Category: Public Policy

A-Win-Win-Solution--The-Empirical-Evidence-on-School-ChoiceA new report by Greg Forster of the Friedman Foundation finds that of all the “gold standard” research on children who utilize school vouchers, 11 of 12 studies conclude all or some of those students achieve better educational outcomes. No study found choice participants were worse off than those remaining in traditional public schools:

The evidence points clearly in one direction. Opponents frequently claim school choice does not benefit participants, hurts public schools, costs taxpayers, facilitates segregation, and even undermines democracy. However, the empirical evidence consistently shows that choice improves academic outcomes for participants and public schools, saves taxpayer money, moves students into more integrated classrooms, and strengthens the shared civic values and practices essential to American democracy.

These results are not difficult to explain. School choice improves academic outcomes by allowing students to find the schools that best match their needs, and by introducing healthy competition that keeps schools mission-focused. It saves money by eliminating administrative bloat and rewarding good stewardship of resources. It breaks down the barriers of residential segregation, drawing students together from diverse communities. And it strengthens democracy by accommodating diversity, de-politicizing the curriculum, and allowing schools the freedom to sustain the strong institutional cultures that are necessary to cultivate democratic virtues such as honesty, diligence, achievement, responsibility, service to others, civic participation, and respect for the rights of others.

Read more . . .

Joe has done us all a real service in putting together his three part (1, 2, 3) primer on Bitcoin (full PDF here).

I am curious, though, what the justification is for referring to Bitcoin as a “commodity” currency. Consider this from Izabella Kaminska at the FT Alphaville blog:

For those who insist that the term “fiat” refers exclusively to government-issued fiat currency, it’s perhaps better to interpret our use in the evolutionary sense.

Meaning that Bitcoin (and other virtual currencies) represent not commodity money, not managed money, nor even old fashioned government-issued fiat money, but a whole new type of super fiat that is rendered valuable by the issuing crowd (made up of independent entities) rather than the state.

The idea is that Bitcoin isn’t “declared” to be valuable by the state, but that it is “declared” to be valuable by common consent of the community of Bitcoin users. Consider this a kind of communal rather than governmental fiat.

This is why I wondered earlier about Bitcoin as “merely fiat money without the pretensions.”

But then again, isn’t this kind of communal agreement or declaration of value what money has always really been? Isn’t that, as Joe relates, what we learn from the example of the rai of Yap? (Their real innovation seems to be that they anticipated something like the “virtualization” of money exchange.)

Here again I’ll invoke the insight of Richard Whately: “It is not that pearls fetch a high price because men have dived for them; but on the contrary, men dive for them because they fetch a high price.” People are mining Bitcoins because they fetch a high price…at least for now.

[Note: This is the third entry in a three part series. You can read the introductory post here and part two here.]

The Disadvantages of Bitcoin

For people who are not obsessed with anonymity and are not waiting for the U.S. to return to the gold standard, the reasons for avoiding entering the Bitcoin market are numerous:

1. Convertibility – Whereas other currencies are convertible into other financial instruments (dollars to checks to certificates of deposit, etc.) and through numerous third-party services (e.g., Visa, PayPal, Citibank), commodity currencies like Bitcoin can only be exchanged for fiat currencies—and then only through an online exchange. Indeed, unless your computer is working overtime on Bitcoin mining, the only way to acquire the currency is to buy it from one of the 30 online exchanges.

These exchanges are completely unregulated and are subject to problems that do not affect other financial markets. For instance, in 2011 the largest Bitcoin exchange, MTGox, had a security breach that resulted in the theft of nearly $9 million worth of Bitcoins. The theft caused the value of Bitcoins to crash from $17.50 to one cent before the market was able to recover.

2. Instability – The MTGox breach—and the subsequent market crash—taught Bitcoin owners a harsh lesson about commodity currencies: they can be wildly unstable. Over the 8 month span from October 1 2010 to June 9 2011, the market value of Bitcoins skyrocketed 9667-fold from a value of $0.06 to $29.

The rate had dropped in 2012 and at the end of last year a Bitcoin was worth only $13.51. Last week, though, Bitcoins were trading as high as $266 before plummeting to less than $100. Anyone who had bought $1,000 worth of currency in October 2010 would theoretically have $4.4 million worth of Bitcoins. However, the convertibility problem would make it nearly impossible to extract that money without crashing the market and devaluing the entire currency. A gradual sell-off over an extended period of time would be necessary to take advantage of increase in valuation.

Still, being the seller of the overvalued currency is preferable to being the buyer. The Winklevoss twins, millionaires famous for their legal battle with Facebook, claim to own around one percent of all Bitcoins currently in existence (around 108,000). They began buying the currency in 2012, making some early Bitcoin holders very rich.
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[Note: This is the second in a three part series. You can read the introductory post here and part three here.]

How Bitcoin Works (The Simplified Version)

In order to use the Bitcoin system, a user installs a “wallet” on their computer or mobile phone. Once installed the wallet generates a Bitcoin address (similar to an email address) that allows the user to send and receive payments. Bitcoins are divisible to 8 decimal places yielding a total of approx. 21×1014 currency units. This allows a person to spend a fraction of a Bitcoin (the current exchange rate as of April 15, 2012 is 1 Bitcoin = $95.36000). Unlike standard e-commerce and money transfer system, Bitcoin transactions are irreversible.

How Bitcoin Works (The More Complicated Version)

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A Bitcoin is merely a chain of digital signatures attached to a transaction log. In the very first transaction of the system, Nakamoto’s computer program (which is open source and distributed across a peer-to-peer network) created 50 Bitcoins. When Nakamoto spent some of the coins, it created a new transaction that subtracted the amount from his account and credited it to the recipient’s. All such transfers entail the owner digitally signing a hash (a numerical value created by an algorithm) of the previous transaction and providing the public key for the encryption to the next owner. Both items are then added to the coin’s transaction log. A payee can verify the signatures to verify the chain of ownership, which prevents double spending of the same coins.

This transaction—and all subsequent exchanges—is distributed to the entire network for verification. Collections of transactions, known as “blocks,” are deemed valid when another computer on the network creates a transaction log for it that matches the previous blocks. To prevent the falsified logs from being accepted, the system must provide a means of verification that is prohibitively costly to any individual user, but relatively cheap for the network as a whole. As explained in The Economist:
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Over at the IFWE blog, Elise Amyx takes a look at Brian Fikkert’s argument about the origins of the modern American welfare state:

According to Fikkert, the evangelical church’s retreat from poverty alleviation between 1900 and 1930 encouraged the welfare state to grow to its size today. Church historians refer to this era as the “Great Reversal” because the evangelical church’s shift away from the poor was so dramatic.

In Faithful in All God’s House: Stewardship and the Christian Life, Gerard Berghoef and Lester DeKoster make a similar case. They argue that “the church is largely responsible for the coming of the modern welfare community.” They also cast the hopeful vision that another reversal might occur: “The church could be largely responsible for purging welfare of its faults and problems if enough believers caught the vision.”

While Fikkert is largely drawing on the early twentieth century in America for his argument, Berghoef and DeKoster examine more broadly the Christian perspective on the relationship between faith and works of charity. This dynamic is, after all, is a perennial challenge for Christian social engagement, and the interaction between the Social Gospel and evangelicalism in America is just one example. Another is the reversal over the last century or so in the Netherlands, where there has been a move from Abraham Kuyper’s claim that “all state relief for the poor is a blot on the honor of your Savior” to the church’s plea “for social security that is not charity but a right that is fully guaranteed by government.”
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2787733The second-hand clothing industry in parts of Africa is big business. In fact, many charities receive substantial revenue from the sale of these clothes. Why buy a t-shirt for 10 dollars when you can buy one for 32 cents? These trends should come as no surprise to Americans because consignment shops and thrift stores are plentiful. However, the difference is that in many parts of Africa second-hand clothing is the primary means of buying clothes and is, therefore, inadvertently stifling the growth of local African economies. Sadly, charities are playing a role in killing this growth.

For example, CNN just ran a story about how Americans sending over old clothes is killing Africa’s economy:
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Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, April 11, 2013

Bitcoin-coinsWe’ve had some intriguing discussion about Bitcoin at the Acton Institute offices today. It is certainly a phenomenon worth greater attention, and something of significant cultural, social and economic import. But I’m not buying Bitcoin, at least not yet.

My initial skepticism is in part due to my lack of familiarity with the details of the currency and its formation. I certainly need to learn more.

But also in large part my skepticism is due to my doubt about the productiveness of the effort that generates the currency. Is it merely fiat money without the pretensions? Is it the logic of subjective value-theory brought to the final conclusion? I worry that the computing power expended to mine BitCoins is vacuous and parasitic at its core. It does not represent a good or service that has been provided for or contributed to anyone.

A Bitcoin has value simply because people have decided it has value. People “mine” Bitcoins because, as Whately would note, “they fetch a high price.”

But what does a Bitcoin block represent in terms of actual human utility? I worry too that this is a system that relies parasitically on real-world resources, e.g. coal which provides a large part of the electricity, which is used to run computers so that they can then in turn “mine” something entirely virtual.

What is Bitcoin teaching us, really?

If you’ve had experience with Bitcoin or thoughts about the phenomenon, please share them in the comments below.

What is the President’s budget?

Technically, it’s only a budget request—a proposal telling Congress how much money the President believes should be spent on the various Cabinet-level federal functions, like agriculture, defense, education, etc.

federal-budgetWhy does the President submit a budget to Congress?

The Congressional Budget Act of 1974 requires that the President of the United States submit to Congress, on or before the first Monday in February of each year, a detailed budget request for the coming federal fiscal year, which begins on October 1.

If it’s due the first Monday in February, why are we just now hearing about it?

President Obama turned in his budget late—again. This will be Obama’s fourth late budget submission in five years, making him the first President to present three consecutive late budgets. According to the House Budget Committee, “All presidents from Harding to Reagan’s first term met the statutory budget submission deadline in every year.” Reagan and Clinton both missed their deadlines once in eight years.

What is the function of the President’s budget request?

The President’s annual budget request serves three functions:
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According to a new study, private religious schools perform better than both public schools and public charter schools. William Jeynes, professor of education at California State University at Long Beach and senior fellow at the Witherspoon Institute at Princeton, told the Christian Post that he found religious, mostly Christian, school students were a full year ahead of students who attend public and charter schools.

Could the results be due to religious school parents being move involved in their child’s lives? Jeynes controlled for this “selection effect” and still found that religious schools perform better. He controlled for other variables too, such as socioeconomic status, gender and race, and found that students at religious schools still have a seven to eight month advantage over students at public and charter schools. According to the Christian Post:
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David Innes at World Magazine wrote a fascinating post about the nature of virtuous leaders. In discussions of what is necessary for employees to flourish at work, it is important to remember that the character of those in decision-making positions is vital for organizational productivity. Innes reminds us that the key feature of virtuous leaders is one of love. They love their employees properly and, by extension, create a life-giving work environment:

Emotionally intelligent leaders understand the relationship between emotional well-being and the capacity and motivation of people to labor for even the worthiest goals, whether individually or co-operatively. . . Transparency builds trust. No one suspects a hidden agenda because there isn’t one. Empathy is essential. A good leader senses the emotional tone of the workplace and can address discord before it deepens and spreads. Workers will be more effectively on task if they know the boss cares about them and believes their work to be valuable. He gives helpful performance reviews on his employees’ contributions. He’s a true team builder. He helps people understand and develop their strengths, and directs them to the work most suited to them. This helps him sympathize with the people he is managing. He will also foster a friendlier workplace among the employees. He’s a peacemaker. He knows he is not the sole repository of wisdom, vision, and insight. No one is. So he listens, consults, and collaborates.

Leaders who lack love create work environments that destroy trust in the long run. Once trust is lost, a manager’s ability to lead is irreparably compromised. When this happens, disaster ensues.

What, then, is the catalyst, for leadership disasters? It often comes as a consequence of teams and organizations being lead by narcissists. Researchers at Ohio State University have found that people who score high in narcissism tend to find themselves in leadership positions, especially when there are leadership voids in organizations. Narcissists are self-centered and hold exaggerated views about their talents and abilities while lacking empathy for others. Narcissists have an inflated sense of their own importance and a deep need for admiration. They believe they are superior to others and, therefore, have little regard for other people’s feelings. When narcissists become leaders, in politics, business, schools, and the like; morale, employee productivity, and efficiency suffer.
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