The college attainment gap

Ben Casselman at FiveThirtyEight has a good writeup on the racial gaps in collegiate attainment. We have succeeded at narrowing the gap between white students and black students enrolling in college. “[J]ust under 70 percent of white high school graduates go to college,” Casselman explains, “versus 65 percent of blacks.”

Where the real disparity lies is the rate at which these students graduate from college. Among students who enter a four-year college, 60 percent of whites had a bachelor’s degree within six years, but only 40 percent of blacks and 51 percent of Latinos did.

Minority students therefore are entering college at about the same rates as white students are, but many of them are not finishing. The reasons for this attainment gap are not yet clear, but colleges and high schools have already shown concern. At the much-lauded KIPP charter school chain, administrators discovered a similar gap among their own students in 2011. KIPP (which serves predominantly low-income minority students) looked at its class of eighth graders from ten years earlier and found that one-third of these students wound up earning bachelor’s degrees.

KIPP had mixed feelings about this number. It exceeded the 30.6 percent national college attainment rate for Americans as a whole. It also far outpaced the dismal 8.6 percent college attainment rate for African-Americans in the same age cohort. But for a charter school chain that stresses academic achievement and focuses on sending students on to successful college careers, the data was nonetheless disappointing.

Like the data that Casselman looked at, KIPP found that its students were enrolling in college but failing to finish. KIPP found that 89 percent of its Houston and New York eighth graders ultimately enrolled in college, but only 33 percent finished. This gap appears to be even larger than the national gap among African-American students that Casselman found, where 65 percent enrolled but only 40 percent graduated.

There are a number of caveats to this. Casselman’s data looks only at high school graduates, whereas the KIPP data looks at KIPP’s former eighth graders – regardless of whether they finished high school with KIPP or at all. KIPP likely also serves a lower socioeconomic population than the national cohort of African-American high school graduates. (Casselman shows that there is also a socioeconomic gap between enrollment and graduation, though it is not as pronounced as the racial gap.)

The success of charter schools like KIPP in slashing high school dropout rates and raising high school graduation rates among low-income minority students ought to be celebrated. While education reformers are steadily narrowing our K-12 achievement gap, their next frontier will be confronting the college attainment gap. Schools are just beginning to wrestle with this gap, and many schools and districts surprisingly don’t track or publish data following their former students through college. They will need to identify what is causing this gap to persist. Maybe the schools’ methodology works for producing high school graduates, but doesn’t prepare students for college-style learning. Or maybe the tendency of these schools to have socioeconomically and racially isolated education (often by necessity) leaves students culturally unprepared for overwhelmingly white middle-class college campuses.

Whatever the cause, the imperative of the problem is clear. As our economy advances and becomes increasingly competitive, high school graduation and college enrollment are no longer enough to rest our laurels on.

The Week: RFK, Paul Ryan, and welfare reform

My debut piece for The Week is out. It discusses what Paul Ryan and company could learn from Robert Kennedy’s critique of welfare:

Where Ryan sees welfare dependency as a wasteful moral failing by the poor, Kennedy saw something else. Kennedy saw those on welfare yearning for “the kind of employment that lets a man say to his community, to his family, to the country, and most important, to himself, ‘I helped to build this country. I am a participant in its great public ventures. I am a man.'”

Read the rest here.

More than just hopelessness

Inspired by the past few weeks’ debates over race and poverty, I picked up a copy of the sociologist William Julius Wilson’s More Than Just Race. Tired of the predictable arguments over urban poverty where one side blames culture and the other blames structure, Wilson set out to lend order and data to this debate, showing the interconnected relationship between structural and cultural forces in perpetuating poverty.

What Wilson ultimately found, however, was that structural and systemic factors were far more important than cultural ones. Structural impediments like past and present economic policies that have an adverse impact on poor urban communities, disinvestment in these communities, and housing policy that leads to concentrated poverty account for much of what keeps the urban poor poor. Indeed, Wilson shows that many of the cultural blights that conservatives often point toward are in fact results and symptoms of bigger structural barriers.

Take, for instance, the argument that black males are detached from the labor force because of a culture of defeatism. Not so, according to Wilson. Detachment from work is instead the result of scarcely apparent meaningful work and repeated encounters with implicit racial bias from employers – bias that we know persists from multiple studies. Wilson presents data showing that the same resume is significantly more likely to receive an interview offer when it bears a white-sounding name at the top rather than a black-sounding name. He tells us that a black job applicant was less likely to get a job offer than a white applicant with a felony conviction. (Along this vein, see Evan Soltas’s article on data suggesting that peer reviewers tend to be more critical of written work when they think the author is black.)

Wilson similarly debunks cultural attacks on the dissolution of the black family. He explains that the eligible marriage pool for low-income black women is slim. Due to the lack of meaningful jobs for men to support a family and mass incarceration of young black males, women calculate that there is little to be gained from marrying. Yet with little apparent economic opportunity in their lives, these women see raising a child as the one tangible achievement within their reach.

Wilson’s tour through sociological data and ethnographic studies shows that an assessment of poverty that rests near exclusively on cultural explanations cannot be sustained as serious analysis. This disqualifies much of what we hear from conservative politicians casting blame for urban poverty on weak work ethic and unwed mothers.

But is there yet a place for culture in our discussions of poverty? Can liberals be justified in recognizing the primacy of structural forces, but still placing some weight on cultural explanations?

Wilson affirmatively answers yes. He praises President Obama’s rhetorical pairing of structure and culture during his Philadelphia speech on race. After asking white Americans to acknowledge the structural hardships that litter black Americans’ pathway to success, Obama still “focused on problematic cultural and behavioral response to these inequities, including a cycle of violence among black men and a ‘legacy of defeat’ that has been passed on to future generations.” Obama called on blacks to parent better, to teach their children to overcome the forces keeping them down, telling them that “while they may face challenges in discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism; they must always believe that they can write their own destiny.”

I’ve argued that liberals can support projects that aim to teach low-income minority children traditionally middle-class norms. These norms are valuable economic assets in the corridors of our society that create a pathway to the middle-class. Because middle-class white children absorb these norms at home, low-income minority children have been placed at a competitive disadvantage – especially given that persistent de facto social segregation has impeded these norms from spreading naturally. Our economic system is a middle-class game, and low-income minority kids ought to be given all the requisite equipment to have a fighting chance in that game.

This is an example of what I’d call “soft” resource redistribution. It helps level the playing field for low-income minority kids, but it comes at no cost to others in society. Wilson explains that many children raised in concentrated poverty learn to avoid eye contact because such behavior might be seen as threatening on the street. Yet one who averts his eyes in the middle-class world is perceived as being untrustworthy or lacking self-confidence. This behavioral split between two worlds would seem ripe for training and empowerment in good low-income schools.

Many of the structural barriers that low-income minorities face can only be rectified through “hard” resource redistribution. Eradicating implicit bias in employment depends on a long upheaval of our segregated communities, schools, housing tracts, and beyond. “Hard” resource redistribution is often thought to be zero-sum, like taxation and benefit redistribution or collegiate affirmative action policies. It therefore engenders strong political resistance when one group is seen to be burdened for the benefit of others.

So while structure requires long-term fixes, culture might be malleable in the short-term. Though structural fixes are hard, this should not freeze liberal efforts to help today’s poor rise into the middle-class. While the long slog of rooting out prejudice marches on for generations, black parents today can surmount the barriers that remain by raising admirably and irrationally optimistic kids that can brush off slights and overcome adversity. While extinguishing employment bias will span decades, we can ask young black men to yet press on despite demoralizing encounters with an unfair system.

Culture might be dwarfed by structure in the poverty research, but for those living in it, culture may be a meaningful way forward. Our political system struggles to marshal the will to tackle the structural forces, with one party virtually denying the existence of any structural problems at all. But this ought not paralyze liberal efforts to lift the poor out of poverty. Liberals can both recognize that structural fixes are vitally necessary long-term solutions to poverty, while supporting cultural band-aids to ease the pathway into the middle-class for today’s poor. For if reforming systemic discrimination is not forthcoming, liberals must offer the poor more than just hopelessness.

Halbig revisted: How Congress can turn apples into oranges

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals is expected to issue a decision in the Obamacare subsidy case Halbig v. Sebelius any day now. Recall: Halbig challenges whether the Obamacare statute prevents the millions of Americans who signed up for health insurance on federal exchanges from being eligible for premium subsidies. A ruling that these Americans are not eligible for subsidies would have the effect of gutting health care reform in the 35 states (now including Oregon) that do not operate their own health exchanges, putting health insurance out of reach for millions.

I’ve argued that there is a fundamental flaw in the Obamacare opponents’ theory that has largely gone unnoticed during the litigation. Their theory is that Congress made insurance subsidies available only on state-run exchanges as a way to encourage states to run their own exchanges. Congress, it goes, thought that states would not want to deprive their citizens of valuable subsidies.

This, however, understates the power of the federal incentive in the plaintiffs’ theory because it ignores the implications of Obamacare’s ban on preexisting conditions. A state the declines to create an exchange would lose subsidies, leaving the individual mandate largely inactive in that state (under the mandate’s affordability exemption). But such a state would still be subject to other Obamacare regulations, including the rule that insurance companies cannot refuse to cover people with preexisting medical conditions or price discriminate against them.

This regulatory combination – no individual mandate, coupled with a ban on preexisting condition exclusions – would wreck state insurance markets. People would wait until they became sick to purchase health insurance, making insurance pools increasingly more expensive and comprised of sick people. This is what’s known as an insurance market death spiral.

So the Halbig plaintiffs’ theory is that Congress threatened states not just with a loss of subsidies, but with an all-out insurance market catastrophe if they declined to run an exchange. Such a threat may very well be unconstitutionally coercive under the Supreme Court’s 2012 decision on Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, NFIB v. Sebelius. But the doctrine of constitutional avoidance – the rule that judges should choose a constitutional interpretation of a statute over a potentially unconstitutional one (which Chief Justice Roberts employed to uphold the individual mandate) – should guide courts away from the plaintiffs’ problematic coercion theory and toward the government’s argument that the statute is messy and ambiguous, but can reasonably be read to give insurance subsidies on all exchanges.

The Obamacare opponents’ theory, then, ultimately disqualifies itself. Yet as best as I can tell, this argument has not been made in full during the course of this litigation. The Commonwealth of Virginia argued in an amicus brief in a related case that courts should use constitutional avoidance because of the unconstitutional coercion at the heart of the challengers’ theory. But it pointed only to the “potentially devastating financial burdens [imposed] directly on State citizens” through the loss of subsidies. The coercion theory is much more powerful when the ban on preexisting condition exclusions is added to the mix.

A group of economists filed a brief in Halbig pointing to the experiences of states like New York, Massachusetts, and New Jersey in “implement[ing] insurance reforms barring discrimination without simultaneously ensuring wide participation through subsidies and mandates.” These states saw insurers exit the market and premiums skyrocket to unaffordable levels – in short, they experienced death spirals. “Congress,” these economists say, “could not have intended a similar outcome for the nation.”

The Cato Institute’s Michael Cannon, one of the architects of the challengers’ argument, characterizes the economists argument as that conditioning subsidies on states running their own exchanges would “trigger an adverse-selection ‘death spiral’; that would be really bad policy; and Congress would never intentionally enact really bad policy.” But the point is not that Congress would never enact this kind of bad policy, or that Congress couldn’t have intended a national death spiral; it’s that Congress flat-out cannot enact this kind of coercive policy – that it would likely be unconstitutional under NFIB.

The complete argument that I’ve laid out takes into account the full implications of subsidies-as-carrots given a regulatory regime that imposes a ban on preexisting condition exclusions. If this argument is right, it lowers the bar for the government. The government must only show that its interpretation of the law is reasonable. It need not be persuasive or the most convincing reading of the statute – it must only be plausible.

So has the government made a reasonable argument? Can the statute reasonably be read to make premium subsidies available on all types of exchanges?

A key piece of the government’s argument is that, under Section 1563(b) of the Affordable Care Act, the word “exchange” is defined as a state-created exchange. This means that the drafters of the Act said that a federal “exchange” is a state exchange. So if subsidies are available on state exchanges, then they are also available on federal exchanges.

But how can that be? How could a federal exchange be a state exchange? The contradictory logic of this has proven to be a stumbling block for many observers, not least of which includes lawyers arguing the case before the D.C. Circuit. Michael Carvin, the lawyer for the Halbig plaintiffs, maintained that “You can’t interpret state to mean federal, you can’t interpret north to mean south.”

Except that you can. There might be perfectly good reasons to interpret state to mean federal or north to mean south. There is not a “no opposites” rule to drafting statutory definitions. Congress uses defined terms as short-hand labels when it drafts statutes. It might then define seemingly opposite things to equal one another because it wants them to have the same powers, privileges, and attributes.

Suppose that, for whatever reason, Congress was enacting comprehensive fruit reform. It begins by legislating about apples. It provides a whole host of rules pertaining to apples: that apples ought to be eaten once a day (presumably to further a governmental interest in keeping the doctor away), that they are to be transported across states on a certain kind of truck, that they are to be stored at a certain temperature, etc.

Finished with apples, Congress then takes up oranges. It wants to give to oranges the same exact rules and requirements that it has prescribed to apples. One quick and efficient way to do this is by simply defining oranges to be apples. This does not literally declare oranges to be apples, of course. It just means that wherever the term “apple” appears in the statute, that provision also applies to oranges. So, voila, Congress has made apples equal oranges.

This appears to be what happened in drafting the Affordable Care Act. It’s clear that Congress’s preference was for states to run their own exchanges. So it began by drafting requirements and powers for state exchanges. One of these rules included the availability of subsidies for consumers on state exchanges.

But Congress realized that if states didn’t create their own exchanges, there needed to be a federal fallback. So it added the possibility of federal exchanges, but wanted these exchanges to have the same rules and attributes that their state counterparts have – subsidies and all. So, again, an efficient and comprehensive way to incorporate these rules and attributes is to define a federal exchange as a state exchange. In mathematical terms, it’s saying, for purposes of this statue, Let “federal exchange” = “state exchange.”

This is the heart of the government’s theory. It seems bizarre and counter-intuitive, but we should not be thrown off by technical meanings and nested definitions. Drafters define statutory terms less for common usage and more for statutory convenience.

Moreover, the government doesn’t need its argument to wholly convince anyone. It just has to show that its theory of what congressional drafters did here is reasonable; that the logic makes some basic degree of sense. That’s because the plaintiffs’ coercion theory proves too much – it backfires on itself by triggering constitutional avoidance doctrine.

I think the government meets this burden. This becomes all the more clear when we leave Halbig fantasy world and ground ourselves in actual reality, where not a single state lawmaker anticipated that losing subsidies and incurring an insurance calamity would be the cost of defaulting to a federal exchange; where no federal legislative history or floor statements even allude to any heavy-handed scheme to coerce the states; and where the insurance status of millions hangs in the balance. This case already asks us to suspend a lot of our disbelief, so it’s hardly a leap through the looking glass to see how federal can mean state; how apples can become oranges.

Who’s afraid of a wise Latina?

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court upheld a Michigan ballot initiative that bars public universities from considering an applicant’s race when making admissions decisions. The decision was hardly a surprise. Affirmative action’s days have appeared numbered since Justice O’Connor extended it a (completely unenforceable) 25-year lifeline in 2003. The Supreme Court has only become more hostile to affirmative action policies since O’Connor’s tepid endorsement, with the conservative Justice Alito replacing the former swing justice upon her retirement.

While Tuesday’s decision was never in doubt, what was noteworthy was Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s spirited dissent maintaining that, contrary to what judicial protestations of colorblindness would have us believe, race still matters.

In a lengthy dissent, Sotomayor objected to the Michigan ballot initiative as unconstitutionally changing the rules on minorities’ meaningful participation in the political process. But she went further, critiquing the conservative justices’ colorblind posture and asserting the vitality of race-conscious judging and policy-making. She took Chief Justice Roberts’s pithy maxim of colorblindness (“The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”) head-on, retorting: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination.”

She spoke about race discrimination in starkly personal terms, presenting it not as an archaic wrong long overcome, but rather locating it as a lingering problem in present day America. Invoking the implicit biases and microaggressions that continue to plague our race relations, Sotomayor wrote:

Race matters to a young man’s view of society when he spends his teenage years watching others tense up as he passes, no matter the neighborhood where he grew up. Race matters to a young woman’s sense of self when she states her hometown, and then is pressed, “No, where are you really from?”, regardless of how many generations her family has been in the country. Race matters to a young person addressed by a stranger in a foreign language, which he does not understand because only English was spoken at home. Race matters because of the slights, the snickers, the silent judgments that reinforce that most crippling of thoughts: “I do not belong here.”

Her opinion is a robust defense of racial consciousness in our public policy in 21st century America. Naturally, conservatives were irate. The editors of the National Review blasted her opinion as “Orwellian,” as “legally illiterate and logically indefensible,” outing Sotomayor as a “naked and bare-knuckled political activist with barely even a pretense of attending to the law.” Weekly Standard editor Stephen Hayes told Fox News that Sotomayor’s decision was “written by somebody who was writing about emotion[.] . . . It was President Obama’s ‘empathy standard’ — that’s what he was looking for when he nominated her, that’s what I think he got.”

Setting aside the demeaning language about illiteracy and emotion (I’ll let Jon Stewart handle that in a Part II to this deserved take-down), the conservative response to Sotomayor is revealing. Recall the twin controversies during Sotomayor’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings. First, there was her contention that the perspective of a “wise Latina” brought added value to a judicial bench over and above what a white male can offer. Second, there was President Obama’s Rose Garden praise for Sotomayor’s empathy as a judge, which Hayes referenced. To conservatives, these traits portended that Sotomayor would judge based on lived experience and sympathy; that her jurisprudence would be guided by emotional instinct more than legal doctrine. Conservatives now point to Tuesday’s dissent and say: We told you so.

It is important to understand why empathy and perspective diversity are so threatening to conservatives. Empathy lies at the heart of the liberal vision. This vision asks us to relate more closely to one another as a singular people; to recognize obligations to the broader community – obligations that don’t necessarily stem from any personal debt or deed. It seeks to explode any isolated sense that we are merely a collection of atomistic individuals and center our public debates in a greater sense of social solidarity. Doing so requires asking us to relate to our neighbors both near and far. In a word, it asks us to empathize.

Sotomayor’s “wise Latina” remarks stood for the fairly unremarkable proposition that her day-to-day experiences were different than a white male’s; that a bench of diverse perspectives is valuable for understanding diverse sorts of cases that judges confront. The value of this diversity becomes vivid in Sotomayor’s intimate account of the debilitating everyday barriers large and small that minorities still face today.

But do empathy and lived experience appropriately inform a judge’s perspective? Do they make Sotomayor’s dissent “legally illiterate”? Certainly not. In fact, they are crucial to her argument for the constitutionality of race-conscious policies.

The Supreme Court says that racially-conscious policies like collegiate affirmative action must be justified by a highly compelling state interest. While we commonly understand affirmative action policies to be acts of reparative justice – redistributing resources to remedy social harm – the Supreme Court has only upheld college race-based admissions on the basis of the positive educational impact of a diverse student body.

The diversity interest is more politically palatable than outright racial redistribution. Its benefits are thought to be universal, as students of all colors gain from a multitude of classroom perspectives.

But it is also a weak justification. It leaves affirmative action policies vulnerable to attacks precisely like the one in Michigan. Because the legally recognized purpose of these policies is the educational benefits of diversity, prohibiting such policies doesn’t technically implicate constitutional protections afforded to minority “suspect classes” (like racial groups) under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Hence Tuesday’s unsurprising outcome.

What Sotomayor has done is make an honest and forceful case for racially-conscious policy. She’s disposed of the fictitious veil of diversity as a primary state interest, instead grounding the rationale for affirmative action in social justice. Racially-conscious policies are not foremost meant to enrich higher education with classroom diversity, but rather to right past and present societal harms wrought upon minorities.

Conservatives, of course, resist societal diagnoses of contemporary racial disadvantage. In the National Review‘s lambast of Sotomayor’s dissent, the editors attribute the struggles of minority college applicants to a failing public education system and to “the cultural anarchy that has imposed especially high costs on the children of black and Latino families.” These diagnoses place the burden of self-uplift on minorities, absolving the rest of us of any obligation.

Sotomayor, on the other hand, questions the racial innocence of our modern society. Continuing injustice and racial slights impose wrongs on historically vulnerable minority groups. Recognizing these wrongs and feeling an obligation to fix them is a product of social solidarity; of greater empathy.

Sotomayor’s dissent, though on the losing side of this case, poses an intellectual threat to the bootstraps-and-rugged-individualism brand of conservatism. It’s a rhetorically powerful counter-punch to the ascendant racial fiction on the Supreme Court. For if we take ownership of our history and our persistent social gaps seriously, feeling empathy and solidarity with all of our fellow citizens, purported colorblindness ceases to be an option. We must, as Justice Sotomayor says, “apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination.”

Weaponizing Obama Derangement Syndrome

Greg Sargent reiterates the dismal conservative calculus weighing down immigration reform in the House of Representatives. “The problem here is not Obama; it’s Republicans. House Republicans are not willing to figure out if there is any set of conditions and terms un[d]er which they can support some form of legal status for the 11 million. [. . .] All the talk about ‘not trusting Obama’ is just a smoke-screen designed to obscure these basics.”

House Republicans have maintained that they don’t trust Obama to enforce any immigration reform that they pass, therefore no reform can be passed. Senator Chuck Schumer quickly called their bluff by proposing that any immigration reform passed today not take effect until after Obama leaves office, exposing the distrust issue for the smoke-screen that it is.

But it may be this exact distrust that could breathe some life into immigration reform in the House. If Republicans truly believe that the president will go it alone and take unitary executive action, then maybe this would propel them to make a serious effort at legislative immigration reform. Obama Derangement Syndrome could jolt Congress out of gridlock.

Obama Derangement Syndrome has many strains and symptoms, but the relevant ailment here is the ardent psychological belief among many conservatives that the president cannot be trusted to enforce the law. They point to regulatory actions that the president has taken to delay Obamacare implementation; to slow the rate of deportations; to regulate pollution; and to stop defending the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act in court. To conservatives, these acts of executive discretion show a blatant disregard for the letter of the law that comes out of Congress.

This distrust of a go-it-alone executive then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because Congress cannot pass legislation, the president must pursue executive action to fill the vacuum of basic governance. Because Congress is severely broken on the issue of health care, the president has had to rely on questionable legal interpretations to fix parts of Obamacare and delay the troublesome employer mandate. Because Congress won’t act on climate change, it has fallen on the Environmental Protection Agency to take regulatory action against greenhouse gases.

But heightening Obama Derangement Syndrome – bolstering the conservative fear of unitary executive action – may be exactly what would prod the House to move on immigration reform. Republican Representative Mario Diaz-Balart told the Washington Post, “I’m convinced that if we don’t get it done by the August break, the president, who is feeling a lot of pressure from having not done anything on immigration reform, will feel that he has to act through executive action.”

This changes the calculus for Republicans on immigration reform. Before, the consequence of inaction was just a continuation of the broken status quo system that many congressional Republicans aren’t particularly troubled by. Now, however, in the face of an emboldened executive, the consequence of legislative inaction may be a regulatory solution that is both liberal and crafted without congressional input.

This could be a tremendously useful negotiating chip for the president. And it’s not an empty threat, either. Regulatory agencies get the benefit of the doubt when they stretch the bounds of the law, so long as their interpretation of the statute is reasonable. (This is so-called Chevron deference in legal jargon.) This insulates many agency actions from legal challenges, giving the president a powerful tool as an end-run around Congress to achieve policy goals.

Congress has been stuck in paralysis since 2010. Driven by split party control, political polarization, and perverse Republican incentives pointing toward obstruction as a path to power, the legislative process has ground to a halt. But what might compel obstinate Republicans to actually legislate is fear of a unitary president. So while liberals intuitively scoff at breathless accusations that the president flouts the law, perhaps they ought to be fueling the conspiracy. For when it comes to the gridlock-inducing effects of Obama Derangement Syndrome, the disease might be the cure.

Senator Warren’s Neighborhood

The New Yorker has excavated a 2003 plan from Senator Elizabeth Warren to “shock” the public school system through universal vouchers. Warren’s plan would strengthen school choice by letting public funding follow a student to any public school of his or her choice, uprooting the attachment between schools and neighborhoods.

Vox notes that this idea is not new or even ideological, as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor raised a similar idea in a No Child Left Behind amendment last year. The idea that Warren and Cantor support would grant universal vouchers to every student for their cost of public education. These vouchers could then be used to attend any public school in their school district. While it may not be a partisan controversy, this idea nonetheless raises a thorny debate over the autonomy of school choice and the virtue of neighborhood schools.

The appeal of Warren’s plan is two-fold: it severs the relationship between residential patterns and schooling, and it expands school choice to working-class and low-income families. Our school system’s dependence on our housing choices has long had pernicious results. Most communities still have racially-identifiable housing patterns due to economic barriers, self-clustering, vestiges of discrimination, and other factors. This residential segregation gets reflected in our schools when we base school assignment entirely on neighborhood. Hence, residential segregation perpetuates school segregation.

Warren aims to upend this. She wants to democratize the public school system by undermining the ability of middle-class families to “purchase” a good public school. “Schools in middle-class neighborhoods may be labeled ‘public,'” she writes, “but parents have paid for tuition by purchasing a $175,000 home within a carefully selected school district.”

The school choice movement is often debated in terms of government-provided vouchers or public charter schools, but this ignores the degree to which middle-class and wealthy families already enjoy school choice. These families are able to afford opting out of the public school system altogether by paying for private school tuition. They also have the mobility to pivot their housing choices around the best public schooling option for their children. School quality tends to be one of the most significant factors in a middle-class family’s decision about where to live. Debates over school choice plans like Warren’s, then, should be recast as a debate over whether to extend to low-income families an opportunity that relatively well-off families already enjoy.

But school choice comes at a cost. Those who resist this movement lament the loss of the traditional ideal of neighborhood schools as a focal point for civic community. They also fear that school choice will weaken our drive to fix all public schools and might produce private choices that lead to even more socioeconomically stratified schooling.

These fears have come to the fore in Washington, D.C.’s debate over whether to enact citywide school choice. Mayor Vincent Gray’s plan there would enter all students into a citywide lottery untethered to their neighborhoods to determine where they will go to school.

Families living in middle-class communities in D.C. fear that their children would no longer be walking distance from their schools, and that they would lose communal connections to their neighbors. One mother told the Washington Post that, “You get to know all your neighbors and all the kids who surround your house. The community thrives on that.”

Others fear crippling losses in property values and a middle-class exodus from the city. If the cost of attending a good middle-class school is baked into the value of a family’s home, then this value would be destroyed by a plan that disconnected school assignment from neighborhood. Well-off families might flee the city limits for suburbs offering greater local school autonomy, leaving only working-class and low-income families in the city to do the work of desegregation and school improvement.

Still others predict that expanded school choice will undermine the will to improve public schools as a whole. Because D.C. has created so many alternative choice-based “escape hatches” from traditional public schools, one parent told the Post, “you don’t have to invest. [. . .] Maybe they’ve got to close those hatches.”

But perhaps D.C. is unique. Since the vast majority of families already take advantage of choice options, only 25 percent of students go to their neighborhood schools as it is. Few other localities have so wholeheartedly committed to broad school choice.

School choice advocates push back against these arguments. Withholding school choice is dishonest and inequitable given the persistence of failing schools in low-income neighborhoods. “It’s unfair to low-income families, I think, to promise them that we can make a great neighborhood school,” choice proponent Andy Smarick told the Post.

Choice might also lead to greater community-wide solidarity in the public school system. If school assignment is based on a random lottery, parents would have a stake in the school system as a whole, rather than just their neighborhood fiefdom. “If a child from Northwest goes to Southeast, the parents will care about the overall school system, not just their own part of it,” one parent told the Post. “It would hold everyone accountable.”

Severing the reflection of inequitable housing tracts in inequitable schools is certainly a laudable goal. But it does come at a real cost. School choice proponents cannot simply dismiss the neighborhood school as a provincial artifact or a coded defense for resegregation. The neighborhood school comes with real civic value as one of the last remaining and important spaces where families can reliably gather as a community. The anxiety that families feel about losing this is real and valid.

Reconciling this anxiety with the need for equity – balancing the neighborhood school with school choice – often leaves communities tied in knots. Boston just abandoned a convoluted semi-citywide choice plan crafted under a desegregation order in favor of a convoluted semi-neighborhood plan. Employing a complicated algorithm, Boston’s plan tries to preserve both school choice and preference for a nearby school. But maybe convolution and indecipherable algorithms are what’s required to reconcile these dueling principles.

The dilemma we face is how to push from a present of persistent de facto community segregation to a future of social integration while limiting the upheaval in the interregnum. The neighborhood school is not the intrinsic problem. The core problem is housing segregation. Our hopes have been that diverse schools and equitable access to good schools would tear down prejudices and promote social harmony, producing integrated communities in the next generation. Maybe by pursuing school choice today, we can enjoy fair, equitable, and truly democratic neighborhood schools tomorrow.

The Health Care Chasm & Means-Ends Federalism

Making the rounds today among health care policy wonks is a new set of polling data from Gallup showing encouraging declines in the rate of Americans that lack health insurance. Nationwide, the uninsured rate has declined from 18% of Americans to 15.7%. Not surprisingly, states that have complied with Obamacare – by running their own health exchanges and expanding Medicaid – have seen sharper declines in their ranks of the uninsured than have intransigent states. Vox helpfully illustrates the insurance gap:


This is early empirical evidence of the health care chasm that we are likely to see: the Red State – Blue State Divide, where the force and effect of health care reform depends on your geography. I’ve written before (as have others) about how morally indefensible it is for Red State governors to refuse free federal money to expand Medicaid to cover the poor and near poor. The federal government is offering to cover 100% of the expansion costs in the near term, and at least 90% in the long term and ever after – yet Republican governors have nonetheless found it politically expedient to spurn Obamacare and leave nearly 6 million people stuck in a coverage gap.

Despite legal guarantees to the contrary, Republican officials insist that they will be left holding the bag for the costs of expanded Medicaid if Congress withdraws funds. This has been repeatedly debunked. The federal Medicaid expansion match won’t decline barring some change in the law.

The conservative resistance to the Medicaid expansion is not just hollow, but also deeply overwrought. The Medicaid expansion functions as exactly the kind of pro-state experimentation federal program that compassionate conservatism (is that still a thing?) ought to encourage.

Suppose the federal government had created a program that offered states block grants to provide universal health insurance for all people up to 138% of the federal poverty line. While providing the funding, the government would remain completely agnostic as to the means that states used to achieve full coverage, allowing for experimentation. Vermont could adopt a single-payer Medicaid system; Texas could adopt a voucherized premium-support system.

Suppose further that the federal government also set expansion of traditional Medicaid as a default fallback option in the event that a state didn’t have any novel alternative idea. Moreover, the value of the grants could have been tied to what it would have cost the states to follow the default Medicaid expansion option, with the federal government guaranteeing that it will fund at least 90% of the expanded coverage.

This hypothetical almost sounds like it could have been a conservative, states-rights federalist proposal. But it also happens to be largely how the Obamacare Medicaid expansion has worked in practice.

The Department of Health and Human Services has been highly receptive to granting waivers to accommodate alternative state proposals to expand coverage outside of traditional Medicaid. States have been able to receive Medicaid expansion funds while altering or abandoning all together the expansion of traditional Medicaid. The waivers are conditional on states covering the same number of people, at roughly the same cost, as the Medicaid expansion would have.

So far, Arkansas, Michigan, and Iowa have been granted waivers, while other states such as Pennsylvania pursue them. Arkansas received a waiver to create a “private option” system, where instead of expanding Medicaid, it used Medicaid expansion funds to purchase private insurance for people below 138% of the poverty line.

This flexibility on the Medicaid expansion is emblematic of the Obama administration’s pragmatic means-ends federalism. The Medicaid expansion is functionally a grant to the states to provide health insurance to millions of poor and vulnerable Americans. The administration has defined the end goal, yet the means of how the states get there are entirely negotiable.

Which is entirely in keeping with the Obama’s philosophy throughout his presidency. He holds liberal goals, but is pragmatic and amenable to the means that are used to get there. He’ll pursue universal health care – but is wholly willing to do it on the back of a private insurance system. He’ll seek to narrow the achievement gap across races of students – but is fine with unionless charter schools helping us along.

With free federal money and ample room for state accommodation, recalcitrant governors have no excuse to leave millions of vulnerable citizens in health insurance limbo. These individuals are “too rich” for traditional Medicaid (in Texas, this means they make 20% of the poverty line) but too poor to be eligible for health exchange subsidies. Perhaps this class of people, deprived of any benefit from health care reform, will make governors like Florida’s Rick Scott pay in reelection battles. But for now, despite Obama’s amenable federalism, our health care divide begins.

One year gone by

It has been a year since two bombs on Boylston Street turned Marathon Monday into a living hell in Boston. My own memories are that I was too close for comfort, just far enough to be safe. After watching most of the Marathon near mile 24 in Brookline, I decided to head down to Copley Square to watch runners cross the finish line. After braving the crowds there, I ducked into a restaurant two blocks away. Soon, people came sprinting through, screaming about explosions, crying, fleeing from the Boylston Street side of the building. That’s how I found out something had happened. What followed was confusion, uncertainty, not knowing what to do and where to go, where was safe. Boston was under siege.

But what I remember more are the superhuman feats of heroism that would seem folklorish if they weren’t true. The marathoners who ran 26.2 miles across the finish line, and then kept running to the hospital to donate blood for the victims. The doctors and nurses who didn’t lose the life of a single victim that made it on to a stretcher alive.

A group of soldiers from the Massachusetts National Guard walked the entire Marathon route in full gear. They wave the stars and stripes and slap hands with spectators along the route. Here they are coming past me at mile 24:


Just hours later, they were doing this:

(photo from Mother Jones)

After crossing the finish line with their 40-pound backpacks, they unpacked those bags and triaged victims with their first-aid kits. They pulled debris off of people trapped under bleachers.

There were countless incredible acts like this on that day. What makes Patriot’s Day so special in the first place became utterly and vitally necessary: ordinary people tapping into something heroic and pushing themselves beyond known limits. A small-minded attempt to turn Patriot’s Day into carnage butted up against the immeasurable force of the human spirit.

In the days after, Boston grieved. It looked to community and sports as a bond both physical and psychic, an outlet to raise voices and assert the will of the city. On the Wednesday after the bombings, this happened:

That Saturday, after Boston smoked out the surviving bomber from a boat in a Watertown backyard, David Ortiz, the King of Boston, made a pitch-perfect profane and defiant rallying call – a reclamation of the city and its freedoms. Stay strong.

Of course, for a full day, our freedoms had been dictated and our city was a military occupation zone, as the full weight of Boston area law enforcement descended on Watertown to hunt Dzokhar Tsarnaev. Outsiders warned of troubling usurpation of individual liberties, that the “shelter in place” order confining people to their homes was little more than a benign euphemism for martial law. But you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in Boston that would register these objections to Boston’s militarization that day. For one day, Bostonians put individual freedoms and autonomy on pause, sacrificing for the communal good after trauma. It was a testament to the lengths Boston will go to achieve closure and justice.

I’m just passing through Boston, but it is impossible to be anything but enamored with the town – that perfect state of grace. On a gorgeous April day, there is no better place to be. But even passing through, the spirit of the city stays with you: the embrace of community in tough times, the resilience to never be defeated.

On Monday, that spirit and resilience will be on full display in the 2014 Marathon. And every marathoner that crosses the yellow stripe on Boylston Street will mean something important. Resilience. Triumph. Reclaiming our city and our day. Stay strong.

Obamacare and freedom

During our debates over the merits of Obamacare, rhetoric about freedom and liberty has largely been used to attack the law. Largely absent from the debate are the ways that Obamacare improves our individual liberty. I argue that the freedom benefits from the law have been understated because they involve freedom from our employers rather than freedom from government power. I also argue that the freedom costs of the law have been exaggerated due to a political dynamic that encouraged both reform supporters and opponents to portray the individual mandate to purchase health insurance as an actual mandate, rather than what it really is: a tax incentive.

1. Understated freedom gains: Reducing job-lock

First, I have been meaning to flag this post from Nicholas Bagley describing how Obamacare reduces the problem of job-lock. Job-lock is the result of our employer-sponsored health insurance system. Employees face high obstacles to changing jobs because doing so would disrupt their health insurance.

Obamacare subtly shifts this regime away from employer-sponsored insurance and therefore reduces job-lock. Bagley points out the major ways that the law accomplishes this. Most importantly, it breathes life into previously dysfunctional individual insurance markets. This gives Americans – particularly those eligible for subsidies – a plausible alternative outside of employer-provided insurance.

Second, it bans insurers from excluding people with preexisting conditions. This means that an employee with a preexisting condition is no longer locked into their existing job for fear of being excluded if they try to change jobs and insurance carriers.

Certainly our tax regime still favors employer-sponsored insurance by excluding it from income taxation. This amounts to a massive government subsidy for employer-sponsored insurance which continues to make it the most favorable way for most Americans to insure. But, as Bagley explains, Obamacare’s subsidies for individuals and families below 400% of the federal poverty line partially offset the value of the tax exclusion, gradually leveling the playing field between employer-sponsored insurance and individual insurance sold on the health exchanges.

The reduction in job-lock is, more broadly, emblematic of how Obamacare improves individual liberty. The law’s opponents have vigorously argued that the law is domineering and restricts freedom, zeroing in on the individual mandate to purchase health insurance. But Obamacare improves freedom in other significant ways. It reduces job-lock, improving our freedom to pursue new career opportunities. It guarantees freedom from suffering from lack of treatment for people with preexisting illnesses. It assures freedom for the insured sick by abolishing lifetime and annual coverage caps.

Our arguments about freedom in the United States have a distinctly libertarian bent. We think about freedom in terms of what the government does to impose rules on us or otherwise coerce us. This is a product of our history and our national inception, but is also an incomplete account of human freedom. On a day to day basis, some of the most vexing constraints on our freedom are non-governmental – constraints like our health and our employers. Obamacare takes meaningful action to protect our freedom by lifting burdens in our job and health decisions.

2. Exaggerated freedom costs: The individual “mandate”

Obamacare’s opponents also severely overstate the individual liberty costs of the law flowing from the individual mandate. They did this by deliberately ignoring a key truth about the mandate that neither conservatives nor liberals want Americans to know: that it’s not really a mandate at all.

Mandates in general entail high freedom costs because they are compulsive – they require us to do something (like register for the draft or pay taxes) or forbid us from doing something (like driving without auto insurance). Tax incentives, on the other hand, are not compulsive but merely raise the costs of doing something that the government discourages, like buying cigarettes.

In truth, the individual mandate is really no more than an economic incentive. It imposes a tax on going uninsured – a tax that, in 2016 and beyond, equals the greater of $695 or 2.5% of adjusted income. There is no criminal sanction backing up the individual mandate. Even the tax penalty can only be assessed by the IRS withholding from your tax refund, leaving unclear if it would apply to people who aren’t due any refund.

So the mandate functionally acts to incentivize people to buy health insurance. It skews the calculus of a person’s decision about whether or not to buy health insurance. Before, the question an individual faced was simply whether health insurance was worth the price of the premium. This depended on how healthy they expected to be, how many medical costs they anticipated, and how risk averse they are. Now, this calculus is different: the question is whether an individual wants to pay a fee to the government and get nothing in return, or purchase health insurance.

When seen through an economic lens, the individual mandate is no more of a mandate than the first-time homebuyer’s tax credit is. The difference is that the individual mandate was bound up in rhetoric asserting that it was compulsory. If the mandate is really just meant to nudge people toward buying insurance, then why didn’t the government say that? There are two principal reasons: one political, and one administrative.

The political reason is that the Obama administration feared calling the mandate a tax and being accused of raising taxes on the middle-class. Because of this, the administration repeatedly publicly denied that the mandate imposed a tax, while admitting that it did exactly that in court.

Now perhaps, in hindsight, this was a miscalculation. Instead of raising the ire of anti-tax activists, the individual mandate inflamed Tea Party resistance driven by deep concerns about freedom and liberty. People forget that the anti-mandate movement initially started as a left-wing rebellion. In 2009, liberals dismayed by the demise of the public option – a proposed government-sponsored health insurance plan – lashed out against the individual mandate. Liberals did not object to the idea of compulsory universal health care per se, but specifically objected to a universal scheme dependent solely on private, for-profit health insurers. Howard Dean, conveniently illustrating both general misunderstanding about the mandate and the liberal position against it, said that the individual mandate “makes [Americans] criminals if they don’t buy insurance from the same companies that got us into this mess.”

While liberals eventually fell in line behind the mandate, conservative and libertarian activists litigated the mandate all the way to the Supreme Court under the banner of freedom. This backlash may seem avoidable, as it was a direct result of the administration’s rhetorical choice to present the mandate as compulsory. But there were more compelling reasons to describe it as a mandate rather than a tax besides political posturing. Namely, the structure of health care reform works a lot better if people buy insurance instead of opting to pay the tax penalty. Obamacare’s insurance expansion depends heavily on the healthy subsidizing the sick, as all health insurance does. If healthy people thought of the mandate as a mere tax penalty, more of them might choose to just pay the penalty rather than purchase insurance. This would leave us with a sicker pool of insured people, making universal health insurance harder to sustain.

On the other hand, if healthy people thought that the mandate was actually mandatory, they become more likely to purchase health insurance and provide critical financial support to the health care expansion. The Obama administration thus wanted people to believe that the mandate was what it claimed to be: compulsion to buy health insurance. Admitting otherwise would come at the expense of compliance, threatening the foundations of the health care expansion.

The moral justifications for compelling or incentivizing some people to subsidize care for others are questions I’ll address in another post. For now, however, my point is that the individual liberty costs from Obamacare have been oversold. The individual mandate is a misnomer. Despite all the rhetoric, it’s no more than a tax incentive.

On net then, I believe that Obamacare increases our individual freedom. It protects our freedom of health by loosening its dependence on our employers. It also imposes lower costs on our freedom than is widely believed because the individual mandate has been deliberately mischaracterized as something more compulsive than the tax nudge it really is.