Pigs Don't Fly

by Russ Roberts on December 4, 2007

in Politics

Here’s my attempt to summarize the economist’s view of politics with an emphasis on Bruce Yandle’s theory of bottleggers and Baptists.

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John Thacker December 4, 2007 at 9:23 pm

Unfortunately, your report on Reading First is really terrible, but admittedly that's related to the Washington Post article and the report it mentions. Reading First is easily the most effective and using thing in any federal spending for education. (The attempts to encourage of charters and vouchers in NCLB are, of course but alas, easily evaded.) The programs used in Reading First do have peer-reviewed research behind them, and they do. The textbook companies mentioned all publish both Reading First-approved and non-approved material. They make out no matter whether there's Reading First or not, so it's hard for me to see them as the real bootleggers. The only "real bootleggers" that I can imagine are the advocates of all the programs (whether those with no research backing them and with terrible track records or the ones with good ones), and the researchers and academics who favor certain methods of teaching.

Incidentally, would you describe advocates of truly free trade as "bootleggers" if they happened to benefit from the practice in the short run more than average? Or does bootlegger only apply to programs with overall social harm?

Russ Roberts December 5, 2007 at 12:22 am

John Thacker,

The Post article (and others like it) were based on a report by the Inspector General. Was that report biased? Wrong? I'd like to hear evidence that the info reported in the Post wasn't right. Of course it's possible for a firm to increase dramatically in value for non-political reasons. Is there any evidence that that's what happened here? It is hard to discover the truth, even for example, to discover whether a reading program is successful or not. Did NCLB really funnel millions of dollars to political cronies? I'd like to see additional evidence on either side of this question.

There ARE people who profit from reducing trade barriers. But of course they don't have to profit at the expense of others. But that can be the case, for instance, when they profit at the expense of firms that were artificially advantaged by the barriers.

John Thacker January 6, 2008 at 10:05 pm

The Post article (and others like it) were based on a report by the Inspector General. Was that report biased? Wrong?

Yes, in my opinion and in the opinion of education reformers likes Joanne Jacobs and Shepard Barbash, among others.

Reading First was and is a small program compared to programs such as Title I. It's small compared to the rest of NCLB as well. Most Dept. of Education money in Title I goes to other programs with powerful political allies, like the Reading Recovery Council of North America. However, those programs were upset because they were largely shut out of Reading First, because they have little to no research backing their methods, and their methods violate principles that other research has found. Even worse, when their programs have gotten money and gone up against Direct Instruction and other Reading First-approved programs, they've faired much worse in every scientific study of performance. So the real bootleggers, upset that the science didn't support them, complained first that their was bias because their product wasn't being chosen, then got Reading First's money cut by 66% this year, then got their own programs preferenced in Title I.

Here's another article on the subject. Richmond's black students outperform Fairfax's, despite being much poorer, after adopting Reading First and its approved programs, when they were far, far behind before.

John Thacker January 6, 2008 at 10:08 pm

Of course, if you want to argue that such hijacking by bootleggers is inevitable when the government tries to run education (or nearly anything else), I won't disagree with you. But some programs can be worse or better, and I hardly cheer on the bootleggers winning.

It may be an exaggeration, but I view the Reading Recovery folks as not much better than Creationists arguing that the Department of Education is biased because it only gives money to "approved" science programs that mention evolution.

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