Sunday, October 28, 2007

Why I Support Vouchers for Rich People

I posted earlier about the lame mailer from Utahns for Public Schools. I want to expand a bit on why that seemed so lame, and why I think vouchers for rich people are a great thing and why I think they'll help everyone--even especially the public schools.

It's all about Oreo cookies. :) According to Steve U., if we have a switch rate over 1%, we'll save money with the voucher system. Money saved means more money available to allocate to public schools. But suppose that we DON'T see a greater than 1% switch rate. In this case the voucher program will "lose money." I have to put that in quotes, because I don't think paying for education is losing money.

You see, ANY switch rate, no matter how small, will mean fewer children in public schools and more resources available per student. (That's true even if we end up spending more money from the general fund on this voucher experiment.) It is in our best interest to encourage people to take children out of the public schools if they are able to bear that burden. It really can benefit all the children who remain. Anybody chanting the chorus of "smaller class size" should concur with this argument.

It may be true that vouchers won't help poor kids get into private schools. Many budgets are just too tight to spend extra money for things that could be had for free in the public system. But suppose the voucher is the needed incentive to get 1% of rich people currently in public schools to switch to private schools. Voila! We will then reach the point where the vouchers are a net financial gain for the public school system. At that point, we're actually helping ALL the public school kids, poor or rich.

We do lots of things with taxes to create incentives for businesses. We do this not because we want to subsidize the business, but because we want to incentivize behaviors we like. We want businesses to server people in poor areas. We want businesses to build in struggling parts of the city. None of these incentives are inappropriate for a local government in my view.

The argument that we shouldn't give vouchers to rich kids--even when doing so will help poor kids--is to cut off our nose to spite our face. I'll be voting in favor of referendum 1.

Spiteful: Utahns for Public Schools Ad

I received an incredibly petty ad in the mail from Utahns for Public Schools. Perhaps you did too. Since it illustrates a point that been bugging me about the voucher debate for a while, I decided to address it--not because I believe anyone reading this is available to be swayed in the voucher debate (we've become pretty well informed here in the bloghive), but because I want to make a broader economic point.

In summary, the ad says, "Since every kid can't make use of a voucher, nobody should get a voucher." This is spiteful.

Should we insist that because every adult can't get a Pell Grant (they are only for people below a certain income), nobody should get one? Should we say that because every company can't compete for government aerospace contracts (you have to be a big enough company--and in the aerospace business--to get one), that no company should get government aerospace contracts? Would we insist that no one can use cell phones at home because some people live too far from a cell phone tower to get reception?

If I'm not harmed because you get a benefit, I should rejoice in your opportunity. Utahns for Public Schools does the opposite. This is spite. The ad preys on this worst base emotion that is truly counter-productive. It is the emotion that says, "If I can't finish first, no one else can finish."

[Note: I tried to find a link to this ad on the UTPS website, but I only saw their video ads linked there. If you've got a link, I'd love to add it.]

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Chief Justice John Roberts at BYU

I got the opportunity to attend the forum lecture by Chief Justice John Roberts at Brigham Young University today. The forum was well-attended; from my vantage point it looked as if almost all the regular seats were taken, with very little spill-over to the bleacher seats. When the Chief Justice entered, everyone stood--not an honor given to most forum speakers, at least in my memory. During the preliminary business, one thing stood out to me--Justice Roberts sang along with the opening hymn "Praise to the Lord". I thought that was a nice touch.

Justice Roberts began his talk by referencing President and Sister Samuelson's beginning-of-the-year devotional talks. In his address, President Samuelson asked BYU students to read a book about the Constitution of the United States. Justice Roberts "assigned" more reading--the Constitution itself. The bulk of his address focused on the Constitution and the intent of the founders in mandating the separation of powers. The founders knew it would inefficient to have federal powers held in three separate groupings (the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary), but they preferred it that way, anyway, seeing the separation as a check against the kind of tyranny they had rebelled against.

Even for all that, the judiciary does not have the type of power the other two branches of the government have (neither "the power of the purse nor the power of the sword" he quoted during the Q&A following the forum). Justice Roberts told a humorous story about how the first federal building built in Washington DC, was the White House (executive). Then the Capitol Building was completed (legislature). And the third building...was the Patent Office. The Supreme Court didn't get their own building until 1935--before that, they met in the basement of the Capitol.

Justice Roberts spoke about the United States Constitution has endured for 220 years. Although it has grand words and lofty ideals, that alone does not make it important. Without an independent judiciary to enforce those grand words, Roberts said (he may have been quoting), they are nothing but a cruel joke. The court case of Marbury v Madison established that the Constitution is the supreme law of the land, and that the Supreme Court interprets that law. This power underscores the need for an judiciary that is unafraid to make unpopular decisions, without fear or favor.

According to Justice Roberts, our country is unusual in that we only have ONE Supreme Court. Other countries may have a Constitutional Court in addition to other courts which settle tax, civil, and other types of cases. Justice Roberts sees that as a definite advantage, in that the justices don't spend all their time contemplating lofty notions and esoteric ideals. Many of the cases they decide have real-time consequences, and this keeps them grounded.

He finished his address by encouraging the audience to read unbiased histories of our country. Praising James Madison, fourth president of the United States and key framer of the Constitution, Justice Roberts recommended the Federalist Papers as a good place to start reading up on the Constitution.

As an example of a modern counterpoint to James Madison, Justice Roberts praised Rex Lee, Supreme Court litigator and past president of BYU. Rex Lee "balanced family, church, and private and public service". Justice Roberts told a story about a case he argued before the Supreme Court against President Lee. When he told his client that the ruling was unanimously against them, the client asked "Why did we lose 9-0?". Justice Roberts replied, "Because there are only nine justices."

Justice Roberts' remarks were interesting, informative, and amusing. He mentioned Utah, BYU, or Mormon pioneer history several times, giving his address a local flavor that was enjoyable. The audience gave him a standing ovation, and the applause lasted several minutes (the Chief Justice seemed a little embarrassed by this, but it was well-deserved.) This was one of the best forums I've attended.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Hiram Bertoch: Utah Voucher Flyer In My Mail

A blogger who doesn't normally comment on politics has put up a reaction to a flyer he received in the mail from Parents for Choice in Education.

Utah Voucher Flyer In My Mail

It doesn't appear that Hiram allows comments on his blog (which looks bad in Firefox, BTW), so you're welcome to comment here if you like.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Feeling Like a Mormon Democrat: Yet Another Voucher Post

I'm not a Democrat, but being a voucher supporter in Utah may be the closest I'm going to get to feeling like a Mormon Democrat. You're embarrassed to be on the same team with certain other people on your side of the issues, but you stay because that's where your convictions lie.

Honestly, I haven't read many positive things about Parents for Choice in Education. They don't seem to be running a clean campaign. Yet they are on the right side of the issue. I'll pull the lever for vouchers because they are a good idea, not because I'm pleased with the way they've been marketed.

Even if vouchers end up costing the state more money, that would be more money spent towards educating kids and I don't necessarily see that as a bad thing. (Aren't people always saying we should be spending more on education?) However, I suspect that vouchers will save money for the state and that that savings can be used to increase per-pupil spending in the public schools.

To be honest, I don't understand why public school teachers don't like the idea. Surely, the student population in Utah will continue to grow, meaning that the vouchers will only slow the growth. I don't think there is even a remote possibility that vouchers will cause a public school to close or shrink due to lack of enrollment.

After having looked carefully at the issue (as a non-lawyer), I have absolutely no worries about the constitutionality of the voucher measure. It is clearly legal under the Utah constitution. A reading of the Utah constitution that would prohibit vouchers would also prohibit payment of salaries to government workers who would pay tithing on that money. COL Takashi put a terrific analysis of the issue in a comment on a blog and now I can't find it. But I was thoroughly persuaded.

Anti-voucher arguments about government subsidies are also totally bogus. We've made a decision as a society to entirely subsidize the education of children. That ship has sailed. With vouchers, we're letting some people volunteer to chip in some extra money toward the education of their own children rather than having the state pay the whole bill. I support vouchers because they addresses the unfairness in our current system that some parents pay for the education of their children twice. Rich or not, that isn't fair. Let's fix it with vouchers.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Harry Reid at BYU

I just returned from watching Harry Reid present a forum address at BYU. I really liked his presentation. In the introduction by President Samuelson, we got the usual rundown on life history and previous church callings. I was surprised to hear that Senator Reid's church callings included only High Priest Group Instructor and Home Teacher. Either lots of callings were left unmentioned, or Senator Reid's public service has limited his opportunities for church service. I don't mention that by way of laud or jeer, but only to say it was interesting.

Gerrit Gong, an official at the university, spoke in a devotional a while back and related the following story that I was reminded of today.
We have all had experiences where we tried to be helpful and weren’t. I once arrived early for priesthood meeting. Thinking I could help ready our classroom, I erased the blackboard dense with writing. As he began our lesson, our dedicated instructor said, with surprise but without criticism, “I came early and put our lesson on the board, but somehow it’s been erased.” The class turned out fine, but I remember the forbearance of our priesthood teacher who, incidentally, is today’s U.S. Senate majority leader.
Harry Reid had taken a lot of heat among conservatives for his comments about losing the Iraq war at the time that Brother Gong made his remarks. It served as a reminder then that even when we disagree with someone, they rarely wear a hat that is all black. Today's address by Senator Reid served as a similar reminder.

Brother Reid talked about the challenging moral conditions that surrounded him as he grew up and the near reverence that his non-religious family had for FDR. After relating some touching stories from his life, including how he eloped with his wife and gained the love of his Jewish parents-in-law, he turned to the "Mormon Democrat" question. He provided a simple and familiar list of reasons he believes the ideals of the Democratic party are in line with Mormon beliefs. His first applause line came when he referred to the Iraq war as a foreign policy blunder. He received his second applause line when he acknowledged that some people view it differently.

The crowd was very respectful as I had hoped. He enjoyed a hearty welcoming applause when he stood up, and a small percentage of the audience gave him a standing ovation as he finished. Thanks to Brother Reid for spending some time with us. If you would like to view the address, you can catch it on BYU-TV for the next two weeks or so. (You have to skip in about five minutes on that link to get to the actual forum assembly.)