Higher Learning


In which our man in Washington foregoes dirty talk for Tocqueville and finally learns what a wigwam is.

Subj: Tocqueville vs. S&M
Date: 3/27/01
From: mwlynch@reason.com

"Is it a matter of pride to you at Yale that one of your own has become president, and with so much loyal help from all of you?" Harvard government professor Harvey Mansfield asked the audience in a quarter-full auditorium. He'd come to the question period of his lecture on Alexis de Tocqueville and had just claimed that the electorate in a democracy plays a divine role, rewarding the virtuous in this life the way God does in the afterlife.

Considering it's an Ivy League university, Yale, where my wife teaches English and I spend half the month living in a dorm, has a surprisingly active intellectual climate. On a single day a few weeks back, I was able to catch Spike Lee attack the film biz and hear young fogey Jedediah Purdy discourse on the importance of being way too earnest.

When Mansfield came to town, I was forced to choose between his lecture, which he delivered in tandem with his wife, Delba Winthrop, and a presentation titled "Bondage, Domination, and S&M 101: What BDSM Has to Offer Even the Most Vanilla Couples." REASON Publisher Mike Alissi, who lives nearby in Connecticut, was in town, which may explain why I picked Tocqueville talk over dirty talk.

Mansfield and Winthrop have rec-ently completed the third-ever English translation of Democracy in America. "Most thinking people are either liberals or conservatives," said Winthrop, while Mike barely restrained himself from shouting out something about libertarians. "Most independents," she continued, "apart from standing apart from parties, pick unthinkingly from each of them, having their cake and eating it too."

Mansfield informed the audience that we need a really good translation of the book to understand the nuances of Tocqueville's profound, yet sometimes obscure, thought. He may be right: Tocqueville's big book gets quoted more than the Bible and only a little less than Seinfeld.

The famously conservative Mansfield last made the press when he claimed that Harvard's grade inflation was the product of its active recruitment of blacks rather than a response to uppity, upper-class white kids insisting on A's. His missus, it turns out, is no slouch in the controversial quip category either: "American men are too busy to have great romances," she said in a sweeping style worthy of Tocqueville. Mansfield stood next to her smiling and didn't seem to mind. Maybe he knows something Delba doesn't.

Subj: Opening day subsidies
Date: 4/03/01
From: mwlynch@reason.com

When one hears Canada being held up as an example of solid economic policy, it's a sure sign that something, somewhere, is going awfully wrong. Even stranger: On this, the opening day of baseball season, Canada was being praised at the Cato Institute, during a forum on publicly funded sports stadiums. "Canada has been tough lately, saying no to professional sports teams," said Raymond J. Keating, head economist of the Small Business Survival Committee, a hilariously named group that attacks government spending like the plague. "Kudos to Canada, at least on that."

Publicly funded sports stadiums are like crack cocaine to local politicians and business bigwigs. These folks are just like addicts: They deceive everyone around them for the sake of a fix and rarely take no for an answer when voters decline to subsidize their schemes. Instead, they resort to theft—in the form of dubious hotel, sales, and other taxes—to pay for their fix, forcing citizens who couldn't care less about sports to subsidize teams.

Owners are getting greedy when it comes to publicly financed stadiums. The Mets not only want a retractable roof, but a retractable field as well. Ditto for the Yankees, the Phillies, the Cardinals, and the Padres. "If you look at all these efforts," said Keating, who confessed to loving sports, just not taxpayer-financed sports stadiums, "it could cost $5 billion in the next few years, with taxpayers being on the hook for $3 billion of it."

D.C. still mourns the loss of its Sen-ators, that great legendary laughingstock team, and the move is on to bring baseball back inside the Beltway. President Bush, who owes his fortune to his piece of a publicly funded stadium in Texas, is so eager to get the national pastime back in town that he's hosting monthly tee-ball games in his backyard (it's like the Senators never left!). D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams has vowed to bring a team to the city, and the power brokers in Northern Virginia are eager to issue revenue-backed bonds to build a stadium.

Stephen S. Fuller, the hired rationalizer for the Northern Virginia big shots, was on hand for the Cato panel. Fuller, who teaches economics at George Mason University, claims that a stadium would actually be a money-maker for Virginia taxpayers. Fuller doesn't have a problem with governments being active players in arranging local economies, whether we're talking tax incentives to high-tech firms or dumping billions of dollars into projects like the D.C. Convention Center. He even indicated that voters shouldn't be allowed to veto stadium and convention-center projects that experts deem to be in the best interests of everyone. "This is new spending," he said cheerfully, of the $200 million the Virginia government plans to spend one day on its stadium.

Since this was Cato, Fuller was outnumbered three to one. Dennis Coates, an economist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, was the toughest adversary. He employed a PowerPoint presentation to expose the flaws common to the studies that justify public financing of stadiums. "If you hire a contractor, what would you call it?" he asked. "A cost, right? The state calls it a benefit." Coates also helpfully explained the technical term "opportunity cost," which he says the studies rarely account for. "Most people understand opportunity cost at an intuitive level," he said, perhaps thinking of his wife. "If I'm laying on the couch drinking a beer, then I can't be mowing the lawn."

Fuller retorted that he didn't need to account for opportunity costs, since the bonds are revenue-backed and therefore don't crowd out other meritorious public investment. Said Fuller, "There's no limit to revenue-backed bonds, so long as you have the revenue."

Yet Coates wouldn't budge from his contention that the joy of stadiums doesn't stem from a stimulation of local economies. In a study of 37 cities that funded stadiums, he found no economic benefits to the communities. Not surprisingly, it's the owners and players who make out.

That said, Coates didn't categorically rule out publicly financed stadiums altogether. Using Baltimore's Camden Yards ballpark as an example, he said it cost, on average, $14 a year per person in the metropolitan statistical area. "If that's worth it to you, then you should support it."

Subj: It's about freedom
Date: 4/04/01
From: mwlynch@reason.com

Theodore J. Forstmann made a triumphant return to the National Press Club. It was there three years ago that the New York financier announced the formation of the Children's Scholarship Fund, which raised $200 million to provide partial private school scholarships to 40,000 low-income children, including 400 here in the District of Columbia. He was surprised, and then inspired, when more than 1 million families applied for the scholarships.

Today he announced a new group, Parents in Charge, and a new national campaign. On hand: Joseph Califano Jr., secretary of health, education, and welfare during the Carter years; Martin Luther King III; Guy Doud, the 1986 National Teacher of the Year; and Rose Blassingame, whose inspiring efforts to educate her grandchildren in D.C. are chronicled in my January 2000 article, "Rampaging Toward Choice."

Forstmann is launching a major campaign to educate parents on their right to choose where their children attend school. "It will look like a national political campaign without a candidate," said Forstmann, explaining a model that might work well for the next presidential election. "The idea is to get millions of parents to join us and demand the rights they once enjoyed and were taken away from them."

The press conference was filled with hyperbole and a bit of insight (making it, on balance, distinct from most such events). Califano praised Forstmann for providing "a cry in the wilderness of a desolate public education system in this country." Guy Doud provided some well-rehearsed humor, thanking the moderator for getting his name right: "Recently I was introduced and they called me 'gay dude.'" "We need more choices," he said. "I love coming to a city like D.C. I'm from a small city in Minnesota where we have a small number of restaurants. Here I can have Indian and [other ethnic foods]. We need that choice in education." Martin Luther King III brought it back to Pops. "My father really challenged America to be a better nation," said King. "We are challenging our educational system to be the best it can become. We are nowhere near that today."

Rose Blassingame, bless her heart, followed her prepared remarks with a lecture on the cultural bias of the Stan-ford 9, a widely used standardized test that her granddaughter Lapria was scheduled to suffer through today. Having helped her granddaughter study for the test, Rose said that urban, low-income kids don't necessarily know what a pond is. When Lapria thinks of water, she thinks only of a river. Rose was appalled that although everyone knows Indians lived in teepees, the test called them wigwams.

Forstmann made it clear that he wants to remake the American K-12 education system in the image of higher education, which relies on large amounts of government funding but competes for students, reputation, and market share. He was less clear, however, in the Q&A, where he played coy on many details.

"I haven't heard the word yet; are we talking vouchers?" asked a reporter from Congressional Quarterly.

"I'm not," replied Forstmann. "Voucher has become such a dirty word. Voucher is just a way of paying for something. We are talking about having families reassume the rights that have been taken away from them. It's not about vouchers. It's about freedom."

Yeah, the freedom to use a voucher. A reporter from Cox News Service suggested Forstmann might call it a Pell Grant. Now there's an idea that just might work.