidence that borrowing by the federal government to subsidize its student lending is hurting the economy.

President Trump has proposed several student loan reforms designed to streamline repayment plans and make them more affordable for student borrowers (p. 20).

Under Trump’s plan no more students would be eligible for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program (pp. 20, 33, and 39), which was signed into law in 2007 by President George W. Bush to forgive outstanding student loan balances for government employees and those who work in certain non-profit and service sectors, such as the Peace Corps, after 10 years. (See also here and here.)

Trump’s plan would also eliminate subsidized loans, which offer different rates for low-income students, and replace them with a single income-driven repayment (IDR) plan instead (p. 33; see also here, here, and here).

Under his plan borrowers would make higher monthly repayments from their discretionary income, 12.5 percent versus the current 10 percent, but any remaining balances would be forgiven after 15 years instead of 20 years (p. 20; see also here and here.)

Not a “New Deal,” a “Fair Deal” or a “Square Deal,” but Supposedly a “Better Deal”

Towards the end of July, eight months after losing the White House to Donald Trump, leading figures of the Democratic Party launched their crusade to regain control of the U.S. Congress in next year’s midterm elections. Announcing his party’s “Better Deal,” U.S. Senator Charles Schumer wrote that “Rather than having a government that benefits the special interests and very wealthy, Democrats believe that government should work on behalf of the middle class and those struggling to get there.”

A Better Deal? Better hold onto your wallet.

Clearly taking a few pages out of President Trump’s campaign playbook, the Democrats’ policy agenda contains three interrelated promises (“Better Jobs, Better Wages, Better Future”), almost none of which is a proper function of the federal government in the first place or is within its powers actually to fulfill in today’s hyper-partisan atmosphere. Full of action words like “fight back,” “crack down,” and “prioritize,” the Better Deal demonizes “unfair foreign trade;” “corporations and billionaires,” especially those who “outsource American jobs;” “monopolies;” “special interests;” “lobbyists” and “Wall Street.” It is vintage populism; it could have been written a century ago.

Is Jeff Sessions Still Attorney General?

A few weeks ago I was hopeful that Jeff Sessions was on his way out as Attorney General, because President Trump didn’t like his recusing himself on the Russia investigation or the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller. But that has nothing to do with my hopes for a short tenure for the attorney general.

The two big issues I have with Sessions are his intention to escalate the so-called war on drugs, and his support for civil asset forfeiture.

The war on drugs is misnamed. It is not a war on inanimate objects, it is a war on American citizens who make choices some people in government don’t like. As for civil asset forfeiture–government’s ability to take people’s property without even accusing them of a crime–I honestly don’t see any defense for it that is compatible with basic principles of due process and liberty.

Sessions seems to have gained a bit of support from Trump for his attack on sanctuary cities, I’m sorry to see. My sorrow here has nothing to do with sanctuary cities and everything to do with the war on drugs and civil asset forfeiture. I don’t feel I’m being extreme in expressing dissatisfaction with an attorney general who has so little respect for individual rights.

President Trump and I have different reasons for our dissatisfaction with the attorney general. I’m not sure I’d be happier with his replacement, but I’d be happy if Trump would give me the opportunity to find out.

Parents Lack Actionable Information about Their Children’s Academic Performance

Twenty-first century technological advances have put a wealth of information right at our fingertips—except, it seems, when it comes to our children’s academic performance.

Nine out of 10 parents of K-8 students believe their children are performing at or above grade level in reading and math, yet only one-third of eighth graders perform at or above proficient in those subjects on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as the Nation’s Report Card (see here and here), which is administered by the U.S. Department of Education.

These are just some of the troubling findings from a new national poll by Learning Heroes. According to the organization’s founder and president, Bibb Hubbard:

As a mother of two teen boys, this disconnect is a heartbreaking wake-up call...Parents are all in when it comes to their children’s happiness and success, owning the responsibility for how well their children perform in school. The data clearly show that most parents lack an accurate picture of their children’s progress. We believe it’s because so much of what parents receive about their child’s progress is indecipherable—filled with edu-jargon, confusing terms, and often lacking actionable information they need to fulfill their commitment to support their children’s learning and growth.

Review: Baby Driver’s Wild Ride With Heart

Audiences will know they are in for a wild ride the second the black wheels and red fender of Baby’s car enters the movie. And they are in for a treat. One of the most anticipated movies of the year, Baby Driver delivers fast, slick action wrapped up in a heart wrenching story of identity and personal loss.

Baby (Ansel Elgort, Carrie, The Divergent Series, The Fault of Our Stars) is the quiet, mild mannered driver pressed into helming the getaway car for a series of bank robberies. The heists are orchestrated by Doc (Kevin Spacey, American Beauty, L.A. Confidential, Superman Returns), a crime boss who never uses the same crew twice. This, we find, ensures the sociopaths that make up the crew never bond and undermine the operation. They are paid well and move on. The varied crew members—most notably Bats (Jamie Foxx, Django Unchained, Collateral, Ray), Buddy (Jon Hamm, Mad Men, Sucker Punch, The Town), Buddy’s girlfriend Darling (Mexican actress Eiza Gonzalez), Griff (Jon Bernthal, The Walking Dead, The Wolf of Wall Street, Fury) and Eddie “No-Nose” (musician Flea, Back to the Future films)—don’t appreciate the youthful, less than enthusiastic Baby in their midst. These differences in look and personality become a source of tension between Doc and the members of his gang.

Atomic Bombs: What My Momma (Never) Told Me

Some 72 years ago this month, the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. An estimated 60,000 to 80,000 people were killed instantly in Hiroshima and another 40,000 were immediately killed when Nagasaki was bombed. In the coming days, weeks, months, and years, thousands more would die as a result of the blast, many from the effects of radiation.

I remember the first time I learned about the dropping of the atomic bombs—likely because I thought I was in trouble.

I was six and in the first grade. I remember going to the school’s library and walking into the “big kid” section. While I thought myself too mature for the likes of Clifford the Big Red Dog and life lessons offered by the Bearenstain Bears, I was enticed by illustrations, which led me to a particular selection. The book was Hiroshima No Pika (which I believe translates to “The flash of Hiroshima”) by Toshi Maruki.

The story follows the life of a fictional seven-year-old girl named Mii, who lived in Hiroshima with her mother and father. The family is tending to breakfast when the bomb is dropped. In the narrative that follows, Mii’s father is badly injured in the blast and ensuing fire. She encounters a swallow that unable to fly because its wings have been burned and a dead cat. They find a woman clinging to her lifeless infant by the river and watch as she ultimately commits suicide by walking into the water.

What Would the Iron Lady Do with the U.S. Department of Education?

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos recently delivered an address at the 44th Annual Meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council in Denver, Colorado.

In her remarks DeVos insisted that “education is best-addressed at the state, local and family levels” and recalled some words of wisdom from Lady Margaret Thatcher, who served as the United Kingdom’s first woman Education Secretary from 1970 to 1974. As DeVos explained:

Lady Thatcher regretted that too many seem to blame all their problems on “society.” But, “who is society,” she asked. “There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families” – families, she said – “and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.” The Iron Lady was right then, and she’s still right today!