Federal Education Budget: Teapot, Meet Tempest

English: The Lyndon B. Johnson Building, headq...
English: The Lyndon B. Johnson Building, headquarters of the United States Department of Education in Washington, D.C. Español: El Lyndon B. Johnson Building, la sede del Departamento de Educación de los Estados Unidos (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Budget and Accounting Act of 1921 requires the president of the United States to submit a budget proposal to Congress for each fiscal year. Congress isn’t required to honor that proposal. In fact its budget resolutions and actual appropriations seldom reflect presidents’ requests very closely. But there are always fireworks over the request anyway.

President Donald Trump’s proposed budget for FY2018 calls for a 13% ($9 billion) cut to the US Department of Education versus 2017’s discretionary funding.

That may sound like a big big hit to your kids’ schools, and the usual suspects would like you to think it constitutes a gutting of “public” (read: government) education in America, but there are a few things to keep in mind when thinking about it.

First of all, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, total government spending (at all levels) on elementary and secondary education in the US came to $634 billion for the 2013-2014 academic year. Additionally, Americans spent $517 billion on postsecondary education, the bulk of it through government, that year.

Keeping in mind that those numbers have likely gone up, not down, in the intervening years, and that state and local spending will probably continue to increase, a 13% cut to the US Department of Education would in reality be at most a reduction of only eight tenths of one percent in total US education spending. Calling that a tempest in a teapot demeans tempests and teapots. This disturbance is more like dropping a grain of salt in a shot glass.

Secondly, there’s a good case to be made that federal education spending cancels out any positive effects of state and local spending rather than boosting them. As former New Mexico governor  and Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson notes, “[t]he Department of Education grants each state 11 cents out of every dollar it spends on education. Unfortunately, every dollar of this money comes with 16 cents of strings attached. States that accept federal funding lose five cents for every dollar spent on education to pay for federal mandates and regulations, taking millions of dollars out of the classroom.” And don’t forget that that 11 cents started out as a 13 cent deduction from your paycheck.

Finally, although the federal government spends more than twice as much per student on education today as it did when the department was created in 1980, student performance remains, at best, stagnant.

After nearly 40 years, it’s reasonable to conclude that the US Department of Education is a failed experiment. Its budget should be cut by 100% — turn out the lights, send the bureaucrats home, sell the buildings and equipment — not by a mere 13%.

But we know that’s not going to happen, don’t we? This isn’t about education. It’s about politics. It’s not about teaching kids to read and write and calculate. It’s about buying votes from special interests with taxpayer dollars . I predict that the department’s FY2018 budget will be larger, not smaller, than its FY2017 budget.

If we want decent educations for our children, the solution is complete  separation of school and state.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.


The Problem Isn’t Willie Pete. The Problem is War Crimes.

White Phosphorous Bombardment of German emplac...
White Phosphorous Bombardment of German emplacements (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The New York Times reports  that US and/or US-allied forces in Syria may be using white phosphorous munitions in the assault on Raqqa, capital city of the Islamic State in Syria. The use of white phosphorous in war is a perennial complaint among human rights activists. And while it’s valid as far as it goes, it misses a larger and more important point.

White phosphorous — nicknamed “Willie Pete” by the US mortar, artillery and air forces who use it — produces highly visible plumes of white smoke, justifying its use to mark targets or screen movements.

It’s also highly incendiary. It sets things on fire, it causes terrible burns, and it can’t be put out with water (it must be smothered and deprived of oxygen). For that reason, international law prohibits its use “on personnel” and in populated areas.

When I worked with 81mm mortars in the US Marine Corps, those restrictions were treated jokingly. Sure, we couldn’t use Willie Pete on personnel, but we could use it on equipment. Rifles, rucksacks and helmets are equipment, right? If someone happens to be wearing or carrying that equipment, that’s THEIR problem, right? One of our favorite training missions involved firing white phosphorous rounds, theoretically to “mark the target,” followed by high explosive rounds. That kind of mission was nicknamed “shake and bake.”

I’m glad that I was never called upon to fire white phosphorous at other human beings in combat (I was, for all intents and purposes, a rifleman during the Gulf War). But when I tremble in retrospect at that possibility, it occurs to me that the focus on a particular munition doesn’t do justice to the problem of war crimes as such.

In war, people die. While there are better and worse ways to do so, it seems to me that we should be less worried about how people die than about which people die and why.

The problem with bombarding Raqqa, or any other populated area, isn’t that it’s being done with white phosphorous, it’s that it’s being done at all. In addition to Islamic State combatants — fair game, so to speak —  the area is full of civilian non-combatants. Killing them is a crime whether it’s done with white phosphorous, sarin gas or just plain vanilla bullets and artillery shrapnel.

Of course, we’re frequently and piously informed that innocent civilians killed by US or US-allied forces are accidental “collateral damage” or even “human shields.” The US Department of Defense always thoroughly investigates such killings and always ends up absolving US troops of responsibility. It’s only a crime to kill non-combatants if “the enemy” can be blamed for the killing, and — mirabile dictu! — that always turns out to be the case.

But in reality, when you pull a trigger and send a round of any kind downrange, you are responsible for where it lands and who it kills. Until and unless US forces accept that military responsibility, it’s our civic responsibility to treat them as the war criminals they are.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.


Bitcoin: Riding High, But in Crisis

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As I write this, the world’s most popular cryptocurrency sits at a near record price level — $2,800 US dollars buys one Bitcoin. While the price is volatile, it’s been on a fairly steady upward trend recently and its price graph for the last year looks like the proverbial “hockey stick” (last June it traded for around $600 per Bitcoin).

Mark Cuban — a billionaire investor who’s a billionaire investor precisely because he has a head for this kind of thing — thinks that Bitcoin is due for a fall. He tweets: “I just don’t know when or how much it corrects. When everyone is bragging about how easy they are making $=bubble.”

Personally, I’m not worried about a “bubble” per se (Cuban wouldn’t be the first guy to incorrectly assay Bitcoin’s future in terms of how high the price can go). Rather, it seems to me that Bitcoin remains in what has now stretched out into months of true existential crisis. It’s in danger not of “correcting,” but of dying.

The problem: Regular people can’t buy and sell regular things in the usual way with it at the moment.  The transaction fees are too high and the transaction times are too long.

For example, I just spent about $15 from my Bitcoin wallet. Paying the lowest “mining fee” required to make the network process the transaction ate up 48% of that $15 … and I have no idea how long it will take for the $7.80 of Bitcoin that was left to get to where I sent it (a recent transaction took about 30 hours).

Any currency, digital or otherwise, has to function well as a “medium of exchange” if people are going to use it. That is, they need to be able to actually buy and sell stuff with it. If they can’t, it’s also not going to be something they trust as a “store of value” to save for later buying and selling.


Bitcoin has come up against the problem of more transactions than the network can handle quickly. Transaction costs in the form of mining fees have gone through the roof, while transaction speed has slowed to a crawl. It’s a train wreck as a medium of exchange and if that’s not fixed it will soon cease to be a viable store of value.

Solutions such as “Bitcoin Unlimited” and “Segregated Witness” have been proposed, but every time an agreement among developers and miners on how to reduce costs and speed up transactions seems near, things fall apart.

A year from now, one of two situations will exist:

It will be possible to spend Bitcoin worth $1 US on a soda at your local convenience store using your phone, a debit-style card, or a “hardware wallet” at a transaction cost of 5 cents or less and in a minute or less.

Or, Bitcoin will be a fondly remembered fad that’s been replaced in actual commerce by something better.

Cryptocurrency is here to stay. Bitcoin’s miners and developers need to decide whether they want to be part of its future.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.