Learn to Be Yourself

Over at Econlog, both Arnold Kling and Bryan Caplan weigh in on Brink Lindsey’s analysis of the obstacles facing lower-income Americans seeking a decent education.  Both are skeptical of the prospects of school-choice reforms (or any reforms for that matter) with respect to improving the children’s educational outcomes.  Arnold:

“I am somewhat pessimistic on competition in the school system as a panacea. I favor it, of course, but I suspect that the benefits would show up more in lower costs than in better outcomes.”


“In short, parents are correct to think that they can change their children. Their mistake is to suppose that the change will endure. Instead of thinking of kids as lumps of clay that parents “mold,” we should think of kids as plastic that flexes in response to pressure – and springs back to its original shape once the pressure goes away.”

In both case, I think the economists are too caught up in discussing the response of a particular metric as opposed to exploring the full breadth of the topic available.  For instance, I think Floccian, commenting on Arnold’s post, hits the nail on the head:”We should not think that children can learn more in school but maybe they can learn more useful things.”

This reflects a dichotomy that I’ve noticed within libertarian discourse, you can either focus on the economic aspect of a given policy, or attempt to take on its moral foundations.  Even though the two angles are more complimentary than anything, they rarely appear in the same conversation, and it seems the the economic perspective is the more dominant of the two.  This is unfortunate, since, in my view, the logical foundations of individual natural rights are at least as robust as the predictions of material prosperity that flows from a free market.  In the case of education, empowering children to discover what type of work they both enjoy and are good probably deserves a higher place than the current emphasis on improving their test-taking abilities.



Exhibit A: The Language of God is Babel

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has just published a massive new report detailing the shape (or lack thereof) of the religious landscape in America. You can check out the results for yourself, here, but the primary feature that emerges from the analysis is turmoil, which confirms the views I expressed earlier, here. Unsurprisingly, Americans are overwhelmingly unsatisfied with the religions of their youth: “roughly 44% of adults have either switched religious affiliation, moved from being unaffiliated with any religion to being affiliated with a particular faith, or dropped any connection to a specific religious tradition altogether.” Also unsurprisingly, Americans are increasingly dissatisfied with religion in general: “those Americans who are unaffiliated with any particular religion have seen the greatest growth in numbers as a result of changes in affiliation.”

Why should these results not come as a surprise? Well, if you believe as I do that humans are uncomfortable with beliefs that are not supported by their daily experience, and that most actions are motivated by the desire to relieve discomfort, then the inexorable drift in the marketplace of ideas will be towards the truth, which is, in this case, that we inhabit a godless universe.

To be sure this movement towards acceptance of reality is an unsteady march, but then again, there are still people out there hunting sasquach and buying HD-DVD players. The only difference is that we can already openly laugh at the bigfoot brigade, while we might have a few years yet to go before politicians claiming an intimate relationship with a magical sky fairy are booed off stage. However, given the exponential growth in knowledge and access to that knowledge, that day might be even closer than we imagine.


Med students bringing sexy back?

Or more appropriately, rapping their own version of the song renamed “Diagnosis Wenckebach”, a reference to a specific heart arrhythmia named after some dead physician that every medical student (and probably nursing student for that matter) is forced to learn about and memorize (side rant – why are so many medical conditions named after someone, which tells me absolutely nothing about what might actually be going wrong in the patient?). Having recently finished a cardiology section, I found the video especially amusing:


Listen to the Rhythm of My Heart…Ignore Your Own

Megan McArdle has me confused. In this post, she argues eloquently for moral integrity even in the face of apparently insurmountable public opposition:

I have a different intuition, which is that if you want everyone to do something, you are morally bound to do it whether or not they follow suit. I am rethinking that–but I have a sense that those sorts of illogical bourgeois committments [sic] to virtue are precisely what allow us to overcome collective action problems without coercion.

While here, she basically tells us to forget about virtue and follow the masses:

That’s not to say that you should have a preference between Democrats and Republicans–frankly, these days, it feels a lot like “So, by which of the plagues of Egypt would you like to be consumed?” But if you do, you should vote for that candidate, rather than making an expressive vote which could put your last choice into office.

So which is it Megan? Should I buy compact fluorescents and vote for Ron Paul, or should I put an Obama sticker on my SUV?


Prospects for Limited Government

The Cato Institute has an interesting online forum called Cato Unbound in which it solicits the opinions of leading intellectuals on topics near and dear to libertarians.  As of yet, they have not asked me to participate.  Nonetheless, because I find the discussions interesting, and because I’ve been fortunate enough to have been granted space on this blog by my lovely spouse, I’m going to go ahead and throw in my two cents on the latest debate concerning the prospects for limited government.  (If you have the time you should definitely check out the original exchanges beginning here, but for a quick breakdown that will make my reaction easier to follow: Anthony de Jasay is the author of the lead article, Gerald Gaus, Michael Munger, and Randy Bartnett all contribute reactions.)

Read the rest of this entry »

Prelude to Poetic Justice

By now, we’ve all read the NYT article describing the seemingly inappropriate relationship between John McCain and a female lobbyist. However, the bigger story in my opinion is the one appearing on the Washington Post’s website this morning: FEC Warns McCain on Campaing Spending. McCain is a belligerent statist who openly denigrates the first amendment. It would only be appropriate if he were to be hoisted by his own petard, so to speak, and had his campaign for the presidency significantly damaged by his own ill-conceived legislation.

For those that don’t wish to read the entire article, the gist of the situation is this, when McCain was struggling to raise cash a few months back he attempted to take out a loan using as collateral his ability to draw on public matching funds. The idea was that if he secured the loan, won a few primaries, and gained additional support, he could pay back the principle and interest without tapping public money and so avoiding the spending restrictions that entails. If he failed to win the primaries and couldn’t raise any more money he would have to use the public money and abide by the restrictions, but it wouldn’t matter because his campaign would have been hopeless by that point anyway. It was a clever but disingenuous strategy, spend now, decide on the rules later, especially coming from someone who claims to be opposing big money interests in Washington. Regardless of how this turns out, keep it in mind when you hear someone talking about John McCain the “maverick.” He is as much establishment as Hillary, and if he is unpredictable, it is only because he is hypocritical, not because he is an independent thinker.


The Winner in a Losing Battle

Alan Wolfe takes on the hairy task of forecasting trends in religion in this month’s Atlantic (which is now completely free online, so go check it out here!), and while I found the piece to be interesting, well-written, and in some sense, encouraging, I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed by the coverage my own little slice of the world received:

Nonbelief, meanwhile, is increasing: not only are atheist manifestos selling in large numbers, but the percentage of those who express no religious preference to pollsters doubled between 1990 and 2001, to 15 percent.

The most important religious phenomenon in the United States, however, has nothing to do with the number of atheists. It concerns another trend that, like modernization, is changing the trajectories of religion worldwide: the creation and spread of a free religious marketplace, which partly (though by no means completely) revives religious devotion wherever it reaches, but also tends to moderate the religions offered within it.

Now, I’m surely not going to contest his argument about the moderating influence of the free market, and given the absolute numbers involved, the eddies and currents shaping the movement of the faithful are still much more relevant to world affairs than even the most concerted efforts of freethinkers; however, the way he dismisses the astounding growth in one of the most persecuted perspectives in history strikes me as a bit shallow, especially in the context of an article about future trends.  After all, if skepticism continues to make in roads at its current rate, a quarter of the country could be non-believers by 2010.  At this pace, we could even have an agnostic president by 2025.  Wouldn’t that be the day.

In all seriousness, though perhaps not the author’s intent, this article demonstrates what I have long regarded as one of the most practical and devastating critiques of religious faith: there are just too many to choose from for any single one to be even remotely accurate.   Pascal’s wager (which the author seems to endorse) is an empty bet because the sides are not clearly distinguished.  Even if you accept that it is irrational to bet against the existence of a god, you are left with the impossible choice of selecting among the multitude that have been conjured up throughout the 10,000 years of recorded human history.  There are many quite sophisticated logical and empirical rebuttals of specific theistic positions, and most of them are quite persuasive, but I have rarely felt the need to go much further than a simple application of Occam’s razor.  The diversity of religious beliefs make it much more likely that human beings made up gods than that gods made human beings.

In the end, Wolfe had it right early on in his piece, “the idea of inevitable secularization has fallen out of favor with many scholars and journalists. Still, its most basic tenet—that material progress will slowly erode religious fervor—appears unassailable…when God and Mammon collide, Mammon usually wins.”  The truth will out, even if it does so unevenly and at different times in different places.


Amtrak is stepping up security

which means I can say goodbye to even more of my traveling freedoms.

According to this CNN article, Amtrak will start patrolling platforms with bomb-sniffing dogs, and conducting random searches of passengers. It’s not in response to any particular threat, but apparently it is “just the correct step to take.”

Next thing you know they’ll have metal detectors set up, then x-ray machines…then they’ll start making you take your shoes off and shuffle barefoot through security, as well as requiring you to carry no more than three 3oz containers of liquid (that barely filled tube of toothpaste marked 12oz is forbidden, even though you and I and every person with the slightest bit of sense knows there’s only enough left to brush your teeth 2-3 times!).

This makes me angry. Part of the reason I love taking the train is that you can show up 5 minutes before it is supposed to depart and waltz right on with no hassles. It is actually faster for me to take the train many places simply because I save so much time by avoiding the long airport security lines. I hate TSA – it does little to make you or I safer in our travels and instead only gives a superficial (and false) sense of security…all while belittling us as humans and imposing costs on already expensive travel (both in terms of time, and by forbidding you to carry certain items – thus essentially forcing you to buy things like bottled water or shampoo every time you travel).

In the case of Amtrak some of this is hard to avoid – Amtrak is, after all, a government-run (read: monopoly) train service so they can do more or less whatever they want. But in the case of airports I think TSA should butt-out – let the individual airlines decide how much security they want their passengers to go through. It is the airline, and not TSA, that ultimately has to deal with the consequences of an actual or attempted terrorist attack. Let’s see what kind of security we have to go through when we vote with our money – maybe you prefer the barefoot or dirty-sock shuffle through metal detectors, but I don’t and would gladly spend my money at an airline that allows me to bypass that demoralizing facade of safety.

~ Lily

It’s not a tumor!

Or is it? Every time I see Republican Presidential candidate John McCain I can’t help but notice the growth on his left cheek – his parotid gland (a salivary gland) appears to be enlarged, and no one in the media seems to be discussing this. A lot of parotid gland tumors are benign, but given McCain’s previous health woes (melanoma back in 2000) there may be reason to wonder if it’s something more serious.

Now, I understand there are certain health privacy concerns, but it seems to me that if you are running for President of the United States the people voting should have some guarantee that the candidate is healthy enough to survive 4+ grueling years in the White House. Choosing a strong running mate may prove more important for McCain compared to other candidates, because voters will have to decide whether they envision that VP as fit to run the country should McCain’s health deteriorate. He’s already 71 years old – add to that the significant injuries he received as a prisoner of war, the multiple bouts of a very deadly type of skin cancer, and now this possible parotid gland problem – he’s not the healthiest guy. People will be hesitant to vote for someone they see as old and sick (Bob Dole anyone?), which may be part of the reason why McCain’s camp has failed to discuss this facial growth. Still, I think the people have a right to know whether it is a benign, or something more serious.

To see pictures highlighting the changes in McCain’s left cheek, check out the blog “This Man Runs” – he’s an ENT doc who gives his own “television diagnosis” of the situation.


Love Hurts

I hate Valentine’s Day. Ok…maybe that’s a bit harsh, but I definitely strongly dislike this made-up holiday in which people in relationships desperately try to please their partner (and out-do other couples) while single people are made to feel incredibly lonely and temporarily excluded from society. Chocolates, flowers, greeting cards, fancy dinners, jewelry…and all on a day when millions of other people are giving the exact same thing to their special someone. Not exactly my idea of romance I guess….I prefer a bit of spontaneity with a hint of non-conformity.

Rather than celebrate an arbitrary day (which everyone agrees was more or less invented by greeting card companies), why don’t we celebrate days that are special to us as individuals? Instead of waiting until February 14 to do something fancy, we should instead celebrate when personal milestones are achieved – job promotions, health goals, etc – whatever makes you happy.

I might add that I’m not an especially angry or bitter person (well…that’s not true…but I’m not angry or bitter when it comes to love, because I’m quite happily married) – I just think this holiday stinks. So if you enjoy Valentine’s Day, more power to you. But if you agree that it’s all a bit over the top and completely unnecessary, you might get a laugh out of the following video (falling in love hurts!!):

An interview with Cupid:

And a creative video from the PostSecret people:



What is your risk of having a heart attack?

We’re currently studying the cardiovascular system in med school, and had a lecture on coronary heart disease…and it is impossible to discuss the heart without mentioning the Framingham Heart Study. This is an ongoing research project that has been following adults from Framingham, Massachussetts since 1948, and has been used to estimate the effect of various factors on the heart. For instance, does obesity contribute to heart attacks? Or, what effect does smoking have on developing atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries)?

There’s a neat web tool that has taken all of the data (for over 10,000 people) and allows you to enter your information to get a rough estimate of your 10-year risk of having heart attack or death due to heart-disease. It’s not exactly a psychic, but it can give you a good idea of whether you are at high risk..and thus gives you time to take action and prevent a bad outcome: check it out.

So, if you find you’re in the high-risk category, what types of changes should you make? Working on lowering your blood pressure or cholesterol is a good start. You may need medication, but much progress can be achieved through a healthier diet – one that is low in saturated/trans fats, and high in complex carbohydrates (wheat bread, brown rice) and fruits/veggies. If you smoke, you should work on quitting, as this also greatly increases your risk. Easier said than done, I know…but your body will thank you, even if you can only make small changes in your lifestyle.


Framingham Heart Study

Obese? Sorry, we can’t serve you (Daily dose of crazy – Southern edition)

No, it’s not April 1…and yes, the title of this post spells out what will be the case for Mississippi restaurant-goers if a house bill (no. 282) introduced by state Representatives W. T. Mayhall, Jr. (R), John Read (R), and Bobby Shows (D) passes. According to the first page of the bill:

“Any food establishment to which this section applies shall not be allowed to serve food to any person who is obese, based on criteria prescribed by the State Department of Health after consultation with the Mississippi Council on Prevention and Management…”

This applies to any state-licensed food establishment, which is probably nearly every restaurant in the state. And since Mississippi has an obesity rate of around 30%, that means that about a third of the population would not be able to dine out. A restaurant that fails to comply may have it’s permit revoked.

Nanny state, anyone? Who has the right to tell you what you can or cannot eat? The government apparently thinks it has that responsibility…at least in Mississippi. I really hope this bill doesn’t pass, and I doubt it will because it’s such an outrageous affront to the rights of people in that state. But it does serve as a reminder of the responsibilities the government will assume if we let them into our lives. For instance, if we put the government in charge of health care, such as through a single-payer system, then perhaps it would be up to our legislators to keep us in line by punishing or prohibiting unhealthy behavior. Consider the UK, where about 1 in 10 people are denied surgeries because they smoke or are obese. I don’t want to pay for someone else’s poor choices, but I also don’t want the government punishing me for mine. To me, this is what insurance is for – protecting yourself against future risks, not (contrary to what many people seem to think) subsidizing someone else’s risks. Greater risks equal greater premiums, pure and simple.

To me, the obesity thing is discrimination…but in a state-run society such discrimination might be ethically justified if it kept costs down and allows more people access to services. Is this really the path we want for our country? First we go against the obese, but who would be next? We’ve already attacked smokers, maybe we should go after people who drink too much, or who aren’t necessarily obese but still live incredibly sedentary lives. If you don’t eat 3-6 servings of fruits and veggies a day then you’ll be denied health care. I know these seem like extreme examples, but are they really that far-fetched? According to the UK article I linked above, physicians across the pond think lifestyle should play a greater role in determining who receives health services. If they continue down that path, they’ll end up with either a country of boring clones who conform to their ideals, or a country where only a minority of it’s citizens have full access to the services their tax-dollars support.

Fortunately I don’t condone discrimination, so I don’t condone a society run entirely by government bureaucrats.


Source – The Smoking Gun

Welcome to the 21st Century

            I have long been of the opinion that teacher’s unions and government educational bureaucrats are fighting a losing battle, and despite their most ardent opposition, parental choice with respect to schooling will inevitably win the day.  I am therefore pleased to read about the rise in availability and popularity of online schools in today’s New York Times. 

From my perspective, this development represents the confluence of two fundamental forces that motivate my optimism regarding educational freedom.  On the one hand, we have the primacy of the inherent concern of parents for the intellectual and emotional development of their offspring.  On the other, we have remarkable improvements in technology facilitating the essential communicative aspect of education.  As the latter rises to meet the first, we see a situation in which innovative new companies and institutions work to expand children’s educational opportunities beyond the relatively paltry offerings presently dictated by their geographical location.  It may strike some as a bold vision, but efforts like those in Wisconsin should suggest that it is far from unrealistic.

I should note that I am not blind to some of the potential pitfalls associated with online learning.  In addition to imparting academic knowledge, it has long been proposed that one of the key functions of schools is to equip students with vital social skills and what we might call emotional knowledge that will allow them to become responsible members of adult society.  To the extent that internet schooling limits direct personal interaction, it may hinder somewhat this aspect of personal development.  It is also possible that some parents may be poor stewards of their children’s education and merely plop them down in front of the computer screen, giving them no guidance and doing nothing to monitor their progress.  These things are possible, but I think it important that we keep things in perspective and recognize that most parents are keenly interested in all aspects of their children’s welfare, that they seek to engage them in a variety of social contexts outside of school, and that the importance of getting a good education has become such a pervasive message in our culture that very few are likely to neglect it entirely.

So, then, what should we make of those who criticize these new online schools?  Based on the accounts presented in the Times article, it seems the primary complaints are about money:  


“Despite enthusiastic support from parents, the schools have met with opposition from some educators, who say elementary students may be too young for Internet learning, and from teachers, unions and school boards, partly because they divert state payments from the online student’s home district.”


“Pennsylvania has also debated the financing of virtual charter schools. Saying such schools were draining them financially,”


“The district receives annual state payments of $6,050 for each of its 800 students, which it uses to pay teachers and buy its online curriculum from K12.

Saying he suspected “corporate profiteering” in online schooling, State Senator John Lehman, a Democrat who is chairman of the education committee, last month proposed cutting the payments to virtual schools to $3,000 per student.”

There are those that profit immensely from the current system which in some locations like Washington, D.C. devotes close to $20,000 per pupil.  This makes the $6,050 spent in Milwaukee look like a pittance, yet the participants in the online schools are “enthusiastic” and “infuriated” by proposals that would seek to destroy them.  The article also notes that in Colorado, “one school, run by a rural district, was using four licensed teachers to teach 1,500 students across the state.”  The response of teacher’s unions and legislators was to beef up regulation, presumably to prevent this type of efficiency from taking hold in masse.  The question, of course, is why?  Why should governments be interfering with what thousands of people regard as a successful service?  Whatever answer they provide is sure to be couched in the language of children’s welfare, but parents’ present satisfaction undermines this proposition.

            Finally, my favorite part of the article is near the end:

A state court dismissed the case, but in December an appeals court said the academy was violating a state law requiring that public school teachers be licensed.

The ruling infuriated parents like Bob Reber, an insurance salesman who lives in Fond du Lac and whose 8-year-old daughter is a student at the academy. “According to this ruling, if I want to teach my daughter to tie her shoes, I’d need a license,” Mr. Reber said.

Not so, said Mary Bell, the union president: “The court did not say that parents cannot teach their children — it said parents cannot teach their children at taxpayers’ expense.”

Apparently, Ms. Bell forgets that parents and taxpayers are one in the same, so let us correct her oversight and see what we make of her analysis: “The court did not say that parents cannot teach their children—it said parents cannot teach their children at their own expense.”  Absurd, is it not?



You know this is a crazy world we live in

when Ann Coulter says she would support Hillary Clinton over John McCain. Is there something in the water?

I don’t care for Ann Coulter, but what does it say about John McCain that such an outspoken conservative would rather cast a vote for the other party if John McCain were the Republican nominee? My favorite quote from the video:

Hillary is absolutely more conservative [than McCain]. Moreover, she lies less than John McCain…she’s smarter than John McCain…when she’s caught shamelessly lying, at least the Clinton’s know they’ve been caught lying. McCain is so stupid he doesn’t even know he’s been caught.

Wow. I can only hope the election doesn’t come down to picking the candidate who has lied the least to the taxpayers.