BC’s weekend reads

  1. The Two Asian Americas
  2. Is Hawai’i an occupied nation?
  3. A federal system for Britain
  4. Capitalists from Outer Space
  5. The Physics of Extraterrestrial Civilizations
  6. Humane Canada

Why buy local?

I like my local Safeway grocery store a lot. (I can even get sardines at midnight.) But while I was enjoying my regular routine, appreciating the quality and variety of groceries, an annoying announcement came on over the sound system touting their “locally grown” produce section … more

Dumbing Down the World

Public education has been a slowly degenerating disaster throughout the West, and now it seems we’re exporting it to the rest.

At a United Nations meeting 15 years ago, the world’s governments agreed on the goal of enrolling every child on the planet in primary schooling by this year.

Indeed, they have nearly succeeded, with 2014’s reports indicating that 90 percent of children in developing regions now attend primary school. Presumably, the numbers for developed countries are above 95 percent.

But strangely, this lofty plan did not say anything about the quality of the schooling into which we have now driven more than 9 out of every 10 human children; the whole idea is to get children into government-approved classrooms, apparently regardless of what happens there.

The reports of UN agencies like Education for All (EFA) are full of ideas on how to get kids to go to school in developing countries: making education entirely taxpayer funded (commonly by taxpayers from richer countries), providing free medication or food to students who show up, or even just paying cash to the parents in return for kids’ attendance.

But are the pupils who spend more time at these schools actually learning more as a result? Has the goal of putting more kids into classrooms actually led to more kids getting a proper education? MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel reports, “Several programs which have raised participation, from providing worm medicine to free meals, show no evidence that children are learning more as a result.”

And EFA’s Fast Track Initiative admits, “In nearly all developing countries the levels of learning achievement are shockingly low.… In many low-income countries students learn virtually nothing and end up functionally illiterate.”

In fact, the situation is so bad that Jameel says one area to be improved is “more regular attendance of teachers.”

A crucial fallacy

The international education agencies seem to have been duped by what Austro-libertarian Murray Rothbard calls “a crucial fallacy … confusion between formal schooling and education in general.”

Promising to educate every child in every culture through primary schooling is a bit like promising to clothe every child in every climate by giving them a parka.

In fact, until recently, nearly all children learned the important skills of life largely outside of schools, through observing and joining in with the activities of adults. Rothbard writes with respect to American education, “Education is a lifelong process of learning, and learning takes place not only in school, but in all areas of life. When the child plays, or listens to parents or friends, or reads a newspaper, or works at a job, he or she is becoming educated.”

All the medicine handouts and free school lunches EFA proposes are attempts to offset the direct economic opportunity cost of the child spending a day at school instead of working on the farm or in a factory. While these handouts do take into account the child’s economic contribution to the family’s labor, what about that labor’s educational contribution to the child? What about the educational opportunity cost?

If students in many schools are learning very little and graduating “functionally illiterate,” if attendance doesn’t actually produce real education, and if teachers sometimes don’t even bother to show up, perhaps the parents and children feel that they would learn more outside the schools than in.

The presence of this educational opportunity cost may help explain why, despite all the subsidies and bonuses meant to drive kids into classrooms, the 2014 report on this goal laments, “high dropout rates [of children] remain an impediment to universal primary education.”

The kids are going into school, they and their families are seeing the results, and they and their families are deciding they are better off elsewhere.

But sadly, this important educational opportunity cost doesn’t seem to be on the global pedagogical philanthropists’ radar. Jameel says only that “there is no consensus on why so many poor children don’t attend school, or the best way to increase participation. If children’s labor is crucial to their family’s welfare … it may prove very difficult to attract more children to school.”

There is no mention of any learning that might happen while the child is outside the classroom.

For the moment, let us grant this assumption: Only schooling is education. No learning happens outside of schools.

Under this assumption, not only do children’s minds profit nothing from a day spent at home or in the bush, but most of the parents of children in the developing world are themselves totally un-“educated” — benighted savages whose heads are filled with cobwebs.

Thus, for our benevolent pedagogical overlords, it could make sense to get those kids away from their parents and into schools as soon as possible, even if, as EFA acknowledges, “in some countries nearly every aspect of the schooling system is seriously deficient — infrastructure, teaching materials, teacher availability and qualifications, lack of student assessments and lack of incentives for improving learning outcomes.”

Furthermore, in many poorer countries, the office jobs (the only ones for which schooling is actually required) are nearly all government and international NGO jobs. That’s because these countries have not (or at least not yet) developed a strong market demand for literate and numerate workers. So those kids who do succeed in school end up moving to the capital and writing reports on the importance of international funding for schools.

The kids who do not do well in school go back home to the farms or the factories, having spent years of their lives learning, in some cases, “virtually nothing.” But since the bureaucrats seem to believe that the traditional cultures the children might have spent those years immersed in held no knowledge anyway, this result might not be seen as much of a loss.

Setting young minds free

No doubt, some kids who would profit from schooling are being kept out of it by very bad things: wars, forced prostitution, and outright poverty. EFA’s programs to make schooling more accessible could have a huge positive impact on these children’s lives.

But instead of focusing on gimmicks to get kids into the classes governments want to teach, educators should focus on materials that kids want to learn — or that their parents are willing to invest in.

James Tooley has reported on the existence of an entire underground economy of black- and gray-market private schools in the slums of India and Kenya. Since these schools either hide themselves from the local authorities (to avoid being shut down) or are hidden by the local authorities from the national and international authorities (to avoid embarrassing the public schools), it’s difficult to know how prevalent they are.

What is clear is that these dirt-cheap private schools are operating with a profit motive under serious competition. Students’ parents often have to choose whether to pay for a loaf of bread or a day in school. How good would your kid’s school have to be for you to pay for it under those circumstances?

Meanwhile, these schools’ profits are being siphoned off in bribes to the local inspectors.

We could unleash these not-quite-legal schools from their government shackles by breaking the chain between government and education. Ending the drive for compulsory, state-run, subsidized schooling would, in Rothbard’s words, “give children their head” and let them seek out “a genuine and truly free education, both in and out of formal schools.”


This article was originally published in the Freeman online, and is based on an older article written for Mises Daily. Many thanks to Max Borders and BK Marcus for the opportunity to publish in the Freeman, and to Dan Sanchez for the opportunity to publish in the Mises Daily during his tenure.

Buddhist Lobbyists Push for Legislation Targeting Muslims in Myanmar (UPDATED)

The story is here.

I’ll be straight with you: I hate arguments that try to pinpoint Islam and Muslims as more prone to violence or bigotry than other faiths. Aside from lacking any evidence whatsoever to support such a claim, they contribute to hostility and bad faith when this conversation – about religion and society – could easily be used to contribute to tolerance and a better understanding of why government sucks.

All religions are exactly the same when it comes down to it.

Politically and organizationally, lobbying efforts on behalf of religions are necessarily going to aim for shoving its particular beliefs down the throats of everybody else. This is why separation of church and state is so important (church and state, not church and society; I could care less how people organize themselves in the non-political arena).

So, for example, the censorship we have here in the United States, on television, is the direct result of Christian groups that were able to successfully lobby the government to stifle free speech (see this excellent essay in the Freeman by BK Marcus on how the television markets are now changing thanks to deregulation). Can’t buy beer in your county on Sunday or after 7:00 pm on weekdays? Thank your local Christian lobby (or, if you’re in parts of India, your local Hindu or Sikh lobby, or…).

The extremity of the lobbying groups depends not on religion per se, but on the institutions that a state has in place. Anybody who argues that the Middle East is a more violent place than sub-Saharan Africa – the other region of the world that largely adopted Leninist socialism after independence – is a charlatan or a fool. It is, unfortunately, not a well-known fact that heavily Muslim, predominately Arab states are anti-capitalist, and staunchly so. This anti-capitalistic mentality has led to poverty, of course, and isolation (“cultural stagnation”), but it has also had an adverse effect on these states’ political institutions. Instead of becoming more open, and more inclusive of various factions (“lobbying groups”), political institutions in the Muslim world have been built around the executive branch – the Strong Man –  and as a result the more populist a lobby’s message is, the more it is likely to receive support from the Strong Man (the oil states in the Gulf are considered wealthy, but they are still anti-capitalistic).

In a world that is dominated by a secular hegemon that often supports bad people in the name of savvy geopolitics, the popularity of Muslim populism is not hard to fathom.

Meanwhile, in Myanmar, the Muslims being targeted by legislation are mostly illegal immigrants fleeing Bangladesh. The most prominent lobby pushing for the bill, the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, is headed by a Buddhist monk (of the Theravada sect if I’m not mistaken).

In other news I still come across Americans, my own age, that support the Castro regime in Cuba (“because free health care and equality”). What kind of sick world do we live in?

EDIT: I had to edit this thing for clarity. Jesus donkey smears.

UPDATE (11/2/2014): Wait a second Brandon, did you just write that the Buddhist zealots are lobbying the state of Myanmar for legislation aimed at Muslims? How can this be? Myanmar is a known authoritarian state. Doesn’t the junta do what it wants, when it wants?

The short answer is “No, it can’t.” Authoritarian regimes are constrained by choices and popular opinion as well. One of the main differences between authoritarian and democratic states is the number of factions involved in the lobbying process. In democratic states, any faction can lobby the government for any reason it wishes to. Everybody has equal access (if not equal influence). This equal access (which, again, does not translate to equal influence) is, in part, what classical liberals and libertarians mean by political and legal equality. In authoritarian states the number of lobbying groups tends to be a lot smaller than in democratic states. I’ll let you figure out why this is.

It’s worth noting that calls to limit lobbying efforts by repealing Citizens United is, in its barest form, an authoritarian urge. For what is this repeal movement, if not an attempt to shut some factions up using the power of the state? The excuses always vary (in this case it’s “money”), but the pattern of authoritarianism through limiting choices remains the same.

The difference in understanding of equality between libertarians and conservatives/liberals strikes at the heart of American politics (I can’t speak for other places). Yet it also illustrates why libertarianism’s conception of equality is superior to that of the conservative/liberal. If there is a successful attempt at leveling out influence so that it’s equal in some measure (though conservatives/liberals are ambiguous on what they mean by ‘influence’, not to mention ‘equality’), then equal access has to be denied or else some factions would tip the balance of influence. Attempting to guarantee equality of influence would also lead to cronyism. Instead of lobbying the government for favors, factions would end up lobbying the committee that picks lobbying groups it deems worthy of lobbying for government favors!

On the other hand, if equal access is protected then everybody has a shot and no influence is guaranteed.

UPDATE (11/03/2014): The more I think about it, the more the Muslims-are-more-prone-to-violence canard sounds an awful lot like the Jews-secretly-run-the-world canard. People point to outbreaks of collective or individual violence perpetrated by Muslims or a Muslim and say to themselves “Well, this isn’t surprising, as their 7th century founder was a war chief.”

Disgusting. And, I suppose, Jews really are running the world because Judas stabbed poor ole Jesus in the back for 30 pieces of silver in the first century. The logic is exactly the same.

The Jews-secretly-run-the-world canard hides a nasty prejudice against Jews by creating a half-baked, pseudo-scientific rationale that can be used in public (this canard does not hide such a prejudice very well, at least to others; it may hide well from himself the intolerance and ignorance a person has in the form of rationalizing his prejudice). The Muslims-are-more-prone-to-violence canard is most often used by proponents of overseas military intervention in Muslim regions of the world.* Like the anti-Jewish voices, the anti-Muslim voices are not interested in Truth but in forcing their own deeply hostile beliefs down the throats of others. Hence the libertarian’s task of delicately balancing religious skepticism with the protection of religious believers from vulgar conspiracy theorists.

* There is a small cadre of religious skeptics and secularists who also use the “violence” thesis, though this faction, which includes myself, is more easily swayed by evidence.

Borderless Economics: Chinese Sea Turtles, Indian Fridges and the New Fruits of Global Capitalism

Robert Guest, the business editor for The Economist, has organized insights gleaned from 20 years of reporting on and analyzing events around the world into a breezy yet profound account of the flow of people and ideas across borders.

Raw immigration statistics miss the “networks of innovation,” as Guest calls them. Immigrants may find it difficult to adapt to a new land with strange customs and a new language. But in just about any American city they find a community of people like themselves who can ease the transition and help them get established. This process is good for everyone involved.

For example, Indian immigrants to America—most notably Silicon Valley engineers—are tightly networked among themselves and have contacts in India and around the world. Having made their fortunes, some then return to India to pursue business or philanthropic activities. To illustrate, Guest describes the Universal Identity program. Hundreds of millions in India have no public identity beyond their immediate communities. A team of Indian expatriates returned to India and launched a program to create a computer-based system that would allow Indians to submit to fingerprinting and retina scans and to receive a national ID number that would serve as their entrée into the modern Indian economy. Libertarians look askance at government identification numbers, but in rich countries we take for granted our ability to prove our identities. Continue reading

Free Banking Beats Central Banking

In “More Bits on Whether We Need a Fed,” a November 21 MarginalRevolution blogpost, George Mason University economics professor Tyler Cowen questions “why free banking would offer an advantage over post WWII central banking (combined with FDIC and paper money).”  He adds, “That’s long been the weak spot of the anti-Fed case.”

Free banking is better than central banking because only in a free market can the optimal prices and quantities of goods be determined.  Those goods include the money supply, and prices include the rate of interest.

There is no scientific way to know in advance the right price of goods.  With ever-changing population, technology, and preferences, markets are turbulent, and there is no way to accurately predict fluctuating human desires and costs.

The quantity of money in the economy is no different from other goods.  The optimal amount can only be discovered by the dynamics of supply and demand in a market.  The impact of money on prices depends not just on the amount of money, but also on its velocity, that is, how fast the money turns over. The Fed cannot control the velocity since it cannot control the demand for money, that is, the amount people want to hold. Also, even if the Fed could determine the best amount of money for today, the impact on the economy takes several months to take effect, and so the central bankers would need to be able to accurately predict the state of the economy months into the future. Continue reading

FDR, Uncle Fred, and the NRPB

In Ayn Rand’s epic novel Atlas Shrugged, government officials regulate the economy through something called the Bureau of Economic Planning and Natural Resources. She clearly chose that name to reflect their belief that productive people were bound to produce just because of their “conditioning” and could therefore be treated pretty much like coal in the ground—as resources ripe for exploitation.

One wonders whether she had ever heard of the National Resources Planning Board (NRPB). The NRPB was a real agency, part of the kaleidoscope of bureaus that formed the New Deal. Its history is in some ways as dry as dust, but a closer look reveals some interesting and timeless insights into the planning mentality and the role of personalities in shaping history.

The philosophy underlying Roosevelt’s New Deal, if one can call it that, was to try something and if it didn’t work, try something else. In that same spirit the NRPB mission changed frequently; even its name changed four times before it was killed in 1943. It had been authorized as part of the National Industrial Recovery Act, but that program was ruled unconstitutional in 1935, leaving the National Planning Board, as it was called then, in danger of extinction. It was quickly rescued by FDR, however, and established as an independent agency. Casting about for a new name, one planner suggested “natural resources,” whereupon another commented that human beings were America’s most important resource. “National Resources” was suggested. The President chewed the phrase over a few times, then, pleased with its sound, grinned and announced, “That’s it. Get that down, boys, because that’s settled.” Continue reading