Steve and Friedmans

Ten Years After Milton Friedman

One of the greatest minds of our era passed away in November 2006. This Sunday would have marked his 104th birthday. Milton Friedman won the Nobel Prize for Economics; but it was his ability to relate complex economic ideas in simple terms the average person could understand, and his devotion to liberty, that made him truly great.

Milton and his economist wife Rose spent literally decades researching, writing, speaking, and popularizing free-market economics and its connection to liberty and freedom. Rose actually grew up here in Portland, and it was my privilege to call her and Milton my friends.

This Friday, July 29th, the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice will celebrate the 10th and final Friedman Legacy Day, which began after Dr. Friedman passed away. Rather than continue these annual celebrations, the foundation, created by and named after Milton and Rose Friedman, will move forward with a new name and a new strategic plan. Both will be announced on the foundation website, at www.edchoice.org.

Please join all of us at Cascade Policy Institute as we celebrate the lives and contributions of a great couple, and renew our commitment to promote their ideas and ideals, which include the goal of every child being able to attend the public, private, religious, or home school of their choice, with funding following the student.

Celebrating the “Christopher Columbus” of School Choice, Milton Friedman

School choice has entered a new world. Because Americans are increasingly vocal about providing parents with the ability to choose their children’s schools, states are adopting broad-based school choice initiatives. Those successes can be attributed to various individuals, groups, and campaigns nationwide. However, it is school choice’s “Christopher Columbus” who deserves recognition for starting this movement more than 60 years ago.

In 1955, the yet-to-be Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman introduced his vision of school choice as a way to improve the quality of American education. His idea was simple: Give parents access to their children’s public education funding, rather than require they attend the government (public) schools nearest their homes.

“Governments could require a minimum level of education which they could finance by giving parents vouchers redeemable for a specified maximum sum per child per year if spent on ‘approved’ educational services,” Friedman wrote in 1955. “Parents would then be free to spend this sum and any additional sum on purchasing educational services from an ‘approved’ institution of their own choice. The educational services could be rendered by private enterprises operated for profit, or by non-profit institutions of various kinds. The role of the government would be limited to assuring that the schools met certain minimum standards such as the inclusion of a minimum common content in their programs, much as it now inspects restaurants to assure that they maintain minimum sanitary standards.”

Because of vested interests in the education arena, including powerful public school teachers unions, Friedman’s suggestions were ignored. And, as a result, the cost of public education doubled while its academic performance stayed the same. As Friedman noted, that should come as no surprise because that’s exactly what monopolies do: They offer a product of similar, if not worse, value at a higher price than normally would be allowed if they had to compete in the free market.

But those days are over. Many states are broke, preventing them from dropping more money out of airplanes over public schools. And many parents are fed up, wondering why their kids are underperforming or unmotivated in K-12 schools and unprepared for their college courses and future careers.

Because of that sentiment and cash crunch, according to the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, named after Milton and his wife Rose, we now see over half the states with one or more school choice programs, consisting of vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, individual tax credits and deductions, and Education Savings Accounts.

Oregon is behind the curve, with no significant private school choice programs―yet. But widening charter school and online school options hopefully will soon lead to more school choice for all Oregon children. The most promising possibility here involves an update of Friedman’s original voucher idea, now seen as the “rotary phone” of the school choice movement. The school choice “smart phone” is now Education Savings Accounts. ESAs give parents and students even more choices, while replacing the old “use it or lose it” funding mechanisms with a market system. This system allows parents to shop for educational services and use their savings toward future educational needs of their children.

Limited Education Savings Account programs now exist in several states, and Nevada is on the verge of implementing a near universal ESA program that soon could be available to all its K-12 students. If achieved, this will be seen as the realization of Milton Friedman’s 60-year-old vision of full school choice for every child, at least in one state with more to follow.

But Friedman’s vision was not for school choice to be just another government program. He wanted to see school choice fundamentally change the way public education operates from its current structure that supports government schools and the adults who work in them, to a better model that empowers parents. He argued that if both rich families and poor ones could receive government funding when their kids use public schools, then both rich and poor should be able to receive that same funding to make educational choices outside the government school system.

It took America more than 60 years to reach today’s environment in which parent empowerment in education is celebrated more than ridiculed. Moving forward, around the country and especially here in Oregon, we should celebrate the new world that the school choice movement’s “Christopher Columbus” opened up for us.

Milton Friedman died in 2006. For the ten years since, Cascade Policy Institute and more than one hundred other organizations around the world have celebrated what has become known as Friedman Legacy Day each year on or around his birthday, July 31. This year marks the last such formal celebration. The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, which has sponsored these events to honor and reflect on the life and legacy of its founder, has announced that on the day of this year’s final formal celebration, Friday, July 29, it will unveil its new name and new strategic plan designed to move Milton Friedman’s school choice vision even more effectively into the future. Please join us as we celebrate both the man and his vision, and as we look forward to many more children getting the quality educations they have been so long denied in our one-size-fits-all government school system.


A version of this Commentary first appeared in Cascade Business News on what would have been Milton Friedman’s 100th birthday, July 31, 2012. Steve Buckstein wrote about Friedman’s ties to Portland in The Oregonian the day after he died in 2006.

Like a Sales Tax on Steroids

Now that the massive Gross Receipts Tax measure IP 28 will be on Oregon’s November ballot, we likely will see many estimates of its impact on the state economy.

An economic research center at Portland State University just came out with its report on the measure, funded by the measure’s sponsor, union-backed Our Oregon.

Too bad that the sponsors picked a center headed by a respected former Oregon State economist who said publicly in March that their proposal would be “like a sales tax on steroids.”

Dr. Tom Potiowsky now chairs the PSU Economics Department and directs the Northwest Economic Research Center at the university. While the new PSU report doesn’t include the “sales tax on steroids” language that he personally used in March, it does confirm that such taxes “share many characteristics with sales taxes, and thus a greater burden on lower income households.”

The report also finds that because the tax will increase the cost of doing business in Oregon, it will destroy some 13,500 private sector jobs by 2027, while the added tax revenue will enable government employment to grow by 33,600 positions over the same period.

So, the tax will most hurt those least able to afford it, and will shift employment from the private to the public sector. Not bad for a sales tax on steroids.

“When in the Course of Human Events…”

—A Declaration That Never Goes out of Style

Two hundred and forty years ago this July 4, the world was gifted with one of the most significant political documents ever written. It began with these words:

“When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another…”

 Thomas Jefferson authored the Declaration of Independence to set out the reasons for the American people to “dissolve the political bands which have connected them” with Great Britain.

The Declaration also boldly stated:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

Before the Declaration, individuals accepted that Kings would run their lives. Afterward, they realized that they could run their own lives. As more people around the world discover this fact, thank Jefferson for inspiring mankind with the ideas and ideals they can use to take their lives back from Kings.

This year, for example, the people of Great Britain have just voted to “dissolve the political bands which have connected them” with the European Union in what became known as the Brexit election. While that vote is causing political and economic uncertainty in Europe and beyond, Jefferson and America’s founders would likely understand the “causes which impel them to the separation.

Jefferson also realized that government and society are not synonymous. He argued that government’s purpose is to protect the inalienable rights of the individuals that make up society. He understood that such rights are not granted by government; and that any rights government does claim to grant are really claims on someone else’s right to life, liberty, or property. What would he think of today’s politicians—and aspiring politicians—in Washington, D.C. and Salem, Oregon who propose law after law ordaining right after right?

Jefferson also understood that he wasn’t elected President in 1801 to “run the country.” He was elected President to run the executive branch of a limited, constitutional government that coincidently he helped to create.

As we consider candidates for state and federal executive offices this year, remember that Jefferson might tell us we aren’t voting for any of these men or women to “run the state of Oregon” or to “run the country.” We are voting for individuals to run the executive branches of limited, constitutional governments. Outside those governments’ limited responsibilities, we should be free to run our own lives.

To reinforce these concepts, why not read the Declaration again this Independence Day and consider the power it had—and still has—to change our world for the better.


Steve Buckstein is Founder and Senior Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. He was named the 2016 recipient of the Thomas Jefferson Award by the Taxpayer Association of Oregon and the Oregon Executive Club.

A Sales Tax by Any Other Name…

Public employee union backers of Initiative Petition 28 have turned in more than enough signatures to place their massive 2.5 percent gross receipts tax measure on Oregon’s November ballot.

While supposedly dedicating most of the $6 billion per biennium additional tax revenue to public education, health care, and senior services, in reality legislators would be under pressure from powerful lobbyists in the Capitol to substitute at least some of this new revenue for money they would otherwise dedicate to those services. In short, the loudest voices in Salem, not voters, will ultimately control where this extra tax money goes.

While the unions portray their measure as making large, out-of-state corporations pay their fair share of Oregon taxes, the nonpartisan Legislative Revenue Office has released a detailed report giving a much more balanced perspective, which includes:

■ IP 28 will increase state and local taxes by $600 per year on average for every man, woman, and child in Oregon, totaling over $6 billion each full biennium.

■ IP 28 will dampen income, employment, and population growth over the next 5 years. In fact, it is expected to reduce employment growth by more than 20,000 jobs over the next five years, with private sector job growth slowing while public sector job growth accelerates in order to spend all that new tax money.

■ IP 28 will hit lower- and middle-income Oregonians harder than it will affect high-income earners. In other words, it is a regressive tax.

Perhaps most telling, the Legislative Revenue Office concludes that IP 28 will act largely like a consumption tax. It estimates that roughly two-thirds of that $6 billion per biennium tax increase will be passed on to Oregon consumers in the form of higher prices. Another name for a consumption tax is a sales tax.

The reality that IP 28 would effectively be a sales tax should be a lesson for all Oregonians that businesses generally don’t pay taxes, people do. Even the largest corporations are made up of people, namely employees, and sell their goods and services to other people, namely customers. It is largely these two groups of people who pay so-called business taxes like the one that IP 28 would impose.

The backers of IP 28 certainly understand that it is really a tax on people, not corporations. But, it is harder to get voters to approve a tax measure when they think it will hit them with rising prices at the store and fewer job opportunities. Better to promote the fiction that big faceless corporations have some magic pots of money that they will simply hand over to state government and public employees without any consequences for the rest of us.

Public employee unions back IP 28 because most of the tax revenue it would generate will go into the pockets of their members. Once the rest of us realize that this money will come primarily out of our pockets, we might not be too excited about voting for this massive new money grab.


A version of this article originally appeared in The Coos Bay World on June 1, 2016.

Voters Decided to Leave Themselves Stranded by the Side of the Road

In the month since voters in Austin, Texas upheld new city regulations on ridesharing companies like Uber, the law of unintended consequences has been confirmed.

Austin’s highly regulated taxi industry got the city to impose strict regulations on their competition, but Uber and Lyft threatened to pull out of the city rather than comply with rules they said would be bad for them and their customers. The ridesharing companies backed an initiative to repeal the regulations.

As one pundit noted, a majority of voters decided “…to leave themselves stranded by the side of the road frantically searching for a ride. Well, that’s not what they’d say they did. Strictly speaking, they voted to stick it to corporate interests—by supporting political interests who favored other corporate interests.”

The unintended consequences of that vote included about 10,000 ridesharing drivers losing their employment, bars losing business as people had fewer ways to get home safely, and disabled residents looking for new ways to get around the city.

The market responded quickly with unregulated “black market” services such as Austin Underground Ride springing up to meet demand.

Austin voters may not have realized that the only way big corporations become big in a free market is by meeting consumer demand. In this case, Uber and Lyft may become a little bit smaller, but everyone in Austin lost some of their transportation freedom.

A Sales Tax by Any Other Name

Public employee union backers of Initiative Petition 28 appear to have turned in more than enough signatures to place their 2.5 percent corporate gross receipts tax on Oregon’s November ballot.

While the unions portray their measure as making large, out-of-state corporations pay their fair share of Oregon taxes, the nonpartisan Legislative Revenue Office (LRO) just released its more balanced perspective, which includes:

■ IP 28 will increase state and local taxes by $600 per year on average for every man, woman, and child in Oregon, totaling over $6 billion each full biennium.

■ IP 28 will dampen income, employment, and population growth over the next 5 years.

■ IP 28 will hit lower- and middle-income Oregonians harder than it will affect high-income earners. In other words, it is a regressive tax.

■ Finally, the Legislative Revenue Office concludes that IP 28 will act largely like a consumption tax. It estimates that roughly two-thirds of the $6 billion per biennium tax increase will be passed on to Oregon consumers in the form of higher prices.

Another name for a consumption tax is a sales tax.

Public employee unions back IP 28 because most of the tax revenue it would generate will go into the pockets of their members. Of course, that revenue will come out of everyone else’s pockets.

Help the Working Poor Adam Smith’s Way

This year’s May Day activities in Portland centered on promoting “workers’ rights” and “resistance to capitalism.” Unfortunately, too few critics of capitalism seem to realize that many of the workers they seek to help are being kept from using their knowledge and talents by a system of occupational licensure that dates back centuries.

May Day activists may not know that eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher and political economist Adam Smith, Capitalism’s Founding Father, was not simply interested in how markets profit those they now call “the one percent.” In fact, Smith strongly condemned restrictions on the working poor that kept them from benefiting from free exchange and the division of labor enabled by markets.

What in Smith’s day was called “incorporated trade” is today known as occupational licensure. Smith noted that apprenticeship requirements for weavers, hatters, tailors, etc., kept many out of these trades, while raising the wages of those already secure in them.

Today, most states impose fees and training requirements that keep many workers from entering dozens of occupations such as cosmetology, athletic training, and dry wall installation. Oregon, in fact, imposes some of the heaviest occupational licensing burdens on the working poor.

So, rather than simply berating capitalism, it would be nice if May Day activists could study a little economic history and then help reduce some of the licensing restrictions that limit workers’ rights today.

Do You Support the Free Market, But…?

I first wrote in 2003 about what I call “The Statement”:

“I support the free market just as much as you do, but….”

I had been hearing versions of The Statement in and around political and business circles for years. It impinged on one of the first issues Cascade Policy Institute tackled in the year of our founding, 1991. The city of Portland was planning to franchise residential garbage service (which it eventually did at the expense of consumers). At the time Portland was the largest city in the country without government garbage service or a private monopoly protected by law.

After I had written and testified before city council about the harmful effects of government intrusion into the garbage business, a local garbage hauler called me. He wanted to explain how protected franchises—that is, government-protected private monopolies—were actually a good thing.

After a few minutes he realized that I wasn’t buying his arguments, so he made what I later labeled The Statement: “I support the free market just as much as you do, but….” The “but” in this case was the exception he felt should be made to protect his business from competition and consumer choice.

Over the years I’ve heard The Statement from business people who argue that the State of Oregon and local jurisdictions should continue protecting them from new competition in all sorts of industries. The Portland taxi cartel successfully protected its position for decades before Cascade and others helped a group of Ethiopian immigrants to enter the market with Green Cab in 1998. Then, in 2015 the expanded taxi cartel tried to rely on The Statement to fight off ridesharing companies like Uber until the new smartphone technology that enabled them gave consumers power to demand that local governments allow the transportation freedom they promised…and delivered.

At the Capitol in Salem, I heard The Statement from business lobbyists who argued that the free market was great…except that their clients should be protected from new competitors in the home moving and natural hair braiding fields. Of course, these lobbyists weren’t simply protecting the interests of their paying clients…no, they always argued that keeping competitors out was for the benefit of the public health and safety. Luckily for the public, these arguments failed; and it is now much easier for aspiring entrepreneurs to enter these fields in Oregon, providing more choices for consumers and more economic opportunities for themselves.

On the national scene we’re now hearing a version of The Statement when presidential candidates say something like, “I’m for free trade too, but….” Flawed economic arguments about foreigners “taking our jobs” and other nations harming America by somehow imposing trade deficits on us are trotted out to justify protecting some businesses against others, and against consumers.

Business people argue for government protection at their peril. If government is justified in controlling who can provide our garbage service, or taxi service, or natural hair braiding, then why shouldn’t it control who can sell us our food, clothing, and shelter—all things we cannot do without?

If government can deny us the right to buy products produced in other countries, or can slap high tariffs on those products so that we have to pay much higher prices, how is this protecting “we the public”? Isn’t it really protecting “they, the special business interests”?

Lest anyone mistakenly believe that Cascade Policy Institute is “pro-business,” we are not. Rather, we are pro-liberty, pro-free-markets, and pro-consumer-choice. We understand that the slippery slope to a government-controlled economy begins when capitalists fail to consistently defend capitalism. The resulting economy harms most consumers and businesses alike at the expense of those who work for and are protected by big government.

There may be a case for government limiting competition in some fields and subsidizing some businesses at the expense of others; it’s just not a free-market case.

Enjoy the illusion that you’re not really paying taxes, when you cash that expensive refund check

Are you happy getting three extra days to file your income tax returns this year?

For nearly eighty percent of us, it doesn’t matter much because we are expecting refunds. No check writing for us. Why? Because the withholding system almost encourages over-withholding, thus giving the impression that we don’t pay taxes, the government pays us!

Try a little experiment. Ask ten of your friends how much they paid in taxes. Chances are, eight of them might say something like, “I didn’t pay anything, I’m getting money back!”

This happened because my hero Milton Friedman had one of his few bad ideas when he proposed the withholding concept while working at the Treasury Department during World War II. The government needed money fast to finance the war effort, and as Friedman said years later:

“It never occurred to me at the time that I was helping to develop machinery that would make possible a government that I would come to criticize severely as too large, too intrusive, too destructive of freedom. Yet, that was precisely what I was doing.”

Of course, by over-withholding we’re just giving the government an interest-free loan. But psychologically, doesn’t it feel nice getting that refund check?

So, enjoy the illusion that you’re not really paying taxes when you cash that expensive refund check. You paid dearly for it!

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