Posted by on July 31, 2017

School Inc. is the name of a documentary series that has somehow made it past the left-wing censors at PBS.  It is the work of Andrew Coulson, a former senior fellow at the Cato Institute who has recently died.  Here is the link to the three-part series, with each segment about 50-minutes long.  If you have the time, it is informative and entertaining.

The major theme is the importance of choice in education, with the minor theme being the challenge of replicating school excellence on a large scale.  Coulson follows this subject around the globe, with examples from the USA, Korea, Chile, India and Sweden.

Spoiler alert: Coulson finds that the problems in education are largely attributable to the oversized role that government plays in this field.

The series is full of interesting insights, stories and quotes.  My favorite quote came from a poor Indian parent who, like a great many others, pays to send his children to private school in order to avoid the corrupt and incompetent, but free, public schools.  In his words: “If you go to the market and are offered free fruit and veg, they’ll be rotten.  If you want fresh fruit and veg, you’ll have to pay for it.”

Meanwhile, Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federal of Teachers and previous winner of an OPE[2] from this blog, is getting desperate in her attempts to maintain the public school monopoly.  In a recent speech, she played the racism card, attempting therewith to stigmatize voucher programs and charter schools.  This required some seriously tortured logic since 27% of the charter school population was African American and 31% was Latino in 2014, the last year for which we have figures.  It also flies in the face of nearly all survey data which show support for vouchers and charters schools running north of 60% among minorities.  Not surprising given that they are the primary victims of Weingarten’s vicious policies.

If we judge by outcomes, the real racist is Weingarten.

Repeal and Replace

As this blog predicted, it looks like the Republicans have come up a cropper in their attempts to repeal and replace Obamacare.  Trump will continue to issue tweet little nothings on this subject, but I have to believe that the Republicans in Congress have had enough.

The reasons for the failure are also as predicted.  There is no consensus among the Republicans on what to do with healthcare.  In addition, since many of them accept the goals and broad logic of Obamacare, most of their reform proposals were just Obamacare-lite (or Obamacare-“mean” to use Trump’s term).  Finally, the complete absence of policy understanding and effective leadership from the White House was also a problem.

One has to ask, also, whether the failure of repeal and replace demonstrates that the healthcare system in America is so fundamentally flawed that piecemeal reform is no longer possible.  This is a dark thought.

The indirect consequences of this failure are far worse than the direct ones.  First, contrary to Trump’s protestations, the Republicans now “own” this issue.  This means that they will either have to watch Obamacare continue to deteriorate, and take the blame for this, or they will have to join the Democrats in trying to fix it with additional raids on the public purse.  Neither of these alternatives is a happy outcome for 2018.

Second, this has brought us closer to “Medicare for all,” which I prefer to think of as “the Veterans Administration for all.”  This failure will be falsely used as proof that the private sector cannot provide healthcare effectively.  The Republican Party bumblers have just taken us a major step forward on the road to single payer.

Although the Republicans have mostly themselves to blame, they got a big helping hand from the mainstream media.  The framing of the debate, particularly with respect to the coverage figures and projected premiums coming out of the Congressional Budget Office (“CBO”), was spectacularly misleading.

The dominant statistic was the number of people who would “lose” health insurance due to the various proposals.  For many, politicians and the public, it seemed that this was the only thing that mattered, which is already bad enough as a standard for policy.  But there was also the use of the term “lose,” which usually means something accidental and detrimental.  (For example, when I lose my reading glasses, a too common occurrence, I generally haven’t done this on purpose nor do I consider it a good thing.)

How many times did the talking heads at MSNBC or CNN mention that the primary cause in the “loss” of health insurance is the expectation that, once the financial penalties of Obamacare (the “individual mandate”) are removed, people will voluntarily decide not to subscribe?  Answer: never.  Yet some leaked papers from the CBO indicate that 73% of the projected “losses” were the result of pointing this financial gun away from the heads of healthy individuals for whom Obamacare is just a shitty deal.

And the shittiness of the deal is the second area in which the mainstream media has completely failed to understand and present the figures in the proper context.  As I pointed out a long time ago, Obamacare is built upon sham accounting and wealth transfers (see “Between Two Generations” here).  Rather than do the politically honest thing and tax and transfer to cover pre-existing conditions, which means that the cost would show up on the budget and undermine their claims to fiscal responsibility, Obamacare resorts to the increasingly standard Democratic Party practice of imposing a hidden cost on the private sector through regulation.

So, when the CBO projected increased insurance premiums, all this means is that there is less wealth transfer from the healthy to the sick.[3]  Which is a movement in the direction of equity and transparency (although it would have required that the sick be covered in another way, which is why the Republicans were tossing more money to the states).  Yet, this fact also never made it into the mainstream discussion.

In my college statistics book, the chapter headings including quotes.  One of these was:

Some individuals use statistics the way a drunk uses lampposts – more for support than illumination.

I think of this often while watching our current political debates.

Occupational Licensing

There is a good panel discussion on this subject here.

It appears that reducing occupational licensing may be one of the few areas where there is bipartisan support for doing the right thing.  A Supreme Court decision from 2015, which opens up licensing boards to lawsuits from the Federal Trade Commission for anti-competitive behavior, should also accelerate reform at the state and city level, where most of the damage is done.  Libertarians in Congress, such as Senator Rand Paul and Congressmen Justin Amash, have reform legislation in the hopper.

There are some great statistics in the video.  Such as the fact that, across all 50 states, there are something like 1,100 different occupations that are subject to licensing, but only about 60 that require licenses in all 50 states.  In addition, the standards for a license vary enormously from state to state, from just a few days of apprenticeship to over a year of costly classroom instruction for the same occupation.  These facts are strong evidence that occupational licensing has absolutely nothing to do with protecting the public.

And, of course, this area lends itself beautifully to ridicule, my favorite form of political discourse.  A good example is the recent attempts by the City of New York  to crack down on dog walkers and dog sitters, a growing profession with apps like  De Blasio’s administration thinks that no one should be allowed to watch over someone’s dog for money without having a kennel license.

The amusing part is that babysitting for money has no such requirement.

A Brexit Compromise

One of the major sticking points in the Brexit negotiation is the “divorce bill.”  Frankly, I need to do more research on how this is calculated, but the figures bandied about – anything from €60 to €100 billion – appear absurd on the face of it.

Let’s put it this way, either these are gross overestimations of the UK’s debts to the EU or the UK should have dumped these parasites a long time ago.  One or the other.

A compromise appears to be forming.  Rather belatedly, the UK government recognizes that Brexit will require a lengthy transition after March 2019.  It is likely that, during any transition, the UK would have to maintain its budgetary commitments to the EU.  The current EU budget runs until 2020, this means that the UK would be around for the entirety of the cycle.  Since a large part of the “divorce bill” relates to unfunded commitments the EU claims that the UK has made to the budget, many of these would drop out of the calculation if the UK hangs around.

Another consequence is that the UK would likely not be able to restrict EU immigration until the end of the transition period.  This will be a hard sell with the Brexiteers.  But this is also being lined up.  The UK government has recently commissioned a study on whether the UK economy can go cold turkey on EU immigrant labor in 2019.  I am going to go way out on a limb here and predict that the study will come back with the answer “no – we need a transition!

Bold and courageous predictions are a common feature of this blog.

Political Acronyms

The ruling political party in Poland, run by the autocratic and nutty Jarosław Kaczyński[4], is the Law and Justice party.  In Polish, the acronym appropriately comes out as PiS.  In fact, it comes out as PiS in any language.

The acronym for the opposition to the left-wing regime in Venezuela, so beloved by intellectual titans like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, is unfairly known by the acronym MUD (“Mesa de la Unidad Democrática”).  However, the government program to distribute the diminishing supplies of foodstuffs in this socialist paradise has a better name.  It is called the CLAP.

Trump Inc.

I recently sat next to a left-winger at a dinner.  She hated Trump but for all the wrong reasons.  She prattled on and on about how Trump was only trying to use the presidency for his financial benefit.

Totally wrong.  Team Trump is suffering financially, which is hopeful news for the rest of us.

Donnie Junior supposedly can’t wait until Senior’s term is done; he is finding it impossible to do deals with the spotlight continuously on the family.  Jared Kushner’s involvement with the White House has probably already cost the family business millions when Anbang, a Chinese insurance company known for being some of the dumbest money on the planet, had to back out of a doubtlessly overpriced deal to redevelop the “Mark of the Beast” building (666 5th Avenue).  Ivanka’s business has also probably taken a hit, despite the probably illegal efforts of Kellyanne Conway to promote it, although it is hard to imagine anyone actually listening to Conway about anything, especially style.

The latest victim is Anthony (“The Mooch”) Scaramucci.  This highly suitable addition to the hybrid between The West Wing and The Beverly Hillbillies[5], overseen by a vindictive and senile version of Jed Clampett, would probably take a big hit if the pending sale of his interest in SkyBridge Capital to HNA Group, another notoriously stupid and opaque source of Chinese capital, falls apart due to the White House connection.  And his wife has just filed for a divorce after she was jilted by a love that dares not speak its name.

Although I am not a big fan of the misanthropic family law system, sometimes we have to compromise our principles: I hope she takes a big bite out of The Mooch.

Life Hacks: Speed Listening Podcasts

The Economic Man is not terribly au fait with technology.  Which is why when I discover something very useful but probably widely known, I react like a primitive seeing matches for the first time.

Listening to podcasts consumes a large amount of EM’s time, even if he doubles up with morning stretches.  It is a huge boon, therefore, to discover that the Stitcher app allows podcasts to be played back at up to twice the normal speed.  Fortunately, EM is capable of both understanding and producing accelerated speech, as this Bloomberg video shows.

Trump’s Number

I am still self-censoring when it comes to Trump, but recommendations are allowed.  Two commentators from the Right really had Trump’s number this week.

Peggy Noonan at the Wall Street Journal thinks that he is Woody Allen (“weak and snivelling”) without the humor.  Even more devastatingly, Kevin Williamson at the National Review thinks that he isn’t alpha male Blake from Glengarry Glen Ross, but rather “poor sad old Shelley Levene, who cannot close the deal, who spends his nights whining about the unfairness of it all.”

Ouch.  Double ouch.

Roger Barris

Weybridge, United Kingdom


I Wish I Had Said That…

“From now on I’m thinking only of me.”

Major Danby replied indulgently with a superior smile: “But, Yossarian, suppose everyone felt that way.”

“Then,” said Yossarian, “I’d certainly be a damned fool to feel any other way, wouldn’t I?” by Yossarian, the character in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, showing how sub-optimal Nash equilibria emerge


[1] “Things I’ve Been Reading Hearing or Watching” (pronounced “tea-brew”)

[2] Obscure Public Enemy

[3] Just to be clear, this is not the same as the normal pooling of risk that occurs with any insurance product.  A pre-existing condition is not an a priori risk; it is an a posteriori fact.  Nobody needs to be forced into the risk sharing of a normal insurance product.

[4] Among other things, Kaczyński wants to indict Donald Tusk, former Polish Prime Minister and current President of the European Council, for conspiring to kill Jaroslaw’s twin brother in a 2010 plane crash.  Kaczyński and Donald Trump bonded during Trump’s recent trip to Poland, probably over their shared interest in the type of investigative journalism displayed at a supermarket checkout counter.

[5] Another version is Twitter star David Burge’s House of Cards meets The Jersey Shore.

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… and in the same vein: although I find guys like McWorther entertaining, I find their intellectual courage disappointing. Somebody who is competent in linguistics needs to start doing something more worthwhile with their expertise, with their lives, and ask themselves some questions about deep semantics: why ‘diversity’ has come to mean its complete opposite: conformity. Why ‘freedom’ has come to mean subjection (to your needs). Why ‘respect’ (“I respect your religion”) has come to mean mere indifference. Why ‘academic’ has come to mean ‘only of interest to certified academics’ rather than ‘of profound existential significance for every member of… Read more »
[…] Back in May, when I gave up commenting on Trump – a pledge to which I have, at best, only partially adhered – I pointed my good readers in the direction of George F. Will and Bret Stephens for an ongoing evisceration of The Donald.  However, thanks to the sharp eye of @montanaskeptic, a cyber friend and fellow critic of all things Trump and Elon Musk, I am very pleased to add Kevin Williamson to this list.  He writes for National Review and proves once again that only the #NeverTrump crowd from the Right really understands their target.  The… Read more »