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February 2017

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Liberty: Enemy of Crony Capitalism

Most people now deeply distrust the government, quite understandably. And many of these same folks have become aware of the extent to which crony capitalism is messing up their lives. Up to this point, libertarians such as myself can only say “welcome to the club.”

But here is where things oft go awry. Many people then propose to “fix” crony capitalism, by giving more power to the very same agency which caused the problem in the first place. They expect that tariffs, quotas, “import taxes,” and the the jawbone of the person who warms the seat in the Oval Office will somehow “fix” the problem of crony capitalism. But no matter what politicians jawbone about, when they propose to limit the freedom of the “others,” they are proposing crony capitalism.

The opposite of crony capitalism is not more crony capitalism; it is not the use of force to (allegedly) stack the deck in your favor. The opposite of crony capitalism is liberty. And you benefit inestimably from liberty, despite the warnings of politicians to the contrary.

Economists speak of a “tax wedge” – taxes, by raising the cost to you of whatever you desire, incentivize you to obtain less of what you value. The same is true for all trade and immigration restrictions. Selling these on “national security” grounds does not change the basic economic principles; it’s just a gimmick to win your political support.

In short, government intervention is the blade by which crony capitalists shear the sheep. To defeat crony capitalsm, we must defeat their tool of choice: government intervention in all its forms.

This confusion may be better understood by considering that economic globalization is not  political globalization; the two concepts have been improperly linked together by people who prefer political power to economic freedom. This confusion perfectly suits the purposes of politicians and those who benefit from crony capitalism; it was never intended to benefit the rest of us at all, but to distract us, following the old dictum divide et impera.


Socialization is Normal

The most common question for home educators, by far, is “What about socialization?” I’m always shocked. Socialization was always the least of my concerns.

It’s a big world out there. Let kids out in the world, and they’ll socialize with everybody. Humans are inherently social; socialization is as natural as walking and talking. Actually, socialization is talking – and talking is the main thing you’re not allowed to do in the cloistered environment of schools.

The socialization question arises from a deep misapprehension, from the belief that you and your children will stay at home, all day, every day. Most of us would go stark raving mad! We’d be homicidal! So, we don’t do that. We go out. We explore. We socialize.

Do we send children to school to learn how to walk and talk? Not unless they have severe difficulty in acquiring these natural skills. They pick them up easily, as part of interacting with and engaging with the world. For most children, socialization is equally natural.

There’s a fine article which expands on these ideas, and which motivated me to write my first blog about socialization. (Can’t believe it took me so long!)

Why I don’t worry about my homeschoolers’ socialization

(This is a replay of one of my most popular posts. It’s a very common peeve.)


Home Education: A “Public Benefit?”

Random comment from the ‘Net: “I think a tax break for home schooled families is a great idea. However, you forget that we live in a community, and no man is an island. Those families do benefit from living in a community where others are educated.”

Whoa! This argument cuts both ways: the community arguably benefits more from brilliantly-educated home schoolers than home-schoolers benefit from badly-educated children at government schools; therefore, the home schoolers might deserve a break.

Consider Erik Demaine, who obtained a PhD in mathematics by the age of 20; the community benefits from his teaching of mathematics and computer science at MIT; the community benefits from his having obtained that PhD six years earlier than usual, due to homeschoolng. Yet, it is also obvious that Erick Demaine himself benefits – he started his career six years earlier, and his lifetime earnings will be enriched by at least six years of near-peak earning levels. Erik is but one of many famous people who were educated at home.  The image above is of Alexander Graham Bell, a renowned  home-schooler.

I must insert a caveat regarding the preceding list. Horace Mann, famous advocate for the Common School movement, curses be upon his name, was largely self-educated, but did spend a few weeks per year in formal schooling before he was accepted to university. In fact, most children in those days spent only a few weeks per year attending; they were expected to learn and read independently, not to be micro-managed and spoon-fed 180 days per year for twelve years.

Despite the preceding argument, I am still rather nervous about tax credits for home schoolers, mainly for this reason: when governments deign to “grant” tax credits, they usually push for more regulation, not less. Politicians don’t understand home education – even those few who do home school their own tend to be categorically different from many other home schoolers, more likely to be “control freaks” who cannot perceive the harm done by arbitrary regulations.

Studies by Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) show that the regulatory environment has at best no statistical relation to the success of home schooling, and may actually be harmful. Part of the reason why government regulations do not much alter outcomes may be that a) regulations are unenforceable and are mostly ignored, and b) home schoolers do so much better than government schools that it is unlikely that would-be regulators even have a clue about what home schoolers need to do.

It is pointless to translate regulations designed for government schools, which are doing badly, to the very different realm of home education, which is doing extremely well. Home educators enjoy learning every day, not merely half the calendar, and they learn in very unconventional ways.

I propose that Government schools are actually a Public Bad, for many reasons, chief among which is that graduates of such government schools, and of private schools which use textbooks either approved by or heavily influenced by the government, so often graduate without having a clue about what is and is not a “Public Good.” It is not hard to discover the truth; even the wikipedia page defines “public good” in the first sentence: “In economics, a public good is a good that is both non-excludable and non-rivalrous in that individuals cannot be effectively excluded from use and where use by one individual does not reduce availability to others.”

Education is obviously excludable – students in the school obtain the bulk of the benefits; children playing in the street outside do not. The fact that there are some spillover benefits to outsiders does not make education a “public good” — if it did, then your planting a garden would be a “public good”, since others smell the fragrance and see the pretty flowers; everything with a positive externality would be a “public good” by such a vague definition.

Schools which teach students – even good students – to think badly are a public bad. There are incentives for government teachers and administrators to teach such confusion. There are incentives for such teachers, administrators, regulators, and other politicians not to teach about Public Choice Theory in the “civics” curriculum; such truthful analysis makes them look bad indeed.


Pedants: Converting Good to Bad

A standard argument for government provision of education is that it would otherwise be under-provided. The theory is that, since one’s education also benefits other people, one who purchases education for one’s own self would only pay enough for the benefits to oneself.

If we take this argument seriously, we must determine how much education is under-provided, and subsidize that portion. This argument can never justify 100% subsidy of education. The early arguments for state subsidies proposed merely to fill in the alleged gaps of existing methods for the provision of education.

But laying that aside, there is a much more fundamental problem: what exactly is “education?” The theory assumes that there is one good called education, and widespread agreement about what is desirable, and how it should be provided. Those who have followed the many controversies about education might be excused for scratching their heads at this point, if not laughing out loud. If we do not all agree on what a “good” education is, how can we agree on what should be subsidized?

“School choice” proponents claim to get around this objection. Pick your school, and the government will subsidize it. Really? What happens when the Happy Coven establishes a school, and requests equal remuneration? Or, as allegedly happened in San Bernardino recently, a group of Happy Nepotists use government funds to enrich family members? Is there to be no oversight over the use of these funds?

More broadly speaking, governments are not very good at managing resources.

What is this “education” variable? It’s quite an oversimplification. Is the education which suits one person the same as that which suits another? Let us take an example: a first grade reading class.

Typically, about a quarter of the class arrive already knowing how to read; some, quite fluently. When required to sit through “See Dick Run” or some other first grade primer, their education is not being enhanced, but slowed down. Their time is being wasted. They are being taught to endure frustration without purpose. This is a bad, not a good; but the tidy aggregate equations of some economists do not measure this.

Likewise with math skills. The typical “First Grade Math” curriculum lags far behind a certain number of students. I know of a young fellow who could mentally multiply double-digit numbers, and even larger ones; who could work easily with exponents and fractions and decimals and negative numbers. Even a “gifted” first grade class would have been an utter waste of his time. Yet another portion of students find the typical pace to be quite confusing; their time also is squandered by classes unsuited to their needs.

Bureaucrats thrive on tidiness and regularity. The variations of real children are far too diverse and confusing for bureaucrats and pedants and certain economists. This zombie argument for the government provision of education should be nuked wherever it arises.

The education of our children is far too important to be jammed into Procrustean beds by the arbitrary and uncaring mechanisms of politics. We need, rather, for such important decisions to be left to individual parents, students, and teachers themselves.


We Don’t Need The State To Educate!

Do we really need the State to educate? Most people believe this to be the case, especially for the poorest among us. But E.G. West and James Tooley – and several others – have looked at the actual history of education, and found something startling: mass education existed before heavy state involvement.

I highly recommend the book Government Failure: E. G. West on Education

The main points asserted by the book include these:

• Before government compulsion and widespread government provision of education, private provision was widespread, even among the poor.

• Only a very small minority of parents cannot be trusted to choose their education for their children. Compulsory, uniform provision is not an appropriate way to deal with that problem.

• The portrayal in English literature of nineteenth-century private education in Britain has no basis in fact.

• Proponents of compulsory state-provided education at the time of its origin generally believed that state provision was important to help form the thinking of the young and to prevent them from entering a criminal lifestyle. The first of these objectives is suspect in principle; there is no evidence to suggest that the second has been achieved in practice.

• If the objective of state involvement in education is to ensure that the less well-off have access to education, this should be achieved by government schemes to fund parents, not by making universal, compulsory provision.

I would add a few things, based on my observations and those of a number of others in the field: education as we know it is badly specified, over-specified, and largely an exercise in special interests benefiting at the expense of taxpayers, parents, and children. It does not provide the best learning experience for our children, and in fact crowds out better alternatives.

But that’s another story. The work of E.G. West stands as a condemnation of the widespread theory that government involvement in education is necessary or advisable. His research showed that the only thing wrong with that theory was the facts.


Skip The Whereases

My father taught me something wise. “When you hear somebody say ‘blah blah blah but such-and-such,’ the word ‘but’ is a signal. Everything before the ‘but’ is preamble, which you can safely ignore. After the ‘but’, that’s the real substance, that’s what they were leading you to. That’s the important part.”

Whenever politicians speak, I have learned to completely ignore their justifications, whether preceded by a convenient “but” signal or not. Sometimes, politicians use “and” instead. It’s the same principle; just skip right to the end, when the tugging on your heart strings stops, and the proposal begins, which is usually a scheme to deprive you or some other unfortunate of some portion of life, liberty, property, or a combination thereof.

Find out the cost, and evaluate that cost on its own merits, before considering their long-winded “justification,” whatever it might have been. And make sure you add in the hidden costs, the things the politicians don’t talk about. De-fudge their numbers; get rid of the smoke and mirrors, and look for the naked truth.

Examine such proposals very closely. If I had my druthers, the Supreme Court would apply what it calls “Strict Scrutiny” to every single government law or regulation, not just a select few.

Briefly, “strict scrutiny” in the legal sense means that the proposal or law must be justified by a compelling governmental interest, not by a mere preference or whim; it must be narrowly tailored, not overly broad; and it must be the least restrictive means for achieving that interest.

It is atrocious that legislators and courts even consider any lesser standard for their works. To protect our own lives and property and health, we should demand no less.


How To Approach Math Learning

Jo Baeler and Pablo Zoido recently published an article in Scientific American Math. (behind a paywall; summary here)

Every three years, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests hundreds of thousands of 15-year-olds. In the past, the US posted average scores in reading and science, but well below other developed nations in math.

The most recent results for the USA

Since 2012, data collected about how students approach math shows three distinct styles of learning. Some memorize facts; some relate new concepts to old; some self-monitor, evaluating their own understanding and focusing attention on concepts not yet learned.

In every country, the memorizers are the lowest achievers, and the U.S. has high proportions of memorizers. These memorizers are approximately half a year behind those who use relational and self-monitoring strategies. In some countries, pople who use relational and self-monitoring strategies are a whole year ahead of those who just memorize the facts.

Quotes:

American schools routinely present mathematics procedurally, as sets of steps to memorize and apply. Many teachers, faced with long lists of content to cover to satisfy state and federal requirements, worry that students do not have enough time to explore math topics in depth. Others simply teach as they were taught. And few have the opportunity to stay current with what research shows about how kids learn math best: as an open, conceptual, inquiry-based subject.

The foundation all math students need is number sense — essentially a feel for numbers, with the agility to use them flexibly and creatively. A child with number sense might tackle 19 × 9 by first working with “friendlier numbers” — say, 20 × 9 — and then subtracting 9. Students without number sense could arrive at the answer only by using an algorithm. To build number sense, students need the opportunity to approach numbers in different ways, to see and use numbers visually, and to play around with different strategies for combining them. Unfortunately, most elementary classrooms ask students to memorize times tables and other number facts, often under time pressure, which research shows can seed math anxiety. It can actually hinder the development of number sense.

I could not have said it better myself. Behind every math prodigy is a child who has spent lots of time playing with numbers, making friends with them. Today’s schools often spend far too much time with formal testing, leaving too little time for just having fun with numbers.

Some people teach the facts; some teach the procedures; some teach the soul of math. Great mathematicians are like great jazz musicians; they improvise on the fly, searching for a great solution, an inspirational solution.


Children Are Not Interchangeable Cogs

Variations of the picture above have been widely distributed in schools. Education works best, we are told, when all the parts work together. The picture shows three gears, arranged in a circle. If you remember your studies of mechanics, this arrangement cannot possibly work.

Imagine the first gear turning clockwise; it would drive the second gear counter-clockwise, which would drive the third gear clockwise, which would drive the first counter-clockwise. But the first gear cannot simultaneously go clockwise and counter-clockwise; this circular gear train would be frozen.

It’s sad that an exponent of government schools would mangle a metaphor so badly. But what does this metaphor tell us? Permit me to speculate why the artist chose a circle, rather than a linear train of gears. A circular model suggests that parents, students, and teachers are in a kind of cooperative dance, ring around the roses. No part drives the others.  What is missing from this picture? Administrators, politicians, and the political process. That’s a large omission. Ask any teacher; they’ll tell you how important politics is, how it often trumps the best interests of teachers, students, and parents; how the best teachers often struggle to find ways to work within or to work around the system, in order to do the best they can for the students.

A more important problem, however, is the assumption that participants are mere cogs in an inexorable machine. There is more truth to this analogy than we like to admit. The origins of what we know of as the Prussian Model of Schooling were military; this model of organization was designed by Fichte, in his Addresses to the German Nation, to produce compliant cannon fodder, soldiers who would march into a barrage of fire when ordered to, “theirs not to reason why. Theirs to do and die.” It was organized as a top-down hierarchy, following the pattern of the military. Everyone was assigned specific limited roles to play, including teachers, students, and parents.

Later, as assembly lines became the norm, industrialists sought a labor force who would do as they were told, and not raise too much ruckus. Schools became an assembly line, a pipeline, where children were fed in one end, and emerged, tightly controlled, compliant, ready to follow orders. Rejects were ejected, or subtly encouraged to self-deport. They were labeled “misfits.” But often, these “misfits” accomplish great things. Those who start powerful trends, who change our lives, are seldom the compliant ones.

“A man must consider what a rich realm he abdicates when he becomes a conformist.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

There is a famous story about young Carl Friedrich Gauss, who was ordered to add the numbers from 1 to 100 when he was only six years old. Moments later, he presented the answer: 5050. The teacher, instead of recognizing the child’s genius, was outraged; his answer did not fit the limited playbook from which the teacher was working. Gauss recognized that the hundred numbers could be easily rearranged into 50 pairs, each of which summed to 101. He quickly performed the simple multiplication. He went off-script, both in being able to discover that insight, and in being able to do multiplication in first grade.

These are the rich possibilities which are blocked off by pedantic teachers, textbooks and processes which force children to abdicate responsibility for their own learning, and guide them into a “safe,” predictable assembly-line.