The Value of Public Goods

I just returned from five days at the North Carolina Center for Advancement of Teaching (NCCAT) as part of my Kenan Fellowship.  Being at NCCAT is one of those experiences that you can’t really appreciate until you’ve done it.  The entire facility, with campuses in the mountains of western NC and the Outer Banks on the eastern coast, serves one purpose: recognize the importance of our teachers by giving them a respite from the teaching world and providing meaningful learning opportunities with each other.

The experience reminded me of a recent episode of Planet Money (NPR’s fantastic financial news podcast) where the topic was public goods.  According to Charlie Wheelan, public policy professor at the University of Chicago, public goods are defined as those items that benefit many but provide no profit to a single individual or group, and whose use by one party doesn’t preclude their use by another, and that would likely not exist without government intervention.  They use examples like autopsies and lighthouses to demonstrate the ideas that public goods are the types of things that governments should be providing for the people. Even libertarians like me see the benefit.

It strikes me that services like NCCAT represent a new type of public good.  They clearly benefit everyone–through better teachers and better learning experiences for our children–and no one “uses” up this service (although there is limited capacity at any single seminar).  The impact on teachers is hard to ignore, based on personal anecdotes and letters of support found on their website.

Yet, in these economic times, it was NCCAT that the North Carolina General Assembly chose to gouge in their budget, despite pleas from the governor and academics from all of the major State universities.  I know that difficult decisions must be made, but teaching is already such an undervalued profession.

Without lighthouses, how will our young ships avoid the rocky reef?


My Electoral Two Cents

I am not generally inclined to discuss politics in this forum, but ‘tis the season.

When it comes to selecting a new leader for our country, state, town, etc., I am a fairly cynical individual.  I have followed electoral issues and political races for most of my adult life and, perhaps, this is why I have so little faith in the “truth” that one can ascertain from the mainstream media.  Most national candidates are so highly scripted that there is little room for candor or spontaneity (See, that’s the name of the blog.  Ok, you got it, moving on).  I watch all of the candidates say the same things in different ways, and I listen to the partisan bickering, and I want to believe that they can change this country.  But, the sad fact is, by the time candidates have risen to the level of a Congressional race or Presidential election they are like the final four on American Idol: attractive, empty vessels filled with someone else’s words. I know that maybe not all the finalists are aesthetically perfect, but you get my point.  It’s pretty jaded stuff, I know.

As a result of my weary attitude, when it comes to politics, I tend to be very philosophical and principled.  I am the kind of guy who votes for third party candidates, “wasting my vote” in the process.  You see, I want to change the future of our country and I know that it is not going to happen by continuing down the path we are on right now.  I know that there is no chance of a Libertarian winning the Presidential election in 2008 (or 2012, 2016, 2020, or even 2024), but I am not trying to pick a winner.  I am choosing the person whom I believe is going to put our country on the right track.

Being a Libertarian and a teacher puts me in a very small demographic group, and the philosophical challenges can be difficult to resolve.  I can’t argue too loudly about changing the way we pay teachers, if I truly believe that government shouldn’t be funding education, right?  Sometimes it’s easy (how many of my colleagues enjoy the intrusion of the federal government into our schools?), but most of the time I struggle to reconcile my deeply held notions of the role of government with my desire to improve our education system.  Wouldn’t vouchers impoverish the public school system, even as they give more freedom to working families?  If our taxes were cut by 90% and private schools were the only option, would charities really step up to ensure that poor kids still get a fair chance at a top-notch education?  Smarter people than me have tried to answer these questions, so I’ll leave the policy discussions to them.

I don’t really expect any of my regular audience to switch parties (assuming you even can vote Libertarian in your state), or go to the polls and choose Bob Barr on November 4.  My only hope is that a few more people will realize that there are other options–you don’t have to settle for one of the two major political parties.  H.L. Mencken once said,

“Under democracy, one party always devotes its chief energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule -and both commonly succeed, and are right.”

Do some research and vote with your brain, not with your heart.

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