Monday, September 29, 2008


The standard summary of conservative economics is "laissez-faire," which is roughly translated as "leave it alone." Liberals assume that anyone who likes markets thinks that government should be hands-off.

Conservatives certainly feed this belief by being bristly about liberal proposals to interfere with the market. In this they manifest the truth in the phrase laissez-faire, which means not "leave it alone" but "let it do what it does." On a metaphysical plane, laissez-faire could express a fairly sophisticated understanding of nature, of letting each thing be what it is, not by leaving it alone, but by respecting its nature, letting it do what it does. When conservatives say "leave it alone," this is what they mean.

But of course "laissez-faire" is not used in a metaphysical sense -- indeed, it is rarely used by the conservatives who would think of it that way, but as a term of contempt by liberals. In order to explain how the "leave it alone" understanding of laissez-faire differs from conservative market economics, allow me to share a story.

We recently moved across country, out of an apartment in Washington, D.C., that we liked very much. The apartment was owned by a small-time investor; I rather doubt he had dealt much with renters, or really had the energy to think about it.

Before we signed the lease, he several times told us that his son lived upstairs (there were fifteen condos in the unit; ours was the only rental) and would be "a sort of on-site super." (For those who have never spent time around New York, that means a superintendent who takes care of the building and is generally present.) But over the course of the year, every question we asked the ne'er-do-well son got the same response: "uh, I'll have to ask my dad." And every request for maintenance -- before long, we learned to just call Dad ourselves -- was met by a response like, "do you know anyone who can just do that for you?" For example, when we found that their renovation had covered all the telephone jacks with drywall, when the kitchen cabinets were falling off the wall, and when we discovered, upon move-in, that almost every window-screen in the apartment had fist-sized holes in them: "Uh, can you just take care of that yourselves . . . ?"

The general practice for rentals is that you pay an extra month's rent up front as a security deposit, to cover the landlord's expenses if you disappear midway through the lease or if you leave the apartment damaged or needing cleaning. We fully expected to have deductions from our security deposit: just before we left, our three-year-old drew on the hardwood floors with permanent marker (yikes) and, with two little kids, a pregnant wife with the flu, and a cross-country drive beginning on move-out day, we made the decision not to do all the finishing touches of cleaning up.

By law and by the terms of our lease contract, we were to receive, within forty-five days of move-out, what remained of our security-deposit (amounting, we expected, to about $1,000), plus one year's interest, along with an itemized list of deductions. Having been landlords ourselves for a college program, and having lived in several rental units previously, we knew the rules and knew how they were generally followed: most landlords deduct maybe $100 for cleaning, and skim that forty-five day limit pretty close -- but basically follow the rules.

So we were holding off on buying a couch for our new apartment until August 14, day forty-five. Actually, we got a last-minute infusion of gifts from strangers, or else we would have cut our expenses so close on the move that August 14 would have been just in time to buy groceries and help us make it to September's rent. We're renters, near the bottom of the economic totem-pole; getting that check on time was pretty important. Of course, it's important for everyone: that's why we have to pay our rent on time every month, lest the landlord himself run into cash-flow problems.

Well, the long and the short of it is that our old landlord was a full month late on sending the check; I think it was September 13 when it finally arrived. By sheer coincidence, he sent the check on the very day that I sent him a letter saying, "You know, it isn't your money to keep; that's why the law sets a time limit, which you have far exceeded." I added, perhaps imprudently, but not wrongly, that, the landlord having missed his chance to send us an itemized list of deductions, I expected to receive the security deposit in full. For my trouble, I received a threatening email from the landlord, saying I better not talk about the law to him, and he'd gladly take the rest of my deposit back.

Well, on a personal level, I raged, then backed down, realizing that the $675 I thought he owed us was not worth the emotional rollercoaster I was putting myself through. I sent him a meek apology for having had the temerity to expect that I would receive the money he owed me on the date it was owed, and gave up. On a personal level, it was probably the best thing I could do.

But for our purposes here, what is the Free Market answer to all this? Is the conservative response "laissez-faire," in the sense of, "government, hands off!"

I think not. The market depends on the enforcement of contracts. It is my opinion -- I hope this is not self-interest speaking, but a clear pro-market philosophy -- that above all, the market depends on government enforcement of contracts, in both directions. Had I not payed my rent, or even not paid it on time, I would fully expect the government to have backed the landlord in evicting me. There may be personal mercy -- I have no problem with that -- but blind-folded Lady Justice should simply recognize that I promised to pay for something, and was not paying for it. Landlords cannot afford to have property occupied by people who do not pay. (More another time, perhaps, on why it is just to charge people for use of property.)

On the other hand, my landlord was in gross violation of contract. He was in violation of contract when he sent me my security deposit a month late. We all -- he as well as I -- depend on getting money, not just whenever, but when we expect it, when we contract to get it.

I think there might have been other breaches of contract, as well. What responsibilities does a landlord have, just by virtue of being a landlord? I don't know, but it should be more clear. It seems to me that if I live in a rental property and a cupboard falls off the wall, the landlord is responsible, not I.

It seems to me that certain things should go without saying. I did not carefully inspect, for example, to make sure there were phone jacks. But is that not a reasonable expectation? It seems to me that a free-market, contract economy, mandates that things that everyone would expect to be there can be expected to be there. I should not have to check, for example, to make sure that every light switch and power outlet actually works, just as at the supermarket, if I buy a jug of milk, I should not have to open it up and make sure it's actually full of milk, and not something else. If I rent an apartment, it should go without saying that the window screens would be intact, just like it should go without saying that if there are bars on the windows, they are made of metal, and are screwed on tight. Of course you have to check things; but there should be limits to how much you have to check. Contract law should presume that certain things go without saying.

And then there is the matter of verbal contracts. If a landlord shows me an apartment and tells me there is an on-site super . . . I have the right to expect someone who does basic maintenance (as has happened in even our seediest apartments in the past), even if those duties are not made explicit in the lease -- shouldn't I? And above all, I should have easy access to the government's understanding of all these things. My inability to pay for a lawyer should not mean that I have no idea what my rights are, or the landlord's obligation. That is not justice -- and it is not a free market.

A key experience at the end of this debacle should make clear precisely what I am getting at. I went on-line to find what the DC government says about the forty-five day law. I found a couple sites that indicate that the landlord is obliged to do these things in forty-five days: but nothing whatsoever explaining what happens if he doesn't, or even how I can follow up. (I spoke to a friend who is a more experienced landlord in D.C.; perhaps she was in error, but she believed I would have to take him to court, and first do days of mediation -- on an open-shut case of him not fulfilling a deadline -- which is in any case impossible for someone who has moved cross-country.) What I did find on-line, however -- and this is the point -- is a whole government-run page giving lots of information on rent-control.

Here's the point. "Laissez-faire," market economics sees rent control as a violation of the market. Prices should be negotiated between renters and landlords, so that renters can get negotiate the best terms for their needs (including cheap rent for a cheap place), and landlords can decide what is worth their investment. Price-control creates a two-tiered system in which some renters have government backing and some do not; it discourages landlords from renting, since they will get paid less than their apartments are worth; it doesn't work because it interferes with the market. For opposing this, I would get painted by liberals with the label "laissez-faire," "do nothing," "hands-off," "leave the poor out to dry."

But market economics says the government should step in precisely to protect contracts, for the sake of the poor and the rich alike. Not government "programs" substituting for the market, but government playing its legitimate role in creating a free market. Government should determine what is to be expected, and then make that clear to all parties. It should, for example, make it known that if a landlord doesn't provide phone jacks, or window screens, he will be held liable. Government should do this -- but it should also publicize what it does. Perhaps the law is on the books. But I had no access to that law.

And I had no way to enforce it. Government should also have clear public advocates, so that if I am a thousand miles away and my rights of contract are impinged -- as they clearly were, in the case of the security deposit -- I don't have to leave work, and come to D.C. so I can spend days in mediation. That is an obstacle to justice.

In fact, the liberal D.C. government is "active" in the sense of interfering with government -- but it is "passive," "laissez-faire," "hands-off," "leaving the poor without recourse" when it comes to the basic enforcement of contract. As a conservative, I want a lot more government action than I got. But I want government to enforce contracts all around, as a basic function of government and not as a luxury for those who can pay.

My wife and I are presently two-thirds of the way through the marvelous seven-and-a-half-hour BBC production of Charles Dickens's Bleak House. I highly recommend it for the superb production: great casting, acting, pacing, lighting, everything is great. And the story itself is gripping; we're on the edge of our seats.

But I also recommend it as an insight into social justice. The dominating economic problem of Bleak House is not that the economy cheats the poor, or that the rich themselves cheat the poor, but that the legal system is corrupt. The Court, rather than dealing blind justice, regardless of persons, is at the service of the rich. The solution to this problem is not (Obama-style) to make the Court move its thump to the side of the poor, but to make the Court do its job, so that the rights of all people are enforced, including the contracts they freely enter into. People should have a right, not to get what they didn't pay for, but to get what they did pay for. That takes an extraordinary amount of government energy -- but not the kind of energy the opponents of "laissez-faire" propose.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Freedom and the Common Good

David Brooks recently wrote a column accusing conservatives, with all our talk about freedom, of being opposed to the social nature of man and the common good. Perhaps he had in mind the recent book by Grover Norquist, an anti-tax crusader, entitled Leave Us Alone. The title suggests that what conservatives really want is radical individualism. (Though from what I've read, the book is actually a good deal more sophisticated than that.)

The charge is a serious one. Certainly from a Catholic perspective the common good is primary. We are social beings, created, not for individualism, but for community. I dare say it is a good thing that columns like Brooks' have sting, even politically: Americans know that ultra-individualism is not a good thing.

Jonah Goldberg at National Review responded that conservatism can sound like individualism because it is a "partial philosophy of life." That is, political conservatism is not meant to say everything there is to say. We want government to leave us alone, but that doesn't mean we want to retreat from society. In fact, as has been demonstrated by several recent studies, conservatives give much more money, volunteer more time, and even give more blood than liberals. We participate in more social groups, and believe in organized religion. We are not radical individualists. We just want the government to leave us alone.

I think this response doesn't quite get it right. Perhaps another time I'll try to explain the problem with creating too great a divide between the State and civil society, as if the State were a wholly abstract reality. For now, allow me simply to assert: you cannot simultaneously value civil society and say that the government should not promote it. The primary purpose of government is to promote the common good and civil society.

Nonetheless, freedom from the incursions of government -- telling government to leave us alone -- is an essential part of government's promotion of the common good.

In the fullest sense, only spiritual goods can be truly common. An apple can never be a common good, because to the extent that I partake of it, you cannot. But that is not true of spiritual things. Augustine's favorite example is teaching: sharing the apple means I get less, but sharing my knowledge means I possess it all the more. This is true above all of religion: I am most fully a Christian only in sharing my faith, both through evangelization and through the common worship of the Church.

And yet precisely in the realm of faith, the Church promote freedom. The reason is that these truly common goods can only be possessed from man's interior. No amount of external coercion can cause you to participate in the Catholic faith. We promote the faith as much as we can, but we cannot hope to share it with others unless we give them the space to embrace it freely. On the highest level, the common good depends on freedom; it cannot be shared without freedom.

This is true also, of course, of natural spiritual goods, such as learning. Compulsory education is a contradiction. As I argued in my last post, reviewing the new work by Charles Murray, real education can only happen when people freely embrace it, when they have the space to choose to learn and to truly learn, not just jump through hoops.

This is true of all of culture. Of course culture -- true culture, which is high, and must be learned, and which binds people together, as opposed to the multiculturalism that divides society -- should be promoted, by all means possible. But only by those means possible. Forcing people to participate is, again, simply a contradiction. We can provide carrots; for example, we can say that in order to vote, you need to understand the common language and the rudiments of American political philosophy and history. But we cannot use sticks, withholding basic goods from those who choose not to learn these things. Freedom is an essential part of promoting the common good which is culture; it is not everything (and that is why conservatives oppose multiculturalism), but it is a necessary component (and that is why conservatives oppose mandatory public schooling).

But the common good also exists on a slightly more complex level. Along with the common good being something "out there" in which we engage -- like religion or knowledge or culture -- there is also a common good which is society itself. We participate in this common good not by all sharing the same thing, but by each playing different roles within a greater whole. The common good of a family, for instance, can only happen when one person is the dad, and only the dad, another person is the mom, other people are children. (And the common good of the family becomes stronger, because richer and more complex, when it is extended, when there are five children, so that you have not just an "oldest" and a "youngest," but a greater complexity of relations, and when you have grandparents and other extended family members around.) Such a common good happens not by everyone being the same, but by people playing different roles in the same whole.

An old professor of mine describes a parade in traditional Poland, where different kinds of workers wore different costumes. The parade visually displayed the richness of society, which is built upon many people doing different things. He also described St. Peter's Square, where there is the Pope in white, the Cardinals in red, the bishops in magenta, the priests in black, the countless orders of religious, the flags of different nations, and countless lay people. These moments of pomp display the richness of society, which, like a family, is what it is precisely through people playing different roles. Aristotle makes the distinction between an arrangement and a heap: a heap is just a bunch of indistinguishable pieces; in an arrangement, each piece matters, because each piece plays a different role. Jane Jacobs describes a "ballet" of the city streets, with different people headed in different directions at different times of day -- not randomly, but in proper order, each playing his own role in building the city.

This common good of social life requires freedom, at least of a sort. To some extent, a certain kind of freedom can undermine it, if people no longer see their place, if people no longer have a sense of identity within the greater whole. But the good of freedom is precisely that people can find their place. Return to the potential electrician we discussed in the last post. To be an electrician is his proper place, his part of the arrangement, his place in building up the beautiful array of the social order. He may well fit that role because of his family background, but he may be an anomaly, with a set of talents we never could have predicted. This is precisely why freedom is necessary for building the social array. There is no way any authority can determine his place, except by letting things shake out and settle where they belong.

Freedom means giving people the opportunity to find their place in society. This is not a withdrawal, but a way to participate more fully. By contrast, imagine a command economy, such as occurred in China's Cultural Revolution. Professors and artists were sent to work in the fields. They could not be replaced, so that part of the array was lost. But they did not fit in the place to which they were sent, either. They could not participate in the common good, and they could not contribute to building it up, because they were not in their natural place. The Church recognizes this principle in demanding freedom for the individual to choose his proper vocation. Social order only happens when people are able to embrace what suits them. This is not relativism -- indeed, conservatives oppose "places" in society that do not naturally fit any person, such as prostitution, or thievery, or the underground economy. It is just the recognition that the social order requires diversity.

Finally, on the lowest level, there is the common good which is the economy. Economists trained in the Catholic tradition rightly point out that the economy cannot be a true common good, because it is fundamentally ordered to material goods. Material goods are private: to share is to diminish my part. To give you money is to lose money for myself.

But conservative economics brings to light an ambiguity in this. Wealth can be "created." What that means is that when resources are allocated more intelligently, everyone can have more. For example, a big pile of wheat in a farmer's field is hardly "his," insofar as he cannot use it. But if it is distributed, he can still have enough, while providing for many others. And to push deeper, farming itself creates a good that did not exist: the intelligence of the farmer creates a good where there was only earth. Truth to be told, resources are virtually infinite. There are very few things that we actually "use up." (Energy is a counter-example, but our solar and nuclear resources are virtually infinite, especially once we get into space.) Resources are virtually infinite; we are bound primarily by our inability to recycle, to distribute, and to use what we have. (Using what we have, I should note, sometimes means substitutions: there is a limited number of salmon we can catch, but a virtually unlimited number of tasty things to eat.)

This virtual infinity of goods puts the private nature of the economy in an ambiguous position. It's true that the material goods I possess are goods you cannot possess: we can't both have the same slice of the pie. But we can grow the pie, so that everyone can have a slice. Economics is precisely the science of growing the economy. And so, in an ambiguous sense, the economy is also like a common good: economic growth enriches both of us.

(Explaining this is much simpler on the level of "social connection" -- the level David Brooks was talking about. Caring about economic growth is simply a matter of social connection, of understanding that no man is an economic island. The liberal assumption that the pie is a limited size, that we must rob Peter to feed Paul, is a much coarser and more competitive understanding of social connection. When middle-class conservatives vote for "tax cuts for the rich," we are actually expressing our much greater belief in social connection, on the need of a rising tide to lift all boats, instead of just stealing from other people, whether or not "they can afford it." On the level of social connection, this argument is relatively easy. On the level of the common good, it is tricky: we must say that the economy is a common utilitarian good, in that it provides for all of us, rather than a common good in itself, in that we don't desire economic growth as an end in itself.)

To achieve the useful common good of economic growth again requires freedom. Conservative economics is not a matter of "leave me alone," of getting all I can and damn the rest. Conservative economics is a matter of mustering all tools at hand in order to grow this common good. Liberal command economics -- providing for the poor by stealing from the rich, and requiring all economic actors to be regulated by a few central planners -- is destructive of the economic common good precisely because it shuts out so many minds. I will not give a complete essay on the price mechanism here, but the free market, and freely floating prices, serve the economy precisely because they convey so much information about supply and demand to every individual in society. Prices allow my wife to participate in the decision-making process about where our limited supply of flour should be sent. Price controls mean shutting my wife, and millions of other intelligences, out of that decision. Economic growth means making the economy more intelligent; central planning is bad precisely because it shuts out intelligences, making the economy less intelligent.

This isn't a matter of greed or individualism. It's a matter of asking everyone to participate in promoting the common good. I know we are not used to thinking this way, but we could think of the free market as a kind of required civil service. In a centrally planned, command economy, individuals are allowed to lazily partake of economic goods without imputing their own intelligence. A market economy requires every individual in society to think for himself, to decide for himself whether trip is really worth the cost of gas, whether that restaurant is worth what it costs to maintain it, whether these figs are important enough to my diet to warrant the resources it takes to make them available. Market economics is not about individualistic freedom. It is about civil service, requiring every individual to contribute his own intelligence to the great social cause of planning an economy that provides for all.

Whether on the level of economic planning, or personal vocation, or participation in the goods of culture and religion, freedom is not opposed to the common good, but a necessary tool to promote it. Thus freedom is not to be seen as the opposite of government, and government is not to be seen as an enemy to the good. Rather, government must actively promote freedom precisely because it is the task of government to promote the common good.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Too Many People Go To College

I would like to draw your attention to a fantastic article on education by Charles Murray: "Are Too Many People Going to College?" Murray is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, where he has also set out excellent ideas on economic reform, including his tax and entitlement reform known simply as "The Plan." But his ideas on education are his best thing yet.

At 6,000 words, the article probably strains the internet-reading limits of most people (which, I must note, is part of his point). Here is a key section:
Let me put these calculations in terms of a specific example, a young man who has just graduated from high school and is trying to decide whether to become an electrician or go to college and major in business, hoping to become a white-collar manager. . . .

He begins by looking up the average income of electricians and managers on the Bureau of Labor Statistics website, and finds that the mean annual income for electricians in 2005 was$45,630, only about half of the $88,450 mean for management occupations. It looks as if getting a B.A. will buy him a huge wage premium. Should he try to get the B.A. on economic grounds?

To make his decision correctly, our young man must start by throwing out the averages. He has the ability to become an excellent electrician and can reasonably expect to be near the top of the electricians’ income distribution. He does not have it in him to be an excellent manager, because he is only average in interpersonal and intrapersonal ability and only modestly above average in academic ability, all of which are important for becoming a good manager, while his competitors for those slots will include many who are high in all of those abilities. Realistically, he should be looking at the incomes toward the bottom of the distribution of managers. With that in mind, he goes back to the Bureau of Labor Statistics website and discovers that an electrician at the 90th percentile of electricians’ incomes made $70,480 in 2005, almost twice the income of a manager at the 10th percentile of managers’ incomes ($37,800). Even if our young man successfully completes college and gets a B.A. (which is far from certain), he is likely to make less money than if he becomes an electrician.

Then there is job security to consider. A good way to make sure you always can find work is to be among the best at what you do. It also helps to have a job that does not require you to compete with people around the globe. . . . Low-level management jobs can often be outsourced to India, whereas electricians’ jobs cannot.

What I have said of electricians is true throughout the American job market. . . . The demand for skilled technicians of every kind—in healthcare, information technology, transportation networks, and every other industry that relies on high-tech equipment—is expanding. . . . Construction offers an array of high-paying jobs for people who are good at what they do. It’s not just skilled labor in the standard construction trades that is in high demand. The increase in wealth in American society has increased the demand for all sorts of craftsmanship. Today’s high-end homes and office buildings may entail the work of specialized skills in stonework, masonry, glazing, painting, cabinetmaking, machining, landscaping, and a dozen other crafts. The increase in wealth is also driving an increased demand for the custom-made and the exquisitely wrought, meaning demand for artisans in everything from pottery to jewelry to metalworking. There has never been a time in history when people with skills not taught in college have been in so much demand at such high pay as today, nor a time when the range of such jobs has been so wide. In today’s America, finding a first-rate lawyer or physician is easy. Finding first-rate skilled labor is hard.

Intrinsic Rewards

The topic is no longer money but job satisfaction—intrinsic rewards. . . . Our high-school graduate knows that he enjoys working with his hands and likes the idea of not being stuck in the same place all day, but he also likes the idea of being a manager sitting behind a desk in a big office, telling people what to do and getting the status that goes with it.

However, he should face facts that he is unlikely to know on his own, but that a guidance counselor could help him face. His chances of getting the big office and the status are slim. He is more likely to remain in a cubicle, under the thumb of the boss in the big office. He is unlikely to have a job in which he produces something tangible during the course of the day.

If he becomes a top electrician instead, he will have an expertise that he exercises at a high level. At the end of a workday, he will often be able to see that his work made a difference in the lives of people whose problems he has solved. He will not be confined to a cubicle and, after his apprenticeship, will be his own supervisor in the field. Top electricians often become independent contractors who have no boss at all.

The intrinsic rewards of being a top manager can be just as great as those of a top electrician (though I would not claim they are greater), but the intrinsic rewards of being a mediocre manager are not. Even as people in white-collar jobs lament the soullessness of their work, the intrinsic rewards of exercising technical skills remain undiminished.

Finally, there is an overarching consideration so important it is hard to express adequately: the satisfaction of being good at what one does for a living (and knowing it), compared to the melancholy of being mediocre at what one does for a living (and knowing it). This is another truth about living a human life that a 17-year-old might not yet understand on his own, but that a guidance counselor can bring to his attention. Guidance counselors and parents who automatically encourage young people to go to college straight out of high school regardless of their skills and interests are being thoughtless about the best interests of young people in their charge.

I would like to offer three comments to fill out Murray's excellent perspective.

First, I would like to connect his bell-curve analysis to one of my central theses: the importance of birth and family. Murray's 1994 book The Bell Curve was hugely controversial for pointing out the simple fact that most people are not exceptional, and many people are below average. (Murray was accused of being a racist, though I think that misses his point.) What I would like to point out is simply that where you come from matters. To expect the children of laborers to become doctors is unreasonable and unfair. It is also anti-family. It is appropriate for people to follow in their fathers' footsteps. It is natural. The passion in our culture for making everyone alike cuts out the beautiful diversity, and the beautiful continuity within families, that makes a culture strong.

Murray is not saying that the sons of laborers should be barred from college. He is saying that people are different, and their differences should be accepted: let the natural electrician be an electrician! I would add, letting people be who they are recognizes that family matters. That recognition is good, first, because it is true: an educational system that tries to make family irrelevant is bound to fail, because family makes a difference. And second, society is stronger when people are free to be part of their family, instead of being pushed to scorn who they are and where they come from.

Second point: I disagree with Murray's dismissal of brick-and-mortar campuses. Murray is too quick to dismiss the intangible goods of being in the same place. Or rather, the tangible goods: I love email and the internet, and they have greatly helped my intellectual development, but being in the same room as a person, holding a book in your hand, and walking through a library are important precisely because we are material beings. Disembodied friendship is not fully human friendship.

Murray would have done better to say that the kind of personal, tangible contact for which universities are built is hampered by the presence of people who do not really want to be there. And the real way to "come in contact with people who are different" is through real contact: that is, through actual human interaction, which happens much more when you are actually engaged, on the job, than when you are just showing up for class. "College" does not happen just by throwing everyone onto the same campus. It happens, on campus or off, when people are actually interacting about things in which they are invested.

In any case, I do not think Murray's dismissal of brick-and-mortar colleges plays any crucial role in his argument.

Last point: Murray is perhaps too quick to dismiss the value of liberal education for true human development. This is something we should try to make more broadly available -- it is a key part of the Catholic educational mission from the beginning.

However, we should again acknowledge that true liberal education cannot happen without personal investment, and it has very little to do with 32 courses or a piece of paper. One of the great benefits of eliminating our culture's preference for a B.A. would be to separate education from degrees. The first benefit, as conservative education reformers have noted in the past, would be to strengthen earlier education. People should learn how to read and write in high school, and even middle school, not in college. Our current system allows high schools to slough off that duty, knowing that people will get a remedial college education anyway. I heard once on C-SPAN an author detailing his study of letter-writing in the Civil War. Short summary: the average "uneducated" soldier in the nineteenth century was way more educated than even most smart college grads now, because they made sixth grade count for something.

A second benefit of separating education from college would be to promote non-traditional learning. Good Catholics ought to be reading books on their own, taking correspondence courses just for personal development, taking night classes through their parish or other non-degree program, etc. People should be learning. But they would learn more if they were moving at their own speed and learning for learning's sake, instead of because taking an English course is supposed to get you a higher-paying job in middle management.

(Incidentally, the promotion of such learning for learning's sake would also be helped by a looser work week, so that people could study on Thursday afternoons, for example. The more government defines what normal is -- especially the forty-hour week -- the more people will be pressed to do that. We should all be working for a world where there is no "normal" work week, so that people can model work to their own needs. One of the main ways to do that is to get government out of the business of defining what counts as full-time. It comes across in things like mandating who gets benefits and over-time, and how businesses pay taxes.)

Finally, a political note: one of the beautiful parts of this presidential campaign is the disconnect between Obama and McCain on education. Notice how McCain is talking about vocational training and middle school, while Obama wants to push more people to go to college. McCain is profoundly right on this.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Managing Alaska

Amidst all the excitement of the Sarah Palin announcement -- and we are thrilled -- we've had a side conversation about Alaskan fishing. My boss is a former salmon fisherman on the very Bristol Bay where the Palin family fishes (and for which their eldest daughter is named). Here's a short video showing what they do:

For a few weeks each year, the salmon come up Bristol Bay by the millions to spawn in the streams where they were born. For the fishermen, it's a bonanza. Boats cover the bay with nets and drag in fish until, my boss says, the boats are literally sinking.

But there's an obvious danger. When you're pulling in fish like that, how do you make sure enough survive to keep things self-sustaining?

It's interesting to learn that salmon, like deer, are their own worst enemies. So many fish are swimming upstream that if fisherman don't diminish their numbers, they will crowd each other out. Letting all the fish get through would actually result in a smaller number of next-generation survivors then culling them first. Which is to say, man is not entirely an intruder: we have a role to play tending the garden.

Nonetheless, it can obviously be overdone. We've all heard of over-fishing, whether or not we know where it happens. What to do?

The obvious answer is government oversight -- and that's what they do in Alaska. The government determines what hours you can go out each day. One day might be 9am-4pm, the next day 7am-7pm, the next day 3am-noon. From what my boss tells me, the numbers are not immediately intelligible: the point is to limit fishing, and to change up when fish get through, presumably to preserve some diversity among the animals. Well-managed fishing means the fish survive to the next generation.

But it seems to me -- someone correct me if I'm missing something -- that there are different ways to manage the harvest. Government is the obvious choice, but is it the best? As I noted in my posts on managing urban neighborhoods, government tends to prefer over-simplistic methods, and democratic government is especially prone to short-term thinking: re-election next year means finding solutions that sound good in the short-term, not the long-term. And because you only need 51% to get elected, there is no incentive for politicians to care for everyone. There is no incentive, for example, to maximize who gets to take part in the fishing.

What if Bristol Bay was managed by private land-owners? As I argued previously, a private owner worries not only about the profit he makes today, but also about re-sale value. If a private investor created Bristol Bay, Inc., his financial interest would be to manage the waters so that many fish were caught every year, both now and far into the future: overfishing would greatly diminish the value of the property. The standard assumption is that a private owner would just strip all the value, then move on; but that would not in fact be in his own interest. He could get more money from selling a Bay that continues to produce.

The same might be said of Alaska's oil fields. The common assumption is that oil moguls would take all the money they could, while destroying the future value of the land. But so doing would hurt even them. If a private investor owned the section of ANWR where oil could be taken, his financial interest would dictate a method of oil extraction that allowed the land to produce for a relatively long time and still have high re-sale value down the road.

This argument, of course, has limits. Some things deserve to be kept purely as treasures. Perhaps, for example, the ANWR oil moguls would see little resale value in the survival of a rare species of seal; perhaps they would judge that the sole breeding ground of the species was also the best place for their refinery, and determine that they could make a lot more money puting the refinery there than preserving the seals. And perhaps the world would be better off in some intangible way if those seals survived.

But let's be careful to distinguish the two questions. One question is how a resource is best managed so as to survive long-term. The other question is how to preserve treasures that cannot be priced. The question of how best to manage the salmon stock, for example, should not be confused with how best to ensure the rights of the Yup'ik eskimos who live there. Government can step in to preserve the Yup'iks without therefore having to manage the salmon.

The government can tell the ANWR moguls that they can own and manage the land, but they must preserve the seals. Private enterprise can better manage the oil resources, and can in fact better determine how to harmonize the needs of the seals and the needs of the oil industry. Rather than letting politicians make short-term, interest group-based determinations of what means are best -- for example, dictating where the drills go, what methods are used, etc. -- the government should simply tell the oil moguls, if the seal population goes down, you will pay.

The best way to make them pay would be a simple threat to revoke the charter. The state of Alaska should auction off charter rights to the highest bidder, with certain restrictions. If, for example, the seal population went down, the charter holder would simply lose his rights to the land, and the land would again be auctioned off. Perhaps the same company would win the auction again -- but the price of diminishing the seal population would be having to buy the land a second time. The profit for the people of Alaska, of course, would be significant.

This policy allows the government to set clear mandates (the seal population must go up every year), but allows private enterprise to determine how to achieve those goals, and how to harmonize them with other legitimate goals, such as oil extraction. And private enterprise can pursue these goals with means that match long-term interests instead of short-term politicking, with the flexibility of individual initiative instead of parlimentarian wrangling. The best way to manage Alaska is to get the politicians out.