Cato Op-Eds

Individual Liberty, Free Markets, and Peace
Subscribe to Cato Op-Eds feed

Parents are more satisfied with their child’s learning environment when they choose it. Indeed, as economist Tyler Cowen put it recently, “the single most overwhelming (yet neglected) empirical fact” about educational choice programs is that “they improve parent satisfaction.” A slew of new reports add a number of hefty boulders to the mountain of evidence. 

As I explained in greater detail last week, bureaucrats tend to focus excessively on test scores but parents take a more holistic approach to evaluating the quality of an education provider. As Cowen notes, “parents may like the academic programs, teacher skills, school discipline, safety, student respect for teachers, moral values, class size, teacher-parent relations, parental involvement, and freedom to observe religious traditions, among other facets of school choice.” Parents know their children are more than scores.

Voters generally tend to reflect the views of parents more so than education technocrats. In a recent survey from Public School Options, only 14 percent of voters said they “consider state standardized test scores the critical factor in assessing a student’s overall success in school” and 78 percent said that schools “should never be closed primarily on the results of that particular school’s average” on the state’s standardized test. Moreover, 65 percent said they “believe an ongoing summary of each school’s status using a dashboard of multiple measurements would be more helpful to parents and policy makers” than a “system that provides a single letter grade for each school.” If we want an education system that considers the individual needs of each child rather than grading schools on a few narrow measures of performance for an imagined “typical” child, then we should entrust parents with holding education providers accountable for academic outcomes.

Education savings accounts (ESAs) are one way to accomplish that goal. With an ESA, parents can customize their child’s education, using it to pay for private school tuition as well as tutors, textbooks, online courses, educational therapy, and more. The ESAs are typically funded from a portion of the funds that the state would have spent on a child at his or her assigned district school, but they could also be funded through tax-credit eligible donations. In a 2013 survey, Arizona parents of students with special needs expressed unanimous satisfaction with the educational settings they chose for their children using the ESA funds. Moreover, the lowest-income families were the most likely to express dissatisfaction with their assigned district school (67 percent) and the most likely to say they were “very satisfied” with the education their child obtained through the ESA (89 percent).

Last week, Empower Mississippi released a similar survey of parents of students with special needs using Mississippi’s ESA. Participating students had an array of conditions, including autism, hearing or visual impairments, traumatic brain injuries, speech impairment, emotional disturbances, and more. The results mirrored those from Arizona. As shown in the two figures below, most participants were dissatisfied with their previous experience in their assigned district school (67 percent) but they overwhelmingly expressed satisfaction with the educational setting they chose using ESA funds (98 percent). 

Source: Empower Mississippi

These views may not reflect the views of all Mississippi parents, or even all parents of special needs children. Nevertheless, they show that the district schools are not serving a subset of the population and that those parents believe their children are much better served in settings that they choose.

That said, national survey data indicate that parents generally are happiest at chosen schools. In a recent survey, Education Next asked parents of children attending a variety of different types of schools about their levels of satisfaction with their school’s teacher quality, school discipline, expectations for student achievement, safety, instruction in character or values, location, racial and ethnic diversity, and the school building and facilities. Parents were significantly more likely to express satisfaction with schools that they chose than the district schools to which their child was assigned. Moreover, as shown in the figure below, parents were more satisfied with private schools, where they generally pay at least some tuition, than at public charter schools, which do not charge tuition.

Education Next also published parental satisfaction data that the U.S. Department of Education under “the most transparent administration in history“ had collected but never reported publicly. As Harvard Professor Paul Peterson explained in the Wall Street Journal:

As we were completing our analysis, we unearthed a U.S. Education Department survey from 2012 that posed similar questions to a nationally representative sample of parents, and we found that the Obama administration has never reported the charter-school results from this survey, although the raw data are publicly available for others to analyze.

Digging into this data, we discovered that this survey, too, reveals both private-school parents and charter parents to be more satisfied with their schools than parents with children assigned to public schools. They are also more satisfied with teachers, academic standards, discipline and “the way the school staff interacts with parents.”

Once again, the DOE survey found that parents are more satisfied when their children attend schools that they chose, particularly private schools. As shown in the figure below, low-income parents are significantly less satisfied their assigned school than wealthier parents, and they are also more satisfied when their children attend private schools than schools in any other sector. The same is true for parents of all ethnic backgrounds, whether they live in the city, the suburbs, or rural areas.


Parental satisfaction levels do not conclusively prove that students are receiving a better education at any given school, but neither do standardized test scores. As Tyler Cowen reminds us, “how the buyers like the product is the fundamental standard used by economists for judging public policy.” Parental satisfaction should not be the only metric that policymakers consider, but it should be chief among them. And on that metric, the evidence is clear and conclusive: parents prefer schools that they choose for their children.

Technocratic attempts to determine school quality using quantifiable and standardizable metrics like reading and math scores fail to capture a wide range of outcomes that we want from education. Moreover, when such narrow metrics are used to reward and punish schools, they can create perverse incentives that narrow curricular options and stifle innovation. By contrast, parents consider a wider variety of metrics, both quantifiable and non-quantifiable.

Policymakers should work to empower parents with a wider range of educational options through policies like education savings accounts, and education policy wonks should direct their efforts toward building institutions—like independent certifiers, expert reviewers, and platforms for student and parent reviews—that help parents make informed decisions. That is the surest way to foster innovation and improve the quality of education available to our nation’s children.

The so-called English Rule on legal fees, better termed the rest-of-the-world rule, requires the losing party in a lawsuit to compensate the prevailing party for some of the costs it has laid out having to prove that it was in the legal right. Over centuries around the globe the rule has shown itself consistent with the interests of justice (since it helps to make whole parties whose actions and legal claims were vindicated) and has generally improved incentives in litigation by discouraging speculative claims and defenses, narrowing issues, and promoting settlement.

The organized lawyers of one nation, however, have remained stubbornly resistant to loser-pays: those in the United States. There are, to be sure, some notable exceptions: Alaska has practiced a form of the rule since its days as a territory, and “offer of settlement” variants, invoked after litigants turn down an offer and then do less well at trial, have made some headway lately. Since legislators in several states, especially out West, have shown an interest in promoting the loser-pays principle, you’d think there would be faster progress. Yet such legislative declarations are often foiled when court systems interpret guidance language narrowly or unsympathetically so as to restrict fee shifts to a relatively few outrageous or abusive cases. 

That was the situation in Idaho until this fall. Since 1979 the Idaho Supreme Court had followed a rule directing courts to deny fee awards except in cases that were “brought, pursued or defended frivolously, unreasonably or without foundation.” Eight years later, in a 1987 enactment, the state’s legislature declared its intent that “winners in civil cases have ‘the right to be made whole for attorney’s fees and costs when justice so requires,” on the face of it a broader standard. A lot of good that did: for nearly 30 years, the high court in Boise refused to take the hint and stuck with its old standard.

Until now. On September 28, in the case of Hoffer v. Shappard, the Idaho Supreme Court announced that it would at last yield to “the clear intention of the legislature” and adopt, for cases pending as of next March 1, a more generous fee standard. It will recognize that “prevailing parties in civil litigation have the right to be made whole for attorney fees they have incurred ‘when justice so requires’ ” and will accord “broad authority to judges overseeing civil actions to award reasonable attorney fees.”

Critics, as well as dissenters in the 3-2 ruling, are predicting the worst. Their concerns are summed up in Betsy Russell’s report in the Spokane Spokesman-Review (which also generously quotes me). As I note, there are genuine risks ahead: experience suggests that courts in a fee-shift system must be on guard to check lawyers’ temptation to gold-plate fee requests, and the high court or legislature should step in to cabin discretion if lower court judges head off in such different directions that fee outcomes start to vary arbitrarily from one courtroom to the next. Loser-pays systems typically develop mechanisms to handle cases of split or partial victories, and Idaho should be prepared to do so as well.

Those important points aside, I’m rooting for the Court’s new approach to succeed, and hoping that Idaho legislators, trial judges, and lawyers will cooperate in coming months to help make that happen.


The fog of war, coupled with the output from multiple propaganda machines, makes it difficult to determine which side has the upper hand in any conflict. After the fall of Aleppo, it appears that President Bashar al-Assad’s forces are getting the upper hand. But are they?

The best objective way to determine the course of a conflict is to observe black market (read: free market) exchange rates, and to translate changes in those rates via purchasing power parity into implied inflation rates. We, at the Johns Hopkins-Cato Institute Troubled Currencies Project, have been doing that for Syria since 2013.

The two accompanying charts—one for the Syrian pound and another for Syria’s implied annual inflation rate—plot the course of the war. It is clear that Assad and his allies are getting the upper hand. With their recent victory in Aleppo, the black-market exchange rate has moved in Assad’s favor and, likewise, inflation has continued to fall.

The 2016 presidential election took its toll on friendships around the country, but particularly among Democratic women. Fascinating new research from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) finds that Democratic women are three times as likely as Republicans to say they blocked, unfriended, or unfollowed a person on a social networking site because of what they posted about politics: 30% versus 9%.

Democratic men (14%) are little less than twice as likely as Republican men (8%) To say they ‘unfriended’ someone. Democratic women (30%) are three times as likely Republican women (10%) to say they’ve done the same. Among all Americans the number stands at 13%.

You can find the full report at PRRI here.

Last week, the National Highway Traffic Safety Commission (NHTSC) formally proposed to mandate that all new cars be equipped with “vehicle-to-vehicle” (V2V) communications, also known as connected-vehicle technology. This would allow vehicles stuck in traffic to let other vehicles know to take alternate routes. It would also allow the governments—or hackers—to take control of your car anytime they want.

The good news is that the Trump Administration will take office before NHTSC has a chance to put this rule into effect, and may be willing to kill it. The bad news is that this rule will feed the paranoia some people have over self-driving cars.

This article, for example, considers self-driving cars to be a part of the “war on the automobile” because they offer an “easy way to track the movements of individuals in society.” In fact, the writer of the article is confusing self-driving cars with connected vehicles. As I’ve previously noted, none of the at least 20 companies working on self-driving cars or software appear to be making V2V an integral part of their systems. This is mainly because they don’t trust the government to install or maintain the infrastructure needed to make it work but also because self-driving cars don’t need that technology.

There are good reasons to be paranoid about connected-vehicle mandates. First, they will give government the ability to control your car, and some governments in the United States have shown that they are willing to use that control to reduce your mobility. The state of Washington, for example, has mandated a 50 percent reduction in per capita driving by 2050. This is a state that has forbidden people to build homes on their own land if they live outside of an urban-growth boundary. If they can’t reduce per capita driving through moral suasion, it is not too much of a stretch to imagine that they will just turn peoples’ cars off after they have driven so many miles each month.

Second, if every car uses exactly the same vehicle-to-vehicle software, they will be incredibly vulnerable to hackers. Remember that hackers figured out how to remotely control a Jeep that Chrysler had wired to the cell phone network. Chrysler responded by recalling 1.4 million cars to install a firewall between the network and the car’s operating system. But now the government wants to mandate that all cars connect their operating systems to the cell phone or other wireless network, with no firewalls allowed.

While the risks of mandatory V2V systems are significant, the benefits are tiny. Marc Scribner of the Competitive Enterprise Institute notes that, “As NHTSA readily admits, hypothetical safety benefits of the mandate will be trivial for the next 15 years, at which point far superior automated vehicle technology may be deployed to consumers,” especially if manufacturers aren’t locked into technologies prescribed by the government.

People should not be paranoid about self-driving cars because none of the technologies required for self-driving cars would allow someone to remotely control your car. But people should be paranoid about V2V communications, especially those mandated by the government. Some auto makers are already offering various connected technologies with their cars, such as OnStar, which leaves it up to consumers whether they want to buy those kinds of systems and gives manufacturers incentives to keep their systems hack-proof. But government mandates for connected vehicles are both dangerous and pointless.

Although public opinion data shows stark partisan divides in evaluations of police performance, a Cato Institute/YouGov survey shows that Americans—regardless of partisanship—are worried for police safety.

Two-thirds (65%) of respondents say that police officers have “very dangerous” jobs, 30% say police jobs are “somewhat dangerous,” and only 5% say their jobs are not very dangerous. Concerns about police safety extend across partisan groups. Six in 10 Democrats and independents as well as 7 in 10 Republicans think police jobs are “very dangerous.” 


Although concern for police safety is bi-partisan, Republicans are far more worried than Democrats and independents that the police are being disrespected. More than three fourths (77%) of Republicans think that people show “too little respect” for the police these days. In contrast, only 45% of Democrats agree—a 32 point margin. Independents fall in between with 56% who believe people don’t show enough respect for the police. This pattern is not simply due to differences in partisan racial composition: white Republicans are 28 points more likely than white Democrats to worry the police are being disrespected (78% vs. 50%).[1]

Given these data, it’s less surprising that 82% of Republicans believe there is a war on police today. In contrast, 49% of Democrats agree—a 33-point margin.

Find the full public opinion report here.

These data suggest that when people talk about there being a “war on police,” for the most part, they aren’t talking about how dangerous the job is. Most Americans—Republican, Democrat, or otherwise—already believe that police have dangerous jobs. Instead, the “war on police” that Republicans are worried about is rhetorical—they believe police officers aren’t being adequately respected by the public.

There has been a temptation for police reformers to respond to claims that there is a “war on police” by providing facts and figures about how fatal occupational injuries are higher in other occupations like taxi driving, truck driving, or roofing, or how police fatalities have been on a downward trend for the past 35 years, with 2015 being one of the safest years for law enforcement. But this is not what the perceived “war on police” is all about. It’s about police not getting the respect Republicans think they deserve.

Why do Republicans care more than Democrats about people showing respect for the police? Social psychologists have found that individuals who have an above average desire for social order tend to believe that society will breakdown and devolve into chaos without strong authority figures to maintain order.[2] Consequently, these individuals tend to have greater respect for authority figures who they believe help maintain social stability. While nearly everyone cares about social stability and respecting authority to some degree, this is a more salient concern for conservatives.[3]

In fact, Republicans (42%) are nearly twice as likely as Democrats (25%) to score in the highest quartile of our Respect for Authority Index (RAI), which is based on answers to three questions that measure people’s general respect for authority without out asking about police.

“Law and order” conservatives who look to the police to prevent chaos may fear that criticizing them, or not showing them adequate deference, may undermine their legitimacy and authority—thereby fostering social disorder.[4]

Consequently, those interested in police reform may be more effective by making it clear they support the police and avoid responding to claims that there is a “war on police” by saying there is no physical war on police. Instead, acknowledge the real challenges police officers must face and demonstrate how reform will help police officers do their jobs more safety and effectively. Furthermore, show that police reform can strengthen police legitimacy by restoring public confidence in the police. This by extension will bolster the legitimacy of the law.

For public opinion analysis sign up here to receive Cato’s upcoming digest of Public Opinion Insights and public opinion studies.

The Cato Institute/YouGov national survey of 2000 adults was conducted June 6–22, 2016 using a sample drawn from YouGov’s online panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. YouGov uses a method called sample matching, and restrictions are put in place to ensure that only the people selected and contacted by YouGov are allowed to participate. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is +/-3.19 percentage points. The full report can be found here, toplines results can be found here, full methodological details can be found here.


[1] Similarly, Hispanic Republicans are 27 points more likely than Hispanic Democrats to worry people aren’t showing enough respect to police (71% vs. 44%). However, black Republicans (35%) are about as likely as black Democrats (39%) to worry the police aren’t receiving adequate respect. This is a familiar pattern we’ve written about previously where black Republicans and black Democrats have similar views of the police even though white and Hispanic Republicans have more positive views than white and Hispanic Democrats. These data about perceptions of police being disrespected among black and Hispanic Republicans and Democrats come from combining the June 2016 and November 2015 national surveys (N=4000), which offer greater precision and smaller margins of error for subgroups. (Unweighted: Black Republicans=45, Hispanic Republicans=165, Black Democrats=630, Hispanic Democrats=409.) Results have been weighted to be representative of the national population.

[2] See Karen Stenner, The Authoritarian Dynamic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), Jonathan Haidt, Jesse Graham, and Craig Joseph, “Above and Below Left-Right: Ideological Narratives and Moral Foundations,” Psychological Inquiry 20 (2009): 110-119. Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Pantheon Books, 2012). Jonathan Haidt and Jesse Graham, “When Morality Opposes Justice: Conservatives Have Moral Intuitions that Liberals May Not Recognize,” Social Justice Research 20 (2012): 98-116. Jesse Graham, Jonathan Haidt, and Brian A. Nosek, “Liberals and Conservatives Rely on Different Sets of Moral Foundations,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 98, No. 5 (2009): 1029-46.

[3] Ibid.

[4] For example, see Heather MacDonald, “The Danger of the “Black Lives Matter” Movement,” Imprimis 45 (2016),….

When Simon Tam formed an all Asian-American rock band, he knew it needed a name that would capture the band’s identity and ethnic pride. He chose “The Slants” to, in his own words, “take on these stereotypes that people have about us, like the slanted eyes, and own them.” The Slants knew they might have some critics, but they weren’t expecting that one would be the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO), which punished them for their naming choice by denying their trademark application.

The PTO acted under a provision of the Lanham Act (the federal trademark statute) that bars the registration of any trademark “which may disparage … persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols.” After a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit upheld this denial, the full court reheard the case and reversed, striking down the disparagement clause as violating the First Amendment. The case is now before the Supreme Court.

Cato, joined by a basket of deplorable people and organizations that includes satirist P.J. O’Rourke, former ACLU president Nadine Strossen, and Flying Dog Brewery (which makes the tasty “Raging Bitch” Belgian-style IPA), has filed a brief – our third annual “funny brief” – urging the Court to affirm the Federal Circuit. We ask a simple question: Should the government get to decide what’s a slur?

Do we really want PTO lawyers determining which messages are “disparaging” and which aren’t? For example, Cato’s brief was written by a cracker, a dago, and a frostback. Can we get away with saying that? It depends whom you ask. Is “water buffalo” a racial slur? What about “niggardly” or “tar baby”? Enormous controversies have raged over exactly these questions, yet the PTO thinks it can draw an objective line.

Even if we could determine which words are actually “disparaging,” should the government really be putting its thumb on the scale to take such controversies out of the public square? Insulting terms and disparaging language have played an important role in American history. Why should we discourage coining phrases like the “Know-Nothing Party” when, for many, they have captured a truth more than any “official” name ever could?

Moreover, the process of reclaiming slurs has been crucial to the development of many groups’ identities. Jesuits, Methodists, Mormons, and Quakers all owe their popular names to reclaimed terms that were originally disparaging. The Slants, just like N.W.A., Pansy Division, the Hillbilly Hellcats, and many bands before them, are engaging in exactly the same proud tradition. The disparagement clause places an economic penalty on brands that choose to express a certain message—the definition of an unconstitutional condition.

Could the government deny copyright protection to a book it doesn’t like? Could the police decline to protect a demonstration with which they disagree? Allowing the disparagement clause to stand would raise these and other troubling questions. Instead, the Court should draw a clear line, get rid of the disparagement clause, and let The Slants rock on!

The Supreme Court will hear argument in Lee v. Tam on January 18.

Economist Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University recently made this claim (emphasis mine):

“We’re so rich in our total production and in our capacities to do things that we could solve absolutely fundamental challenges, such as ending extreme poverty or addressing climate change or preserving biodiversity without much effort … it cannot be the most important issue in the world whether the U.S. grows at another 3% or 3.5% or 2.9% a year, when over the last 65 years there’s been no discernible rise in wellbeing

That is the theme of his new book, The Origins of Happiness.

By “we” Sachs appears to mean the U.S. and other rich countries and calls for their governments to engage in wealth transfers to poor countries and a plethora of environmental projects. What he does not seem to realize is that humanity is already making swift progress—through the free actions of billions of individuals—toward ending poverty and better preserving the environment.

As global GDP per person has skyrocketed, global poverty has plummeted. Fewer people live in extreme poverty than ever before, both as a share of the population and in absolute terms. In other words, although there are more people alive, the number of people living in extreme poverty is lower than it has even been. If current trends continue, extreme poverty will be practically eliminated by 2030.

After China liberalized its economy, hundreds of millions of its people escaped extreme poverty. Once India moved towards economic freedom in the early 1990s, its population saw a remarkable decline in poverty as well. It’s tempting to want to make this story about “us” in the U.S. and other rich countries acting as saviors for the global poor, but the reality is that people in the developing world are lifting themselves out of poverty wherever they have the economic freedom to do so. In contrast, no country has ever become rich through foreign aid, which is plagued by many problems.

As incomes rise and people move past worries of basic survival, more of them come to care about the environment. Technological progress is also helping to improve environmental stewardship, by boosting agricultural yields per hectare of land and increasing water productivity, among other things. We are now witnessing numerous trends that give cause for environmental optimism, from expanding forest area in China to falling emissions in the United States.

Once again, Sachs’ well-meaning call for state intervention seems misguided. The U.S. emits less CO2 today not because of EPA regulations or costly subsidies for unreliable wind and solar energy, but because the market delivered a technological breakthrough (hydraulic fracturing) that reduced reliance on more polluting energy sources.

Despite Sachs’ protests, there has been a discernible rise in wellbeing over the last 65 years. Even the amount of progress achieved just in my own lifetime is astounding. Sachs’ book presents data suggesting that higher incomes and better education do not heighten people’s happiness as much as sound health and strong interpersonal relationships do. From this he concludes that despite being richer and better educated, people today are not any better off than their fore-bearers.

Actually, even in terms of health and interconnectedness, we are still better off today. Consider health. Life expectancy is at an all-time high. More infants survive to see their first birthday and more mothers survive childbirth. Cancer takes the lives of fewer men and women. We lose fewer lives to droughts, hurricanes, lightning, tornadoes and extreme temperatures. Safety advances also mean fewer traffic fatalities and fewer fatal plane crashes. Infectious diseases that were once common causes of death have been defeated by better treatment and prevention methods.

As for relationships, despite having more disposable income, today people work less and enjoy more leisure time to spend with loved ones. In 1950, an average American worker worked 1,983 hours in a year. In 2016, that had fallen to 1,774. That’s 209 fewer hours of labor—and 209 more hours to spend with family and friends.

Technology, although much maligned for providing distracting alternatives to social interaction, also makes it possible to remain in contact with others even across vast distances. Access to electricity, mobile phones and the Internet has never been more widespread, connecting more lives across the planet.

Technology not only makes it easier to maintain relationships, but to form them. Just last month I attended a wedding where the bride and groom had first met through a dating app on their smart phones. They were not unusual—online dating now brings about more than a third of U.S. marriages, and the rapid spread of communications technology has also facilitated the formation of many friendships.

To make his case Sachs also cites data showing that people don’t identify as happier today than a half-century ago. If true, that is perhaps evidence in favor of the “hedonic treadmill” theory of psychology, which claims that people quickly get used to improvements in their lives and take them for granted. A year after winning the lottery, for example, many people are no happier than they were previously. In a sense, just being alive right now means you’ve won the lottery—the average American today is richer in many ways than John D. Rockefeller a century ago.

Sachs is too quick to dismiss the incredible progress that humanity has made by practically every measure, and also too quick to assume that government intervention is the best way to bring about progress. You can find even more data showing how far humanity has come at

The incoming Secretary of Energy, Rick Perry, has talked in the past about abolishing the department that he will be running. President-elect Donald Trump has expressed skepticism with some types of energy subsidies. However, Trump’s campaign website mentioned support for “continued research into advanced energy technologies.”

As they consider their energy policy approach, the Trump team should look at the past record of federal spending, which I discuss in a new study on energy subsidies at

The government has been subsidizing conventional and renewable energy for decades. Department of Energy (DOE) spending has been fraught with failure. Billions of dollars have been wasted on ill-advised and mismanaged projects. The study includes nine case studies of DOE failure, from the Clinch River Breeder Reactor debacle in the 1970s to the recent Solyndra scandal.

There is no need for federal energy subsidies. U.S. energy markets have changed dramatically over the past decade. Technological advances in the oil and natural gas industries—particularly hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling—have led to large increases in domestic production. U.S. imports of oil and gas have plunged, while exports have increased. U.S. businesses and consumers have benefited as gasoline and natural gas prices have fallen.

This energy revolution was driven by private innovation and competitive markets, and it has created environmental as well as economic benefits. Cleaner natural gas, for example, is replacing coal as a fuel source in U.S. electricity production.

The oil and gas revolution shows that American businesses can generate innovations and progress with their own resources. Furthermore, investors and major corporations have pumped billions of dollars into alternative energy technologies in recent years. The U.S. energy sector is vast, dynamic, and entrepreneurial, and it does not need subsidies to thrive.

New York Times columnist David Leonhardt claims, “G.D.P. growth has been stronger after recent tax increases on the wealthy.”  To prove it he writes,  “The economy has performed better under Democratic Presidents during the last half century.”  

This might make sense if Eisenhower and Nixon had cut tax rates for the wealthy and JFK and LBJ raised them.  But the opposite happened.  It might also make sense if Clinton had raised the capital gains tax rate in 1997 rather than cutting it from 28% (under Reagan-Bush) to 20%. 

President Eisenhower put the highest tax rate up to 92% in 1953-54 and the lowest rate to 22%.  By contrast, President Kennedy’s 1963 plan for “getting America moving again” proposed to cut income tax rates to 14-65%.  As enacted by LBJ after Kennedy’s assassination, the top tax rate was reduced to 70% and the lowest to 15%.  These rate cuts came quickly, unlike Reagan’s – which were was unwisely postponed until 1983-84. 

Economic growth was indeed twice as fast (5.2%) under the Kennedy-Johnson’s top tax rate of 70% than it was under Eisenhower’s top tax rates of 91-92% (2.5%).  That may suggest “Kennedy Republicans” (like Jack Kemp) are wiser than pro-tax Eisenhower Democrats, as I put it in The Wall Street Journal (“Avoiding the Eisenhower Legacy” Nov 17, 1992). My 1992 analysis may have inspired a famous President Clinton outburst to his staff: “’I hope you’re all aware we’re all Eisenhower Republicans,’ …his voice dripping with sarcasm. ‘We’re all Eisenhower Republicans here…” 

President Carter did try to raise tax rates on the wealthy, mostly by raising the tax on capital gains to nearly 40% by 1977.  As with FDR in 1938, Democrats in Congress rebelled. On July 3, 1978, an alarmed Washington Post editorial said, “THE WILD POPULARITY of the Steiger amendment among the Democrats in Congress is a remarkable Phenomenon. The Steiger amendment, you will recall, cuts capital-gains taxes for a small number of citizens, most of whom roost comfortably on the top rung of the income ladder…  Mr. Carter says that he will veto the bill.”  But he didn’t. 

The capital gains tax was again slashed from 28% to 20% in August 5, 1997, with the support of President Clinton and over 80% of the Democrats in the House and Senate.

If higher tax rates on the wealthy produce stronger GDP growth, why was that not also true from 1932 to 1936?  Growth was certainly not stronger after June 6, 1932, when President Hoover raised the top tax rate from 25 percent to 63 percent, doubled the estate tax and raised corporate taxes. And growth was not stronger after the Revenue Act of  June 22, 1936, which briefly raised tax rates on capital gains and profits until a Democrat Congress (fearful of being blamed for the deep 1937-38 recession) repealed it.  

Those who misunderstand the nonpartisan history of tax policy successes and blunders are doomed to repeat the blunders.

Rep. Peter King (R-NY), fresh out of a meeting at Trump Tower yesterday, said he pressured President-elect Donald Trump to implement a nationwide surveillance program directed at Muslim Americans “similar to what” existed in the New York Police Department’s Demographics Unit under Commissioner Ray Kelly.

Rep. King insisted that the NYPD program “which unfortunately the civil liberties union and The New York Times didn’t like … [was] very effective in stopping terrorism and really should be a model for the country.”

There is little evidence that the program “stopped terrorism,” and Rep. King did not provide any revelations. The evidence we do have (much of it from agents themselves) points in the opposite direction. In more than a decade of pervasive surveillance, the program simply didn’t work.

I wrote about that NYPD program back in March, when Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) made a similar suggestion following a terrorist attack in Brussels.

 [T]he police infiltrated mosques, set up surveillance cameras around Muslim-owned businesses and residences, went undercover to monitor everyday conversations, and even infiltrated student groups at schools as far away as Yale and the University of Pennsylvania in order to monitor what students talked about, who they spoke to, and how often they prayed.

The end result of years of Demographic Unit surveillance on American Muslims was… nothing.

No convictions, no prosecutions, and, according to Assistant Chief Thomas Galati, not even a single legitimate lead.

Instead of policing murders and rapes in New York City, agents were busy with things like whitewater rafting trips to upstate New York, where an officer who infiltrated a Muslim student organization took detailed notes of how many times the students prayed and who they talked to.  

While the program failed to generate actionable intelligence about terrorists, it did produce millions of dollars worth of costly litigation over the dubious constitutionality of suspicionless spying against religious communities.

Aside from the inefficacy of the program, it remains unclear how Rep. King expects the president to implement such a program nationwide. Given manpower limitations on federal law enforcement, the most likely avenue for nationwide implementation would be the expansion of federal law enforcement grants, such as the Urban Areas Security Initiative, in order to entice state and local law enforcement agencies to construct surveillance efforts similar to the NYPD program.

UASI grants, which are ostensibly intended to keep Americans safe from terrorists, have been used by state and local police to procure military-grade vehicles, weapons and surveillance technology without going through their local appropriations processes.  Aside from outfitting local police forces like paramilitary units, there is little evidence that such grants have made Americans safer.  In December of 2012, then-Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) released a damning report on the UASI program, arguing that billions of dollars in federal grants had not made American law enforcement any better at protecting against or reacting to terrorist attacks.

In the sense that terrorism grant programs have already wasted billions of tax dollars and police man-hours while distorting local law enforcement priorities, Rep. King’s surveillance program is a perfect fit. But if we want our federal, state, and local law enforcement agents spending their time policing actual crimes rather than counting how many times young Muslims pray while whitewater rafting, New York’s failed surveillance program should be left in the past.  The NYPD itself agrees.


For more on domestic surveillance in the War on Terror:

This week Cato hosted our annual Surveillance Conference.  My colleague Patrick Eddington moderated a panel on “countering violent extremism,” which is a government program designed to give officials advanced warning of the alleged radicalization process of young Muslims.  The panel included remarks from Maya Berry of the Arab American Institute, Sharia Mayfield of the Oregon Department of Justice (whose father Brandon was falsely accused by the FBI of taking part in the Madrid train bombings), Arjun Singh Sethi of the Sikh Coalition, Mike German of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program, and Luther Reynolds of the Montgomery Co. Police Department. 



Yesterday I shared some very good news about Brazil adopting a spending cap.

Today, I also want to share some good news, though it’s not nearly as momentous.

Indeed, it’s not even good news. Instead, it’s just that some bad news isn’t as bad as it used to be.

I’m referring to the fact that the nation’s capital region used to be home to 10 of the nation’s 15-richest counties.

That was back in 2012, and I viewed it as a terrible sign that the DC area was packed with overpaid bureaucrats, oleaginous rent seekers, and government cronies, all of whom were enjoying undeserved wealth financed by hard-working taxpayers from the rest of America.

Well, now for the “good news.”

Terry Jeffrey has a column for CNS News about the current concentration of wealth in the national capital area.

The four richest counties in the United States, when measured by median household income, are all suburbs of Washington, D.C., according to newly released data from the Census Bureau. …Of the Top 20 richest counties in the nation, nine are suburbs of the city that serves as the seat of a federal government that in fiscal 2016 taxed away $3,266,774,000,000 from the American people, spent $3,854,100,000,000, and ran a $587,326,000,000 deficit.

The reason this awful data is good news (relatively speaking) is that the DC region is now home to “only” nine out of the 20-richest counties rather than 10 out of the 15-richest counties.

Here’s Terry’s list, which I’ve augmented by highlighting the jurisdictions that are home to many of the bureaucrats, lobbyists, and other insiders that are living on Easy Street thanks to the federal leviathan.

I also awarded a star to Los Alamos County in New Mexico since that’s another jurisdiction that has above-average income because of Uncle Sam.

To be sure, not every private-sector worker in these rich counties is a cronyist, lobbyist, or rent seeker, so it’s difficult to accurately say what share of the income and wealth in these various counties is earned and how much is a transfer from government.

But we can say with confidence that the bureaucrats who are over-represented in these jurisdictions get a lot more compensation than their counterparts in the private sector. Chris Edwards has been relentless in his efforts to document excessive pay for bureaucrats.

Since we’re on this topic, let’s enjoy some additional bits of data about the cushy life of our bureaucratic overlords.

In addition to lavish pay, federal employees also receive gold-plated benefits. Most of the money goes for pensions and healthcare, but you’ll be happy to know the feds have also figured out more creative ways of pampering the protected class.

…a variety of federal agencies in a number of locations provide “free” yoga classes to employees. But these classes are not free; since 2013, they have cost taxpayers over $150,000. The State Department spends $15,000 for yoga in the nation’s capital. A yoga instructor in from Berkeley, California is paid $4,000 a year from the Department of Agriculture’s Research Service. Of course, the Department of Energy…has gotten in on taxpayer financed yoga; but for $11,000 annually they also offer pilates at a California location. …The Railroad Retirement Board spends $11,000 annually for yoga classes for office workers at its Chicago headquarters.

And many federal bureaucrats have figured out how to enjoy another fringe benefit of federal employment.

The federal government is full of people pulling in six-figure compensation packages who spend their days…watching porn on government computers… One compulsive porno-phile over at the EPA was watching so much porn that it caught the attention of the Office of the Inspector General — i.e., he was watching so much porn that a federal official noticed — and when the OIG investigator showed up to see what the deal was, you know what that EPA guy did? He kept right on watching porn, with the OIG inspector in his office. At the FCC, bureaucratic home of the people who enforce such obscenity laws as we have, employees routinely spend the equivalent of a full workday each week watching porn. Treasury, General Service Administration, Commerce — porn, porn, and more porn. Of course nobody gets fired. Nobody ever gets fired. …Federal employees, according to OIG reports, also spend a great deal of time browsing online-dating sites (apparently without much success) and shopping.

By the way, the jab about “nobody gets fired” isn’t 100 percent accurate.

But if you want lots of job security, then latch on to the federal teat.

Federal workers are far more likely to be audited by the IRS or get arrested for drunk driving than they are to be fired from the civil service payroll for poor performance or misconduct. The odds are one-in-175 for the IRS audit and one-in-200 for the drunk driving arrest, while the odds for a fed to be fired in a given year are one-in-500, according to the Government Accountability Office. …Private sector workers face just the opposite situation. They have a roughly one-in-77 chance of being involuntarily terminated — the Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t distinguish between fires and layoffs — in a given month.

By the way, bureaucrats are sometimes forced into early retirement as “punishment” for misbehavior.

All things considered, though, we serfs shouldn’t complain too much.

After all, would it be proper to grouse about a group that does superlative work?

In the ranks of the federal government, 99 percent are really good at their jobs — and almost two-thirds exceed expectations or do outstanding work. That’s the conclusion of a new report by the Government Accountability Office, which also found that 78 percent of high-level civil servants — those in GS grades 13 through 15 — were given top performance scores of outstanding or fully successful….The glowing picture of everyone in calendar year 2013, the most recent data available to auditors, is…good news for federal agencies.

In reality, of course, these glowing performance reviews are highly suspect.

…a more likely reality to many in and outside of government. Rather than so many federal workers being exceptional, the system for rating them isn’t working right. …Federal workers themselves have long complained in annual surveys that their agencies do not deal with poor performers, hurting morale and efficiency. Lawmakers complain that it is nearly impossible to fire these employees, but bills to take away some of their their rights to appeal bad reviews have languished in Congress. …“Apparently the federal bureaucrats grading one another think virtually everyone who works for the government is doing a fantastic job,” Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said in a statement. “But given the dysfunction we’ve seen throughout the federal government over the last several years, that can’t possibly be true,” Miller said.

Of course it’s not true.

Misbehavior and malfeasance at bureaucracies such as the IRS and VA doesn’t prevent high ratings and generous bonuses. Instead, it’s almost as if doing the wrong thing is a job requirement.

Isn’t big government wonderful?

Survey data shows that black Republicans and Hispanic Republicans are far less likely than white Republicans to believe the nation’s criminal justice system is impartial.

I was able to combine two surveys conducted by the Cato Institute that included the same question on impartiality in the justice system to obtain a much larger sample size.[1] This offers an opportunity to take a look at how Republicans who are black, white, and Hispanic think about the justice system. Why do this? Essentially this “controls for” or accounts for the effect of political values when looking at how different racial/ethnic groups evaluate bias in the justice system.

When combining the surveys we find that 42% of Americans think the system in the U.S. treats white, black, and Hispanic Americans equally. A plurality (46%) think the system gives preference to white Americans and 12% think the system treats minorities better. 

Republicans (64%) are far more likely to think the system treats everyone fairly than Democrats (21%) and independents (43%). However, black and Hispanic Republicans are far less confident than white Republicans. Only 15% of black Republicans think the justice system treats everyone equally, compared to 67% of white Republicans. Hispanic Republicans fall in between with slightly less than half (45%) who think the system is fair. Consequently, Republicans who are white, Hispanic, or black, have dramatically different views of racial bias in the justice system.

In contrast, Democrats are far more similar: 26% of white Democrats, 17% of Hispanic Democrats, and 13% of black Democrats believe the justice system treats all people equally.

Looking at this data altogether, we notice a pattern: white Republicans (67%) are 16 points more likely than white independents (51%) and 41 points more likely than white Democrats (26%) to believe the system is fair. We observe a similar but attenuated pattern among Hispanics: Hispanic Republicans (45%) are 13 points more likely than Hispanic independents (32%) and 28 points more likely than Hispanic Democrats (17%) to believe the system is fair. However, black Republicans (15%) are about as likely as black Democrats (13%) and black independents (16%) to think the justice system is impartial. Ultimately, white Republicans are the only group that solidly believes the justice system treats all citizens equally before the law.

Why do Republicans who are black, white, and Hispanic have such different views of racial bias in the justice system? There could be several reasons, but the most obvious one to consider is that African Americans may be having different personal or vicarious experiences with the system.

Critics who argue perceptions of racial bias in the justice system are false contend that such perceptions are merely the result of “radical” “anti-cop ideology” or “elites’ investment in black victimology.” But these reasons tend to be associated with the political Left, not the political Right. How many Republicans (black, white or Hispanic) could be identified as “radical” who embrace “victimology”? A better explanation might be that people feel the system is biased based on their experiences rather than simply because they are inclined to rebel against authority figures.


For public opinion analysis sign up here to receive Cato’s upcoming digest of Public Opinion Insights and public opinion studies.

[1] Question wording: “Just your impression, do you think the criminal justice system in the United States treats white Americans more fairly than black and Hispanic Americans, treats black and Hispanic Americans more fairly than white Americans, or are they treated about the same?” Data about perceptions of systemic bias by race/ethnicity and partisanship come from the combined June 2016 and November 2015 national surveys (N=4000), which offer greater precision and smaller margins of error for subgroups. (Unweighted: Black Republicans=45, Hispanic Republicans=165, White Republicans=1193, Black Democrats=630, Hispanic Democrats=409, White Democrats=634.) Results have been weighted to be representative of the national population.

Prior to attacking intelligence assessments on Russian hacking and meeting with Kanye this week, the president-elect went on a bit of a defense jag. Monday, @realDonaldTrump bashed Lockheed’s F-35 joint strike fighter program for its “out of control” price-tag.  He said the same of Boeing’s Air Force One replacement last week. Saturday, he vaguely tweeted his approval for a Washington Post story claiming that the Pentagon “buried evidence” that it wastes $25 billion a year. Sunday, on Fox News, Trump criticized both aircraft and implied that their excessive cost results from a corrupt practice: the revolving door, where officials manage weapons programs and then go work for the manufacturer.

Trump’s tweets temporarily lowered defense contractors’ stock prices, prompting speculation that he’s paying CEOs back for criticism, or worse. But Trump’s comments aren’t new. He attacked the F-35 during the campaign. He claimed that he could fund a massive military buildup by “conducting a full audit of the Pentagon, eliminating incorrect payments, reducing duplicative bureaucracy, collecting unpaid taxes, and ending unwanted and unauthorized federal programs.”  He promised to “balance our budget,” by eliminating “waste, fraud and abuse” in the federal government. He repeatedly suggested that corporate interests—pharmaceutical, oil, finance and defense companies,” have hijacked government and added to its cost.

Trump’s views on Pentagon waste then seem less whim than an outgrowth of his approach to public policy. Does that mean Trump is set to “crack down” on Pentagon spending, “make war on the defense industry or take on the “military-industrial complex?” There are several reasons why the answer is not really.

One is Trump’s appointments. As in other areas, they conflict with his campaign rhetoric. Trump famously said he knows more about ISIS than the generals, but seems inclined to defer to those that he deems “his.”  That’s especially true of his Secretary of Defense pick, retired general James Mattis, who has mostly conventionally-hawkish views on military spending. For example, he repeats the false claim that sequestration, which only occurred once since the 2011 Budget Control Act, in 2013, annually slices the defense budget across-the-board.  He even called sequestration a bigger threat than any U.S. enemy, while testifying in favor of a military spending boost. Mattis casts doubt on Trump’s commitment to defense reform in another way: he raced through the revolving door, going to work for General Dynamics upon his retirement from military service in 2013.

Another reason to doubt that Trump can successfully mine “waste, fraud and abuse” for savings is that it’s mostly fool’s gold. Fraud and abuse amount to small potatoes in Pentagon terms. Waste is tough to cut because people disagree on what it is. One man’s waste is another’s (usually a committee chair or Undersecretary) vital national security program. Going after waste requires political fights for which Trump seems unprepared.

I made that argument last week in the National Interest:

Budget cutters like to target waste because it means savings without sacrifice. Waste has no lobby or constituency, so you lose nothing and offend no one in hunting it. But true savings, even the efficiency sort where you do the same missions for less cost, don’t come for nothing. Efficiency savings include closing bases, combining or shuttering combatant commands, cutting a nuclear-weapons delivery system, lowering personnel costs and the like. All require political fights.

Bigger savings require going after the Pentagon’s efficient pursuit of foolish goals—by reducing military missions. With fewer wars to plan and fight, we could have less force structure, build fewer weapons and pay fewer people.

That piece tried to pour cold water on the Post story that Trump tweeted. For more criticism, see my letter to the editor, Robert Samuelson’s column, and Matt Fay’s post for the Niskanen Institute.

My point isn’t that we should buy F-35s or be content with growing overhead costs in the military. The point is that saving money there is more a political challenge than a managerial one, especially the sort solved by attacking overlap or graft.  Yes, there are procurement abuses facilitated by revolving doors. But closing them wouldn’t have helped F-35. Like most problematic acquisition programs, its troubles are belief in false economies of scale gained by joint production and an acquisition system that produces excessive requirements and incentives for premature production. That system reflects the will of Congress and the military services more than that of the contractors they hire.

Yes, the Pentagon suffers from subpar accounting. But that’s largely because it’s a confederation of services and offices with their own systems. Better record-keeping will highlight excessive spending, not stop it.

Yes, there’s duplication galore in the Pentagon. The Navy’s ground force duplicates the Army in many ways, for example. But Congress is not about to abolish the Marines. And that sort of redundancy usefully offers alternative solutions to military challenges. It also allows bureaucratic competition, which can produce some of the disciplining effects that market competition provides in the private sector.

The best way to target Pentagon inefficiency is to cut its topline. The budget should remain capped, ideally at a lower level, with the Overseas Contingency Operations budget included under the cap. That would prevent it from being used as a bailout fund preventing hard choices. Lower budgets will encourage Pentagon leaders to target administrative costs to protect more important programs. The department’s drive for efficiency, which has run under the past four defense secretaries, began as last decade’s massive military buildup waned. By promising a military buildup, Trump is closing off the best path to the efficiencies that he claims will fund it.

The selection of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education has exposed longstanding tensions among education reformers who are united in their support for expanding educational choice but divided over the government’s role in regulating such programs.

The schism is often portrayed as being between those who support or reject “accountability,” but this isn’t quite accurate. The real disagreement is not whether there should be accountability, but to whom schools should be held accountable: parents or bureaucrats. As Lindsey Burke and I argue in a new report published by the Heritage Foundation and the Texas Public Policy Foundation, educational choice programs like education savings accounts should place the accountability for academic outcomes with parents.

For decades, the term “accountability” primarily referred, in education policy circles, to government regulations intended to ensure quality. That’s because most children attend their assigned district schools, which are not directly answerable to parents and function as de facto monopolies. As Lindsey and I explain:

A distinctive feature of monopolies is lack of accountability. Because district schools are not held directly accountable to parents, some policymakers have attempted to impose accountability through top-down government regulations. Yet decades of attempts to regulate district schools into quality have had little effect. Unfortunately, too many policymakers have still come to see centralized government regulations as synonymous with “accountability” rather than an inferior alternative to direct accountability to parents, and have therefore sought to impose similar regulations on choice programs. However, regulations designed for a monopoly system are inappropriate for a market-based system.

In a market-based system, producers are held directly accountable to consumers for results. The government sets certain rules against fraud or health and safety standards, but the consumers ultimately decide whether a product or service meets their needs. Likewise, the government could ensure that ESA funds are spent on qualifying educational products and services, but the accountability for results should lie with parents, who are in the best position to evaluate those results. Holding education providers directly accountable to parents creates a feedback loop that does not exist in more centralized, top-down systems like the district schools. As social scientist Yuval Levin has argued, this enables the system to “channel social knowledge from the bottom up rather than…impose technical knowledge from the top down.” This channeling is accomplished “through a process of experimentation, evaluation, and evolution.”

If we want an education system that makes significant improvements in quality over time, education providers must be free to innovate and parents must be free to choose the providers that work best for their own children. This system evolves over time because higher-quality providers will attract more parents and lower-quality providers will face pressure to either improve or shut down.

However, technocratic attempts to guarantee quality through imposing uniform standards can interrupt this evolutionary process.

The Price of Technocratic Accountability

The technocratic approach to accountability requires that all schools are judged according to uniform metrics, therefore the technocrats rely heavily (indeed, almost exclusively) on standardized test scores, particularly in math and language arts. The technocratic reformers want to use these scores to set a minimum standard, meaning “underperforming” schools would be excluded from receiving voucher funds–or, in the case of charter schools, be shut down entirely–even against the will of parents who still want to enroll their children there.

Let us be clear about what is at stake. The technocratic approach would eliminate a family’s least-bad educational alternative, leaving children worse off “for their own good.” For example, parents may have chosen a private or charter school that did not perform well on the state’s standardized test overall, but the school may have provided a safer environment than the local district school. Or perhaps the school was succeeding at its mission to aid the most at-risk students, but the state’s uniform “accountability” system failed to take its mission into account. The damage done to children who lose the opportunity to attend schools that their parents believe are better than the alternative is incalcuable.

We should also be realistic about the unintended consequences of over-reliance on test scores. Although standardized tests can provide parents with useful information about their child’s academic performance, using them to impose uniform standards that so narrowly define “quality” creates perverse incentives that narrow the curriculum, stifle innovation, and can drive away quality schools from participating in the choice program. As Lindsey and I explain:

When schools are rewarded or punished based on their students’ performance on math and reading tests, they have a strong incentive to divert their time and resources to tested subjects and away from others. A study by the Center on Education Policy found that the time district schools spent on subjects besides math and reading declined considerably after Congress enacted the No Child Left Behind Act (NLCB), which mandated that states require district schools to administer the state standardized math and reading tests in grades three through eight and report the results. In the five years after NCLB was implemented, approximately 62 percent of elementary district schools reported increasing the amount of time spent on English language arts and/or math, and 44 percent reported decreasing time spent on social studies, science, art and music, physical education, lunch, or recess.

The narrowing curriculum is particularly alarming because, as Jay P. Greene has noted, recent research has found that “later success in math, reading, and science depends on early acquisition of the kind of ‘general knowledge’ and fine-motor skills learned through art and other subjects.” In other words, a narrower curriculum not only deprives students of having a broader and more enriching education, but also negatively impacts their performance in the tested subjects. “If we narrow education to the mechanics of math and reading as captured by yearly testing,” Greene concludes, “we short-change the broader knowledge that is the key to academic success later.”

Mandating a single test exacerbates this phenomenon. Within the tested subjects, schools have a strong incentive to teach the concepts that will be on the mandated test. This incentive to “teach to the test” can result in a de facto curriculum. For example, if a school had been teaching math concepts A, B, and C in grade 7, but the new state test was going to cover concepts B, D, and E, the school would almost certainly drop concepts A and C in favor of D and E, even if the math teachers believe that the original curriculum was superior. Keeping the original curriculum would put their students at a disadvantage on the state test vis-à-vis students at other schools that had aligned their curriculum to the test. This standardization might make sense in a world in which there was one right way to teach math, or at least one right order to teach concepts, but that is not the case.

Again, this isn’t to say that we should do away with testing entirely. As Robert Pondiscio recently wrote, standardized tests should be “used to illuminate and inform parent choice, but not to limit it.” Tests can provide valuable information, but using the tests as the sole or primary metric of performance does more harm than good. What’s needed is a more comprehensive understanding of quality that considers the needs of individual students, not just the “typical” student, and that’s something that parents are in a much better position to determine than technocrats.

The Potential of Parental Accountability

Parents are interested in more than scores. Parents consider a school’s course offerings, teacher skills, school discipline, safety, student respect for teachers, the inculcation of moral values and religious traditions, class size, teacher-parent relations, college acceptance rates, and more. Schools held directly accountable to parents, rather than technocrats, have to take all of these factors into account.

Of course, parents need information in order to make good decisions about their child’s education. Fortunately, research has shown that the vast majority of parents from all racial and socio-economic backgrounds are willing to take several steps in order to acquire that information. This is where independent organizations can satisfy parents’ demands for information with expert reviews and ratings and by providing platforms for parents and students to share their personal experiences:

Perhaps the most popular source of expert knowledge about college is the plethora of college ratings providers, such as U.S. News & World ReportPrinceton ReviewForbesKiplinger’s, and Business Insider. These ratings offer prospective students a variety of information about student outcomes, expected earnings, course offerings, campus life, and so on. No rating system is perfect, but parents and students can compare multiple ratings to get a clearer picture of the strengths and weaknesses of different colleges and figure out which features are most important for them. Some outfits even rate the raters.

Parents and students are also relying in increasing numbers on user reviews to find the information they seek. Sites like College Times, Students Review, Rate My Professors, and Get Educated provide a platform for students to share information about their actual experiences at the college they attended.

The K-12 education sector has historically lacked high-quality sources of information about school performance, but to a large extent that is because the vast majority of students attend their assigned district school. With little to no other educational options, there has bee little parental need for information to compare competing options. And without much in the way of competition, existing private schools don’t feel great pressure to be forthcoming about performance data. However, as states implement educational choice policies, the demand for information will increase and schools that refuse to share their data will be at a competitive disadvantage. We are already seeing parents to turn organizations like and to find information about schools they are considering and we should expect to see more organizations emerge as demand increases.

In the interim, we should avoid the technocratic temptation to have the government rate schools directly. We have no good reason to believe that the government will do a better job of assessing school quality than private, third-party reviewers. U.S. News & World Report may offer crummy ratings, but the solution is having more independent reviewers (as the market has provided) rather than crowding them out with a single government rating system that is subject to political pressures.

Parents are adept at holding schools accountable when they are empowered with choices and armed with information about their options. As Matthew Ladner has shown, Arizona parents voting with their feet closed down low-performing charter schools earlier and more often than state regulators:

Arizona parents seem extremely adept at putting down charter schools with extreme prejudice. Arizona parents detonate far more schools on the launching pad compared to the number we see bumbling ineffectively through the term of their charter to be shut by authorities (or to give up the ghost in year 14 in an ambiguous fashion). Both of these things happen, but the former happens with much greater regularity than the latter. Having a vibrant system of open enrollment, charter schools and some private school choice means that Arizona parents can take the view that life is too short have your child enrolled in an ineffective institution.

There is no panacea. There is no perfect information just as there are no perfect bureaucrats or, for that matter, perfect parents. The question before us is how to design a system with imperfect people and imperfect information that will come as close as possible to providing every child with access to a high-quality education. The technocratic approach empowers bureaucrats at the expense of parents, often eliminates their least-bad educational alternatives, and creates perverse incentives that narrow curricular options. By contrast, making education providers directly accountable to parents allows for a more comprehensive understanding of quality that considers the needs of individual students and fosters greater innovation and diversity.

Rather than attempting to design systems that override parental preferences, education reformers should focus their efforts on empowering parents with more choices and work to build institutions that will help them make more informed decisions.  

In the wake of the mistrial of police officer Michael Slager accused of shooting and killing unarmed Walter Scott as he ran away, a new Cato Institute/YouGov survey of public attitudes toward the police finds a 38-point gap between white and black Americans’ perception that police are too quick to resort to deadly force.

Nearly three-fourths (73%) of African Americans and 54% of Hispanics believe the police are “too quick to use deadly force,” compared to 35% of white Americans. Instead, 65% of white Americans believe police resort to lethal force “only when necessary.” 

When it comes to police tactics overall, black Americans (56%) are more likely to think they are “too harsh” compared to white (26%) and Hispanic (33%) Americans. Majorities of whites (67%) and Hispanics (58%) believe police generally use the right amount of force for each situation.

Find the full public opinion report here.

Is the Justice System Impartial? 

Only 17% of African Americans believe the criminal justice system treats all Americans equally and only 31% are highly confident their local police department treats all racial groups impartially. Whites are 32 points more likely to believe the justice system treats everyone equally (49%) and a solid majority (64%) are confident their local police are impartial. Hispanics fall in between with 27% who think the justice system and 42% who believe their local police treat everyone the same. Among all Americans, only 42% think all are treated equally by the justice system but 56% are highly confident their local police department treats everyone equally. 

Are Police Trustworthy and Held Accountable?

Strikingly high numbers of whites (46%), blacks (61%), and Hispanics (61%) think that “most” police officers “think they are above the law.” Overall, nearly half (49%) of all Americans worry that police think the law doesn’t entirely apply to them. 

Nearly two thirds (64%) of black Americans and a majority (51%) of Hispanic Americans believe police are “generally” not held accountable for misconduct when it occurs. This is 21 points higher than the 43% of white Americans who also share this view. Instead, a majority (57%) of whites think police are generally brought to account. 

Are Police Effective?

African Americans (41%) and Hispanics (41%) are twice as likely as white Americans (29%) to say they are “extremely” or “very” worried about crime. Furthermore black Americans (41%) are more than twice as likely as whites (17%) or Hispanics (15%) to say they know someone who was murdered.

Despite more salient fears over safety, only 44% of African Americans are highly confident their local police department responds quickly to a call for help. White Americans are 15 points more confident (59%) in their local police to come quickly if needed.  In a similar pattern, white Americans are about 20 points more likely than black Americans to give their local police high marks for protecting them from crime (60% vs. 38%) and enforcing the law (64% vs. 44%). Hispanics fall in between with about half who give their police high marks for enforcing the law, protecting them from crime, and responding promptly.

Do the Police Care About You?

Only 37% of African Americans are highly confident their local police department cares about the people they serve. White Americans (59%) are far more confident that their local police cares. A little less than half of Hispanic Americans (47%) agree.

Are the Police Courteous?

White Americans (62%) are 19 points more likely than African Americans (43%) and 13 points more likely than Hispanic Americans (49%) to rate their local police departments highly for being courteous.

White, Hispanic, and Black Americans Report Different Experiences with Police

Most Americans have personally had positive experiences with the police but those who have experienced verbal and physical misconduct are disproportionately black and Hispanic.

African Americans are nearly twice as likely as whites to say a police officer swore at them. About a quarter of African Americans (26%) and Hispanics (22%) report a police officer personally using abusive language or profanity with them compared to 15% of white Americans. The study also found some evidence that suggests whites who are highly deferential toward the police are less likely to report experiences with police profanity, whereas blacks and Latinos who are highly deferential do not report similarly improved treatment. [1] 

African Americans are about twice as likely as white Americans to know someone physically abused by police. Thirty-nine percent (39%) of African Americans know someone who has been physically mistreated by the police, as do 18% of whites and 27% of Hispanics.

Higher-income African Americans report being stopped at about 1.5 times the rate of higher-income white Americans. In contrast, lower income African Americans report being stopped only slightly more frequently than lower income white Americans.

African Americans (50%) are also about 30 points less likely than whites (70%) and Latinos (66%) to report being satisfied with their personal police encounters over the past 5 years.

Favorability Gap Toward Police Has Changed Little Over Past 50 Years

Taking these results together, it comes as little surprise that there is a wide racial gap in favorability toward the police.  Only 40% of black Americans have a favorable view compared to 68% of white Americans. Hispanic Americans fall in between with 59% who share a positive view of the police.

What is particularly surprising, however, is that these numbers haven’t changed much since 1970 when 67% of white Americans and 43% of African Americans had a favorable view of the police—nearly identical to today’s numbers.[2] 

Perceptions of Police Use of Force and Racial Bias Are Likely Key

In sum, African Americans and Latinos are less confident than whites that the police use appropriate force, are impartial, are competent, have integrity, are professional, care about them, and are held accountable.

While each of these perceptions matter, statistical tests reveal two perceptions are likely key drivers of African Americans’ confidence in the police: 1) perceptions of excessive use of force and 2) perceptions of racial bias.

These tests indicate that after controlling for the effects of these perceptions, African Americans are no less likely than whites or Hispanics to have favorable views of the police. (See Appendix J). In other words, results suggest if we were able to equalize or reduce the belief that the police use excessive force or are racially biased, the race gap in attitudes toward the police could very well disappear.

Certainly, we also want to improve perceptions of police effectiveness, accountability, integrity, and empathy. However, finding ways to minimize the amount of physical force police need to use and improving perceptions of police impartiality may prove most efficacious in restoring public confidence.

Americans Are Not “Anti-Cop”

It’s important to point out: although some groups have less positive views of the police, no group is “anti-cop.” You might expect a person who is “anti-cop” to want fewer police in their community.[3] But 9 in 10 Americans, regardless of race or ethnicity, oppose reducing the number of police officers in their communities. Instead, about half of blacks, whites, and Hispanics favor maintaining present levels and more than a third say their community needs more officers. Activists who call for “abolishing” or “defunding” the police may get media attention but are rare, and do not represent the views of very many people. Furthermore, 6 in 10 black, white, and Hispanic Americans all think police have “very dangerous jobs.”

Why We Should Care About the Confidence Gap in Police Performance

Confidence gaps in police come with consequences. Individuals with less favorable views of the police are less likely to “definitely” report a crime they witness. For instance, African Americans and Hispanics are more than 20 points less likely than white Americans to say they’d definitely report a crime. Among African American men making less than $30,000 a year, fewer than half are as confident they would do so. 

Effective policing depends on police and communities working together in a symbiotic relationship based on mutual respect and trust. The police are best able to safely and effectively serve and protect their communities when the residents freely cooperate with the police. And citizens are more willing to cooperate and help the police when they have confidence in them.[4] Moreover, public confidence in the police bolsters their legitimacy and by extension compliance with the law.[5]

Thus, regardless of one’s own experiences and views of police, these perception gaps alone merit our attention. It is important to improve relationships between police and communities they serve, or risk further eroding the legitimacy of the police and by extension the rule of law more generally.

Policing in America helps in this endeavor by carefully examining Americans’ perceptions of and experiences with law enforcement to help uncover why Americans think differently about the police. It also investigates and finds broad support for reforms that many believe can help improve police-community relations. You can find the full report here.


For public opinion analysis sign up here to receive Cato’s upcoming digest of Public Opinion Insights and public opinion studies.

The Cato Institute/YouGov national survey of 2000 adults was conducted June 6–22, 2016 using a sample drawn from YouGov’s online panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. YouGov uses a method called sample matching, and restrictions are put in place to ensure that only the people selected and contacted by YouGov are allowed to participate. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is +/-3.19 percentage points. The full report can be found here, toplines results can be found here, full methodological details can be found here.

[1] Data in this section come from the combined June 2016 and November 2015 national surveys (N=4000), which offer greater precision and smaller margins of error for subgroups. See the Survey Methodology for more information.

[2] Louis Harris and Associates Study No. 2043, 1970, cited in Michael J. Hindelang,” Public Opinion Regarding Crime, Criminal Justice, and Related Topics.”  Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 11 (1974):101-116.

[3] To be sure, advocates of shrinking police departments are not necessarily “anti-cop” either; however, it’s difficult to argue a person is if they do not want to cut the police force.

[4] See Linquiin Cao, James Frank, and Francis T. Cullen, “Race, Community Context and Confidence in the Police.”  American Journal of Police 15 (1996): 3-22. Tom Tyler, and Jeffrey Fagan, “Legitimacy and Cooperation: Why Do People Help the Police Fight Crime in Their Communities?”  Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law 6 (2008): 231-275; Andrew V. Papachristos, Tracey L. Meares, and Jeffrey Fagan, “Why Do Criminals Obey the Law? The Influence of Legitimacy and Social Networks on Active Gun Offenders,” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 102 No. 2 (2009): 397-440; Tom R. Tyler, “The Role of Perceived Injustice in Defendants’ Evaluations of Their Courtroom Experience,” Law & Society Review 18 (1984): 51-74; Tom Tyler, Why People Obey the Law (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006); Jonathan Blanks, “How Pretextual Stops Undermine Police Legitimacy,” Case W. Res. L. Review 66 (2016): 931-946.

[5] Andrew V. Papachristos, Tracey L. Meares, and Jeffrey Fagan, “Why Do Criminals Obey the Law? The Influence of Legitimacy and Social Networks on Active Gun Offenders,” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 102, no. 2 (2009): 397-440.

Today is Bill of Rights Day. So it’s an appropriate time to consider the state of our constitutional safeguards.

Let’s consider each amendment in turn.

The First Amendment says that “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech.” Government officials, however, have insisted that they can gag recipients of “national security letters” and censor broadcast ads in the name of campaign finance reform and arrest people for simply distributing pamphlets on a sidewalk.

The Second Amendment says the people have the right “to keep and bear arms.” Government officials, however, make it difficult to keep a gun in the home and make it a crime for a citizen to carry a gun for self-protection.

The Third Amendment says soldiers may not be quartered in our homes without the consent of the owners. This safeguard is one of the few that is in fine shape – so we can pause here for a laugh.

The Fourth Amendment says the people have the right to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures. Government officials, however, insist that they can conduct commando-style raids on our homes and treat airline travelers like prison inmates by conducting virtual strip searches.

The Fifth Amendment says that private property shall not be taken “for public use without just compensation.” Government officials, however, insist that they can use eminent domain to take away our property and give it to other private parties who covet it.  The Fifth Amendment also protects our right against self-incrimination, but government officials tell us lies and trick many people into waiving that right while they warn their own families to “lawyer up” immediately.

The Sixth Amendment says that in criminal prosecutions, the person accused is guaranteed a right to trial by jury. Government officials, however, insist that they can punish people who want to have a trial—“throwing the book” at those who refuse to plead guilty—which explains why 95 percent of the criminal cases never go to trial.

The Seventh Amendment guarantees the right to a jury trial in civil cases where the controversy “shall exceed twenty dollars.” Government officials, however, insist that they can impose draconian fines on people without jury trials.

The Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishments. Government officials, however, insist that a life sentence for a nonviolent drug offense is not cruel.

The Ninth Amendment says that the enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights should not be construed to deny or disparage others “retained by the people.” Government officials, however, insist that they will decide for themselves what rights, if any, will be retained by the people.

The Tenth Amendment says that the powers not delegated to the federal government are reserved to the states, or to the people. Government officials, however, insist that they will decide for themselves what powers they possess, and have extended federal control over health care, crime, education, and other matters the Constitution reserves to the states and the people.

It’s a disturbing snapshot, to be sure, but not one the Framers of the Constitution would have found altogether surprising. They would sometimes refer to written constitutions as mere “parchment barriers,” or what we call “paper tigers.” They nevertheless concluded that having a written constitution was better than having nothing at all.

The key point is this: A free society does not just “happen.” It has to be deliberately created and deliberately maintained. Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. To remind our fellow citizens of their responsibility in that regard, the Cato Institute has distributed more than six million copies of our pocket Constitution. At this time of year, it’ll make a great stocking stuffer.

Let’s enjoy the holidays (and remember many of the positive trends that are underway) but let’s also resolve to be more vigilant about defending our Constitution. To learn more about Cato’s work in defense of the Constitution, go here. To support the work of Cato, go here.

A majority of Americans (54%) say that police departments using military weapons and armored vehicles “goes too far.” Another 46% believe that police using military equipment is “necessary for law enforcement purposes,” according to a new Cato Institute/YouGov survey of 2,000 Americans.

Find the full public opinion report here.

Although Americans of different races and ethnicities vary widely in their perceptions of the police, majorities of whites (53%), blacks (58%), and Latinos (51%) all believe police using military equipment is excessive.

Police militarization divides partisans. Sixty percent (60%) of both Democrats and independents think that police using military equipment “goes too far” and 40% think it is necessary. In stark contrast, 65% of Republicans think police need to use military equipment while 35% think it’s unnecessary. Support for police militarization comes disproportionately from the “strong Republican” wing of the GOP with 71% in support, compared to 57% who agree among “not very strong” Republicans.

Opposition to police militarization brings together Libertarians and Liberals, groups identified according to our ideological typology. Fully 75% of liberals and 60% of libertarians think that police using military equipment “goes too far.” In contrast, Communitarians (social conservatives who support the welfare state) and Conservatives come together in their support for police using military equipment: 60% of Conservatives and 51% of Communitarians think it’s necessary.

Working class Americans, across all races and ethnicities, are more supportive (51%) of police using military weapons and armored vehicles than Americans with college degrees (42%). Instead, a majority (58%) of college graduates thinks it’s excessive.

Americans under 65 oppose militarization by a margin of 57% to 43%. However, seniors (65 and up) stand out with their comfort with police militarization: 61% believe it is necessary and 39% think it’s not.

We find that people disposed toward authority figures are most supportive of police militarization. Americans who score high (57%) on our Respect for Authority Index (RAI) are significantly more likely than those who score low (30%) to believe police need military weapons to do their jobs. Americans with greater skepticism towards authority are far more likely to believe military weapons are excessive (70%).

Notably, Americans who live in cities are no more likely than Americans living in suburban or rural areas to think it’s a good idea for police to use military equipment. Support also does not vary considerably by gender, income, or age for those under 55.

In sum, support for police militarization is less contingent on one’s environment, and more related to people’s dispositions toward authority—and by extension their political ideology. Americans with more respect for authority figures are more likely to believe that police (a trusted authority figure) would only use military equipment if it were necessary.

For public opinion analysis sign up here to receive Cato’s upcoming digest of Public Opinion Insights and public opinion studies.

The Cato Institute/YouGov national survey of 2000 adults was conducted June 6–22, 2016 using a sample drawn from YouGov’s online panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. YouGov uses a method called sample matching, and restrictions are put in place to ensure that only the people selected and contacted by YouGov are allowed to participate. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is +/-3.19 percentage points. The full report can be found here, toplines results can be found here, full methodological details can be found here.

I was saddened by the news of Ralph Raico’s passing on December 13.

At Cato summer seminars during the 1980s, he delivered fabulous lectures about the history of liberty and its adversaries. He focused on European intellectual history, the development of classical liberalism. He was clear, concise and passionate, and his talks sparkled with memorable details. I still cherish audio cassettes of those lectures.

Ralph attended the Bronx High School of Science, earned a B.A. at the City College of New York, and joined the New York libertarian underground during the 1950s. His friends included Ronald Hamowy, Leonard Liggio, George Reisman, Robert Hessen, and other eager students of liberty. For a while, Ralph and his group, calling themselves the “Circle Bastiat,” met for discussions with Ayn Rand’s group, “the Collective.” Ludwig von Mises invited Ralph to attend his graduate seminars at New York University. Ralph became a close friend of Murray and Joey Rothbard.

By 1960, Ralph was at the University of Chicago for a Ph.D. in intellectual history. F.A. Hayek was his thesis advisor. Ralph started a quarterly student journal called New Individualist Review and served as editor-in-chief. Each issue featured about a half-dozen articles. The first issue appeared in April 1961. The lead article was “Capitalism and Freedom” by Milton Friedman. The second issue featured “Freedom and Coercion” by Hayek. And so it went, a cavalcade of scholarly stars, including three future Nobel Laureates. The authors included George Stigler, Yale Brozen, Karl Brunner, Henry Hazlitt, W.H. Hutt, David Levy, Walter Oi, Sam Peltzman, Wilhelm Roepke, B. R. Shenoy, Gordon Tullock, Joe Cobb, and E.G. West, in addition to Hayek and Friedman. A few conservatives joined the fun, too—William F. Buckley, Jr., M. Stanton Evans, and Russell Kirk.

As it happened, in 1962, when I had to decide on a college, I received a subscription flyer for New Individualist Review. I was familiar with a number of the authors, because I had read issues of The Freeman that my father had in his home office, and they published some of the same authors. So, the University of Chicago was where I had to go. While many college kids did fraternities or football, I did NIR. I met Ralph, joined the staff of New Individualist Review, and altogether 17 issues were published. NIR involved insightful, inspiring and sometimes amusing exchanges among students and professors in history, economics, philosophy, science, law, and business. For better or worse, NIR was a spontaneous phenomenon that never focused on becoming an institution. Gradually, everybody got their degrees and moved on. I was the last editor-in-chief (1968).

Ralph had so much literary talent that there were hopes he might produce a glorious history of liberty, like Lord Acton talked so much about but never started. Alas, time slipped through their fingers and—for now—that big story is still out there.

Nonetheless, Ralph became known for elegantly-crafted articles, pamphlets, and chapter contributions that helped illuminate the history of liberty.

Ralph translated Mises’ 1927 book Liberalismus, an excellent basic statement of classical liberalism, into English (1962), and a number of publishers have reissued his splendid translation.

He also wrote:

  • Die Partei der Freiheit: Studien zur Geschichte des deutschen Liberalismus (1999), about the fateful struggles of German classical liberals during the 19th century.
  • The Place of Religion in the Liberal Philosophy of Constant, Tocqueville, and Lord Acton (2010), his University of Chicago Ph.D. thesis.
  • Classical Liberalism and the Austrian School (2012). 

Venezuela – ravaged by socialist policies, corruption, and incompetence – is currently embroiled in the world’s 57th episode of hyperinflation. Since the beginning of November, the bolivar has lost 55.2 percent of its value on the black market (read: free market), worsening the situation in a country in which wheelbarrows have already replaced wallets. So, on November 30th, Venezuelan officials announced a misguided and foolhardy plan to issue larger bills in an attempt to mitigate the damaging effects of its hyperinflation.

But why is the Banco Central de Venezuela (BCV) redenominating? Because if it doesn’t, then the people are stuck. If you go to a market in Caracas today, you either need a wheelbarrow of cash or bigger bills – much bigger. So, President Maduro and the BCV hope that, by printing 20,000-bolivar notes, they can skirt around the hyperinflation problem until it goes away. And that’s a mug’s game.

In the early 1990s, Yugoslavia tried to combat its own hyperinflation by printing larger bills, and it failed horribly. Yugoslavia’s heavy inflation continued throughout the ‘90s, and the dinar was devalued 18 times between 1991 and 1999, losing 22 decimal places of value along the way. Yugoslavia’s monetary orgy finally came to an end when the Topcider mint ran out of capacity. Yugoslavia’s 313,000,000 percent monthly inflation transformed 500-billion-dinar bills into small change before the ink had dried.

Redenomination does nothing if elevated inflation levels persist – as Zimbabwe’s infamous 100-trillion-dollar note demonstrates – and Venezuela will be no different. When inflation goes to the moon, you physically cannot redenominate bills fast enough – you can only add zeroes to notes so quickly. In consequence, you are ultimately left with valueless notes with many zeroes and a “wheelbarrow problem.” The issuance of higher-denomination bolivar notes isn’t the end of this episode, and it’s not the solution.

In fact, the only surefire solution is either to dump the bolivar and replace it with the U.S. dollar or make the bolivar a clone of the dollar via an orthodox currency board, in which the bolivar trades at a fixed rate with the U.S. dollar, is totally convertible with the U.S. dollar, and is completely backed by U.S. reserves.