Category: Public Policy

In honor of the sixth annual National School Choice Week, here are some facts you should know about school choice in America.

What does “school choice” mean?

NSCW-Stacked-LogoThe term “school choice” refers to programs that give parents the power and opportunity to choose the schools their children attend, whether public, private, parochial, or homeschool.

Why is school choice necessary?

While there are some excellent public schools in America, many students are trapped in schools with inadequate facilities, substandard curriculum, and incompetent teachers. Most parents, however, cannot afford to pay for education twice—once in taxes and again in private school tuition. School choice programs empower parents by letting them use public funds set aside for education on programs that will best serve their children. As Bill Cosby, a comedian who holds a doctorate in education, says, “We have a moral and societal obligation to give our children the opportunity to succeed in school, at work, and in life. We cannot meet that obligation unless parents are empowered to select the best schools of their children.”

What types of school choice programs exist for students and families?


Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, January 20, 2016

In this week’s Acton Commentary, I take a look at “The Moral and Economic Poverty of the Lottery.” I take a look at the main parties involved: the winners, the players, and the government, and conclude, “Far from a force for good, lotteries are a danger to society.”

The problems with lotteries and gambling more generally are various and sundry. But Gerda Reith captures a fundamental aspect when she writes that “the state-sponsored fantasy of the big win turns the ethos of production and accumulation on its head.” This is essentially what Edmund Burke’s problem with a gaming society involves, which I explore in more depth in this week’s piece.

And later today I’ll be on Chris Brooks’ program on Moody Radio, “Equipped,” to discuss lottery winners and losers. Tune in at 1pm Eastern.

government_is_the_problem_poster-r60410fd507e74984b86adfb78cccb9fd_a3l0_8byvr_324What is the worst problem facing America? According to a recent Gallup poll, most Americans agree with former President Reagan, who said government is not a the solution, government is the problem.

An average of 16 percent of Americans in 2015 mentioned some aspect of government—including President Obama, Congress, or political conflict—as the country’s chief problem. The economy came in second with 13 percent mentioning it, while unemployment and immigration tied for third at 8 percent.

While government takes the top slot, that’s still an answer given by fewer than one in five citizens. We can’t even seem to come to a consensus about our biggest problems. Indeed, 2015 is only the second time since 2001 (2014 was the other year) that no single issue averaged 20 percent or more for the year. Rather than being focused on a single issue, there is a broad range of concerns troubling us; more than a dozen issues received 2-6 percent of the vote for worst problem.

noun_283226_ccIn today’s Acton Commentary, I have some further reflections on the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. The basic thrust of the piece is to encourage institutional thinking. We should expect that humans are going to institutionalize their goals because humans are natural institution builders, or culture makers.

This is one of the animating concerns behind the forthcoming volume The Church’s Social Responsibility as well. Even if younger generations now are more skeptical about “organized religion,” they will necessarily and eventually codify their views in some institutional form. In the context of religion, this means some understanding of “church,” which may look far different than previous incarnations.

As David Brooks puts it, “Most poverty and suffering — whether in a country, a family or a person — flows from disorganization. A stable social order is an artificial accomplishment, the result of an accumulation of habits, hectoring, moral stricture and physical coercion. Once order is dissolved, it takes hard measures to restore it.”

Of course institutions, being created by flawed human beings, have their flaws, and are prone to corruption of various kinds. So scrutiny of institutional structures as well as individual behavior is necessary. But I further argue that the level of public scrutiny should be commensurate with social power, particularly in economic and political forms. So by all means, let’s worry about what Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan are going to do with $50 billion. But let’s worry that much more about what the federal government does with that amount of money in a work week.

Let’s talk about The Force Awakens, which is tracking to smash global revenue records as it passes $1.5 billion. But let’s also not forget that the federal government spends a billion dollars in less time than it takes to sit down for a screening of the latest Star Wars episode!

Blog author: jcarter
Tuesday, January 5, 2016

hungerWhat does it mean to be hungry in America? And how do we solve the issue of domestic hunger?

To answer those questions, Congress created the bipartisan National Commission on Hunger, a group tasked with providing “policy recommendations to Congress and the USDA Secretary to more effectively use existing programs and funds of the Department of Agriculture to combat domestic hunger and food insecurity.”

The commission recently released a report on their findings and recommendations. According to the executive summary, “ This report is based on the commission members’ full agreement that hunger cannot be solved by food alone, nor by government efforts alone. The solutions to hunger require a stronger economy, robust community engagement, corporate partnerships, and greater personal responsibility, as well as strong government programs.”

One of the key decisions the commission had to make was an agreement on how to define hunger. They chose a readily available measure of hunger called very low food security, which occurs when eating patterns are disrupted or food intake is reduced for at least one household member because the household lacked money and other resources for food.

For purposes of this report, hunger means the lack of access to food when families do not have enough money, causing them to cut the size, quality, or frequency of their meals throughout the year. We wish to be very clear that hunger in America is not the same as famine and the resulting malnutrition seen in developing countries.

By this standard, 5.6 percent of households—6 million Americans—experienced hunger in 2014, for an average of about 7 months.

The commission identified 6 root causes of hunger:

red tape paintIt was once a common practice of saloons in America to provide a “free lunch” to patrons who had purchased at least one drink. Many foods on offer were high in salt (ham, cheese, salted crackers, etc.), so those who ate them naturally ended up buying a lot of beer.

In his 1966 sci-fi novel, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Robert Heinlein used this practice in a saloon on the moon to highlight an economic principle:

“It was when you insisted that the, uh, young lady, Tish—that Tish must pay, too. ‘Tone-stopple,’ or something like it.”

“Oh, ‘tanstaafl.’ Means ‘There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.’ And isn’t,” I added, pointing to a FREE LUNCH sign across room, “or these drinks would cost half as much. Was reminding her that anything free costs twice as much in long run or turns out worthless.”

“An interesting philosophy.”

“Not philosophy, fact. One way or other, what you get, you pay for.”

While the phrase “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch” didn’t originate with Heinlein, he did help to popularize the concept. It’s an important economic concept that is often overlooked, particularly when it comes to policy issues. A couple of years ago, in regards to, when Obamacare, economist Thomas Sowell asked, “do you seriously believe that millions more people can be given medical care and vast new bureaucracies created to administer payment for it, with no additional costs?”


The discussion is certainly on-going among the 220 opinion leaders who attended and spoke at Acton’s December 3 Rome conference In Dialogue with Laudato Si’: Can Free Markets Help Us Care for Our Common Home?

The Institute’s Rome office had hoped that the “dialogue” would continue well past the conference itself – within the Vatican, its pontifical universities and mass media – after heated discussion erupted over what is magisterium and debatable opinion in encyclical letters. When discussing environmental issues treated by Francis in Laudato Si’,  questions focused especially on technical matters related to economics and the material sciences as well as calling into question the expert secular counsel the Vatican often seeks to inform itself in areas of prudential judgment.

One of the panelists invited to the debate, economist Philip Booth of England’s St Mary’s University and Institute of Economic Affairs, was particularly outspoken about the pope’s own criticism of the financial industry and so-called manipulation of global food prices. (more…)