Friday, November 30, 2007

Thinking the unthinkable: smaller government (2)

How did we get "big government" at the state and federal levels, anyway?

The dynamic between a strictly limited government (restricted from DOING EVIL) and a more empowered state (strong enough to DO GOOD) pre-dates the Constitutional Convention, figures in those debates, and broke out in national politics immediately following ratification between the two camps we tend to personalize under Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson.

Hamilton saw the power of government and public debt finance as essential tools for building a stronger, more modern United States. But it is important to note that social services in the way we think of them, or government that somehow legislated morality had no part in his thinking.

Jefferson, on the other hand, was an agrarian elitist who believed strongly in the independent yeoman farmer myth. But it is equally important to note that as Governor of Virginia he proposed the first state-funded public education system in American history, and then stretched his own interpretation to buy Louisiana.

So what's really interesting is that neither man was an absolutist; both reflected in greater or lesser degrees the above-mentioned dynamic between limited and big government that we're still arguing about today.

Government necessarily got bigger as both the land area and population of the country grew, and its role in American life changed as the light industrial revolution (1812-1845) and the heavy industrial revolution (post Civil War) kicked in and changed the nature of our economy and standards of living.

But it is really instructive to note that the first long-term, modern-appearing Federal bureaucracy in the modern sense was the post-Civil War Freedman's Bureau, which took on multiple functions in much the same manner as modern social welfare bureaucracies. And it suffered from the same strengths and weaknesses: inept political appointees, overspending, ability to override state authorities if necessary, tendency to treat its client population as victims rather than human beings with their own agendas.

It is also instructive to note that the second major Federal long-term bureaucracy was the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which--without any significant oversight--implemented such policies as involuntary residential schooling of native americans, intentional decimation of bison herds, and massive forced relocation of native peoples.

It is also instructive to note that for every social/political success of "big government" like trustbusting, child labor laws, social security, medicaire, or the civil rights act, that same Leviathan also perpetrated kidnapping of Indian children, internment of Japanese-American citizens, racially segregated accommodations, an interventionist foreign policy, racial quotas on immigration, outlawing the use of cheap, naturally produced analgesics by doctors, forced sterilization of the mentally retarded, and employing direct violence to break up labor actions and political demonstrations.

(Note for big government advocates: segregation ended primarily because of two key events: Brown vs the Board of Education and Jackie Robinson's entry into major leagure baseball. Neither can be attributed to "big government." One was mandated by the courts after decades of government failure to adress racial inequality, and the other was the result of market forces within professional sports.)

What is rarely explored is the relationship between economic and technological development and big government (as well as big corporations). Neither government nor the corporations could either (A) accumulate huge amounts of capital or (B) exercise close control over actions of their agents at a distance without (1) revolutions in communication and transportation like telegraphs, railroads, and steam engines, or (2) the theoretical economic "tools" (financing, fiscal policy, modern stock markets) necessary to manage huge amounts of money.

Ironically, governments and corporations are parallel structures in terms of how they organize their activities. Both engage in vertical and horizontal integration in the attempt to gain monopolistic control of targeted sectors of American society. Their relationship is therefore synergistic rather than truly adversarial, which makes public oversight of private enterprise such a tricky (but in some aspects absolutely necessary) endeavor.

However, and here's my teaser point, modern "big government" and modern corporations emerged in fits and starts only during the 1920s-1930s, and might have withered back after World War 2 had it not been for the Cold War.

Thus my thesis: whether through global economic trends (the Depression) or through external political influences (the rise of the Soviet Union in the postwar--nuclear--world), both big government and big corporations as we now know them came into "permanent" existence primarily because of EXTERNAL rather than INTERNAL forces.

The Progressives, like the Populists and the Abolitionists, were political failures. Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower--not the Roosevelts or LBJ--created the foundation for our modern world.

See you next time.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Issues, not candidates--a Libertarian strategy

I have made no secret that I am both a believer in the potential future of the Libertarian Party and the continuing disintegration of the Republican Party. I am also not a fan of fusion, which many people see as the best way for smaller parties to field candidates and gain recognition.

Tyler Nixon's response to an earlier post ("Revenge of the comic book nerds") is indicative of the traditional idea of a third party achieving meaningful political impact:

The Libertarian Party here will forever be moribund until/unless they can really get their asses in gear and achieve an organizing critical mass.

It begins with candidates. They need to learn to be less picky and arcane about self-proclaimed but barely articulated standards for selection....

The Libertarians need to start realizing the "half-a-loaf" principle and begin working with like-minded potential candidates. ...

One of the reasons I fought so hard to preserve fusion candidacies as an option in Delaware was to permit parties like the LP to remain relevant, even when they seemingly recruit no one for any races. I would be glad to try to work with them again if they can realize they need to get real about politics and realized that being a debating society is not the way to run a successful political party that achieves the real change we libertarians (yes, small 'l') want.


I respect Tyler's opinion, but I think he's wrong.

Libertarians first have to create a recognizable, state-relevant "brand" within Delaware politics, and this has to be done before the party starts fielding large numbers of candidates. People have to come to associate real, substantive stances on Delaware political issues with Libertarians.

How is this to be done?

I think there are two essential steps in the process. First, Libertarians AS LIBERTARIANS (with the identification consistently used) have to begin to speak out in pragmatic terms about specific Delaware issues. They have to do this in the Nudes-Journal, the State Rag, on the radio, in the blogosphere, at school board meetings, etc. We have to get people used to hearing the term Libertarian associated with real positions on key issues, like eminent domain in Wilmington, the Still-Venables amendment to prevent gay marriage, the internet pharmacy bill, the UD freshman mind control program, and others.

Secondly, I think the Libertarian Party needs to get into the business of publishing voter guides for state elections. We need to develop a list of issues and questions, send them out to all candidates, and then rate the candidates in terms of individual freedom and smaller, transparent government. Republican, Democrat, or (unlikely as it seems) IPOD, everybody benefits when the candidate in each election who most favors human freedom actually wings. Then, instead of running or nominating fusion candidates, Libertarians need to endorse particularly strong candidates.

Such voting guides would need to be substantive and fair. They need to be well enough done so that the Libertarian Party earns the reputation of being an honest broker in relevant information. And they need to focus attention on the issues we hold as important.

So the question I have for you is, if you could ask a few Libertarian-oriented questions of all candidates for public office in Delaware, what would those questions be?

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

A blurred vision (2015), or pimping for yourself

I love it when the News Journal attempts to raise objective reporting into self-interested advocacy.

Today's top headline was "Schools report: more money need for high achievement"

Check out the first two paragraphs of the story:

Delaware educators would have to increase per-pupil spending by as much as 83 percent to create high-achieving schools under the state’s current system, a new Delaware Public Policy Institute analysis finds.

The nonprofit group’s report, released at noon today, looks at the additional per-student investment that would be needed for 95 percent of public school students to score at the highest two levels on Delaware Student Testing Program reading and math exams in 2009


You almost wouldn't know that this is a straight up shill for Vision 2015, unless you dug really deeply into the article.

The Delaware Public Policy Institute took $235,000 from the Longwood Foundation and

hired Colorado-based Augenblick, Palaich and Associates to look at Delaware’s current per-pupil costs in small, medium and large districts, then project how those costs would change to reach “modest” and “high” levels of student achievement. They defined “modest” as bringing 9 percent to 21 percent of the state’s students to Level 4 or 5 on the DSTP by 2009. At “modest” level, 62 percent of low-income, special education and English language learner students would reach Level 3 in reading and 41 percent would reach Level 3 in math.

“High” was defined as having 95 percent of all students at Level 4 or 5. Between 26 percent and 27 percent of students reached those levels on the 2007 exams.


The report concludes that to have "high" achievement under the current system would cost 83% more per student, rising from about $9,000 per student to more than $14,000, while the pricetag for Vision 2015--a mere $100 million--would achieve such results at a much lowever cost.

There are three problems with this story.

Mentioned but not highlighted by the News Journal is the fact that there is more that a little overlap between Vision 2015 and DPPI; to wit:

Marvin “Skip” Schoenhals, Chairman of both Vision 2015 and DPPI

Paul Herdman, President of Rodel Foundation which is a financial backer of both Vision 2015 and DPPI

John Taylor, Steering Committee of Vision 2015 and DPPI Executive Director

UD Professor Dan Rich, member of both Vision 2015 and DPPI

DE Chamber of Commerce's James Wolfe, member of both Vision 2015 and DPPI


Let me get this straight: DPPI, which is essentially indistinguishable from the senior leadership of Vision 2015, commissioned a Colorado corporation to tell it how much more the current system would cost than Vision 2105. With Vision 2015 providing the starting assumptions of the study--AND PAYING FOR IT--why would anybody be surprised that Augenblick, Palaich and Associates would return a conclusion that was exactly what Vision 2015 needed people to believe, which could be released at almost exactly the same moment Education Secretary Valerie Woodruff decided NOT to fund the program?

Second problem: the assumptions that the study made. "High" expectations according to Augenblick, Palaich and Associates were that 95% of Delaware students should score a 4 or a 5 on the DSTP. I'm sure that to do this would cost 80% more than current expenditures because that's not the goal of public education. "Meeting the standard" is scoring at least a 3 on the DSTP. What this expectation does is invoke "grade inflation" to new and ridiculous heights. If the standard is set high--and the DSTP standards are high--then raising the bar for 95% is the same thing as requiring all A's and B's to graduate. It is unrealistic that ANY program the state could afford to finance would be able to achieve that goal. (And we should note that nothing in the Vision 2015 plan actually promises to achieve that.) So what the story does is posit an unrealistic goal to declare the present system ineffective.

Third problem: the Augenblick, Palaich and Associates study assumed that the DE public education system will remain virtually unchanged for the near future. The past 15 years have brought us core academic standards, high-stakes testing, public school choice, NCLB reporting requirements, a complete overhaul of teacher professional development ("clusters"), a new special education law, a drive toward greater consistency in curricula statewide, and the most consistent emphasis on continued incremental improvement throughout the system that any DOE administration has ever sustained. So, obviously, we should assume that nothing will change from here on out, right?

The biggest innovation that Vision 2015 seeks to implement is a dual change from local funding to statewide funding (at a higher level), and to change the funding structure so that students with greater needs receive greater funding. While I don't necessarily agree with all that, there is a salient point to be made here: that's a decision for the General Assembly and not for DOE. I don't care how heavily Secretary Woodruff might chose to fund the other changes of Vision 2015 out of her budget, that change would require one of the more titanic political fights of the new century to get passed.

Finally, there's a point to be made about all our would-be educational innovators (and I have been one of them). There is this tendency to talk in grandiose terms about what could be achieved in the "perfect" system, say, in 8 years (2015). This frees you from the obligation to do the dirty work of directly helping the students who are in the system right now, from the fourth grade on up. That's what Valerie Woodruff has been doing for the past decade. While I don't agree with every decision she's made, she has consistently said in word and deed that it is not worth sacrificing a hardwon DSTP score of 3 today for a potential DSTP 4 or 5 tomorrow. She works with today's kids, while consistently striving to make improvements for the future.

As a Libertarian the thing that most disturbs me about Vision 2015 is the centralization, bureaucracy, and higher taxes lurking behind the high-sounding rhetoric. As I've said before, I do not question the motives of these folks, but their goals and methods send a chill down my spine.

As a Delaware citizen in what is essentially a one-newspaper-state (sorry, State News), I find it not just chilling but offensive that the NJ staff would elevate a self-serving news release (that had a pricetage of $235,000) to the category of front-page news, backed up by a major editorial.

This is one of the few times I'm probably grateful for public and legislative apathy.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Thinking the unthinkable: smaller government (1)

In order to win anybody over to the notion that government at all levels from local to national can be made smaller through the political process you've got three primary hurdles to clear:

1. You've got to convince people that larger government impairs their ability to lead whatever kind of life they desire.

2. You've got to convince them that a smaller government could actually handle the critical, essential tasks of governing.

3. You've got to convince them that making the change will be worth the potential loss of government benefits that they might now be enjoying.


I'm going to punt on Number 1 right now, because I'm working on a larger, strategic approach to that. So let's look at Number 2, first from the Federal perspective, and let's not take an easy one: begin with homeland security.

I want you to think about this: in Al Qaeda we face a decentralized enemy that is as flexible in its tactics as it is inflexible in its religious/political beliefs. The great genius of Osama bin Laden was that he single-handedly reversed the patronage roles of terrorist groups and nations. Before Al Qaeda all terror groups existed as the clients of some state or other; bin Laden instead made first Sudan, then Afghanistan, and more recently the warlords of Waziristan into his clients. Throughout the rest of the world he franchised the Al Qaeda brand to local operatives under a general anti-Western theme. The hallmark of Al Qaeda in Iraq has been exceptionally flexible changes in tactics and a corporate model of decentralized leadership with an emphasis on low- and local-tech weaponry.

How did the US respond to this dramatically different challenge? We created a new bureaucracy. Actually several of them.

The Department of Homeland Security originated as an umbrella organization for all the different parts of the Federal government from (honest!) the Department of Agriculture to Treasury, FBI, CIA, DIA, NRO, NSA, FEMA etc etc with any terrorism prevention or mitigation roles. To this was added the incredible double boondoggle of the TSA to make you take your shoes off in airports and the DNI (Director of National Intelligence) who is supposed to referee turf battles between our intelligence agencies.

The problems? Many. FIrst, DHS was staffed with transfers (often involuntary) from other Federal agencies, a process that I can tell you from witnessing it first hand during their training resulted in a cadre of mediocre bureaucrats who know nothing about counter-terrorism and aren't really interested in learning (I am deadly serious about that last comment). So one of DHS's first acts was to contract with Oracle Systems to create the Data Collection Tool (known, obviously, as "the Tool") which is supposed to be a gigantic database of every single terrorist target in the US. States consume thousands of hours and spend literally millions of dollars on preparing entries for this Tool, and the dirty little secret is that it doesn't work. Then DHS bureaucratized the process of administering Homeland Security state, urban, and transportation grants, placing their administration under "State Preparedness Officers" who were woefully unqualified for their jobs. (The first woman to have responsibility for Hawaii and the Pacific Trust territories, who controlled over $35 million in DHS grants, was a 23 year old whose only qualifications were personal amiability and a BA in Political Science from Brown.) This did not necessarily dissatisfy the states, as the Executive Director of HS for South Carolina told me, because, "Homeland Security is the new revenue sharing, son, and every county sheriff can dig up a geriatric klansman in his district to justify gettin' some of it."

On the intelligence sharing front, DHS first moved to quash states that had developed their own regional fusion centers for sharing intel, and despite the consensus of experts in the field, moved to centralize and heavily compartmentalize intelligence analysis. Worse, as intelligence estimates move up the chain from, say the FBI or CIA, toward the Executive Branch, there is a whole new level of spin placed on them by the DNI before it gets there.

In other words, what I'm saying in a nutshell is that responding to a dynamic, innovative security threat was handled by the creation of the country's largest and least responsive bureaucracy in modern history. Not only aren't we really safer, we're paying more for it to more civil servants.

Was there an alternative? You bet there was.

The 9/11 Commission and several studies by acknowledged experts in the field strongly suggested that instead of a DNI the US needed a new information-sharing protocol and a series of formalized interagency contacts rather than a new level of bureaucracy, with the elimination of duplicate services and pooling of foreign language specialists. This, combined with the development rather than the discouraging of law enforcement regional fusion centers, would have allowed greater intel processing flexibility and--according to one of the best minds at the Naval Postgraduate School--would have saved something on the order of $12 billion annually. It would also have reduced or eliminated at least four duplicating offices for a potential savings of another $8-10 billion.

That's intelligence gathering. What about terrorism response and mitigation?

DHS has now essentially mandated the nationwide adoption of a centralized incident management system that was developed through the Center for Domestic Preparedness in Anniston AL. Instead of capitalizing on the "best practices" approach that was emerging between various emergency responders between 2001-2003, DHS sent out extravagant no-bid contracts to several "security" corporations, whose model was not only accepted in toto, but then they staffed CDP with contract employees being paid many times what government employees make. DHS now completely subsidizes the travel, accomodations, and expenses of tens of thousands of first responders to voyage to a remote location in Alabama each year. The only function that can be fulfilled in AL that cannot be handled elsewhere is experience in handling live biological agents. This is valuable training, but the number of people who need it annually is very small.

The alternative, which DHS rejected, was to set up small traveling teams of instructors certified from existing experts in the States, and to send them around regionally on a rotating basis to provide instruction for first responders. How do we know this would work? Because one of the largest DHS contractors [EAI] has now done this, going into direct competition with the DHS operation in Alabama. They can deliver the training cheaper, more effectively, and with more emphasis on regional and state differences in circumstances than the CDP in Anniston. The best estimates of the potential savings had this approach been considered (it was not), apparently would have been again in the ballpark of $17-21 billion per year.

Beginning to get the idea?

As for mitigation, the key word to remember is Katrina. Everyone was quick to blame the failure of FEMA on Bush's nepotism in appointing "Brownie" to head the agency. The reality is murkier; FEMA resisted incorporation under the DHS mantle for as long as it could, because many key officials in the agency did not buy off on the Incident Management System based on their own experiences in disaster relief. And the new system is, in fact, far better suited to dealing with urban terror attacks than natural disasters. FEMA found its training superceded, its doctrines thrown out, and many key trained people suddenly out on the street. Again there was an alternative, and that was to leave FEMA alone. The agency had a solid if not outstanding record of helping to coordinate disaster relief with state agencies, but once DHS got hold of it FEMA became another Federal puppet. Ironically, the diminished performance of FEMA was purchased at a premium: changes required by DHS probably cost the taxpayers another $25 billion annually.

I realize that in Washington $50-60 billion of our money is small change (though if I were to include three or four more examples I could get the number up over $100 billion). The killer is that the expenditure of this money and the creation of DHS has made us not one whit safer than we could have been without it.

We don't even want to talk about the manner in which grant funding to the States has been handled.

Summing up: in order to provide better for domestic security, what was primarily needed at the Federal level was (A) better intelligence-sharing protocols and "bottom up" regional fusion centers; (B) decentralized training for emergency responders in best practices; and (C) leaving an essentially functional disaster management system alone.

The correct answer to improving homeland security WAS NOT the largest expansion of the Federal bureaucracy since World War 2.

I was going to talk about the incredible boondoggle that is the Transportation Security Administration, as well as delve into the derivation of the term "homeland" in "homeland security," but I will satisfy myself with holding that for later, and making one last point.

Our government did not look for the most efficient method to accomplish a critical task because big governments don't really give a damn about efficiency. They can't; that's not what they were made to do.

(I recognize that this post is both long and not as tightly organized as I'd like, but you need the wealth of detail to understand the argument.)

OK, finally some useful information

If you buy books--and the odds are if you are reading this you buy too many--you need to stop shopping online at Amazon or Borders or Barnes & Noble.

Why? Because there is a better deal out there.

Check out Abebooks.com. "ABE" stands for Advanced Book Exchange, not an old bald guy in a dusty store. It is a consortium of several thousand online booksellers and several million titles (old and new) in a consolidated marketplace.

The search engine is powerful, and best of all the whole place is market-driven. You will usually find far more copies available in a range of conditions and prices than you do from Amazon, and Abebooks stands behind its transactions.

Often you can even scoop the bookstores; both Pat Buchanan's and Glenn Beck's new books were available here (sometimes in review copies or paperback advance proofs) several days before they went on sale in bookstores, and at cheaper prices.

You do have to watch postage charges carefully, but that's true everywhere.

Try this for reasonable prices on hard-to-find out-of-print titles as well. You won't go back.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Revenge of the Comic-book nerd Libertarians?

There are two quotes from Ryan Sager's The Elephant in the Room, Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party that I want to share with you.

The first is Sager's assessment of Libertarians, who--kind of like African-Americans and Democrats--he sees as having no option but to support the Republican Party. I don't know if I believe that, but the paragraph is so well written that I can't resist it:

Libertarians ... are the comic-book nerds of the political world; if they can find an acceptable partner willing to listen to them prognosticate about who would win in a fight between F. A. Hayek and Milton Friedman, they should consider themselves lucky. And with the only other option around being an ass [the Democratic Party] by turns indifferent or hostile to their core beliefs, libertarians are destined--whatever their grievances--to stay put.


Makes me think of the lyrics to Brad Paisley's song: "I'm a sci-fi fanatic, a mild asthmatic, never been to second base...."

Strangely (and I'll come back to this dichotomy), even though this is what people often think of Libertarians, this is not what they necessarily think of libertarian ideas. They just don't connect the two.

Now for the second Sager quotation, from his section on the lesson that the post-Gingrich Republicans drew from their mid-1990s battles with Bill Clinton over shtting down the government:

Without a doubt, the great majority of Republicans [came to] ... believe that any attempt to shrink government is political poison. While the American people may occasionally indicate that they want smaller government, through elections or through public-opinion polling, they're simply lying. When push comes to cut, they will turn on any politician foolish enough to try to slash spending on anything but the most outlandish of pork-barrel projects--and even there it's best to trim lightly.


On the one hand, this is probably an accurate observation. On the other hand, I don't think the evangelical social conservatives were ever interested in small government once they found out they could use big government's power toward their own ends. And on the gripping hand (prize for the first to spot the reference), nobody since Reagan has actually tried to make the case for a smaller government.

So what to make of all this?

If, as I have been arguing here (strangely echoed in Delawareliberal in certain posts and even hinted at in First State Politics), the Republican Party is on the verge of a terminal national meltdown, we can assume that something will take its place. The "two-party system" requires, oh, two parties for the label to be any good. And after the Republicans nearly suicided over Watergate, they reinvented themselves under Reagan, just like the Democrats reinvented themselves under Clinton. They haven't reinvented themselves since Clinton, but that fact has been obscured by the Republican melt-down.

My first conclusion is that Libertarians cannot afford either to stay with the evangelical social conservative "fusion" within the Republican Party, and since they don't have the strength right now to throw out the Christian Right, they're going to have to leave. They are not going to end up, long term and en masse, as Democrats. Democrats share many Libertarian social beliefs, but their commitment to big government (oh, sorry, "efficient" government) will ultimately be a dealbreaker.

So where do Libertarians go? The national Libertarian Party never tires of reminding the people who visit its website that it is the third largest political party in the country. Unfortunately, far more people subscribe to Batman comics.

Second conclusion: to have anywhere to go (except home) Libertarians have to work on their "Brand Identification," and connect their ideas to real people's lives. There are all sorts of constituencies out there (as Ron Paul is proving) that are into individual freedom: bikers and gays (a not-incompatible mixture), military folks and folk singers, businessmen and college students, people who have to pay the AMT even though they can barely make their mortgage payments.

But a commitment to individual freedom is only half of what a Libertarian is all about; the other half involves smaller, open, limited government. This is where I always got frustrated with Libertarians in college. They could never see a way to get there from here, and as Sager's quotation asserts, reducing the size of government--which equates with reducing farm subsidies, student loans, the military, welfare, and so on--is a difficult sell to people who don't ever expect to have to wean themselves from the government's teat.

Difficult does not mean impossible.

There are ways to make a compelling case that with government--especially state and local government--"less can be more." The problem for Libertarians is that while you can do it in a monograph filled with graphs, scatter plots, and standard deviations, the modern world of icon-driven internet politics has given us superficial voters with sound-bite memories and pseudo-intellectuals with about a 2,000 word attention span. (I can feel you yawning already.)

Even more to the point, for Libertarians to have any credibility, they have to get into position to run some parts of the government, and do it better, more openly, and more frugally than their Demopublican opponents.

Which brings us back to re-branding and reorganizing something besides the Republican Party.

Over the next few weeks I'm going to try to lay out a case for (A) how Libertarians can successfully "re-Brand" in Delaware while sticking to their principles; and (B) why smaller government is still possible and preferrable in terms of the major social problems of the day.

Wish me luck--I'll need it.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Planning to finance my new beach-front condo in Seaford

One of the great problems of Demopublican machine politics like we have in Delaware (aside from those minor issues like corruption, contempt for the public, nepotism, etc. etc.) is the inability of the machine to look into the future.

Here's a great example: Delaware and global warming.

Let's make one assumption here for the sake of argument: global warming is real and has at least as a partial cause human, carbon-related activity. You can be agnostic or even hostile to that premise, but just bear with me for the moment.

I've just been reading the report of the Delaware Climate Change Consortium, and I couldn't help but notice a key point: the whole "Climate Change Action Plan" is all about preventing Global Warming. It shows in great detail how Delaware can reduce its carbon emissions over the next few years, and I don't question the science behind the various graphs and stats at all.

I just question the relevance.

Here's assumption number two: If Assumption Number One about Global Warming is correct, nothing that the State of Delaware does about it is going to make one damn bit of difference. In terms of the US we are a microscopic population--less that 1/3 of 1%, and even if we meet all the maximum effort targets in the report our contribution to carbon emission change in America will be rounded off somewhere east of the fourth number to the right of the decimal point.

And even if America and Europe make all the wonderful, carbon-reducing changes that Al Gore and the UN Climate folks want, it doesn't matter a tinker's damn if China, India, Indonesia, Bangla Desh, and Pakistan (which between them now account for about 1/2 of the world's population) don't reduce their own emissions and stop having so many babies. The elephant in the room with global warming (and the UN knows this even as it spends time arguing about forcing the industrialized world to reduce carbon emissions) is that birth rates will eventually cancel out whatever the First World does in terms of decreasing environmental impact. What works with 6 billion people on earth will be meaningless with 6.5 or 7 billion people here.

So I'll say it again:

Nothing we do in Delaware can either slow down or stop global warming. Oh, it might make us feel more virtuous, and purchase a few votes for the Democratic machine, but its not going to accomplish anything.

So what, instead of bending over, sticking our heads between our cheeks and kissing our butts goodbye, should we be doing?

Long-term planning for surviving the changes that headed our way.

We're a small state, a coastal state, a damn-near-below-sea-level state, and a tourist destination. By 2025 things should be changing rapidly enough to thoroughly modify our environment, and--if we're not careful--to depopulate our whole state.

What state government and those vaunted state universities should be doing now is studying the immediate impacts of the worst-case scenarios and how to plan for them. What technologies are we going to need? What industries are we going to have to rely on if the tourist industry dries up? What kinds of new opportunities will global warming bring?

(Yes, you heard me right: new opportunities. By 2050 if the wheat belt has moved toward northern Canada we could be the new home for formerly Florida citrus. Or something. All disasters are also opportunities.)

(Aside: you can start your own research with the National Wildlife Federation's "Delaware and Global Warming report. It's heavily focused at the beginning on losses of bird and fish species, but it also starts providing some clues about how the process will affect the overall geography of Delaware.)

But gee--look around and you'll realize that we are not planning for that; we're still caught up in the "Let's all recycle at the curb and use flourescent bulbs and pretend that Rehobeth Beach will still be here in fifty years" mode.

There are some people thinking about that kind of future: Tommywonk's crusade for windpower (I personalize it to him because in the blogosphere he is the chief and most passionate advocate) is not only a chance to lower carbon emissions in the present, it's an opportunity to develop a new energy source that will work for us in that unfortunate future.

And what happens? Delmarva Power and its minions in the state government are trying to kill it.

Here's a new question to add to my list for prospective candidates in Delaware:

What do you think we should be doing now to plan for the environmental, economic, and social changes that will result from global warming if the "worst-case" scenario is true?

Since I am a Libertarian, and don't believe that questions so fundamental to our survival should be solely entrusted to the state, it's also a question for you.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Education reform: Old Visions in a new (expensive) format

I really shouldn't do this without all the sources at hand, but Vision 2015 has reared its head again in the blogosphere over on First State Politics and Kilroy's Delaware in the wake of Education Secretary Valerie Woodruff's recent decision not to provide significant state funding to the enterprise for the second year running.

If you have been living in a box somewhere, check out the Vision 2015 website, wherein you will discover that a coalition of concerned Delaware leaders is determined to

Imagine... each and every Delaware student fully prepared for success in life . . .no exceptions, no excuses. That's Vision 2015. And it's the moral and economic imperative of our time. Our children deserve it. Our future demands it. Please join us in making it a reality.


As Dave Burris says, there are many excellent individuals--especially among the 28 key leaders of the movement--advocating Vision 2015; I have worked with many of them and respect all of them. Which makes it even more difficult for me to say that I think they are wrong.

If you read the six primary objectives for Vision 2015 and the goals underneath them, you will discover first that while the movement intends to give principals more latitude in their buildings, and teachers more support in terms of resources and training, the unspoken hallmark of the plan is centralization and more bureaucracy.

Consider the following goals, selected from the summary page

"A statewide research-based curriculum so that all Delaware students are learning at the same high standards" [This is not revolutionary; there are already state-mandated curriculum states--think Texas--and the decision to move to a centrally disseminated curriculum is not necessarily a no-brainer. What works for math doesn't necessarily work for social studies. What works in large-population states doesn't always work in places like Delaware. What a state-mandated curriculum DOES necessarily cause is greater centralized control of education. We'll come back to this later.]

"Annual license renewals for all early child care and education providers to ensure consistent high quality" [This plank not only assumes that such license renewal "ensures" quality--the research on that is very questionable--but extends the bureaucratic reach of DOE much farther than our public schools, with costs and consequences that have not be adequately explored.]

"Increased coordination across service agencies for children from birth to age 3" [A platitude without true meaning, but an invasive as well as expensive one, and predicated on the unfounded idea that these "service agencies" are actually performing their tasks well enough that interagency coordination will make a difference.]

"Advancement [for teachers] based on skills and performance, not seniority, with student achievement as one measure of performance" [Sounds great, doesn't it? Kick those nasty old unions back where they belong. But it also assumes incredible amounts of facts not in evidence, like the ability to build a system that can account for differences in classroom numbers, inter and intra district student mobility, the development of reliable and valid measures of both teacher and student performance, ad infinitum ad nauseum. What we are really doing here is guaranteeing that few people will want to make long-term careers in the classroom, and that nobody will want to work with truly challenging students, because there will be--competitively speaking--no reward for it.]

"Bonuses for schools that meet or exceed agreed-upon goals for improvements in student achievement" [Merely a rehash of NCLB in positive terms; the effect is to give more to those who are doing well, rather than to focus resources where students are not performing. And who makes these "agreed-upon goals," anyway--the teachers, the principals, the parents, the State? Just how does this performance element fit in with teacher pay as above?]

"New professional development centers to encourage the sharing of information and best practices." [Sounds great until you start thinking about infrastructure costs; see the next item]

"More supports to help new teachers succeed, such as realistic course loads, assignments and class sizes" [This is pure pandering to both the teachers and the parents. Class size research shows something far different than most people think it does--it ain't a miraculous solution. Moreover, reduced class sizes mean (A) more teachers, which means also (B) more classrooms, which means (C) significantly higher cost per pupil in a state that already has one of the highest costs per pupil in the nation.]

"On-site school reviews and school improvement teams that can rapidly improve underperforming schools" [Another wonderful sounding initiative that is both (A) costly and (B) not proven to be effective. Stop and ask yourself where the individuals conducting these reviews or moving in to improve schools will come from. The answer is either by taking excellent teachers out of the classroom or by hiring recently retired educators and for-profit consultants. Large parts of this suggested "reform" exist today in Delaware and are not working.]

"State funding high enough so districts and schools do not need to rely on local referenda to meet Vision 2015 standards" [I am not sure I even have to unpack this one, but I will. This calls again for massive infusions of new money into the system from state taxes, because individual voters in districts cannot be trusted to react rationally to district performance. It removes the basic level of accountability from the public--which is not too high to start with--and essentially turns Delaware into a single school district. This may or may not be a good idea, but this provision is just frightening in Democratic terms. Because voters haven't always given us the money we think we should have, we intend to remove that level of control from them, thereby making taxation more indirect and less visible.]

Vision 2015 is NOT revolutionary or even groundbreaking. It is a package of proposals--many unproven by research--that have been circulating for years among certain constituencies in professional education. In some ways it is analagous to asking senior oil industry officials to create a multi-year program for improving the environment. It calls for all the usual heavy-handed moves: increased centralization, increased funding, and decreased local/parental control of public education.

Worse, it is based on some very slippery assumptions. Prominently displayed on the summary page is a chart noting the US slippage in Math performance against other countries. Implied is that this slippage is hard evidence of the inadequacy of our public education system. Really? Take a look at the 25 countries rating ahead of us:

Finland
Korea [South, I am presuming]
Netherlands
Liechtenstein [For all nine students!]
Japan
Canada
Belgium
Switzerland
Australia
New Zealand
Czech Republic
Iceland
Denmark
France
Sweden
United Kingdom
Austria
Germany
Ireland
Norway
Luxembourg
Poland
Hungary
Spain
Latvia

There are several things you should consider about this list. (A) None of these countries, in population size, is anywhere near the scale of the United States; (B) most of these countries are quite ethnically and culturally homogenous as compared to our extremely diverse society; (C) many of these countries do not attempt to provide a world-class public education for all their students, but actually "track" them quite early (and involuntarily) and limit the educational options of students within those systems.

Intriguingly, the country that finishes next--directly after the US--is Russia: a sprawling, heavily populated, multi-ethnic nation with a commitment to wide-ranging public education.

The fact is, no other country attempts to do what we do: provide a public education for every single student in a widely diverse society, taking into account both socioeconomic and cultural factors. The comparison is not just apples to oranges, its apples to goose liver pate.

Want to deal with some real educational issues in Delaware and the US? Start looking at the research on how the ubiquitous nature of computers and the internet impedes the development of text-based literacy. True literacy is a labor-intensive skill under the best of conditions requiring several years to acquire (to say nothing of acquiring the habit of literacy--liking to read). But the internet is icon-driven, not text-driven, and even students reading on less than a fifth grade reading level can use it to access and regurgitate information for homework and classwork without actually learning to read or even learning the information. (I know; I watched my teenage daughter, whose learning disability left her with a 2nd grade reading level at age 15 put together papers she didn't didn't even understand by cutting and pasting internet sources. She usually received at least a B on them.)

If you've got a strong enough stomach, start looking at the cutting-edge research that is challenging the whole "high-stakes testing," "assessment drives instruction," "understanding by design," and "statewide curriculum" mantra that underlies Vision 2015. An example of unanticipated consequences: In Virginia the Standards of Learning (SOL) assessment has very high-stakes consequences for schools, in terms of funding, staff reorganization, etc. etc. Mixed with the cell structure from NCLB, this means that even a few poorly performing students can drop a school's average sufficiently to produce negative consequences. So what's happened? The drop-out rate in the Old Dominion is going up, because poorly performing students are no longer subjects for more highly focused interventions, they're liabilities who serve their schools best by leaving. In some districts, teachers and principals have actually encouraged students to drop out in order to keep their test scores high.

Valerie Woodruff is right to support the idea of school reform. Her record as Education Secretary has been marked by consistent gains in student performance. But she is equally right not to turn over hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars to a "kitchen sink" reform effort that will actually endanger many of the quiet, foundational successes she has achieved over the past decade.

FIGHT, says First State Politics? How about let's see DuPont, Astra Zeneca, Rodel, and all the DE banks and corporations put up the initial $35 million themselves if they're so sure Vision 2015 will change the state, rather than ask the citizens and taxpayers of Delaware to foot the bill for the latest trendy educational whizbang?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Eating an atheist turkey: Non-belief and civil rights

OK I'm about to take off this evening for the mandatory pilgrimmage home to Virginia to eat turkey that I didn't have to cook (my favorite kind). I thought about a nice, sentimental schmaltzy post that covers the leaves in autumn, the warmth of family, word pictures of my adorable children--something to bring a tear to your eye.

Then I thought: Naaah. Too easy.

I didn't become a baptized Catholic until I was forty-six, and my kids had a lot to do with conversion. Being me, my most memorable moment of the ceremony was the unexpected discover as Father Mast dipped me into the water (and almost lost his balance because I outweigh him) was that Holy Water in the Baptismal Font is chlorinated. My eyes turn bright red in chlorination. Seems that, according to the State, a Baptismal Font is legally a swimming pool, and therefore....

At any rate, such are my deep theological qualifications to discuss Greta Christina's post about angry atheism. Greta Christina is a blogger in California, whose blog subtitle is "Sex, atheism, politics, dreams, and whatever. Thinking out loud since 2005." How could you not like that, especially with her picture in a Minuteman uniform beside it. Her fairly recent post (I can't find the date) is entitled Atheists and Anger, and its too long to quote here in its entirety. I've included a couple excerpts below, but I encourage you to check out the whole post--it IS angry, but extremely substantive and well-written:

This has been a hard piece to write, and it may be a hard one to read. I'm not going to be as polite and good-tempered as I usually am in this blog; this piece is about anger, and for once I'm going to fucking well let myself be angry.

...

I'm angry that according to a recent Gallup poll, only 45 percent of Americans would vote for an atheist for President.

...

I'm angry that atheist soldiers -- in the U.S. armed forces -- have had prayer ceremonies pressured on them and atheist meetings broken up by Christian superior officers, in direct violation of the First Amendment. I'm angry that evangelical Christian groups are being given exclusive access to proselytize on military bases -- again in the U.S. armed forces, again in direct violation of the First Amendment. I'm angry that atheist soldiers who are complaining about this are being harassed and are even getting death threats from Christian soldiers and superior officers -- yet again, in the U.S. armed forces. And I'm angry that Christians still say smug, sanctimonious things like, "there are no atheists in foxholes." You know why you're not seeing atheists in foxholes? Because believers are threatening to shoot them if they come out.

...

I'm angry that the 41st President of the United States, George Herbert Walker Bush, said of atheists, in my lifetime, "No, I don't know that atheists should be regarded as citizens, nor should they be regarded as patriotic. This is one nation under God." My President. No, I didn't vote for him, but he was still my President, and he still said that my lack of religious belief meant that I shouldn't be regarded as a citizen.

...

I get angry when advice columnists tell their troubled letter-writers to talk to their priest or minister or rabbi... when there is absolutely no legal requirement that a religious leader have any sort of training in counseling or therapy.

...

I'm angry that so many believers treat prayer as a sort of cosmic shopping list for God. I'm angry that believers pray to win sporting events, poker hands, beauty pageants, and more. As if they were the center of the universe, as if God gives a shit about who wins the NCAA Final Four -- and as if the other teams/ players/ contestants weren't praying just as hard.

...

I'm angry about the Muslim girl in the public school who was told -- by her public-school, taxpayer-paid teacher -- that the red stripes on Christmas candy canes represented Christ's blood, that she had to believe in and be saved by Jesus Christ or she'd be condemned to hell, and that if she didn't, there was no place for her in his classroom. And I'm angry that he told her not to come back to his class when she didn't convert.

...


There's more, and Greta makes arguments that everyone should consider, not as a religious problem but as a civil liberties issue.

Demonizing people has a long, dismaying American tradition. I can remember Senator Jesse Helms running for re-election in NC in the 1970s-1980s talking about the scourge of "block voters," which meant "black voters" no matter how you spelled it. We've had politicians, entertainers, and clergy demonize gays, conservatives, muslims, evangelicals, atheists, bkers, soccer moms, ad infinitum ad nauseum.

But demonizing atheists is a different issue.

(Aside: don't you just love my use of the religious/mythological metaphor of "demonizing" for people who don't believe in the supernatural?)

All ideologies (including religious ones) are inherently dangerous to individual freedom and the health of the body politic when they achieve near-monopoly status. (Think of Christianity as Windows and atheism as the MAC OS X. Does anybody really think the Microsoft near-monopoly on operating systems is healthy?)

Monopolies not only marginalize dissent and stifle political dialogue, they protect themselves by any means necessary from the critical reflection of the tiny minorities left around in their wake. One of the tactics they inevitably use is to characterize those minorities as dangerous to our culture, our children, and our way of life--as if the small fraction of atheists in this country are actually going to shut down the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Theological monopolists don't get the fact that when they complain about the works of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, or Christopher Hitchens while standing beside the multiple shelves of Christian Inspirational books in their local Borders Bookstore that they are the hypocrites their favorite savior was apparently criticizing: splinters and logs anyone?

Theological monopolists don't get the fact that the acceptance and propping up of one monopoly through the power of the state and the government-run education system is an open invitation to normalize the existence of other monopolies with even greater powers of oppression.

And they conveniently ignore the fact that the people they are marginalizing are American citizens.

Do I think that Dennis Dennett and his "Bright" idea about renaming atheists is a bit geeky and doomed to laughable failure? You bet I do. So what?

Dennett has done more to explicate Darwin's theories to popular audiences than almost anybody else I could name (sorry Richard Dawkins, but you don't write as elegantly), and if he is an uncompromising atheist who disdains religion (even while using several suspicious rhetorical tricks to do so), he's still a professor of the type I hoped my children get in college. He'll make them think.

And any idiot, whether saved or not, who argues that atheists can't be moral, spiritual, loving, caring, responsible people as doctors, politicians, counselors, construction workers, or anything else is unamerican. That simple. When you reject individuals on the basis of a group identification, you're a bigot.

But that won't stop our politicians, even in Delaware. We have legislators intent upon enforcing their own religious views (and, to be fair, the views of many of their constituents) on everyone else, from the anti-cloning bill that is a shill for a rigid "pro-life" definition of a human being as including a fertilized egg to the Still-Venables disgraceful attempt to nullify the US Constitution with their anti-gay marriage, anti-civil unions amendment.

So while I'm eating the turkey I didn't cook, among the things I will be thankful for is individuals like Greta Christina, who have the common sense (thank you, Tom Paine, atheist) and moral courage to continue to fight for uncomfortable and unpopular beliefs.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Finding out what Libertarian means from everybody else

Look, it was on sale for $7.95, and most T-shirts today with anything printed on them cost more than that.

When I went shopping at the Libertarian Party website I was really only looking to buy the bumper sticker that says, "ENOUGH IS ENOUGH, vote Libertarian." Then I discovered that they had the same T-shirt on clearance. And admittedly (in this case it was my wife who was doing the admitting) it looks pretty dorky.

But I wore it to work today, anyway, just to see what the reaction would be.

(Truth in advertising: as a professor I can get away with that, even in meetings with vice-presidents. You might not want to try this is a more regimented working environment. And my wife made me take it off before we went to the teacher conference at our twins' middle school. So much for the brass balls, eh, Shirley.)

What intrigued me were the responses.

Our Human Resources VP just shook his head and smiled, then said, "It's the radical statement we've come to expect from you, Steve." I forebore to answer that I didn't understand how a strong belief in the US Constitution made me a radical. Anybody who takes up a career in HR in academia probably wouldn't get it in the first place. (He once told me that the problem with adding "sexual orientation" to DSU's non-discrimination policy is that it would open the door to more lawsuits. Duh.)

A math professor (whom my son says looks like Einstein) said, "I don't know if I could be a Libertarian. I'm too busy to have to take responsibility for everything in my life like you guys want me to." (I have, to be honest, no snappy comeback for that one.)

Another colleague wondered why I would parade around in a T-shirt advertising "people who want to keep their guns and let other people starve." (For the record, I don't currently own a firearm--although I am a firm advocate for 2nd Amendment rights--and we just took several cards off the Christmas giving tree at church. I was careful, however, not to select anyone's tag who asked for food items.)

In passing, bits and pieces of comments from students included:

"Are we really going to have class tomorrow [the day before Thanksgiving]?" (Which would be asked if I had shown up wearing an Osama bin Ladin hoodie over bright pink panties.)

"Don't Libertarians hate black people?"

"Enough what?"

"Aren't Libertarians like Mormons?" (Mitt, you might as well hang it up, buddy.)

"Really, enough what?"

And those were the more intellectual responses....

The results of a truly unscientific (and probably anti-scientific) poll conclude that most people don't have the slightest idea what a Libertarian is, but they are pretty sure it involves sacrificing small mammals while urinating on the Bible.

Those of us who want to make being a Libertarian in Delaware a positive association have our work cut out for us. Nobody knows who we are or what we stand for.

It could be worse.

Everyone pretty much knows that the Demopublicans don't stand for anything except re-election.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Demopublicans: a definition and a lack of distinction

If you've been reading along, you have probably noted that this is a somewhat different political blog. I'm not an insider, I don't hear all the good rumors, and I frankly am not interested in hosting a lot of witty (and/or scatological) exchanges about whose 4 year-old can lick who, or the personal attributes of various DE politicians.

You see, to me, and to a lot of other Libertarians, they're all just Demopublicans.

Nearly thirty years ago, when I first started teaching American history, I gave a really crappy assignment, because I didn't really know what I was doing. The university regs said that all general education courses had to assign a 3-5 page paper, so I did. It was one of those really mundane (or inane) assignments to "compare and contrast three leading Federalist and Anti-Federalist arguments about the ratification of the Constitution."

Since I had not taught the Federalists very well--let alone the Anti-Federalists--what I got was predictable: ream after ream of regurgitation.

Except for this one paper. One student simply ignored the assignment and taught me a lesson in thinking outside the box. He said, in essence, that my instructions were BS, and that what we had here was not a serious political debate over principle, but an in-group squabble between two factions of white elites over how to share their power. He pointed out that the Anti-Federalists knew they weren't going to hell if they lost, only that their field of action (and profit) would fall into the States, while the Federalists intended to use the new national government for the same purpose.

What really impressed me was that I hadn't taught that. It was the first time, but not the last, that I have run across a student who is smarter than I am.

The longer I watch Democrats and Republicans fight it out on the state and national levels, the less impressed I am with their protestations of difference. Both sides want big government: they just have slightly different agendas regarding what to do with all that tax and spending power. Both sides want government to engage in social engineering: they just disagree over the objectives.

They even seem to be at their worst when they are playing the bipartisan game: educators in this state (and elsewhere) are fond of damning "No Child Left Behind" as another monument to George W. Bush's idiocy, while conveniently forgetting that Ted Kennedy wrote most of the bill and proudly took dual credit with the President for passing it.

There is two-party competition in Delaware only to the extent that it serves to maintain the dual power-sharing structure for the two political machines to the exclusion of everyone else. Much ado has been made about "fusion," which is the reddest of herrings. Fusion tickets traditionally benefit the major party and not the minor party. If either the Republicans or the Democrats had any serious intention of allowing honest rein to third parties, they would join and lower the ballot access numbers for major party status to the 5,000 registered voter threshold.

No, I see bipartisanship in Delaware as producing such losers as the "Internet Pharmacy" bill, or that societally beneficial attempt by Senators Still and Venables to write an amendment into the DE Constitution that would not only outlaw gay marriages, but forbid civil unions and apparently nullify the "full faith and credit" section of the US Constitution.

They're Demopublicans. For the most part the next election cycle appears more important than the public interest, and the public interest is defined entirely in big government terms.

Somebody, anybody, show me a dime's worth of principled difference between them on the State level....

Failing that, I think it's time for people to think about getting the state government out of their wallets and out of their lives.

That doesn't mean, from Libertarian perspective, that government has no role in society. There are large societal problems within this state that have to be dealt with: education, transportation, the environment. And our elected officials are not dealing with those issues--they're dealing with each other. My own institution brags openly that it will get a better shot at more state funding now that we have several state legislators on our payroll (how much DSU pays Cathcart and Wagner the university refuses to say). Many school districts have the same type of "pets," and UD has a political network that cannot be beat.

Maybe it's because DE is such a small state that everybody knows everybody else and politics is necessarily incestuous.

Or maybe it's because the whole Demopublican system has ceased to function in the public interest and needs serious modification.

If I wrote a voter guide for Delawareans (and next year I might), here's the first round of questions I would ask each candidate from a major party:

Do you support a constitutional amendment adding referendum and recall?

Do you support reducing major party ballot access requirements to 5,000 registered voters?

Do you support legislation severely limiting eminent domain seizures within this state?

Do you support legislation ending discrimination based on sexual orientation within this state?

Do you support strengthening the state's Freedom of Information Act with regard to all recipients of state funds and the actions of the General Assembly itself?

If either alternate revenue sources could be located, or the state budget successfully trimmed, would you support legislation abolishing the state income tax?

Do you support holding the General Assembly responsible for not dipping into the Transportation Trust Fund and for generating a plan to return monies already removed?




This is just a start. I'd like to elect Libertarian candidates to public office in Delaware, but I'll admit that's going to take awhile. So my interim objective is to support--without reference to which branch of the Demopublican political machine they belong--the existing candidates who seem more likely to advocate for individual rights and limited, transparent government.

This may not give me a lot from which to choose--at least right now.

But if we keep working at it?

Sunday, November 18, 2007

How to begin: a modest proposal (really!)

When we talk about transforming government, we tend to think about major initiatives: prescription plans from the liberals or the elimination of the Department of Education from conservatives.

How about thinking small for a change. Or for some change?

The savings rate in America is horribly low. I choose to say "savings rate" rather than "investment rate" because I am talking about lower middle class and poor people trying to sock away money for Christmas or to cover the transmission when it blows, not someone setting up a 401k or diversifying a stock portfolio.

So why not stimulate the urge to save, however slightly, by removing the government's disincentive for doing so? Where could we find a sponsor in the General Assembly who would support an income tax exemption on the first $5,000 of interest in bank, credit union, or internet bank savings accounts?

I have an Ing-Direct account that currently pays about 4.2% APY. I sock $25 a week into it, plus any small windfalls that come my way during the course of the year, to have money for Christmas presents. I earn about $4 interest per month. That's roughly $50 a year when you add up the pennies. Not much, but it amounts to an extra two weeks' worth of saving.

Except....

In my current tax bracket the US government wants 31% of it, and Delaware wants another 7.7%, which amounts to 38.7% or $19.35 of my interest. So why bother saving it in the first place?

My bet is that by allowing a tax exemption for the first $5,000 in savings' interest, the state of Delaware would lose no more than relative pennies, but the incentive to save would be greatly increased.

This would be a positive piece of Libertarian-oriented legislation: one that supports individual liberty and (however slightly) reduces the flow of tax money to the government.

I frankly think it would be an idea for someone like Jack Markell to champion, but I have my doubts.

Defining others, defining ourselves; What does it mean to be a Libertarian?

Mike Mahaffie, in a recent comment on First State Politics about anonymous blogging, makes the following interesting observation:

I am not a Libertarian, though I place value on some libertarian precepts. I don’t think we should have complete personal freedom tempered only by common sense and decency. Lets face it, some people are assholes. Some people are stupid. Some people are violent. Some are all three. There should be some laws and societal controls to help us temper our nasty habits.


I am always suspicious of being defined by somebody who doesn't share my political philosophy, but it's also useful to understand how people view your beliefs.

Let's unpack Mike's comments.

"I don't think we should have complete personal freedom tempered only by common sense and decency."

Funny, I don't either. My individual liberty ends when my actions harm somebody else or materially interfere with their liberty. That's why we have laws. I don't yearn for Rousseau's (or worse, Hobbes') "State of nature," which is what Mike seems to think Libertarians value (at least in this comment).

"Lets face it, some people are assholes. Some people are stupid. Some people are violent. Some are all three. There should be some laws and societal controls to help us temper our nasty habits."

Here's where we start to differ seriously. Being an asshole, being stupid, and even being violent (in nature) are not crimes or even "nasty habits" that have to be controlled by society UNTIL that person acts on those impulses and harms someone else.

Being an asshole is almost always a matter of perception--just look at Donviti and Dave Burris. Which one you choose to characterize as suffering from anal-cranial inversion tells me more about you than about them. And even if you think both of them do, you have to admit they're entertaining. Do I seriously want my society impoverished by the elimination of such creative asininity?

Being stupid should, frankly, have been included in that list of unalienable rights, but these days everyone wants to assert his or her right to save me from myself. Senator Margaret Rose Henry wants people old enough to have a driver's license to be forced by the State to wear a bicycle helmet. The internet pharmacy legislation pending in the GA right now asserts the right of the State to protect me from the perils of ordering cheap prescription medications. I can already be pulled over by Officer Friendly for being too stupid to wear a seat belt. Sorry, I can't subscribe to saving people from their own stupidity--as long as it doesn't directly harm anyone else--as a legimate, primary function of government.

As for violent people, we're probably in agreement on this one. I don't support allowing violent acts to go unrestricted and/or unpunished, and I don't think that's the position of most Libertarians. On the other hand, we share a strong preference for visiting consequences on people for what they do, not what they think, or fantasize about, or might do someday.

That last one's a more difficult question for everyone, Libertarians included. As psychology and brain science goes further and further into real predictive ability, society is faced with questions like repeat sex offenders and what to do with them.

But extremes like that are a far cry from what Mike's talking about above. And maybe I'm making too much of an "off the cuff" comment.

For the record, however, here's how I define a Libertarian: a person who values individual liberty and small, limited government, which is both transparent and accountable in action. I believe that if it is not ethical for an individual to exercise coercion in a particular situation, then it is not necessarily ethical for a government to do so in the same circumstances.

I believe, with James Madison, that government is necessary because men are not angels (and therefore imperfect), but that it is more important to restrict government from doing evil than to empower government to do good.

With Robert Heinlein, I don't believe in utopias. I suspect that when any group--Libertarians, Socialists, or whatever--gets firmly in control of the institutional apparatus of a state that the citizens are the losers. Only a dynamic opposition of interests protects us better than a top-heavy, well-paid bureaucracy sitting atop large volumes of regulations and policies.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Moving toward a Libertarian Delaware: The first painful step

One of the reasons, a long time ago, that I left active participation in the Libertarian movement is that nobody could ever provide me with a map of “how to get there from here.” By and large the answers I got were either: “We’re going to have to educate the younger generation because this one’s too addicted to the current set of government hand-outs to change,” or, “Eventually, the existing set-up will collapse of its own weight, and we’ll be there to pick up the pieces.”

Neither approach appeals to me, because both of them appear to punt on the idea that we can begin making incremental changes toward greater individual liberty and smaller government today. Ourselves. With our neighbors. And organize to go forward.

If you want to break other people of the idea of taking government hand-outs (in exchange for paying high taxes and turning over control of your own life), then the first thing you have to do is stop or materially reduce the government hand-outs you accept. Doing so is often painful, especially when you see other people willing to nourish themselves endlessly at the governmental teat, but it is possible.

We pay my daughter’s medical bills, and help with her son’s daycare. Boiling down a long story to short, my eldest daughter can no longer be carried on our health insurance, and the job she works pays no benefits. During her pregnancy we discovered that she was eligible for all kinds of things, like free milk, cheese, and cereal from WIC, or—later—daycare assistance. Twice she even went and got the milk at Acme, before we realized what a trap this all is.

She’s our daughter; her son is our grandchild. We’re responsible as family, and we can damn well afford to buy the food to feed them. More to the point, when we looked at the so-called “daycare assistance” the State provides, we discovered that really outstanding daycare, the type we wanted him to have, is not covered by the State plan. We even discovered that having top-quality daycare actually reduced the amount of child support she could receive from the man we fondly refer to as the “sperm donor,” because according to the formula that Family Court uses, we spend too much on our grandson’s daycare.
So we told the government to take a hike, and made the economic choices necessary to take care of our own family. We write a hefty check every month, and sometimes it really hurts. That’s the price you pay for freedom of choice.

Unfortunately, many of the little government giveaways are hidden from view, which is exactly how the statist Demopublicans like them. State and cities give out community development grants, the legislature provides extra money for the local firehouse, or there’s economic development money available for certain tourist areas. We are conditioned not to think of these items as hand-outs; they have somehow become—what’s that word?—entitlements.

Drive a Prius and the government will give you a tax credit. Adopt a child and the government will give you a tax credit. Teachers can claim a $400 credit on their taxes for materials bought for their students. Measure off a home office and claim a tax break.

I don’t like the idea at all that the government has decided to use my money (as a tax payer) to indulge in social engineering (by handing out credits and breaks for engaging in approved behaviors), so I try not to play that game. Does it cost you money to disengage from this sort of entitlement heroin? Yes, it sure does.

But the idea that personal freedom isn’t free doesn’t just apply to the sacrifices of our soldiers.

If you want to begin to sell other people on the idea of smaller government and more personal responsibility, then you’ve got to do more than talk the talk.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

"Judge" for yourself: do more police reduce or create crime?

Today I was listening to Chief Justice of the Delaware Supreme Court Myron Steele interviewed on WDEL by Rick Jensen, Tyler Nixon, and their audience.

One call in particular struck me--not then, but about ninety minutes later when I was doing something else. The caller asked the Chief Justice to explain why the Superior Court needs four new judges.

Chief Justice Steele explained that the Superior Court had not had a new justice added since 1994, and that the court's caseload was at the "breaking point." He pointed out that both the Attorney General's office and Delaware law enforcement in New Castle County had received substantive personnel increases since 1997 (I did not get down the exact percentages and don't want to misquote him), which had in turn lead to a dramatic increase in cases before the court.

This all sounded logical, until....

I started to think about what such a correlation really means. What we have been sold on in a statist society is the idea that more police will make us safer: crime rates will go down.

And in Delaware, more or less, they have.

In 1997 the index of violent and property crimes in Delaware was 37,612, with 4,962 (13.2%) from violent crimes and 32,650 (86.8%) from property crimes. By last year the statewide index had declined to 34,488, although the number and percentage of violent crimes had risen--to 5,317 (15.4%)--with property crimes checking in at 29,171 (84.6%). Thus the overall crime index has declined in the past decade by 3,124 annually, or roughly 8.3%. (Source: Disaster Center.com)

Which leads me to my confusion with Chief Justice Steele. If the number of police and prosecutors available has dramatically increased, AND the number of violent and property crimes has significantly decreased, why is the Superior Court (and, he argued by extension, the Court of Common Pleas) so overworked?

Part of the answer came in Chief Justice Steele's response to another caller, who wanted to know about "Drug Courts." He implied that the caseloads there were very heavy, and that the State lacked sufficient treatment programs to deal with all those whose cases merited it under sentencing guidelines. Moreover, he explained that police and prosecutors had control over the decisions whether to prosecute each individual offense as a felony or misdemeanor.

Have arrests for drug use accounted for the increase in caseload in Delaware's courts?

Scott Christiansen, a former New York state criminal justice official, writing for the Christian Science Monitor last year, would argue this may well be the case.

Nationwide, he points out, as overall crime rates have dropped, so have the "clearance" rates of police departments ("Clearance" means that the case ended in identifying or charging a suspect). Indeed, Christiansen noted, the decline has been so marked that,

The arrest clearance rate for reported homicides recently dropped to about 60 percent compared with about 90 percent 50 years ago. This means that a murderer today has about a 40 percent chance of avoiding arrest compared with less than 10 percent in 1950.


On the other hand, Christiansen notes,

So, if reported crime has been going down and arrests have gone up, what accounts for the plummeting arrest clearance rates for murder, robbery, rape, burglary, larceny, and motor vehicle theft?

Part of the answer must involve drug law enforcement - victimless offenses that aren't reported to the police or included as FBI Index Crimes. Instead of arresting suspects for burglaries and other serious reported crimes, cops today spend much of their energy going after illegal drugs. Their arrest rate for drug possession (especially marijuana) has shot up more than 500 times from what it was in 1965.


He posits two disquieting implications from this: (A) that perpetrators of violent and property crimes may well realize that the focus on anti-drug policing gives them a better chance of success; (B) support for police may be declining in high-crime neighborhoods, where residents find that victimless crimes are more swiftly and dependably dealt with than murder, rape, or assault.

What's a Libertarian interpretation of all this?

When you add more police and more prosecutors, these individuals have to justify their existence. Their existence, in an organizational sense, is generally justified by generating arrest, clearance, and conviction statistics. It is far easier to roll up such statistics in dealing with victimless crimes like drug use and prostitution than it is with violent or major property crimes.

Who are they arresting for these crimes?

Let's take a look at the 2007 DEA drug report for Delaware.

Noticeably vague on arrest statistics, this report indicates that heroin, cocaine (powder and crack), and marijuana are the major drugs of choice in the First State, followed by Club Drugs like MDMA, abused prescription pharmaceuticals, and methamphetamine.

It is difficult to read between the lines in DEA reports, as drug use is always growing (the DEA always needs a bigger budget) and virtually every state you check (try it!) will have illegal drug use spreading out from the cities into the towns and farms even as we speak.

A few interesting notes creep in, however, like the treatment of pot smoking in Delaware:

Marijuana is readily available in varying quantities in Delaware, such that it is easily obtained and used by individuals from a variety of ethnic populations and socioeconomic sectors. Recreational use of marijuana is popular among high school and college age students. Adults remain the predominant users of marijuana, especially in large social gatherings, such as rock concerts. Reports indicate that marijuana is typically smoked in combination with crack cocaine, heroin, and PCP.


That last sentence, about smoking marijuana "typically" in conjunction with harder drugs is notorious difficult to document, and has become the 21st Century version of the assertion that marijuana is a "gateway" drug, which therefore justifies its continuing criminalization even when the pharmaceutical effects do not.

Aside from that largely undocumented assertion, what we find when we look closer is that nationwide (and Delaware seems to be no exception), adults--especially middle-class adults from their 20's to their 40s--are the primary demographic group being arrested for marijuana use. That, in large measure, accounts for many of the people going through our Drug Courts.

What everybody in these reports and interviews--all the way from the DEA up to Chief Justice Steele--dances around is that the "war on drugs" is rapidly replacing any "war on crime" that all these extra police, prosecutors, and judges might have been utilized for.

An interesting thought experiment: if we decriminalized marijuana possession, what kind of negative impact would that have on arrest and clearance rates? What police activities would have to increase in order to justify continually increasingly budgets and personnel assets? Maybe, just maybe, clearance rates on violent and property crimes would have to start going back up.

Is there a moral and ethical case for decriminalizing marijuana possession and revisiting other drug regulations? I think so, as much as I work to keep my own pre-teens from sampling the pharmaceutical wonders of the world.

But there is also a possibility, which needs to be studied very carefully by disinterested researchers, that decriminalizing marijauna possession might also make a larger dent in crimes that have very real, often very bloodied, victims.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Immigration, doughnuts, and the Eucharist: my conundrum

So the latest spasm of immigrant controversy arrives with radio host Glenn Beck going to war with Laredo Mayor Raul Salinas, and it just adds to the finger-pointing and pseudo-debate over illegal immigration.

It’s hard to find something new to say, but let’s try.

At church I often end up sitting across from some very nice people who work in the Wilmington area as house cleaners, landscapers, or construction workers. They are Hispanic, and many if not most of them are either—choose your politically identifying label—illegal immigrants or undocumented workers.

I wonder, do different rules apply at Mass?

The ongoing political debate hinges on immigration law, national security, and fears that our culture—whatever that is—is under assault.

Yet my priest teaches in the name of my church that human rights to a better economic life and to get out of poverty trump national rights of exclusion. My church holds that our transient, worldly culture is of far less importance than our common, shared belief in the efficacy of the Eucharist.

We serve doughnuts after Mass. People come by the window where my children volunteer to pour coffee, tea, and juice. Do I raise them to ask for green cards before they allow access to the non-dairy creamer? Do I teach them to be more suspicious of Catholics with brown skin who prefer to speak Spanish? I wonder what one of our new associate priests, who himself speaks English with a heavy Nigerian accent, would think of that idea.

I know names of parents and babies. We come together on the Saturday when parishioners gather to repaint the building’s exterior and plant flowers.

I don’t fear people who want the Star Spangled Banner translated into Spanish, and I don’t worry that the newcomers to our shores can erode the essentials of American culture, which I define as individual liberty and equal opportunity for all. If our values are so shallow and so culturally narrow, then they’ll disappear into the same fog of history that swallowed up the Etruscans.

But you have to worry about terrorism, don’t you? It’s irresponsible not to favor fencing off the Mexican border, isn’t it? Some days (and I cringe to think of the responses this might elicit), I’m not so sure.

What about the drain on our social services, the unfair competition in certain industries, the proliferation of low-riding cars blaring salsa music?

Freely admitting I don’t have an answer, here’s an observation: today nobody seems to like Congress, at least according to the polls. But everybody is pretty happy with his or her own Representative or Senator. One person at a time is different from a crowd.

When I see a mass of illegals running for the border on CNN, that’s one thing.

When I see a fellow parishioner hold up a baby for christening, that’s another.

Until we resolve that dynamic, we won’t even come close to a resolution.

Is that a particularly Libertarian stand? No idea. You tell me.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Not for the faint of heart: erotic fiction and free speech

I want to present you with the opinion of an individual who writes erotic fiction online (OK, call them pornographic stories if it pleases you) under the pseudonym "Dirty Old Pervert."

It fully encapsulates an important argument about freedom of the imagination that, quite frankly, isn't politically correct either on the right or the left these days, and it is as well-written on the subject as anything I have ever seen.

Dirty Old Pervert has graciously allowed me to reprint this here, with only the requirement that I also give you the link to the original statement as well as his works at the BDSM Library. I do so because I believe you have the freedom to decide whether or not you will choose to go there, and with the explicit understanding that to direct anyone to this site who is under 18 or objects to erotic fiction may well be committing a crime against the state.

Please consider DOP's views, expressed in the afterword to his story, "Trading Up," before you pass this post by:

This story is, thankfully, a work of fiction. If there were any resemblance between the events of this story and real events, it would be disturbing to say the least.

Unfortunately, such things as child abuse and sexual slavery do exists in the real world, and they are truly vile, despicable enterprises. This story is no more an accurate depiction of real sexual slavery than the popular videogame "Doom" is an accurate depiction of real combat. In fact, this story isn't even an accurate depiction of the nominal "master/slave" relationships that exist within the BDSM subculture. It is pure fiction; no more and no less.

I am forced to write this story under a pseudonym because, for some reason I simply cannot fathom, large, politically powerful segments of society seem to strongly disapprove of both the writing and the reading of this type of erotic literature. Part of this stems from a belief that depicting sexual abuse in fiction somehow constitutes an endorsement of it in reality, particularly if the reader is meant to enjoy the depiction. This, of course, is nonsense. Do we accuse the writers of the Wizard of Oz of promoting witchcraft? Is Warner Brothers guilty of encouraging people to push one-another off cliffs, or blow things up with dynamite? Do we condemn Catch Me If You Can for encouraging people to write bad checks?
Of course not. As a society we tolerate, and even encourage, favorable depictions of such things as violence (Independence Day), fraud (The Sting), child abuse (Married With Children), burglary (Ocean's Eleven), and professional misconduct (Boston Legal), because we trust people's ability to distinguish fantasy from reality. Nevertheless, for some reason we assume that adults lack that ability when it comes to fiction that depicts, in a manner designed to elicit sexual pleasure, events that would be despicable if they were to take place in real life.

I do not think anyone seriously believes that reading a story such as this one will (for example) cause someone to sell his daughter into sexual slavery. I think the true objection lies with the idea that someone might get sexual pleasure from the idea of someone selling his daughter into sexual slavery. It's okay, in other words, for people to enjoy watching Rambo shoot people, but if Rambo shooting people were depicted in a way that sexually aroused the audience, there would be a moral outcry.

Somewhere along the line, someone decided that there was something immoral about the normal human sex drive, and that giving other people sexual pleasure was a sin. To say that the normal human sex drive is a sin is like saying that it is a sin to urinate or to sweat. It imposes an unrealistic expectation on people, and makes them feel ashamed of themselves and their own normal, biological urges. People who feel ashamed of themselves are easy to manipulate and control. People with a sense of pride, on the other hand, are harder to control. If you want to control people, convince them to be ashamed of their own bodily functions.

If you think that I am limiting my critique to the "religious right," think again. There are people identified with the political "left" who are guilty of the same thing. I speak of a cadre of puritans who call themselves "feminists" -- the Susan Brownmillers and the Catharine MacKinnons of the world -- who condemn "pornography" on the grounds that it "degrades women." I say that they "call themselves 'feminists'" because it seems to me that trying to make people ashamed of their own sexuality is at odds with any conception of "feminism" I know. The word "feminism" means many things to many people, but to me it refers to the idea that women, like men, ought to be treated with respect and dignity. The fact of the matter is that some women enjoy fantasizing about themselves (or other women) in a submissive role. Those women deserve just as much respect and dignity as those with "orthodox" sexual preferences. To be a true "feminist," one must be willing to accommodate -- not judge -- every woman's sexual preference. And, while we're at it, I can see no reason why the same courtesy should not extended to men.

Like most men, I like sex. I do not believe any man should be ashamed of himself (or woman ashamed of herself) for likening sex. Many people, both good and bad, enjoy giving and receiving sexual pleasure. The difference is that good people use sex to make people happy, while bad people use sex to hurt people. I hope this story has made many people happy, for that is its purpose.

This story is dedicated to those people who spend their lives and make their livings toiling in the name of using sex to make people happy. I speak of such people pornography models, erotic fiction writers, prostitutes, professional dominants, phone sex operators, and the like. Other segments of society may shun you, but I never will. Yours is truly a noble calling.
DOP


In these days of pandering your principles to the prejudices of the public rather than holding to your values (one of mine is freedom of thought and imagination), I'd love to see comments on this post.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Why don't they care about politics?

Downstate nobody really knows who Jack Markell is. This came as a shock to me when I read the voter recognition numbers in a poll the other week, because I thought everybody (like him or not) knew who he was.

Downstate everybody may know Carney's name as Lieutenant Governor, but nobody knows a thing about him. And they don't care.

As I wander around the state, nobody except political insiders knows or cares who Levin is, or remembers that Protack keeps running and losing.

When I hear people talk about political apathy in this state I take it with a grain of salt.

When political apathy rules and Democrats hold a substantial majority in registrations, then co-equal apathy means victory at the polls and a lack of accountability in office.

When political apathy rules and the Republican Party is disintegrating on both the state and national levels, then it means the possibility of a prolonged period of one-party rule (and for how much good that does, look at the history of Mexico under PRI).

When political apathy rules, the disenchanted seek individuals and not parties--Ron Paul, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jesse Venture, or Ross Perot--which jolts everyone, but can be outlasted. Political movements don't turn into long-term political parties through campaigns. Political parties hold their bases with what they do between campaigns.

And when political apathy rules, we get midget candidates on both sides of the aisle, so much so that a class act like Matt Denn (and I'm not a Democrat by any means) can disappear into the bland sameness of mediocrity, because everyone assumes that nobody of quality would stand for office any more.

Why don't they care about politics?

You gotta ask?

Sunday, November 11, 2007

HB 259: Hiding a devil in the details of revoking teacher liscenses

This bill, sponsored by Representative Joseph Miro (R-Pike Creek), is currently in the Hosue Education Committee. Hopefully it will not leave until someone excises certain pieces of arbitrary authority that the Department of Education has been attempting to slip into law for the past decade.

This bill would provide the Secretary of Education with “the discretionary authority” to deny or revoke teaching licenses under certain conditions. The conditions listed in the bill’s synopsis include those of teachers or applicants convicted of violent felonies and the like—something nobody would seriously argue.

Not listed in the bill’s synopsis, and carefully buried, however, is a provision that both strengthens DOE’s authority with regard to teachers and the dreaded DSTP, and significantly weakens the civil protections of our public school teachers and administrators from arbitrary suspension.

Meet the devil in the details:

Currently, Paragraph 174 (“Civil Sanctions for Violations”) of Subchapter IV (“Student Testing Program Security and Violations”) of Chapter One, Title XIV, Delaware State Code, provides the following penalty for teachers and administrators who compromise the “security” of the DSTP:

An individual other than a student who knowingly violates any of the provisions of this subchapter shall be subject to the following:
(1) Such personnel sanctions as might otherwise be imposed by the individual's employer for an act of misconduct;
(2) A hearing conducted by the Professional Standards Board to determine revocation of any license issued to such individual pursuant to the provisions of Chapter 12 of this title; and
(3) Payment of any costs incurred by the State or Department as a result of the violation. (73 Del. Laws, c. 81, § 1.)


HB 259 subtly changes this provision, providing directly to the Secretary of Education the following:

The Secretary may suspend, revoke or limit a license that has been issued to any person pursuant to this Chapter, for the following causes:

… Knowingly violating any of the provisions of the Student Testing Program set forth in § 172 of this Title….

The new construction allows the individual whose license has been suspended to request a hearing before the Professional Standards Board within 30 days, as noted below:

The Secretary shall not take action against a person under subsections (a) or (b) of this Section without providing the person with written notice of the charges and with an opportunity for a full and fair hearing before the Standards Board. Notice shall be sent to the person’s last known address. The license holder shall have 30 calendar days from the date the notice of the charges was mailed to make a written request for a hearing. Unless otherwise provided for in this Section, the burden of proof in a license disciplinary action shall be on the agency taking official action to establish by preponderance of the evidence that the license holder has engaged in misconduct as defined by subsections (a) and (b) or otherwise has failed to comply with the applicable laws and regulations relating to the retention of the license. If no written request for a hearing is received by the Standards Board, the license holder’s license shall be deemed to be revoked, suspended or limited and the holder shall be so notified.


But here’s the rub: in the formulation on the books, teachers are absolutely entitled to a hearing by the Professional Standards Board, which is the only entity that may choose, after the results of such a hearing, to suspend their licenses.

In the new version, the Secretary of Education has the unilaterally power to suspend or revoke a license and the teacher must appeal to the Professional Standards Board to reverse that decision.

Under current law, a public school teacher is entitled to a hearing before his/her license can be suspended.

Under HB 259, a teacher only gets a hearing (if he/she asks for one) after the license has been suspended.

This grants a broad, new arbitrary power to the Secretary of Education, and at the same time substantially weakens the due process rights of our teachers.

What kind of law allows for you to have your hearing after you’ve been sentenced?

While we’re at it, we should discuss just what’s at issue with DSTP “security.”

The current law speaks of undermining the tests by giving students assistance, revealing test materials, interfering with correct reporting, etc.. etc. Why is this such a big deal?

You might be tempted to believe (and DOE would encourage this belief) that this is necessary to protect the reliability and validity of the testing program.

And, in part, that’s true.

However, the dirty little secret about the DSTP is that portions of it are so seriously flawed as to be next to useless.

The original content standards in Math, English/Language Arts, Science, and Social Studies were developed by curriculum frameworks commissions between 1992-1995, and have been only moderately revised since. These standards, according to the charge given by then-Governor Mike Castle and then-State Superintendent “Pat” Forgione, were to be standards primarily assessable by what is called “performance assessment.”

Performance assessment (or “authentic assessment” as it was sometimes known) is a testing methodology that requires students not to take a traditional test, but to demonstrate subject mastery in some sort of practical manner. Don’t just use a pencil and paper to prove you understand three-dimensional geometry: build a scale-model house. That sort of thing.

Problem: performance assessment is prohibitively expensive. So the General Assembly, then-Governor Tom Carper, and several different state education heads copped out. They didn’t change the standards, they simply ordered a much more traditional pen-and-paper test to be developed at a much lower cost.

So the first thing you need to know is that the standards and the DSTP don’t match up all that well in certain places.

Take a concrete example: the History portion of the Social Studies DSTP. The History standards were written around three skills (chronology, analysis, and interpretation) and mastery of specific historical content. (In case you’re wondering how I know this, I co-chaired the commission that wrote them.)

Unfortunately, when the test development began, DOE imported an “expert” who was not a historian, and who believed that only “skills”—and not mere “facts”—were worth testing. Thus Delaware ended up with a History portion of the Social Studies test that evaluates students’ ability to work with chronology, analysis, and interpretation, BUT NOT their knowledge of any historical content (i.e. George Washington, Fort Sumter, or the Voting Rights Act).

In essence, DOE created a history-free history test, which we still use.

Worse, the earliest versions of this test were written without the input of, or correction by, any real historians, and thus contained massive errors, as well as multiple choice questions with more than one possible answer and questions based on content not even taught at the grade level being tested.

(Exercise for the student: visit the DOE website and look at the “sample” history questions and see if you can find what’s wrong with them. Hint: study the graph on women in the work force really carefully, and when you’re looking at student responses, be sure to check on the internet for when the modern feminist movement really began.)

Teachers and administrators complained about some of these horrible gaffes. Guess what? DOE had many of them investigated and even went after their licenses. Without the protection that only the Professional Standards Board can revoke a teacher’s credentials for criticizing a flawed test (which, strictly speaking, violated “test security”), DOE would have happily destroyed the careers of some of the states’ best educators.

Should there be penalties for teachers who help students cheat on these tests? Certainly.

Should an arbitrary power of suspension meant for serious criminal violations be handed to the Secretary of Education that can be used equally to squelch legitimate criticism of the testing process?

You make the call.

DOE has been asking for this power since as early 1997 (the first time I ever saw it in a draft legislative proposal). No session of the General Assembly has seen fit to hand it over yet, and there’s no compelling reason to do so now.

Protect your child’s teachers from the arbitrary suspension or revocation of their licenses without benefit of a pre-suspension hearing: tell your representative to demand that this section of HB 259 be junked or rewritten.

Coercion is not good public policy.