Monday, August 31, 2009

Subsidizing the Common Good II: Education (Reprise)

An astute reader reminded me that my post didn't provide an alternative to the higher education system.

Like unto the situation with pollution, the problem with the education system is subsidies. Anyone involved in mercy ministry of any kind knows that the stated needs are endless and the resources available to meet them are limited: how does one decide who is truly needy and who gets what? Voluntary philanthropic organizations have few resources and thus are on the watch for fraud and inefficiency, but they still make mistakes. How much greater are the stated needs and temptation for fraud going to be when the "benefactor" can expropriate the resources it distributes! Where fewer resources are available, needy people look for alternatives, including making do with what they have.

So, as with pollution, I don't know what would happen if the government got entirely out of the education business. But it's reasonable to assume that there would be fewer teachers and students in the kinds of situations currently subsidized, i.e., brick-and-mortar schools, and more people learning in apprenticeships and, more importantly, ways I'd never think of. Again, eight billion people would be working on the problem and treating each other as equals in the process; a smaller number of politicians and tenured bureaucrats would not be using other people's money.

Most importantly, we would be free of the end-justifies-the-means morality that undergirds the present system.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Subsidizing the Common Good II: Education

Supporters of government-funded education—including but not limited to schools, loans for postsecondary education, and job-training programs—claim that it enables children from poorer families to get good jobs; without it, these kids would be stuck in dead-end, mind-numbing jobs that don’t pay enough for them to live decently, let alone build the capital necessary to learn more lucrative work or start their own businesses.

John Perkins, a black man with a lifetime of experience helping the poor, famously remarked that giving food subsidies in the form of welfare checks and food stamps to poor blacks did not help them escape poverty; instead, the money went straight into the pockets of the businessmen they patronized. The same holds true with subsidized education.

Let’s begin with student loans. I am less than objective about this subject because I have two daughters, aspiring professional musicians, who are up to their eyeballs in debt for college and grad school. Music jobs are scarce, and you have to beat dozens of competitors land one.

We can make some safe assumptions: most of those auditioning have taken on debt to acquire the training needed even to compete for the opening; those whose families could afford to send them to music camps and the best private teachers during pre-college years are more likely to win; those who don’t get the job will be doing something other than performing music to earn the money to pay off their loans; and those fallback jobs will be less rewarding than not only performing but also other activities the musician could have been trained for.

What can we conclude but that it is the education establishment and the loan companies, not the students, who benefit most from the loans? Remember: the purpose of the subsidy is to increase the number of students, whether or not there are openings for them to fill after they graduate: “Hey, the money’s there—go for it.” More students mean more money for the educators and the loan sharks. If the student is happy to study and pay off the loan, then the loan has achieved its goal. But while the few who do land jobs will be poster children for the program, for the many whose hopes were falsely raised, the result is time wasted in vain pursuit of the dream and time lost drudging to pay off the loan.

Music is an extreme example, but psychology, political science, and a host of other majors boast graduates working in call centers and other jobs that use only skills taught in middle school. And the cliché about engineers selling hot dogs didn’t come from nowhere.

Furthermore, much time after middle school is spent in “you need this to graduate and it might come in handy someday” subjects. I got good grades in school, and I even successfully factored a polynomial in a housebuilding project a few years ago. But I am also making fewer inflation-adjusted dollars now as a computer geek than I did at seventeen as a bicycle mechanic (unless you count health insurance), while “dummies” and dropouts from my secondary school years are running their own sand and gravel or plumbing or auto repair businesses.

In short, many of the diplomas made possible by government subsidies are simply proof to prospective employers that the holder can spend a decade or two obeying commands to engage in fruitless activity—precisely what is needed for dead-end, mind-numbing jobs.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Subsidizing the Common Good I: Pollution

King Midas found out the hard way that getting what he wanted didn’t take him where he wanted to go. Like Midas, supporters of government subsidies see a desirable end, providing for the common good. And their means to that end is expropriating (literally, taking from the proper owner) the fruits of other people’s labor. I will show in this series that even if ends could justify means, the true end of the government subsidy process is always a flesh-and-blood daughter turned to gold.

Most people consider roads second only to law enforcement as the most essential provision of government: only the government can build roads (also rail lines, airports, etc.) to serve the common need for transportation. Without government, specifically its ability to force recalcitrant citizens off their property through eminent domain, the road system would be much smaller than it is.

While roads enable inexpensive and convenient transportation, they also require vehicles, which consume resources and pollute, not only directly on the job but also when they and their fuels are being produced and waste products disposed of.

Cheap and flexible transportation allows people to travel farther and more frequently, which increases the incentive for governors to build more and wider roads. This has snowballed so that today life in urban areas is practically impossible without cars: even people who bicycle whenever possible need cars. And any threat to the supply of raw materials is a threat to the society itself, hence the incentive to invade faraway countries—war is yet another source of pollution—to keep the supplies flowing.

Another “necessary” government service is garbage and sewage disposal, which makes the production of both less expensive, thus facilitating the throwaway lifestyle. If people had to pay the true, higher cost of sewage disposal, they would have less money to spend on things they eventually throw away. If they had to pay the true cost of garbage disposal, they would be looking for ways to cut down on single-use items and packaging, and they would factor disposal into their purchase costs. They would avoid early obsolescence and look for ways to reduce, reuse, and recycle—not because the long nose of the law was poking into their private lives but because they would have more money for what they really valued if they produced less garbage. The market would give farmers and gardeners more incentive to compost and to buy pure food garbage and processed sewage instead of chemical fertilizers.

What about the capitalists who dump as much pollution in an hour as most people do in a year? Here again we see subsidies at work. The capitalists dump pollution in places that “everybody owns,” bodies of water and the air. Because what everyone owns no one owns, the pollution level will always be what the politically powerful deem expedient, and we can expect those who profit from the polluting enterprise to subsidize it by looking the other way.

And big government’s record regarding pollution enforcement is hardly stellar, as exemplified by the Chernobyl and Bhopal disasters. Each directly killed thousands of people, but those responsible suffered no drastic consequences.

Human life produces waste and garbage that have to go somewhere. In a private property and contract order, if I want to dump chemicals on your land or in your river—yes, rivers should be owned—I need your prior permission or it’s no deal. The same with the air. Your property is yours, and only you can decide how much pollution you will tolerate. You can decide whether you will serve yourself and your neighbors better by maintaining a pristine wilderness or a waste disposal facility.

What a society without government-subsidized roads and waste disposal would look like, I don’t know. But I think eight billion people treating each other as equals can produce a better one than can a few thousand politicians and bureaucrats acting with impunity.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Busybody Society

The headline in yesterday’s local paper was, “Naked Stroll Ends in Pot Probation.” According to the story, some upstanding citizen looked out his car window and saw a naked man walking in the woods, so he made a U-turn to investigate and called the police, who followed their dogs to the man’s house and found marijuana growing in his garden. The story doesn’t tell us whose woods he was walking in, but they clearly didn’t belong to the driver. The landowner wasn’t complaining.

This is another place where I’m less than objective. If I had to come up with a short list of ways I’d like to spend ten minutes, skinny dipping in the woods would be on it. I wouldn’t want to be the cause of someone’s death from laughter or being grossed out, so I’d be more careful than this fellow was to stay out of the sight of the righteous, but come on—is some fruity nut (we’re despised, but we’re nutritious) walking around naked in the woods something to call the police about? And by the time the police arrived, the guy had gone home: end of transgression. So why did they need to chase him?

I know nakedness is dangerous: whenever I see some of the girls in my church narthex, I struggle not to envy the pendants nestled in their cleavages. Maybe I should call the police.

But all’s well that ends well, apparently—they found marijuana in his garden. Horrors! No one but Nature Boy knew the plants existed before then, so it isn’t like they were searching for the source of some known distress. Maybe growing pot is dangerous because it’s related to walking around naked. Or maybe some people have too much time on their hands.

The article also disturbed me because, while it named the naked man, it didn’t name the driver. Doesn’t common decency require that if you name one party in a dispute you name them both? If you’re going to name the villain, shouldn’t you name the hero? Today’s paper did the same thing: it named some woman accused—accused, not convicted, mind you—of trying to kill her pets and herself. Did it name her accusers? Ha! So this woman’s name and picture are on the front page, but her accusers are safely anonymous. Let’s play a little Golden Rule game: would you like your face and name on the front page as the result of an anonymous accusation? If you were guilty, wouldn’t you want to deal with your victims in private?

We Westerners think of ourselves as individuals who value privacy, but the driver’s actions, and those of the police and the newspaper, prove to me that we don’t. I’m told that in Japan, in the days of literal paper walls, it was the height of rudeness to acknowledge having heard anything of a conversation in the next room. Houses with more than one room are comparatively rare in human history, so I would guess that most babies ever born were conceived in rooms with more than two awake people in them. Most people know to keep their noses out of other people’s business. But we can’t look the other way when someone is alone naked in the woods and growing weeds in his garden.

I know pendants with more sense.