Sunday, March 25, 2012

Teacher, Educate Thyself!

There's a good post (or so it looks to me, I have no legal background) by bmaz at Emptywheel on the coming oral arguments before the Supreme Court on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, aka "Obamacare." Among other things, consider the irony of the Right seeking an activist Supreme Court to overturn a law they don't like. As the post concludes, "One thing IS certain, when the dust has settled, one side will say the Supremes are beautiful minds, and the other will say they are craven activist tyrants."

There's one aside in the piece that stuck in my attention, though, and merits comment. (Also chastisement.) bmaz considers an analogy, posed by an opponent of ACA, between the individual mandate (requiring everyone to purchase health insurance) and a hypothetical federal mandate to keep everyone in school until the age of 18. What do you think of that, ya libs? asks the right-wing critic. "Anyone think the government should win?"

I'd say no, but I'm not a Supreme Court Justice. And maybe, in terms of law and precedents, they should. bmaz replies (emphasis added by moi):
Actually David, yeah I wouldn’t have a real problem with that. As a sage friend related to me this morning, there is a direct correlation between a nation’s ability to compete in a world market and the level of education provided to it’s citizens. Citizens with less, or poorer, education harm the entire nation – it’s welfare, it’s defense, its very liberties and it’s ability to defend itself against threats and enemies, foreign and domestic. I think that is exactly right; if you accept the individual mandate is constitutionally agreeable, it would be hard to see how you could disagree with an “education mandate”.
bmaz may know a lot about the law, but not about educational issues, or apparently economic competitiveness. (Notice, by the bye, how the apostrophes take over the next sentence, though that's trivial; it's just amusing.) Actually, there is no direct correlation between a nation's ability to compete in the world market and the level of education provided to its citizens. bmaz's sage friend's dictum set off alarm bells in my head, and I looked up some of the late Gerald Bracey's remarks on this subject -- it was what you might call a pet peeve of his.

In 2007 Bracey discussed a World Economic Forum report on global competitiveness which covered twelve factors in ranking nations. The WEF ranked the US #1 at that time (admittedly before the worldwide collapse of 2008), though our rankings varied widely in the twelve factors. In number 4, Health and Primary Education, we ranked 34th in the world; in number 5, Higher Education and Training, we ranked 5th. Interestingly, given what I've been hearing lately, we ranked number 1 in both Labor Market Efficiency and Innovation. Even if we don't have a federal mandate on education, it's not hurting us much.

Bracey also pointed out:
First, though, we have to take a look at the concept of competitiveness. Many people take it as a zero-sum game: If you win, I lose. Not so. The computer chip was invented in the U.S. Many other nations benefited. If some young medical student in Nigeria invents a cure for AIDS, the world, not just Nigeria, will win.
Which is a reminder that harping on competitiveness, internationally or locally, is basically a dumb idea. (I've written about that before. See also this post by Bracey.) Bracey had other useful things to say on the subject five years earlier.
But there is a broader, more objective means of looking for any relationship. The Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) provides test scores for 41 nations, including the United States. Thirty-eight of those countries are ranked on the World Economic Forum’s CCI. It’s a simple statistical matter to correlate the test scores with the CCI.

There is little correlation. The United States is 29th in mathematics, but second in competitiveness. Korea is third in mathematics, but 27th in competitiveness. And so forth. If the two lists had matched, place for place, that would produce a perfect correlation of +1.0. But because some countries are high on competitiveness and low on test scores (and vice versa), the actual correlation is +.23. In the world of statistics, this is considered quite small.

So, direct correlation? It doesn't look like it. Sage Friend isn't so sage after all.

There are other reasons to doubt the wisdom of a federal educational mandate, apart from its legality or constitutionality. And it's not only the Right that opposes ACA's individual mandate for health insurance. As bmaz concedes,
This is about far more than Obama’s questionably cobbled together ACA law; the law is inane in how it soaks Americans to benefit craven insurance companies. Either way, sooner or later, healthcare as constructed and/or mandated by the ACA will die a painful death, but will continue to decimate American families for years, irrespective of the ruling by the Supreme Court on its nominal constitutionality. At some point, single payer, such as “Medicare For All” is inevitable.
So, while emptywheel is a very informative and intelligent blog, its writers do have their blind spots. I wish bmaz would ditch the schoolyard homophobia too.