Ben Carson’s Tragically Mundane Scandal

Whatever else it might accomplish, President Donald Trump’s administration has surely earned its place in history for laying to rest the myth of Republican fiscal prudence. Be they the tax dollars of today’s citizens or tomorrow’s, high ranking officials within Mr. Trump’s White House seem to have no qualms about spending them.

The latest in a long series of questionable expenses is, of course, none other than Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson’s now infamous $31,000 dining set, first reported on by the New York Times.¹ Since the Times broke the story, Mr. Carson has attempted to cancel the order, having come under public scrutiny for what many understandably deem to be an overly lavish expenditure on the public dime.

At first blush, Secretary Mr. Carson’s act is egregious. As the head of HUD, he has a proposed $41 billion of taxpayer money at his disposal. Such frivolous and seemingly self-aggrandizing spending undermines public trust in his ability to use taxpayer funds wisely and invites accusations of corruption. It certainly doesn’t help the narrative that, as some liberals have noted with derision, this scandal coincides with the proposal of significant cuts to the department’s budget.

But the more I think about it, the more I’m puzzled as to why people are so worked up about this.

Let me be clear: this certainly isn’t a good look for the Secretary of an anti-poverty department with a shrinking budget, and it’s justifiable that people are irritated. At a little more than half the median annual wage, most of us would consider $31,000 an absurd sum to spend on dining room furniture. The money that pays for it does indeed come from private citizens who would probably have chosen not to buy Mr. Carson a new dining room with it.

And yet, in the realm of government waste, that amount is practically nothing.
Government has a long, and occasionally humorous, history of odd and inefficient spending.

Sometimes, it can fly under the radar simply by virtue of being bizarre. Last year, for example, the federal government spent $30,000 in the form of a National Endowment for the Arts grant to recreate William Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet” – with a cast of dogs. Other times, the purchase at hand is too unfamiliar to the public to spark outrage. In 2016, the federal government spent $1.04 billion expanding trolley service a grand total of 10.92 miles in San Diego: an average cost of $100 million per mile.

Both of those put Mr. Carson’s $31,000 dining set in a bit of perspective. It is neither as ridiculous as the play nor as great in magnitude as the trolley. So why didn’t either of those incidents receive the kind of public ire he is contending with now?

The mundanity of Mr. Carson’s purchase probably hurts him in this regard. Not many of us feel informed enough to opine on the kind of money one should spend building ten miles of trolley track, but most of us have bought a chair or table. That reference point puts things in perspective and allows room for an emotional response. It’s also likely this outrage is more than a little tied to the President’s unpopularity.

Ironically, the relatively small amount of money spent might also contribute to this effect. When amounts get large enough, like a billion dollars, we tend to lose perspective – what’s a couple million here or there? But $31,000 is an amount we can conceptualize.

So it’s possible that we’re blowing this a little out of proportion for forces that are more emotional than logical. But I still think the issue is a legitimate one that deserves more public attention than it usually gets, and it would be interesting if the public were able to apply this kind of pressure to other instances of goofy spending. Here’s hoping, anyway.

A version of this article originally appeared on Merion West

1. I wrote this article the day before word broke that Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke had spent $139,000 upgrading the department’s doors.

In Defense of the Center

The mushy center never inspires passion like ideological purity. The spectacle of radicalism puts asses in the seats. It’s hard, on the other hand, to imagine rebellious, mask-clad youths taking to the street in the name of fine-tuning marginal tax rates.

Oh sure, you may see a protest here and there, and practically everyone grumbles about this or that issue in which they have an interest. But as the great philosopher Calvin once said: a good compromise leaves everybody mad.

calvin

Some more so than others. Opining in the New York Times, Senator Bernie Sanders suggests Democrats can reverse their political fortunes by abandoning their “overly cautious, centrist ideology,” and more closely approximating the policy positions of a Vermont socialist.

I suppose this could be sound political advice. Everyone has an idea of the way they’d like the world to work, and Sanders’ ideas are appealing to a great many people. You could argue–as Sanders does–that Republicans have had some success with a similar strategy following the Obama years. But, as they’re finding out, ideological purity makes for better campaign slogans than successful governing strategy.

Here’s the thing: We live in a big, diverse country. People have very different wants and needs, yet we all live under the same (federal) laws. Our priorities must sometimes compete against each other, which is why we often end up with some of what we want, but not everything. Striking that balance is tough, and by necessity leaves many people unhappy. We don’t always get it right. But when you’re talking about laws that affect 320 million people, some modesty, or if you prefer, “caution,” is in order.

Alas, Bernie is not of a similar mind. In fewer than 1,000 words, he offers no shortage of progressive bromides without mention of the accompanying price tag. It’s one thing to form a platform around medicare-for-all, higher taxes on the wealthy (their “fair share”), aggressive clean energy commitments, a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan, or free tuition at state universities and lower interest rates on student loans. But all of them? At once?!

Sanders should remember the political and economic lessons of Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin’s foray into single-payer healthcare: Government spending–and thus government activity–is constrained by the population’s tolerance for taxation (And on the other side of things, their tolerance for a deficit of public services. Looking at you, Kansas). Go too far and you risk losing support. And unless you’re willing to rule by force, as extremists often must, that will cost you your ability to shape public policy.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think the Senator’s advice would do the Democrats any favors. The Democrats didn’t move to the center-left because there was widespread and untapped support for endless government programs in America. They did it because they collided with the political and economic reality of governance in our country. Americans are willing to pay for some government programs, but not at the rate Europeans pay to have much more expansive governments. The left, therefore, shouldn’t play an all-or-nothing game, but instead think about what it does well and how it can appeal to, rather than alienate, the rest of the country. That’s going to involve compromise.

Update: Following Jon Ossoff’s narrow defeat in a Georgia special election, there’s been a lot of discussion about whether a more progressive candidate would have fared better. Personally, I find it hard to believe centrism and fiscal conservatism worked against Ossoff in a historically Republican district. Much more believable is Matt Yglesias’ related-but-different take that Ossoff’s reluctance to talk policy left a void for the opposition to exploit, allowing them to cast him as an outsider.

One thing seems certain: the rift within the Democratic party isn’t going away anytime soon.

What’s Up with U.S. Public Education?

*I wrote this a while ago, but didn’t publish. I was on vacation–sue me. I know the internet has the attention span of a five-year-old, and people aren’t really talking about DeVos anymore, but I’m hoping this is still interesting to someone.

The confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education was perhaps the hardest-won victory of President Trump’s nascent administration. Opposition to the DeVos ran deep enough to require Vice President Pence to cast a historic tie-breaking vote.

To hear it from those on the Left, DeVos is uniquely unqualified for the position. Her lack of personal experience with the public school system, coupled with her one-sided approach to education and purported ignorance of education policy make her unsuited to the position, they argue.

On the Right, the response has been to call into question the political motivations behind opposition to DeVos. Teachers’ unions, after all, are some of the biggest spenders in U.S. politics and their economic interests are threatened by the kind of reforms DeVos’ appointment might foreshadow.

It’s hard to know if either or both sides are being overly cynical. I don’t pretend to have any deep knowledge of DeVos or her new mantle. But one thing seems empirically true: the status quo of public education isn’t above reproach.

More Money, Same (Math, Science, Literacy) Problems

According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), per pupil spending on public education has increased roughly 1.7% annually since 1980. Student performance, however, has largely stagnated over the same period by various metrics. To somewhat immodestly quote myself:

The statistics are damning: Literacy rates among 17-year-old Americans peaked in 1971. Standardized testing reveals that math scores peaked in 1986. Test scores show a lack of improvement in math, science, and reading, in which respectively 25%, 22%, and 37% of American students are proficient.

This kind of stagnation isn’t typical among other nations; the United States showed much smaller levels of inter-generational improvement than other OECD nations. Up until about 1975, Americans were scoring significantly higher in math and literacy than Americans born before them. Since 1975, scores have plateaued, even adjusting for race and foreign-born status of students. As [Gallup’s] study states, this implicates the entire US school system.

Test scores aren’t the only indicators of educational dysfunction. Fully 60% of first-year college students need to take remedial courses in either math or English (to be fair, you might attribute this in part to college admission policies). Companies are also reporting longer vacancies for STEM positions and increasingly are forced to delay projects or look outside the U.S. for workers.

To be clear, it’s not that US public schools are producing particularly terrible outcomes (though they’re admittedly middling among the developed world). The real problem is spending on public education is becoming increasingly inefficient; we’re putting more and more resources into it and receiving little or no additional benefit. This is a long-term trend that should be addressed immediately to avoid throwing good money after bad.

In fairness, I have to point out that speaking of public schools in national terms risks obscuring that some public schools–usually found in high-income neighborhoods–perform incredibly well. However, unequal educational outcomes are often considered a bug, rather than a feature, of the public school system, which charter schools have in some cases been able to address with varying degrees of success (though there are charges that this is only possible because charters are given greater latitude in selecting their students).

The Status Quo Is Hard on Teachers, Too

There is a perception among some that public school teachers are profiting hand over fist as a result of teachers’ unions, to the expense of students. But the truth is a little more complicated.

On one hand, strong teachers’ unions have engendered some policies that arguably favor educators over students. Teacher firing rates, for example, are extremely low. This is especially true for tenured teachers, of which an average of 0.2 are dismissed per district for poor performance annually, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

This is made possible (at least in part) by what effectively amounts to state-sanctioned local monopolies on education. Constraints on demand impede normal market mechanisms from weeding out inefficient suppliers (at least, that’s the theory embraced by school choice advocates). This isn’t illogical, and it explains the somewhat rare rift between black parents and the Democratic party line on school choice.

Consider a thought experiment: Imagine families were forced to shop for food only in their own neighborhoods. What might we expect to happen to the quality of food consumed by people in poor areas? What if we put limits on the amount of new stores that could open?

In this light, it might be accurate to say that policies that require students to attend schools in their district prioritize the school system over the scholars.

On the other hand, a lot of teachers are being harmed by the current system–particularly the young and good ones.

Under current agreements, teacher compensation rates are in large part determined by longevity, both within the profession and teaching district. Young teachers–especially women teaching young children–are often underpaid relative to other professions.

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Source: No Recovery, Gallup 2016

Additionally, collective bargaining agreements have led to pay compression (a narrowing of the pay gap between high and low performers) among teachers, which penalizes high performing teachers and benefits low performing teachers. Correspondingly, there has been a detectable decline in standardized test scores of new teachers since the 1960s.¹

The combination of longevity-driven pay and salary compression has made teaching a less attractive profession for the best candidates, who can earn more in other comparable fields. A 2014 survey by the American Federation of Teachers revealed merely 15% of teachers report high levels of enthusiasm about their profession, despite 89% feeling highly enthusiastic at the beginning of their careers.

*

What might we say about an education system that grows increasingly expensive without improvement for students or teachers? We might say that it needs work and we should be open to new ideas, in whatever form they might come. It might also be wise to proceed with caution; for better or worse, this is the system we have right now.

I don’t know if Mrs. DeVos’ agenda will result in improvements. The divergent problems of climbing spending and poor teacher incentive could prove difficult to address simultaneously, especially in the current political climate. But we should all remember the true goal of an education system–public, private, or somewhere in between–is to efficiently increase human capital. How that happens should be of secondary concern.

  1. The study I cited found these results to be true only among female teachers. For some reason, scores of incoming male teachers improved slightly over this period. If anyone has any theories as to why this might be, I’d love to hear them.