Yi! Interviews: Neil Ruddock on Education Reform


Image via PolitiFact
Image via PolitiFact

Editor’s note: Education reform has received a great deal of attention from politicians, business leaders, and celebrities. To learn more about the topic, Yi! News spoke with Neil Ruddock, a State Advocacy Director for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. (Full disclosure: Ruddock is Contributing Editor Brian’s brother.) Neil’s resume includes stints as a congressional staffer, consultant for Educational Testing Service, and Policy Advisor for the Indiana Department of Education. He holds a Master’s Degree in Government from Johns Hopkins University and a BA in Government from the University of Notre Dame.

Yi! News: We’re seeing the topic of education come up a lot. Fortune 500 executives are talking about it. The president dedicated several lines of his State of the Union Address to it. Why now?

Neil Ruddock: First of all, you have a realization that the notion of a good-paying, low-skill job that you can support a family on is largely a thing of the past. Increased education is crucial. That doesn’t mean everyone coming out of our system has to get a degree from a Yale or a Harvard, or even have a four year degree necessarily. But for most of the jobs providing a livable wage, a 12-year education won’t do it. There needs to be some sort of formal, post-high school education.

A lot of folks will start post-secondary and not be prepared for it. So not only will they not finish, but they’ll wind up with a lot of debt on top of it. That’s not sustainable for the economy in the long term.

Yi!: So for those of our readers who don’t actively follow education policy, can you provide a quick definition of charter schools and vouchers?

Ruddock:  A charter school is public school that walks, talks, acts like, and is recognized as, a public school. The key difference between a charter and traditional public school is that charters, by and large, aren’t subject to collective bargaining. For the most part, charter schools are run by folks who don’t want to be tied down by the regulations that come with collective bargaining.

Vouchers provide public funding that allows a student to attend a public or private school they may otherwise not be able to afford. In practice, they’re generally used at private schools, but state laws usually allow them to be used at public schools. The number of regulations that a private school has to implement to accept vouchers varies state by state.

Yi!: Both Republicans and Democrats agree that there has to be reform, and they seem to have some common ground. Yet nothing of significance has been passed. What are the main sources of disagreement?

Ruddock: No Child Left Behind has not been renewed, to be sure, but I don’t think it’s accurate to say that nothing of significance has passed. Race to the Top pushed states to start taking meaningful steps towards reform, but implementing those reforms is hard work.

Efforts to pay the best teachers more; to make layoff decisions based on merit, or lack thereof, rather than seniority, are going to be controversial because they get at the current power structure, where unions have built in protection for members as a justification for membership. This isn’t to say they’re the source of all issues. We still have school boards and superintendents that allow a lot of these harmful provisions in there. It takes two to tango. So there are some serious structural issues that get in the way of progress.

Yi!: You mentioned some unwise policies like seniority-based firing. What are some of the most ill-advised rules or laws you’ve come across?

Ruddock: Before we worked on reform, the collective bargaining agreement for one of the largest districts in Indiana had a rule that when two teachers being considered for a layoff had the same seniority, they’d add up the last four digits of each teacher’s Social Security number. The one with the lowest sum was let go. You’d have other places where maybe one teacher’s last name started with an “R”, and the other started with a “B”, and the teacher with the “R” name was let go. So you had all kinds of things that were really harmful to students. Several Teacher of the Year candidates were laid off, because there was no evaluation system, no baseline, in place.

Yi!: It seems that there’s a lot of opposition around metrics for teachers. Do you think the main problem critics have is with quantification overall, or with specific methodologies and how the numbers are calculated?

Ruddock: What you’ve highlighted is the difference between teachers and teachers unions. I think you have a lot of teachers one hundred percent comfortable being evaluated with some objective measures. When the rubber meets the road of implementation, the unions are not as comfortable including test-score data as many of their members are.

Evaluation is still in its early stages. I don’t think anyone thinks one metric, one test score should determine things. Any class can have a bad test on a particular day. But in guarding against that, you can’t say “Does the teacher try hard?,”  “Do they have good relationship with the students?,”  etc…some of those soft variables that take focus away from whether or not the students are actually learning. But there’s a lot of work still to be done.

Yi!: President Obama mentioned in his State of the Union address the need for increased federal education funding, specifically for lowering student loan interest rates and providing more tuition subsidies. Critics point out that such policies have contributed to increasing tuition costs. Do you agree with this critique?

Ruddock: There’s a fair argument to be made there, that you’re feeding the beast. The reality is that both student financial aid spending and tuition rates have gone up by a significant amount.

Yi!: Some of the calls for reform, particularly from pundits on the right, have revolved around using education to reduce the deficit. Do you think it’s more important to cut the waste from education, or to just “get it right” with existing funds?

Ruddock: State budgets are written by legislators, and they have many priorities to balance when they write those budgets. Dollars have just been poured at the same system rather than using the extra money for structural reform. My position, and the position of my organization, is if a state wants to spend more money on education, where is it being put? To help truly good teachers be paid well? To help kids improve their reading skills? Or is it simply going into the existing system that pays based on tenure and how many degrees a teacher has? If it’s the latter, we’re missing a huge opportunity.

As far as how it plays into deficit reduction, entitlements are the main drivers of the deficit. It’s confusing as to why the same folks who want more money in the same system, ala teachers unions, why aren’t they more in favor of entitlement reform? The tragedy is that Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, etc. will swallow programs like education.

I struggle to understand why those who advocate for more education funding are so hesitant to challenge the seniors lobby and join the effort to reform entitlements. They have nothing to lose, because the dirty secret is that senior citizens vote even in low-turnout elections., i.e. elections where many school levies fail.

At day’s end, education spending is something that is threatened by the deficit–not something that drives it.

Yi!: You deal with politicians on a daily basis. Who are some Republicans and Democrats that are getting education reform “right”?

Ruddock: On the GOP side, [Louisiana Governor] Bobby Jindal has been very emphatic about doing what’s right for students. [Former Indiana Governor] Mitch Daniels took a very aggressive stance and didn’t apologize for it. He really provided cover to people that were doing the tough but necessary work. As far as Democrats go, a lot of interesting things are coming out of Colorado. Governor Hickenlooper is willing to have the hard conversations. [Chicago Mayor] Rahm Emmanuel, who has a steeper hill to climb because of how powerful unions are there, has worked very hard to push for reform.

Yi!: We tend to think of reform as just happening through public or government channels, but we’ve seen the private sector come up with the concept of MOOC’s, or massive open online courses. Do you think MOOC’s are a real game-changer, or more just something that can help out on the margins?

Ruddock: It remains to be seen, but I think it will fundamentally alter the higher-ed market. It won’t eviscerate the brick-and-mortar model necessarily, but you have a system where the cost increases have been outpacing ability of customer base to pay for some time now. Whether it will happen in two, five, or ten years is open for debate. What is clear is that the current higher-ed model is unsustainable. So I think MOOC’s will have a significant impact.

Yi!: Any closing thoughts?

Ruddock: What I would point out is that at a broad level, there’s a lot of money, there’s a lot of turf, and the folks that want to protect that turf have been better informed and active than the regular citizens. Somehow, someway, those numbers have got to start shifting in order to make reform sustainable.

Say what you will about legislators, but they know how to count votes. It’s one thing to make a difficult vote. It’s another thing to make a suicidal vote. The more your average citizen follows these things, the better. Policy change doesn’t happen in a vacuum.


State of the Union, Tea Party Response Detail Fault Lines


Image via Business Insider
Image via Business Insider

President Barack Obama made last Tuesday what many are considering to be one of the most liberal State of the Union addresses in history. Obama advocated an extensive second-term agenda and, despite brief rhetoric to the contrary, defended big government as an answer to our ailments.

The media largely seems to have focused on Senator Marco Rubio’s (R-FL) infamous “water-gaffe”. (Rubio gave the Republican Party’s response to the SOTU, as is tradition for the opposition party.) Rubio’s gaffe was unimportant, and anyways, his speech wasn’t much different from most opposition speeches: light on detail and entirely uncontroversial.

Lost in all of this was that Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) delivered a speech that showed the points of divergence between today’s two major governing theories: Obama’s blue-model liberalism and the Tea Party’s neo-constitutionalism. Whether because of 2016 presidential rumors or as his influence as a sitting senator, Paul is worth paying attention to.

The differences in theories have been split into four major categories: the purpose and size of government, the role of the executive, the budget, and new policies proposed. For each, we’ll examine a relevant quote from both Obama’s and Paul’s speeches.



This country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and future generations; that our rights are wrapped up in the rights of others; and that…it remains the task of us all, as citizens of these United States, to be the authors of the next great chapter in our American story


What America needs is not Robin Hood but Adam Smith. In the year we won our independence, Adam Smith described what creates the wealth of nations. He described a limited government that largely did not interfere with individuals and their pursuit of happiness.

Obama ties the concept of obligations into citizenship: as someone living in this country, there are things you must do because the state’s functioning requires it. He speaks of joint responsibility, collective action, and a shared future. Paul instead focuses on prosperity through freedom; we thrive because of individuals seeking their own ends. Obama makes a subtle rip on individual liberty (“our rights are wrapped up in the rights of others”), which is a common argument against the sort of individualism, or natural-rights based government, Paul seeks. Essentially, the argument goes, no man exists in a vacuum, so your right to pursue your own ends will often come into conflict with my right to prosper.



…if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations [from climate change], I will. I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take.


We cannot and will not allow any President to act as if he were a king.

Obama believes that in many debates, there is Right and Wrong, or Good and Evil, and that sometimes politics prevent people from doing the right thing. Thus, the President can and should do whatever is possible to make sure Right prevails.

Paul, by contrast, is extremely sensitive to executive overreach. As a member of the legislative branch, he is offended by the notion that an executive thinks he can bring a certain piece of legislation to the floor, or demand he vote a certain way. This is similar to government power in that Obama takes a very end-centric view: we do whatever we need to to achieve the best result. Paul is more sensitive to rule of law concerns, in which it is crucial to respect existing procedures and limitations.



These sudden, harsh, arbitrary [sequester] cuts would jeopardize our military readiness. They’d devastate priorities like education, energy, and medical research.


The President does a bit “woe is me” over the sequester…the sequester doesn’t even cut any spending. It just slows the rate of growth. Even with the sequester, government will grow over $7 trillion over the next decade.

The sequester was essentially a “poison pill”; if the two parties couldn’t come up with enough deficit reduction, automatic cuts to both military and domestic spending would kick in. The thinking was that Republicans wouldn’t want the military cuts, and Democrats wouldn’t want domestic cuts, so both parties would be pressured to cooperate.

Obama is trying to press Republicans here by mentioning the military cuts first. Some Republicans think military spending is sacrosanct; Paul is not one of them, so he doesn’t take the bait.

The president sees a lot of good being done by spending that would be cut as a result of sequestration. He’s less worried about deficits, since America is still the world’s reserve currency; the debt is something that may or may not come to bear, whereas these cuts will definitely cut important programs.

Paul’s take is that the budget will grow regardless, and that we need to start having honest conversations about what a “cut” really is.


Obama proposes, among other things: a government-written “college scorecard”; tax reform that hikes rates on millionaires; executive action to combat climate change; a public-private “energy security trust” to reduce oil consumption; federal subsidies for states that build energy efficient buildings; increased pre-K funding; an increased minimum wage; a voting-rights commission that would enforce its recommendations at the state level; American assistance in the eradication of global poverty and AIDS.

Paul’s major proposal was a Balanced Budget Amendment coupled with a budget that will balance the budget in five years. He also advocates for greater government transparency, school vouchers, cessation of foreign aid to countries hostile to us, and a flat tax.

Each politician’s policy prescriptions are reflective of their overarching philosophies. The president wishes to use the government’s considerable power to solve everything from climate change to poverty. Paul wants to narrow the focus of our activities and let the private sector work its magic. Obama’s proposals would require a considerable increase in taxes and the size of government; just about all of Paul’s proposals involve shrinking government influence.

These speeches represent a fascinating philosophical contrast; they’re likely a good indicator of the lines along which the 2016 presidential race will be fought (even if Paul is not a candidate). Both were direct, ideological, and aggressive. They present us with a real contrast that makes us think about the role we want government to play. This is what our political discourse should resemble.

The Perils of “Do Something” Governance


There is an impulse among our citizenry to demand action in the wake of any perceived tragedy or crisis. Usually fueled by one noteworthy event, the subsequent furor often leads to “national conversations” accompanied by expansive legislation.

The arenas of these flashpoints are foreign and domestic. They range from school shootings to eighth graders’ math test scores; from climate change to foreign insurgencies. In each instance, the bad news story is apparently indicative of systemic problems with catastrophic consequences, barring government action.


(Image via)

There is certainly a logical element to this thinking. In our personal lives, after all, when we detect a problem, we generally go about to solve it. We act quickly and expect others to do so, be they friends, colleagues, or ourselves. And this usually leads to positive outcomes.

However effective in our own lives, though, such action when executed by government is often quite harmful. Politicians, while often well-intentioned, are subject to influences that cloud their judgement. The instinct for political survival is as strong as any. (According to the Center for Responsive Politics, House incumbent re-election rates have ranged from 88%-98% since 1990.) Hastily-crafted, far-reaching legislation passed in response to supposedly urgent crises creates myriad issues, especially in regards to cost, restrictions of freedom, and unintended consequences.

History is replete with examples of heavy-handed, ill-fated government interference in response to crises. As Robert Higgs of The Independent Institute notes in his book Delusions of Power, ”Crisis…produces a virtual free-for-all of policies, programs, and plans that expand the government’s power in new directions and strengthen it where it previously existed in a weaker form.” (p. 80).

Consider the following examples:

Ronald Reagan and the war on drugs: For over the first hundred years of America’s existence, what individuals put into their own bodies was none of the government’s business for the purpose of criminal law. The Founding Fathers, often depicted as demigods by Republicans, made no attempt to ban individual consumption. Yet in 1986, modern GOP hero Ronald Reagan went on national TV declaring that illegal narcotics were a national security threat. “Crack babies”, destruction of the family, and drug-fueled gang violence threatened the country’s moral fiber, and action was demanded.

Reagan stepped up interdiction efforts through his newly created Office of National Drug Control Policy, which houses the DEA. In fiscal 2012, ONDCP spent $25.2 billion on prevention and enforcement. The US now has the highest imprisonment rate among industrialized countries. Many prisoners, particularly minorities, are nonviolent offenders who used or dealt minimal amounts of marijuana. (Pot is now classified as a Stage One drug, on par with heroin.) Citizens with chronic ailments are forbidden from alleviating their pain. Raids are conducted regularly on Americans’ homes.

In addition to the loss of liberty and money, the crisis-inspired drug war has led to an appalling loss of life. Former Mexican President Felipe Calderon pinned the blame of much of Mexico’s 50,000+ gang-related deaths on America’s drug prohibition.

Uninsured Americans and the Affordable Care Act: Facing a mounting debt and fighting two wars, the Obama administration and others focused on the supposed crisis of Americans without health insurance. Respected news outlets spoke of 44 or more million uninsured Americans, vulnerable should they become ill. Additionally, health care costs were rising, increasing nearly tenfold from 1980 to 2010. After gathering support, the Democratic congress passed a 2,000 page bill that would apparently provide coverage to all Americans while simultaneously driving down costs.

As it turned out, the 44 million figure was incorrect, as it included non-citizens and individuals who could afford health insurance but chose not to buy it. The actual number was closer to eight million, and even that didn’t account for people who lacked insurance but could still access emergency services. The bill was later shown to lack the ability to even cover that many recipients, as its complicated structure of penalties, taxes, and regulations created an unpredictable set of responses. Similarly, the supposed cost savings turned out to be bogus. Economist Veronique de Rugy of George Mason University noted that 2011 healthcare costs rose 4.6 percent in 2011.

Cost overruns and excessive mandates stymieing small businesses were bad enough, but were also accompanied by a trampling of numerous parts of the Constitution. The Act confers to the state the ability to levy a tax for just about any reason it wants, and will make the creation of more bureaucracies that much easier.

9/11 and the anti-terror state: The bombing of the World Trade Center was an unspeakable tragedy. US policymakers were certainly justified in pursuing a focused, timely, and limited military action to subdue the forces responsible and lessen the chances of a repeat occurrence. But Americans were scared; we clung to government as the guarantor of our absolute safety. As such, the Bush administration sensed (correctly) that it had the political capital to pursue a far-reaching agenda at home and abroad.

Stateside, Bush created the Department of Homeland Security, combining 22 federal agencies into one cabinet-level bureaucracy with a FY 2012 budget of $56.9 billion. He nationalized airport security, giving the Transportation Security Administration new authority and more money. For that, Americans now have the pleasure of enduring embarrassing and/or harmful screenings that do little to improve our safety.

Americans’ constitutional rights and privacy were trampled by the creation of the Patriot Act, which, among other things, allows DHS to monitor our communications without a search warrant. Pressed recently by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), the department couldn’t even provide an estimate of how many Americans have been spied on by their own government.

Abroad, the US fought wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that are responsible for over 4,500 US deaths and 1,500 amputations. They have caused tremendous suffering among even the uninjured soldiers forced to serve multiple tours of duty and placed strain on their families. Combined, CBO estimates the wars to have cost over $1.7 trillion. Gideon Rose of Foreign Affairs magazine called the Iraq War “one of the oldest and most straightforward stories in the book-a classic realist cautionary tale of unchecked power leading to hubris, then folly, then nemesis.”  (How Wars End, p. 266)

The above are only a very small sample of this prevalent phenomenon. As citizens, we need to recognize the history and anticipate the consequences. Rather than giving into the logical desire to throw our hands up and make someone fix every ailment in our society, we should look for remedies outside of government action.

What They’re Saying About Christie’s Keynote Speech


Yi! News did not receive press passes to this year’s RNC, so we’ll leave it to the “experts” to let us know how Governor Chris Christie did last night. Here’s what some of them had to say in the hours after the keynote speech was delivered.

  • “Christie’s approach was a marked departure from previous Republican keynote addresses, which have often featured a rising politician willing to blast the Democratic nominee. Christie, for his part, did not mention President Obama by name. Instead, his 2,600-word speech introduced the country to his singular brand, which blends a brusque rhetorical style with a reform agenda…Ultimately, however, the speech was about a philosophy of leadership rather than the ascent of Romney or specific policies. People respond to conservative ideas, he said, but Americans need to elect a president who can communicate those ideas, not only on television but also on Capitol Hill.” – Robert Costa, The National Review
  • “It was a different address than many had been expecting. Christie spent less time selling Romney as a candidate and a potential president, and more time defining the way he sees the party’s future — in strokes related to fiscal conservatism. He mentioned Romney several times in the latter part of the speech, but not for the first 15 minutes or so…It was a reminder that Christie, who many Republicans had hoped would run this time and is a much-discussed candidate for 2016, is still seen as one of the future leaders of a party that believes this is a winnable election, but has hoped for Romney to wage a different, more aggressive campaign.” – Maggie Haberman, Politico
  • “[Christie] did not lash out in personal ways at Mr. Obama, hardly mentioning the president by name. Instead, Mr. Christie reserved his sharp words for a tough contrast between the Republican approach to solving problems and a Democratic approach that he said would continue to fail to turn around the American economy and the country’s broken political system…Primarily, the speech offered a challenge to the country to change course from an administration that he said was letting the nation’s economy drift. He said the status quo must change, and he praised Mr. Romney as the right man to take the country in a different direction.” – Michael Shear, The New York Times’ Caucus Blog
  • “[I]t was Christie who helped inject some much-needed energy into an arena that had been surprisingly subdued through the early evening. He came on stage punching the air. He clapped as he approached the lectern, returning the welcome he received from the delegates as if to say: Wake up, Republicans. He demanded that they stand up, and they did…He argued that it’s better to be respected than loved — which is one way to persuade voters to back a Republican nominee who trails the president in likeability. He said the campaign should be about big things — just what the Romney team has tried to argue at the same time it has been thrown off stride by smaller matters. He called the election a test of whether Americans are ready to hear the truth about the nation’s future and he said he is confident that those who challenge the voters will be rewarded. He said his record in New Jersey proves that point.” – Dan Balz, The Washington Post
  • “Political pundits noted that Christie’s speech was almost entirely about himself, with heavy emphasis on ‘I,’ while many on Twitter wondered if it wasn’t Christie himself who was vying for the White House. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow called it ‘an act of political selfishness.’ But a senior adviser to the Romney campaign tells POLITICO tonight that Gov. Christie was right on message: ‘Gov. Christie did exactly what we asked, which was lay out the problems facing the nation and close with Governor Romney as the solution,’ the senior adviser said.” – Dylan Byers, Politico’s On Media Blog
  • “The speech was touching at times, with personal moments that were unquestionably genuine. The delivery was smooth, and the home crowd gave him standing ovations when he hammered home conservative principles. But this was not the home run that Chris Christie had hoped for. The cheer for Anne Romney was louder, and lasted longer. As talented a speaker as Christie is, the town hall is his forum, and improvisation is his game. In this setting, he was good but not great.” – Tom Moran, The Newark Star-Ledger
  • “Christie ended the evening with his powerful and rousing call to American greatness, his summons to us to face up to the truth and to do our duty. Christie’s strong speech framed the choice in this election, and made clear which choice was to be preferred – and he did so, impressively, without appearing at all harsh or mean. In fact, he never mentioned President Obama by name. Christie managed to be at once polemical and positive – no easy feat.” – William Kristol, The Weekly Standard
  • “Christie, who stormed onto the stage clapping like a football coach in the fourth quarter, and delivered a gut-busting rebuke to the nation’s political leadership and to a self-indulgent culture…Christie explained how his mother, who died eight years ago, ‘told me there would be times in your life when you have to choose between being loved and being respected.’ He used that as an analogy for how he thinks the GOP must not shrink from offering solutions to the nation’s biggest problems – debt, deficits and a sagging entitlement state – that might be unpopular. ‘Tonight, we are going to do what my mother taught me. Tonight, we are going to choose respect over love,’ he said.” – Jon Ward, The Huffington Post
  • “These were speeches geared beyond the hall, to suburban women or swing voters, independent voters. Christie really did deliver that message when he talked about principled compromise, when he appealed to people who hate politics right now and hate Washington right now, about what will be said about this generation dealing with the kind of problems the country faces.” – David Gregory, NBC News

The Myth Of Money In Politics


As we get closer to November’s presidential election, there has been increased interest in campaign finance law. What was once the bane of most political science majors’ existence is now suddenly a popular topic in both the media and even pop culture. Campaign finance law has earned a byline in a seeming majority of major news outlets’ election stories, and was the subject of an episode of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom weeks ago.

For most folks, their knowledge of an otherwise obscure topic centers on the 2010 Supreme Court case Citizens United v. Federal Election Committee. As the popular narrative goes, Citizens United was a controversial ruling engineered by Republican-appointed justices to give their political allies a leg up in elections. It supposedly led to a flood of outsider money into elections, thereby corrupting politicians and helping Republicans win a historic majority in the 2010 midterm Congressional elections. President Obama went so far as to criticize the Court’s decision in his first State of the Union address:

 “With all due deference to separation of powers, last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests – including foreign corporations – to spend without limit in our elections.”

First, let’s acknowledge the president’s misreading of the case. Citizens United did not allow corporations to spend without limits; corporations (and individuals) may only donate a set amount of money to an individual candidate or political party, per the 2002 McCain Feingold campaign finance law. Nor, despite the claims of even respected news outlets such as Politico, did the case foster the creation of “super PACs”. A subsequent court ruling did this (SpeechNow.org v. FEC). Citizens United really just allowed for independent organizations (be they corporations, nonprofits, media outlets, etc.) to make unlimited independent (i.e. not tied to a candidate or party) expenditures. Such protections even cover CNN and The New York Times from potential prosecution for political speech. (Shapiro)

 The broader arguments against money in politics flow from some logical assumptions. We don’t want our politicians to simply be instruments of big corporations, and allowing anyone to spend as much money as possible on elections may do this. But the problem isn’t really that there’s too much money in politics. It’s that politicians control too much money.

Americans spend more money on chewing gum than we do in all federal elections. For the amount of areas under government control, I’d argue that we’re not spending enough. (Using OMB data, the nonpartisan FactCheck.org estimates 2010 government spending as nearly 25 percent of our total GDP.) As rational actors, and with so much of our time and money subject to government control and or confiscation, we really should be more interested in politics. As the Cato Institute’s Trevor Burrus notes:

 Our political parties no longer fight over simple regulations of interstate commerce and tariffs, we fight, on a national level, over the nature of American health care and how we will educate our children. How could these fights not be schismatic, vicious, and underhanded?

With this much at stake, the money will come into politics somehow. Past attempts to legislate money out of politics have failed. Consider the very notion of a “super PAC.” PACs (political action committees) were started by labor unions as a way around the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, which forbade unions and corporations from spending money on elections. So instead of giving money directly to candidates and political parties (who are easier for regulators to identify and scrutinize), the money dispersed between more sources that were tougher to regulate. Oops.

But even if it were possible to effectively regulate political spending, would we want to? If you’re one of the majority of Americans who disapproves of Congress’ performance, the answer should be “no.”

The whole concept of campaign finance reform has largely been advanced by insiders and current officeholders. Money spent on campaigns generally helps to provide information about candidates, be it good or bad. More spending means more information, and more information means more accountability. This is not good for Congressmen who would prefer to coast to 30+ year reigns full of influence peddling and largesse.

Finally, money isn’t everything in elections. Scores of candidates have been badly outspent and gone on to win major elections; Ted Cruz’s GOP Senate primary victory over lieutenant governor David Dewhurst (who outspent Cruz by a 3-to-1 margin) is an example from only one week ago. Corporations, in general, don’t give a ton of money to candidates…doing otherwise would alienate large chunks of their client bases.

Campaign finance limits are relevant in very narrow, specific cases. Shapiro (cited above) has some great insights as to when and where this should happen; he essentially argues for disclosure requirements for particularly large donations. Such limits are reasonable and should be the starting point for any discussion of the regulation of political speech. Banning spending from persons or organizations who disagree with you? Probably not a wise goal of election law.


“Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom: One-Sided Politics Will Not Save Us from Politics”, Trevor Burrus

“3 Reasons Not to Sweat the Citizens United Ruling”, Reason TV

“Why Citizens United Has Nothing to Do with What Ails American Politics”, Ilya Shapiro

A Guide To The 2012 RNC


The Republican National Convention is upon us and Mitt Romney’s time has finally come.  The RNC is a celebratory but serious four-day event filled with three days of speeches from Republican Party leaders culminating in the Republican Presidential nomination of Romney.  After a long and hotly contested primary period where Romney was constantly pressed and challenged by his rivals, the RNC will serve as both a validation of Romney’s candidacy and an outlet for the American people to hear and understand his vision for the nation.

Though Monday officially marked the beginning of the convention, Tuesday’s “We Built It” day is the true start of the events.  With a focus on President Obama’s claim that “if you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that,” Tuesday’s speeches will likely stress the American ideals of individualism, smaller government and reduced regulation in the private sector.  The speaker list is long, featuring  Congressional leaders and Republican governors in key swing states. But the two most important speeches will be delivered by Ann Romney and the RNC’s keynote speaker, New Jersey Governor and Seton Hall School of Law alumnus, Chris Christie.

Expect Mrs. Romney, a gifted orator, to personalize her husband, helping Americans understand who Mitt is away from the campaign trail.  Mrs. Romney will also likely attempt to appeal to women and tell them that if Romney is elected, their interests would be safely protected under his administration.  Women voters always play a key role in presidential elections and Mrs. Romney’s speech will aim to close the gap between Obama and her husband.

Gov. Christie, a rising star in the Republican Party, will almost certainly go on the offensive as only he knows how.  Never one to shy away from controversy, expect Christie’s speech to present harsh truths about President Obama’s administration that the media tends to downplay.  Look for Christie to highlight how smaller government is successful as long as the person in charge is willing and unafraid to make tough and unpopular decisions.  Finally, expect the governor to speak to Romney’s background as a successful businessman who will make the tough decisions to fix the broken American economy.

Wednesday’s “We Can Change It” day marks the official rise of Paul Ryan as the future of the Republican Party.  While the speaker list is impressive [former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, 2008 nominee Sen. John McCain (AZ) and Govs. Bobby Jindal (LA) and Susana Martinez (NM)], the night will be about the vice presidential nominee.  Officially announced as Romney’s running mate only a few weeks ago, Ryan is considered to be one of the most knowledgeable and informed Congressman regarding our country’s budgetary, fiscal and healthcare issues.  Already proven to be an adept public speaker, Ryan’s speech probably will attempt to explain to Americans the stark contrast between the Romney-Ryan ticket and the Obama-Biden ticket. Ryan likely will focus on how Romney’s ideas and solutions  will bring America closer to its founding principles of smaller government and individualism, and that four more years of Obama will lead the country down an unprecedented path of “debt, doubt and despair.”

Thursday’s “We Believe in America” promises to be an important and historic day for the Republican Party. In the 7 p.m. hour, Newt Gingrich, Romney’s fiercest rival during the primary season, will lend his support to Romney.  Gingrich’s support is important, as his followers represent a portion of the party Romney struggled to connect with during the primaries.  During the 8 p.m. hour, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush will re-emerge on the national political scene, delivering a speech specifically focusing on the importance of fixing the educational institutions in the United States. To begin the 10 p.m. hour, Sen. Marco Rubio (FL) will introduce Romney. Rubio is Republican Party’s new leader amongst the Hispanic-American population and represents an important link between America’s fastest growing population and the party.

After Rubio’s introduction, Romney will step up to stage and deliver the most important speech of his lifetime.  While Romney undoubtedly will stress the differences between his and Obama’s vision for America, the most important objective for Romney is to relate to the American people. For the better part of a year now, Romney has been unfairly cast by the media as out of touch with the common American, more or less because he is a self-made millionaire who does not need to work two jobs while struggling to live.  Romney’s speech will surely appeal to the Republicans in attendance and watching at home, but it is the degree to which his words connect with independent and undecided voters that will ultimately determine the success of his address.

Stranger In A Strange Land


Today’s media and national politicians tend to characterize America as an amorphous mass of interchangeable pieces. Both speak and act as if there is some sort of universal moral code and common cause that unite us all. Whether we are “keeping our streets drug free,” “fighting radical terrorists” or “protecting American workers,” those in power project values upon us and urge – if not force – us to act accordingly.

The problem, of course, is that concepts of morality and duty are not universal. Robert Heinlein touched on this concept brilliantly in his Hugo Award-winning novel “Stranger in a Strange Land.” In it, a human born on Mars (Valentine Michael Smith) is brought back to Earth. Gifted with incredible physical and mental powers, Smith soon questions almost every accepted tenet of mainstream culture. He considers monogamy, for example, to be outrageously selfish. He considers murder acceptable in many circumstances. He flips the concept of God entirely upside down.

At face value, many of these moral discussions strike the reader as outrageous. Yet Heinlein, through his surrogate character Jubal Harshaw, makes logically sound cases for each claim. After an hours-long talk with the Martian, Harshaw notes:

“A prude is a person who thinks that his own rules of propriety are natural laws. You are almost entirely free of this prevalent evil.”

In other words, just because we as individuals hold certain beliefs, there is nothing that makes them inherently right or broadly applicable to others. It is, if anything, immoral to project our views on others.

Yet that is exactly what the national media and federal government attempt to do to us. In the case of the former, they forge the notion of a “common cause” through the airwaves. Pundits such as Rachel Maddow and Bill O’Reilly are the most obvious: they directly advocate for collective action, be it to universalize health care or to invade remote desert territories. Strictly news programs, however, more subtly encourage a mass morality through their coverage and framing of “national” tragedies, or decrying “congressional gridlock.”

Federal politicians are even more to blame. They commonly make laws that assume the presence of national priorities and the authority to address them. Federal tax policy is the most obvious: Americans frequently pay for things that either violate their individual moral codes (wars, abortions, the war on drugs, etc.) or provide no benefit to them whatsoever (arts programs, fisheries in distant states, etc.). Outside of the tax code, the national government enforces a range of behaviors that millions of its citizens likely disagree with (drug prohibition, gay marriage bans, drinking age limits, speed limits, etc.).

The writer grants that the dual goals of appeasing every individual’s moral code completely and maintaining a workable state are mutually exclusive. This is why the Framers invented the concept of federalism, and codified it in the 10th Amendment: with the exception of a few very limited and enumerated powers, all other laws are to be written by the states.

Federalism obviously doesn’t prevent states from making laws that an individual may not agree with. It still assumes some shared morals. But it’s a workable compromise, which, when actually enforced, leads to far less egregious enforcement of a collective good. When practiced, federalism allows a citizen to have a greater influence in shaping the laws under which they live: citizens have easier access to state legislators who are, in turn, more in-touch with the concerns of their state. States are, theoretically, free to prioritize. Because a citizen can move, state taxes are more voluntary than federal taxes. Want to live in a highly taxed state with a plethora of public goods? California and the northeastern states are all yours. Prefer a minimalist government, low taxes and less services? New Hampshire and North Dakota are calling your name.

Thus, I take issue with the calls of President Barack Obama (and George W. Bush before him) to “unify behind a common cause,” be it for the Affordable Care Act or the War On Terror. No, Mr. President, I do not want to pay for another man’s health insurance (I’d rather donate money to hospitals directly). No, Mr. Bush, I do not want to fund a war against regimes with less than a one in 75,000 chance of killing me (I’d prefer to spend that money fighting cancer). I’d vastly prefer to be left damn well alone and contribute to the moral causes that I see fit, without the threat of federal coercion.

Stranger in a strange land, perhaps I am.