Month: December 2015

Living an “Examined” 2016

Socrates said, “An unexamined life is not worth living.” 2016 begins with national discussions about federal spending, taxes, unemployment, the economy, turmoil overseas, and tragedy at home―things over which most individual Americans have little or no control. But if we review our own lives carefully, much of what we find most personally significant is within our power to change for the better this New Year.

A palliative caregiver writing for AARP says her patients taught her five basic insights about living well. As they near death, she explains, people wish they had discerned their true calling and followed it, rather than other people’s desires and expectations. They wish they had simplified their lifestyle to spend more time with spouses and children and less on a work “treadmill” to pay for things they didn’t value in the end. They wish they had summoned the courage to express difficult emotions, to grow through resolving difficulties, and to become less mediocre. They wish they had stayed close to friends because “[i]t all comes down to love and relationships in the end.” Finally, they wish they had broken stale habits that curtailed personal growth and stifled laughter and joy.

An examined life is indeed worth the effort and is possible regardless of circumstances beyond our control. If we reflect deeply on our values, choices, and who we are called to be, we can live with purpose, integrity, and authenticity, regardless of the myriad problems in the world that cause us worry or sorrow.

Kathryn Hickok is Publications Director and Director of the Children’s Scholarship Fund-Portland program at Cascade Policy Institute.

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The Time is Right for School Choice

By John A. Charles, Jr.

In early December, President Obama signed a bill that dismantles most of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), the signature education legacy of former President George W. Bush.

According to the New York Times, the reform law will “restore authority for school performance and accountability to local districts and states after a lengthy period of aggressive federal involvement.”

Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander, chair of the Senate Education Committee, stated that the repeal of NCLB “will unleash a flood of excitement and innovation and student achievement that we haven’t seen in a long time.”

Ironically, in 1991, when he was secretary of education under President Bush, Alexander flew out to Oregon to pay tribute to the passage of the Oregon Education Act for the 21st Century (OEA-21). The OEA-21 was the legacy of then-House Speaker Vera Katz, who described it as “revolutionary” and “necessary to the economic prosperity of the state.”

OEA-21 established the infamous CIM/CAM student progress standards that came to be hated by just about every teacher, student, and parent in Oregon. CIM/CAM requirements were euthanized by the Oregon legislature in 2007.

With the demise of two prominent education reform programs, there’s a lesson here for Oregon policymakers: Having the federal government micromanage K-12 education is a bad idea, but top-down planning by the state isn’t much better. Parents are the ones who need to be in charge of the decision making.

A new program enacted by Nevada last June is exactly what Oregon needs. The Nevada legislature approved a law establishing Educational Savings Accounts (ESAs) for all public school students, beginning January 1, 2016. ESAs are private accounts, managed by the state for parents, which allow students to create their own individualized educational programs.

When an ESA is established, 90 percent of the state funds that would have been spent on a student in a generic public school are placed in the ESA, where the money is drawn down in debit-card fashion by parents for various educational expenses, including private school tuition, online learning, tutors, or textbooks.

For 2016, a Nevada ESA will be worth about $5,100 for each student, or $5,700 for low-income students who will receive 100 percent of the state allocation. Therefore, every public school student will have the financial means to walk out of an underperforming school and pursue alternatives. This will immediately change the balance of power between parents and school administrators, creating an incentive for every public school to treat students as customers, not conscripts.

Most importantly, if ESA funds are not fully utilized by the end of the school year, the residual amount stays in the account, available for future use. This eliminates the dysfunctional “use it or lose it” imperative associated with most government programs.

Since 93 percent of all Nevada students are in public schools, they will immediately qualify for an ESA. Private school students can become eligible if they return to a public school for at least 100 consecutive days. All students entering kindergarten will be eligible and will never have to requalify, which means the Nevada program will have universal coverage for all students by 2027 at the latest.

On November 17, the Oregon Senate Education Committee held an informational hearing on the Nevada ESA program. Nevada Senator Scott Hammond participated via speakerphone. He provided an overview of the ESA law and answered questions from Oregon senators.

Education Committee Chair Arnie Roblan (D-Coos Bay) has not publicly said whether he will pursue similar legislation for Oregon, but the November hearing was a positive step forward. If there is legislative interest, we can use the 2016 interim as an opportunity to observe the Nevada rollout, learn from their experience, and craft a similar (or better) program for Oregon.

Now that Congress has helped clear the way by repealing the most onerous provisions of NCLB, this would be an excellent time to move beyond Utopian central-planning schemes and restore “consumer sovereignty” in learning with Educational Savings Accounts.

John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. This article originally appeared in the December 2015 edition of the newsletter, “Oregon Transformation: Ideas for Growth and Change.”

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The Truth About Santa Claus

Do you believe in Santa Claus? Many think they are too old to believe in Santa Claus, but they have unwittingly come believe in another one—a figurative Santa Claus that goes by the name of “welfare state” or “big government.”

But Santa would be insulted by the comparison.

The real Santa Claus is Saint Nicholas, a fourth-century bishop who used his inheritance to anonymously alleviate the suffering of others, particularly children and poor women. This reputation led to his being associated with giving surprise gifts at Christmas.

The mystique of Santa Claus is about giving, not entitlement. Santa Claus is about the magic of the serendipitous, the unexpected miracle, the abundance of goodness unleashed in the world when we choose generosity and compassion over selfishness.

Santa isn’t about getting; he’s about giving. When as family members, neighbors, and citizens, we give a hand to those around us, we’ll be less tempted to expect government to be the first, best, or only solution to society’s problems. And we’ll be less likely to think only about what we can get—from our family, our neighbors, or the state.

Merry Christmas!

Kathryn Hickok is Publications Director and Director of the Children’s Scholarship Fund-Portland program at Cascade Policy Institute.


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Freedom in Film: Nicky’s Family (2011)

As the world approaches 2016, we reflect on what transpired in 2015 and what lies ahead in the New Year. The terrorism we saw recently in Paris and San Bernardino was terrible; but 6,000 people are alive today who witnessed those events through the eyes of 669 relatives who would have perished in the Nazi Holocaust if it hadn’t been for one man—a man who passed away July 1 at the age of 106.

In 1938, 29-year-old British stockbroker Nicholas Winton saw a tragedy unfolding, as Hitler’s army threatened to occupy Czechoslovakia and exterminate its Jewish population. His story and that of his “family” is portrayed in one of the most powerful documentary films I’ve ever seen.

Nicky’s Family [2011] is an emotional retelling of the remarkable efforts one man took to rescue 669 Czech children from near-certain death during World War II. Sir Nicholas Winton was a young English businessman when chance brought him to Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. He put aside his own pursuits and began organizing the many children of Jewish refugees who were trying to escape Nazi clutches. Once he had appointed himself the authority for such matters, Winton went to work arranging transport and placing these children in English homes.”

As the film’s director noted about Winton, “His exploits would have probably been forgotten if his wife, fifty years later, hadn’t found a suitcase in the attic, full of documents and transport plans. Today the story of this rescue is known all over the world. Dozens of Winton’s ‘children’ have been found and to this day his family has grown to almost 6,000 people, many of whom have gone on to achieve great things themselves.”

The film was produced in 2011 when Winton was 102. It features him and many of the children he saved, who are now in their seventies and eighties themselves. The most emotional scene to me is when Sir Winton (he was knighted by the Queen for his efforts) first met many of these now-grown children whom he hadn’t seen since 1939.

I found the most powerful statement he made in the film was when he related how, during his rescue operation, two British rabbis told him they objected to him placing some of his Czech Jewish children with English Christian families. Winton told them that he preferred Jewish children living in Christian families than dying with their families in what quickly became the Nazi Holocaust.

My friend Larry Reed, now President of the Foundation for Economic Education, first met and interviewed Nicholas Winton in 2006, and visited him regularly until last year. When I first heard Larry’s story about his friendship with Sir Nicholas, I thought how fortunate I was to be separated by just one degree from this hero of humanity.

Freedom and liberty are universal human aspirations, but they are continually under assault here and around the world. Nicholas Winton wouldn’t accept the fact that many countries closed their borders to helpless children trying to escape near-certain death at the hands of what can be seen today as 1930’s Nazi terrorists.

If you appreciate inspiring stories about real-world heroes, you won’t find a better one than Nicky’s Family. Watch the movie trailer here; then you can buy the 96-minute DVD or stream it at Netflix and Amazon.

As you celebrate this New Year, realize that more than 6,000 people are celebrating it with you thanks to Nicky Winton.

Steve Buckstein is Founder and Senior Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Freedom in Film: Becket (1964)

Film and stage legend Peter O’Toole died December 14, 2013, at age 81. Best known for his epic Lawrence of Arabia, O’Toole is also remembered for his dramatization of King Henry II in Becket (1964), for which he received one of his eight Academy Award nominations. What makes Becket particularly special is the dynamic, intense interaction of two larger-than-life Hollywood personalities, with Richard Burton arguably giving one of his best performances in the title role.

Becket concerns the complicated relationship between King Henry and the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is also the King’s best friend. Henry nominates Thomas Becket for England’s highest ecclesiastical position because he believes Thomas will always side with the King in disputes between the increasingly autocratic power of the State and the independence of the Church. What Henry cannot foresee is that Becket will take his ordination seriously and use his office to defend the legal rights of the Church and promote the civil rights of minorities. Like Sir Thomas More centuries later (whose life and fate resemble Thomas Becket’s), Becket becomes “the King’s good servant, but God’s first.”

American viewers today may experience Becket primarily as a story about the separation of Church and State in a context far removed from the modern world. Yet, in a broader and subtler sense, the film strongly highlights the reasons why we need separation of powers among branches of government.

The power struggle between Henry and Becket takes place in the 12th century, before the adoption of the Magna Carta. At that time, there were few checks on the power of the monarch, and tensions between the King and the barons ran deep. While the King needed a quorum of nobles and knights to support his decisions, few ambitious people dared to take the losing side. The only sector of society which the King could not completely influence was the Church. With its legal structure, rights of “sanctuary” (where accused persons could take refuge while seeking to prove their innocence), and authority figures capable of negotiating with heads of state on behalf of minorities, the Church of the Middle Ages was the only consistent counterbalance to the monarch.

The adoption of the Magna Carta in 1215 was an important milestone in the evolution of English constitutional law. It limited the power of the monarch, guaranteed various rights and liberties to “freemen,” and set the stage for the eventual development of modern parliamentary government in the English-speaking world. When the U.S. Constitution was adopted more than 550 years later, the Founding Fathers recognized the crucial importance of checks and balances. No one person or group of people should be allowed to concentrate all the powers of law, taxation, administration of justice, and war (not to mention religion) in their own hands. The framers of the Constitution created three distinct branches of government so that no one could become an autocrat like Henry, and the U.S. government would not devolve into a brawl among factions.

The Saxon Thomas Becket’s courage in standing up to a Norman King of England, and his tragic betrayal, have been so deeply imprinted upon the English imagination that the events of the night of December 29, 1170 have been memorialized famously from Chaucer, to T.S. Eliot, to O’Toole and Burton’s Becket. If you are looking for an unusual film for Christmas week, look no further than Becket, and watch it in honor of valor and freedom on December 29.

Kathryn Hickok is Publications Director and Director of the Children’s Scholarship Fund-Portland program at Cascade Policy Institute.

(A version of this article was originally published December 17, 2013.)


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Give Every Oregon Employer a Personalized Minimum Wage

Union-backed and activist groups are trying to put measures on the November 2016 ballot to raise Oregon’s minimum wage from the current $9.25 to either $13.50 or $15, and to allow local governments such as the city of Portland to go above whatever the statewide minimum ends up being.

State Senator Michael Dembrow (D) thinks he can improve minimum wage policy by recognizing that different regions of that state have different costs of living and employment climates. He’s trying to craft a bill for the February 2016 legislative session that would set three different minimum wage rates: one for the Portland Metro region, one for the Willamette Valley, and one for everywhere else.

Assuming the Senator is on to something (a dubious assumption at best), why stop at three rates? Clearly, every employer has somewhat different circumstances, so why not set a different rate for each of them? Dembrow could give each employer a hearing lasting as long as the legislature gives the public to testify on bills—three minutes—to explain their particular circumstances. He then could assign them their own personalized minimum wage rates. Assuming about 100,000 employers in the state, working eight hours every business day with no breaks, the Senator could have the perfect minimum wage bill crafted in only two and a half years. Voilà, problem solved! Or is it?

Of course, in reality, Dembrow and the activists are trying to solve a problem through government that is better left to free people in a free society. Minimum wage laws are nothing more than price controls that end up hurting the very people they purport to help: often young, less educated, and less experienced workers who will find it harder to get or keep a job when the government prices their labor above what a business can economically justify.

Steve Buckstein is Founder and Senior Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Uber and Portland: “The Future and Its Enemies” Clash in the Rose City

The Portland City Council has voted 3-2 to let ridesharing companies Uber and Lyft operate permanently in the city. The normally “progressive” council members’ split decision revealed a conflict of visions that does not fall along ideological lines as much as it falls along lines revealing how they view the future.

Author Virginia Postrel wrote a book in 1998 that virtually foresaw the conflict Portlanders and others around the world are wrestling with in the new sharing/app economy – an economy that didn’t even exist until 2008. In The Future and Its Enemies: The Growing Conflict Over Creativity, Enterprise, and Progress, Postrel argued that the opposing world views of “stasis” and “dynamism” are replacing “left” and “right” as we struggle to define our cultural and political debate in the twenty-first century.

Many large cities, including Portland, have regulated the taxicab industry for over 100 years. Regulating prices and limiting the number of taxis on the road has resulted in a small group of crony capitalist companies benefitting at the expense of their passengers, and often at the expense of their own drivers.

It got so bad in Portland, that for over twenty years beginning in 1976 not one new taxi company was allowed to enter the market. And regulators wouldn’t even let one new cab on the streets unless an owner could prove the demand existed for that vehicle; something that was almost impossible to do even as the city’s population grew.

In 1998, Cascade Policy Institute helped a group of Ethiopian immigrants win approval from the city to start Green Cab, the first new Portland cab company allowed in more than two decades. Regulators agreed, not because the proposal made sense (which it did), but likely because they knew that the libertarian public interest law firm Institute for Justice would go to federal court to protect the economic liberty rights of those wanting to earn an honest living by providing transportation services to consumers.

Once smartphone apps emerged in 2008, the “stasis” of the transportation marketplace began giving way to the “dynamic” future that Uber pioneered in 2010. Thanks to the mobile devices most of us now carry in our pockets, the future of transportation and many other fields are quickly changing for the better…at least in the minds of the dynamists.

Once Uber entered Portland without city approval on December 5, 2014 and thousands of Portlanders put the app on their smartphones, city officials may have realized that most of these folks were also voters. They struck a temporary deal with Uber and agreed to develop new rules that would let it operate permanently in the city.

Even the city commissioner once seen as Uber’s biggest foe, Steve Novick, now says he never understood why the city should have a limited-entry system in which a small number of taxi companies were given a sharply restricted number of permits to operate cabs. He says the taxi companies had a sense of “entitlement” after being treated like a city utility for the past century. After being given authority for taxi regulation by the Mayor, Novick ended the strict limits on taxi permits, and the city increased the number of permits by 64 percent.

Novick set up a Task Force to suggest rules for both taxi companies and ridesharing firms like Uber. Traditional taxi drivers quickly became disappointed that “The Future” wasn’t going to include protections for them and strict limits on their new competitors. On December 2, 2015 Novick joined two other commissioners in voting Yes for dynamism, while two voted to keep the stasis that is quickly becoming transportation’s past.

The foremost opponent of the plan to let Uber operate permanently was commissioner Amanda Fritz. She prepared and read a ten-minute statement before voting No. She delineated several issues she believed were unfair to existing taxi companies and that could be harmful to Portlanders, including relatively low insurance limits for ridesharing drivers when passengers aren’t in their cars. One part of her statement clearly puts her on the side of “stasis” and denies the liberating power that the free market and technology provide for drivers and passengers alike:

“New taxi companies will no longer be scrutinized by the grueling public vetting and approval by City Council in an open public hearing. I feel so sad for my friends in Union Cab, supported by the Communication Workers of America Local 7901. You worked so hard to win approval. You offer dozens of immigrant families not only a chance at the American Dream, but an opportunity to belong to an American union, part of the united American Federation of Labor movement. You achieved the dream, in winning approval of your franchise. And now the majority of Council is telling you you’re an expendable casualty in the free market – the free market that is grinding the working class and the middle class into the servants of the billionaire corporations.”

Contrary to Fritz’s charges, the free market is liberating people worldwide from grinding poverty. In Portland it is allowing several thousand people to work for themselves as full- or part-time Uber and Lyft drivers. It is giving passengers new, cheaper, and quicker options to travel around the city.

The free market and technology are combining to help mold a dynamic future. Those trying to stop this future, including city commissioners who voted against it, are clinging to a stasis that cannot and should not prevail. “The Future and Its Enemies” is playing out right now in the City of Roses. Thankfully, The Future is winning.

Steve Buckstein is Founder and Senior Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.


Steve was interviewed about this topic on KUIK’s The Jayne Carroll Show on Wednesday, December 9, 2015. You can listen to his interview here.

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New Transportation Funding Bill: Going Nowhere FAST

Last week Congress passed H.R. 22, a five-year transportation funding bill known as Fixing America’s Surface Transportation, or FAST.

Under the terms of FAST, the federal Highway Trust Fund will take in about $208 billion in federal gas taxes, while sending $280 billion back to the states by 2020. The $70 billion deficit will be made up from income taxes.

Essentially, this is the same thing Congress has been doing for decades. Since 1993 we’ve paid a federal gas tax of $18.4 cents/gallon; the money flows to Washington; then it gets sent back to the states after a chunk of it has been diverted into a wasteful transit account.

There is no policy rationale for this circular travel of dollars. Most auto, transit, and truck trips are local. Therefore, the operational money should be collected locally as well.

What Congress should have done is repeal the federal gas tax and shut down the federal transportation agencies.

The FAST Act was an expensive band-aid for a problem that needs a new approach. We have the technology to collect mileage-based user fees from motorists, truck operators, and transit customers. We should use that technology to pay for the roads and transit facilities that consumers are willing to pay for, and stop waiting to be saved by a federal transportation Santa Claus.

John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Freedom in Fiction: The Groves of Academe

By Gilion Dumas

Student sit-ins, “safe spaces” (otherwise known as idea-free zones), demands for high-profile faculty resignations….  Think things are out of control on college campuses today? You might enjoy Mary McCarthy’s 1951 academic satire The Groves of Academe, reviewed here by Cascade board member Gilion Dumas.

White Russians, communists, atheists, Catholics, progressives, classicists, English professors, and visiting poets all roam the halls of Jocelyn College and the pages of Mary McCarthy’s 1951 campus novel classic, The Groves of Academe. Jocelyn is an experimental liberal arts college somewhere in New England and prides itself on the academic freedom enjoyed by its professors and students. But when Henry Mulcahy gets a letter from the college president informing him that his contract will not be renewed in the fall, he tries to twist the college’s liberal Zeitgeist to his own advantage.

Mulcahy starts the rumor that he was let go because he was a member of the Communist Party. In the era of McCarthy hearings and Hollywood blacklists, Mulcahy perversely figures that his fellow academics in the English department would rally to support him in his hour of prosecution, championing his cause for political freedom.

What follows is a series of closed-door conspiracies, petty intrigues, and shuffling alliances, as the English department debates Mulcahy’s future and tries to persuade the president to keep him on. Meanwhile, Jocelyn hosts its first-ever poetry conference, introducing a dozen new characters and opportunity for greater mischief.

Freedom is the underlying theme to all threads of the story. Debates rage (in the civilized, over-intellectual tones of college professors) around the idea of freedom: freedom in academics, politics, sex, ideology, religion, poetry, movement, and expression. Specific discussions address whether, in a supposed bastion of academic freedom, a card-carrying Communist can be intellectually free or must take orders from the Party? Are Catholics in the same position, bound by the dictates of Rome? Are the students of Jocelyn really academically free to choose their fields of study, as advertised, if the professors, anxious to reduce their own workload, steer the students towards a select syllabus? Are the students, in fact, better off with a little intellectual steering?

Often, McCarthy raises the idea of personal freedom more subtly, in the choices the characters make or descriptions of college life. For instance, the new-found freedom enjoyed by college students sparkles in this gem, describing the professor who always volunteered to chaperone student trips abroad in exchange for free travel:

Whenever, during the summer, he took a party of students abroad under his genial wing, catastrophic event attended him. As he sat sipping his vermouth and introducing himself to tourists at the Flore or the Deux Magots, the boys and girls under his guidance were being robbed, eloping to Italy, losing their passports, slipping off to Monte Carlo, seeking out an abortionist, deciding to turn queer, cabling the decision to their parents, while he took out his watch and wondered why they were late in meeting him for the expedition to Saint-Germain-en-Laye.

With that kind of wit and insight, the story plays out like the best drawing room drama. It is sneakily funny, both as subtle and biting as a gin gimlet. For example, McCarthy deftly captures the character of the college president:

Like all such official types, he specialized in being his own antithesis: strong but understanding, boisterous but grave, pragmatic but speculative when need be. The necessity of encompassing such opposites had left him with a little wobble of uncertainty in the center of his personality, which made other people…feel embarrassed by him.

McCarthy is credited with inventing the “academic novel” with The Groves of Academe. This is satire at its best, finding absurdity in the minutia that drive the characters rather than clownish humor in exaggeration. As Commentary Magazine wrote when Groves was first published, McCarthy annoyed the politically correct before the term was even invented: “There is a particular kind of ‘right-thinking’ mind that is reduced to a frantic rage not only by what she says, but by her tone, her metaphorical habits, the very shape of her sentences.” Many have followed McCarthy’s campus novel template, but no one has exceeded her achievement.

Gilion Dumas is on the board of Cascade Policy Institute. She practices law at her own firm, the Dumas Law Group, in Portland. When not practicing law, she blogs at Rose City Reader. (A version of this article was originally published August 10, 2013.)

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The Futility of Public Hearings

Over the past four years, TriMet and Metro have been planning something called the SW Corridor Project. Metro describes it as a multi-modal project featuring new transit capacity, local street improvements, and enhancements to trails, sidewalks, and bike lanes. The project will begin at Portland State, travel along Barbur Boulevard, and terminate somewhere near Tualatin.

The exact nature of the transit element has never been disclosed; ostensibly, the choice is between light rail and bus-rapid transit. The Project Steering Committee insists that final decisions on the technology, route, terminus, and financial plan are still open for discussion, with some preliminary decisions scheduled for 2016.

Curiously, however, at the November 11 TriMet Board of Directors planning retreat, the Board was informed (at 3:17:05) by project staff that opening day for the project has already been set: September 12, 2025.

How is it that TriMet already knows the exact day that operations will commence, if it doesn’t even know any of the particulars – including a proposed, $250 million tunnel to PCC-Sylvania that would only be built if light rail is chosen?

Apparently, all decisions have actually been made, and future public hearings will be just as fake as the past ones.

All aboard for light rail to Bridgeport Village. Only 3,581 days till the opening ceremony!

John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.


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