Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Case Against Public Schooling in America

Education is a right every citizen of the United States must have. Not only does universal education benefit the individual, it benefits society as a whole. It is therefore imperative to ensure all Americans access to a comprehensive education, without exceptions. Simply having an education, however, is not enough – especially for a country with as high standards as the United States. All Americans should and must receive the best education possible, regardless of their socioeconomic status or ethnicity.

Unfortunately, the public schooling system present in the United States does not work. The national graduation rate from public high schools in America was 72% in 1991. In 2002, the graduation rate was 71%. What is more grievous – that almost 30% of public high school students nationwide did not graduate in 2002, or that the graduation rate is worse than that 10 years ago- is debateable, but both points reflect gravely the failure of the American schooling system.

Furthermore, the United States federal government will spend 90 billion dollars on education in 2007. And that is just the federal government. In California, government spending on K-12 education amounts to one third of all government expenditures. In total, the United States spends over 500 billion dollars annually on public education. Such an overbearing burden on the taxpayer to fund a program that does not produce desirable results is unjustifiable and in dire need of reform. Relying on the government to institute effective changes is irresponsible, however. The government has proven itself incapable of educating America’s youth.

Instead of using the taxpayer’s money to provide schooling, the government should leave the task to the mechanism that best produces efficient institutions: the free market. Private schools in the United States already fare far better than do their government-run counterparts; the problem lies in their exorbitant costs. It is then government’s duty to assist those not able to afford private schooling.

A voucher system, whereby families unable to pay for their children’s educations would receive funding from the government to do so, is a far more efficient way to educate the populace. Opening education to the free-market, and thus eliminating the educational monopoly the government has at present, would result in both better and cheaper schools.

Such a system would greatly reduce the amount of money the government spends on education while at the same time improving the education standards in the United States. Of course, great practical difficulties exist in implementing such a drastic change. The process would have to be gradual, as currently not nearly enough private schools exist to accommodate all American students. Additionally, teachers unions would have to be assuaged, as they would surely be enraged over the potential turnover that such a change would entail. And finally, vast amounts of public school facilities would have to be auctioned off in a manner that does not create monopoly, as privatization often does.

Nevertheless, such problems must be overcome if America is to have a system of education befitting of the country’s might and importance. Central planning has been proven not to work in governance, and as the American public schooling system has shown, it does not work in education either. The free-market solution to education would cure, if correctly and gradually implemented, all the problems that public schooling presents.

Monday, January 15, 2007

The Travesty of the Electoral College

The Electoral College, a set of electors empowered to elect the President of the United States, is an institution outlined in the Constitution. Its purpose is to uphold democracy in presidential elections, primarily by empowering less populous states. In effect, however, it has curtailed America’s democratic capabilities, and undermined the legitimacy of presidential elections.

The founding fathers feared mobocracy. They were of the opinion that a simple majority would not effectively uphold democratic standards in the United States. They thought that such a system would inevitably lead to factions galvanizing partisan politics that had no relevance to the real issues affecting America. To combat such from occurring, the founding fathers instituted the Electoral College, a system whereby states were apportioned votes determinant on population, and electors from each of the states decided who to support in presidential elections. It was, and still is, deemed common practice for the electors of each state to choose the candidate that has garnered the most votes in the states through popular election. The system was designed to ensure that all states, even those of insignificant populations, were able to influence the presidential election. Indeed, under the current Electoral College system present, small states do have reasonable power in influencing elections. The benefit of this, however, is undermined by the undemocratic characteristics that the Electoral College procures.

The most profound of these characteristics is the exclusion of an influential third party in American politics. Such a failing inhibits democracy in the United States. The two dominant parties, the Grand Old Party and the Democratic Party, have a monopoly on national elections, forcing voters to choose between candidates whose views might not be in accordance with their own. The presence of a third or fourth party that has national repute would, while holding the two major parties accountable, allow Americans to choose between a wider range of candidates, allowing issues to be decided on not as a result of partisanship, but of discussion. Since 1857 there has been no American president who did not belong to either of the two major parties, a glaring example of the deficiencies presented by the Electoral College.

The Electoral College eliminates the presence of a powerful third party by the presence of the institution itself, as opposed to a parliamentary system of election. All states, excluding Nebraska and Maine, assign votes to candidates on an all-or-nothing basis. This means that if a candidate wins, for example, 51% of the vote in a state, he earns all of the state’s electoral votes, regardless of the votes of the other 49%. Such disenfranchisement of vast swathes of voters eliminates any chance of a third party candidate winning the presidency. The most glaring example in recent history occurred in the 1992 presidential elections. Ross Perot, member of the Reform Party, won almost 20% of the vote nationwide. Yet he did not win a single state in the Electoral College. If third parties do not have hope of winning national elections, they cannot garner support enough to effectively advocate their views. The Electoral College disallows views from being presented in American politics, and ensures the continuation of the inefficient two-party system. Madison advocated the presence of multiple factions in order to best preserve democracy. Unfortunately, the Electoral College compromises that.

The disenfranchisement that results from the Electoral College also undermines democracy in the United States. Huge amounts of voters are denied representation due to the winner-take-all system. Accordingly, voter participation is affected, as voters assume their votes do not matter and thus do not participate. For example, the Electoral College discourages voter participation by Democratic voters in Republican dominated Texas. As such, the views of Americans are not appropriately communicated. Additionally, it is possible under an Electoral College system for the winner of the presidential election to not have received the most votes in an election. The 2000 election, between Governor George W. Bush and Vice-President Al Gore, illustrated the failings of the Electoral College. Al Gore won the majority of the votes, yet due to the Electoral College system, Bush won the presidency. It is in the interests of democracy for the most widely supported candidate to win the presidential election. For a candidate who won the majority of the votes to lose the election is a travesty. Yet the supposedly democracy-protecting system that is the Electoral College allows such to take place.

Supporters of the Electoral College claim that the institution ensures that candidates campaign in the “boon-docks.” This, supporters say, ensures that the views of all Americans are heard and have some semblance of influence. One cannot make this claim, however, considering the absence of an influential third party. To say that due to the Electoral College system the views of all Americans are taken into account assumes that the views of all Americans are in accordance with one of the two major political parties. Such a view, illustrated by the 1992 election, is fallacious. And indeed, that the occurrence of “faithless electors” additionally compromises the view that the system ensures all Americans of a say. Faithless electors are those that cast their state’s Electoral College votes in their own interests, as opposed to the interests of the majority of the state’s voters. On 20 occasions electors have cast an electoral vote for a candidate other than the candidate they have pledged to elect. The presidential election of the United States cannot be considered democratic if it is dependent on the whims of states’ electors.

Reform of the Electoral College system is desperately needed. The best solution is to scrap the institution entirely, allowing popular vote to determine the presidency. Such a system would encourage voter participation, allow for an influential third party, and ensure that the election process is entirely democratic. Such reform, however, is hard to come by. Indeed, it is near impossible to do away with the Electoral College. A reform of the system would require a constitutional amendment. To pass such an amendment is a daunting task, especially considering that it would need the support of the smaller states that the Electoral College helps most. Additionally, the Republican and Democratic parties will be reticent to embrace measures of reform as the Electoral College ensures that their power will not be challenged.

Regardless of the difficulties inherent in reforming the dated and ineffective system, reform is imperative. Democracy is compromised in America as a result of the Electoral College system, which means that millions of Americans are not being effectively and appropriately represented in national government. The failure of the Electoral College is apparent and only elimination of the entire system will save American democracy from the partisanship and exclusiveness that exists so prevalently today.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Beyond the Coffee: The Ethics of Starbucks

Starbucks drinkers seem to prefer their latt├ęs with a double-shot of social justice. Fairtrade branded coffee has been a wildly successful seller at the global coffee giant, indicating the consumer’s desire to feel morally vindicated in overpaying for a cup of coffee. The Fairtrade label supposedly ensures that coffee farmers are not exploited by banana republics, and that the environment is preserved in the process. Unfortunately, such signalling is unreliable and in some cases, downright faulty.

The Fairtrade standards dictate that coffee traders must secure farmers a premium over the market price for their beans, meaning, essentially that Fairtrade coffee growers must be paid more for their product than what it is worth. In return, the growers must ensure that their workers are paid decent wages, and have the opportunity to unionize. In addition, growers must adhere to certain environmental standards.

An investigation, however, into whether these standards were being upheld by the Fairtrade coffee growers that supply Starbucks found unfortunate results. It was found by the Financial Times that coffee pickers working for a Fairtrade certified coffee plantation were paid under the national minimum wage. These workers labored in squalor, and were paid just $3 a day. The farm itself breached environmental regulations, as 20 acres of coffee were being grown on a national park designated area. The standards that Starbucks were obligated to uphold by labeling the coffee as Fairtrade were, essentially, thrown out the window.

Even if Fairtrade standards were upheld, critics argue, Fairtrade certification is not the most effective method of ameliorating the financial situations of poverty-ridden coffee growers and workers. Cynically speaking, Starbucks supports Fairtrade simply because of the great profits garnered from coffee advertised as ethical. Instead, CAFE (Coffee and Farmer Equity,) which aims to help coffee farmers through a mixture of technical support and microfinance loans, helps coffee farmers far more than simply paying them a higher price for their coffee.

What matters most to the coffee magnate, the largest buyer of Fairtrade coffee beans in North America, is not the well-being of the farmers they purportedly help. Look in a Starbucks chain, and what you will find is brochure upon brochure detailing to what extent Starbucks has helped poor coffee growers the world over. Yet look also at the cup of Fairtrade coffee, priced at £5, and think of Peruvian coffee pickers laboring 10 hours a day for just $3. And let Starbucks know that their double-shot of social justice seems a bit weak.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

"Moving to Opportunity Program" a Failure

In 1994 the federal government initiated a social experiment, designed to examine the effects of different neighbourhoods on poverty. Jon E. Hilsenrath of the Wall Street Journal explains the program: “Beginning in 1994, the federal government offered a lottery for housing vouchers to families in five major cities. Families were randomly assigned to different groups. One group received vouchers to be used specifically to subsidize rents in neighborhoods where poverty was low. About 860 families eventually moved. Another group, of 1,440 families, wasn't offered vouchers and, initially at least, stayed in high-poverty neighborhoods. Researchers have since tracked and compared the fortunes of the two groups.”

The experiment, however, did not work as expected. The federal government assumed that moving poor families to affluent neighborhoods would lead them out of poverty. The empirical evidence demonstrates that the program failed: earnings of the families who moved to low-poverty areas were just 3% higher than those that stayed in poverty-afflicted locales. Furthermore, depression, crime, and school participation were found to be significantly worse among those who were moved to low-poverty neighborhoods. The reasons for such results are understandable: the new inhabitants most likely felt isolated, or harassed by police, and were unable to adjust.

The success (or in this program’s case, the lack thereof) of the program, however, is ultimately insignificant. The equity of such a program must be considered and it is clear upon examination that subsidizing the housing of low-income individuals and families compromises the competitive capitalistic society present in America. It, in effect, destroys the very incentives that drive the society that has made America the wealthiest nation in the history of mankind.

Americans are not divided by a class system, as is present in a nation such as the United Kingdom. Instead, Americans, if they are divided at all, are partitioned into different socioeconomic groups. The famed “American Dream” explains such a phenomenon: it is every Americans desire to make themselves better off financially. This “American Dream” mentality is what drives American capitalism. More even than Americans’ great propensity towards consumerism, it is the American’s desire to become more wealthy that has made America’s economy so successful. This desire towards wealth leads Americans to educate themselves, work hard, and invest. Indeed, the proof is in the proverbial pudding: the American education system is among the best in the world, America’s workers are among the most productive, and America is the world leader in global investment.

Why compromise such a system? Giving housing vouchers to the poor, so that they may live in housing complexes inhabited by middle and upper class residents clearly gives unfair advantages to those that have yet to earn them. Government must instead target, and subsequently improve, institutions that allow the poor to become wealthier. For example, the government operates educational institutions, many of which are in dire need of improvement. Instead of attempting to bandage the problem by bettering the lives of a select few poor individuals and families (and using taxpayers’ money in doing so,) the government should concentrate on bettering institutions that directly lead to less poverty. It has been shown statistically that better education, less crime, and more job opportunities lead to less poverty, less crime, and better overall well-being.

Therefore, a different voucher system should be instituted: school vouchers. Instead of using middle class families’ tax-money to give housing that they themselves could not afford to poverty-stricken families, education vouchers should be given to all families on a per-need basis, allowing children who meet the educational requirements of the schools to attend educational facilities more conducive to their progression out of poverty and into the productive workforce.

A government that meddles, especially one that meddles with the tax-money of the individuals it purportedly serves, is one that will inevitably not be successful in achieving its social objectives. It has been proven that the best solution is to allow the market mechanism to drive the economy forward, with the government providing a light helping hand to those in need, complementing the free-market rather than compromising it.