OPINION


09-11-2017 

Menckens Ghost
Two Compelling Articles: Why Entitlements Keep Growing, and Growing, and . . .  
 

The first gives the history of entitlements in the USA and explains why they keep growing.

The second contrasts the American philosophy of educating kids to the Chinese philosophy.The major differences are that the teacher is always right in China, schools set high standards, and subjects conducive to rote learning through drills and repetition are taught that way.  Hmm, sounds like the education philosophy of the Catholic schools I attended as a kid.  It's also reminiscent of Kumon math, which is the Japanese math program of daily drills that my son completed throughout grade school, each day, 365 days a year--and which required me to endure his temper tantrums and re-learn algebra so I could score the damn drills.

Cheers,

Mencken's Ghost

P.S.  On another note, it's finally dawned on America's intelligentsia that the dramatic increase in the number of working-age, able-bodied Americans out of the workforce is largely due to substance abuse, disability payments from fake disability claims, and criminal records.  Every contractor that worked on remodeling our new house in Tucson lamented to me and my wife that it's very difficult to find workers who don't have a substance abuse problem or a criminal record.

Why Entitlements Keep Growing, and Growing, and . . .

Once granted, benefits always multiply and are nearly impossible to repeal, John Cogan says. Only three presidents have been able to rein them in.

 

By Tunku Varadarajan

The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 8, 2017 6:13 p.m. ET

Stanford, Calif.

Donald Trump's gleeful deal with the Democrats—ratcheting up the debt ceiling, as well as the ire of the Republican establishment—puts John Cogan's mind on 1972. Starting in February of that year, the Democratic presidential candidates engaged in a bidding war over Social Security to gain their party's nomination. Sen. George McGovern kicked off the political auction with a call for a 20% increase in monthly payments. Sen. Edmund Muskie followed suit, as did Rep. Wilbur Mills, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. Former Vice President Hubert Humphrey, never one to be outdone, offered a succulent 25%.

Mr. Cogan has just written a riveting, massive book, "The High Cost of Good Intentions," on the history of entitlements in the U.S., and he describes how in 1972 the Senate "attached an across-the-board, permanent increase of 20% in Social Security benefits to a must-pass bill" on the debt ceiling. President Nixon grumbled loudly but signed it into law. In October, a month before his re-election, "Nixon reversed course and availed himself of an opportunity to take credit for the increase," Mr. Cogan says. "When checks went out to some 28 million recipients, they were accompanied by a letter that said that the increase was 'signed into law by President Richard Nixon.' "

The Nixon episode shows, says Mr. Cogan, that entitlements have been the main cause of America's rising national debt since the early 1970s. Mr. Trump's pact with the Democrats is part of a pattern: "The debt ceiling has to be raised this year because elected representatives have again failed to take action to control entitlement spending."

A faculty member at Stanford's Public Policy Program and a fellow at the university's Hoover Institution, Mr. Cogan, 70, is one of those old-fangled American men who are always inclined to play down their achievements. The latest of his is the book that draws us together in conversation. To be published later this month by Stanford University Press, it is a 400-page account of how federal entitlement programs evolved across two centuries "and the common forces that have been at work in causing their expansion."

Mr. Cogan conceived the book about four years ago when, as part of his research into 19th-century spending patterns, he "saw this remarkable phenomenon of the growth in Civil War pensions. By the 1890s, 30 years after it had ended, pensions from the war accounted for 40% of all federal government spending." About a million people were getting Civil War pensions, he found, compared with 8,000 in 1873, eight years after the war. Mr. Cogan wondered what caused that "extraordinary growth" and whether it was unique.

When he went back to the stacks to look at pensions from the Revolutionary War, he saw "exactly the same pattern." It dawned on him, he says, that this matched "the evolutionary pattern of modern entitlements, such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps."

As he explains it, entitlement programs typically begin with relatively narrow eligibility requirements. "For the Civil and Revolutionary War pensions," he says, "original eligibility was limited to soldiers who had been injured in wartime service, or the widows of those killed in battle." Marching and fighting wasn't enough; you had to have lost life or limb for your country. But these rules were incrementally relaxed, and by 30 or 40 years after each war, virtually all veterans were covered, "regardless of whether you were disabled or not, and regardless of whether your disability was related to wartime service."

We've seen the same phenomenon in modern entitlements. "When Social Security started, we had about 50% of the workforce covered," he says. That was 1935. "By the 1950s, coverage was universal. The Social Security disability program was originally limited to those 50 years or older. And you had to be totally disabled—so disabled that you were unable to perform any job in the U.S. economy." Gradually, Congress eliminated the age requirement. Then lawmakers allowed benefits for temporary disabilities.

"You see the exact same phenomenon in the low-income benefit entitlement programs," Mr. Cogan says. Medicaid "extends to all individuals who live in poverty, regardless of whether or not they're receiving cash welfare." ObamaCare gave federal health-insurance subsidies to households with incomes up to 400% of the poverty line—currently $98,400 for a family of four.

The same forces that were at play in the 19th century are alive and kicking (the economy) today. "It's step-by-step expansion," Mr. Cogan says. "Each expansion tends to be permanent. And each expansion then serves as a base upon which Congress considers the next expansions."

But what fuels this process? Why is it so relentless? Mr. Cogan identifies a form of moral argument as being a key factor. "After an entitlement is created," he says, "individuals who are just outside the eligibility line start clamoring for assistance on the grounds that they're no less 'worthy' of receiving assistance than the group that is eligible." In the case of Social Security disability, why should a 49-year-old who was disabled in a car accident receive any less help than a person who'd had an accident at 50?

"The natural human impulse to treat similarly situated individuals equally under the law," Mr. Cogan argues, inevitably results in "serial, repeated expansions of eligibility." Congress responded in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when there were large budget surpluses. "But it also responds now, in the 21st century," when deficits are endemic and the country is $20 trillion in debt.

Can an entitlement expansion, once granted, ever be taken back? Mr. Cogan refuses to say "never," but says such rescindments "occur under rather extraordinary circumstances." He offers a remarkable example: "You might ask, 'Who achieved the largest reduction in any entitlement in the history of the country?' Well, surprisingly, it was FDR, a person whom we normally associate with launching the modern era of entitlements."

When Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in 1933, "the budget was in shambles, in deep deficit as a consequence of the Great Depression." The new president had campaigned on a promise to put Washington's fiscal house in order, and at the time, veterans' pensions accounted for 25% of all government spending. "Within seven days in office," Mr. Cogan says, "FDR asked Congress to repeal the disability entitlements to World War I, Philippine War, and Boxer Rebellion veterans. Congress gave him that authority, and within a year, he'd knocked nearly 400,000 veterans off the pension rolls. By the time we got to World War II, the benefit rolls were a third lower than they were when he took office."

Who would feature in an Entitlement Reform Hall of Fame? Mr. Cogan's blue eyes shine contentedly at this question, as he utters the two words he seems to love most: Grover Cleveland. "He was the very first president to take on an entitlement. He objected to the large Civil War program and thought it needed to be reformed." Cleveland was largely unsuccessful, but was a "remarkably courageous president." In his time, Congress had started passing private relief bills, giving out individual pensions "on a grand scale. They'd take 100 or 200 of these bills on a Friday afternoon and pass them with a single vote. Incredibly, 55% of all bills introduced in the Senate in its 1885 to 1887 session were such private pension bills."

The irrepressible Cleveland "started vetoing these private bills right away"—220 of them in his first term—which explains why he still holds the presidential record for most vetoes. Mr. Cogan admires Cleveland particularly because "each of his vetoes contains an explanation of the reason why and the facts of the case. As time went on, he became more exasperated with Congress, and his veto messages more acerbic." In one veto, involving a widow who'd claimed her husband had died in battle, Cleveland noted that the man had died in 1882 and wrote: "No cause is given for the soldier's death, but it is not claimed that it resulted from his military service." A newspaper later reported the soldier had "choked to death on a piece of beef while gorging himself in a drunken spree."

The FDR of 1933 is also one of Mr. Cogan's Hall of Famers, as is Ronald Reagan : "There's no president who has undertaken entitlement reform in as comprehensive a way." Reagan "fought a very good fight and he slowed the growth of entitlements like no other president ever had." He achieved significant reductions in 1981 and 1982, and then "battled to preserve those changes through the rest of his two terms. The growth of entitlements during his time in office is the slowest of any modern administration." Still, this striking accomplishment "ultimately only slowed, and did not reduce, the aggregate financial burden of entitlements."

Mr. Cogan also gives an honorable mention to Bill Clinton for his welfare-reform plan. Mr. Clinton's was "a fairly narrow reform compared to the broad swath of entitlements, but history will show that it's one of the most successful reforms that's ever been achieved. The reform not only reduced welfare's burden on taxpayers, it has also benefited the recipients, whom the old unreformed program had been harming."

I ask Mr. Cogan how America can break the grip of ever-expanding entitlements. He balks at offering a specific policy agenda, insisting, that his book is a work of economic history. But he does identify three necessary political conditions for any entitlement reform. The first is presidential leadership, without which "there has never been a significant reduction in an entitlement." Veterans benefits in the 1930s would not have been trimmed without the "strong leadership" of FDR. The restraint on growing expenditures in the 1980s wouldn't have happened "without Reagan's steadfast commitment to spending control." And there would have been no welfare reform in 1996 without Mr. Clinton's push.

Mr. Cogan's second sine qua non is "a significant agreement among the general public and the elected representatives that there's a problem." In Roosevelt's day, the belief was widespread that the fiscal crisis had to be addressed. Both Reagan and Mr. Clinton enjoyed public support and a workable legislative consensus.

The third condition is the most piquant, especially given the warring nature of American politics today. Any solution to the problem of entitlements, Mr. Cogan says, "has to be bipartisan." No significant restraint, he believes, can be imposed by one party alone: "It took a bipartisan effort on the part of Congress and presidents to create our entitlements problem. It'll take bipartisanship to solve the problem."

Mr. Varadarajan is a research fellow in journalism at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.

Why American Students Need Chinese Schools

After putting her son in an elite state-run school in Shanghai, an American mother finds that the U.S. education system could learn a few things from China—most of all that teacher knows best

By Lenora Chu

The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 8, 2017 10:54 a.m. ET

When my little boy was 3, his Chinese teacher forced a bite of fried egg into his mouth. At school. Without permission.

"She put it there," my firstborn told me, lips forming an "O," finger pointing past his teeth.

"Then what happened?" I prodded my son, who despises eggs.

"I cried and spit it out," he said.

"And?" I pressed.

"She did it again," he said. In all, Teacher Chen pushed egg into my son's mouth four times, and the last time, he swallowed.

We are Americans raising a family in Shanghai—China's megacity of 26 million people—and the Chinese are known to pump out some of the world's best students. When we realized that a few blocks from our new home was one of the best state-run schools, as far as elite urbanites are concerned, we decided to enroll our son. He would learn the world's most spoken language. What was not to like?

Plenty, as it turned out. And it was only the first week of kindergarten.

The next day, I marched off to school to confront Teacher Chen about the egg episode, brash in my conviction about individual choice.

"We don't use such methods of force in America," I blurted in Mandarin, my son clutching my hand. (I was born and raised in America but grew up speaking Chinese at home.)

"Oh? How do you do it?" Teacher Chen challenged.

"We explain that egg eating is good for them, that the nutrients help build strong bones and teeth and helps with eyesight," I said, trying to sound authoritative. "We motivate them to choose…we trust them with the decision."

"Does it work?" Teacher Chen challenged.

In truth, no. I'd never been able to get my son to eat eggs. He's a picky eater. Later, Teacher Chen pulled me aside for a lecture. "In front of the children, you should say, 'Teacher is right, and Mom will do things the same way,' OK?"

I nodded, slightly stunned. It was the voice of Confucius, who had staked his entire philosophy on the concept of top-down authority and bottom-up obedience, giving direction to our lives.

Many studies support the Chinese way of education. Researchers have found that 6-year-old Chinese children trounce their American peers in early math skills, including geometry and logic. In the past decade, Shanghai teens twice took No. 1 in the world on a test called PISA, which assesses problem-solving skills, while American students landed in the middle of the pack.

When young Chinese head abroad, the results are impressive. They are earning more spots at the world's top universities. The Ivy League enrolls eight times more Chinese undergraduates than a decade ago, according to the Institute of International Education, and the Chinese are helping to launch Silicon Valley startups in disproportionate numbers.

Yet, from my perch in Shanghai, I started out with some major objections to Chinese education. Force-feeding would get a teacher dragged into court in the U.S., the land of infant choice, free-form play and individualized everything. In China, children are also subjected to high-stakes testing at every turn, which keeps them bent over books from toddlerhood on.

I began to wonder: What price do the Chinese pay to produce their "smart" kids? And do we really have something to learn from this rigid, authoritarian form of schooling?

For five years now, I've parented a child inside China's school system and interviewed Chinese teachers, parents and students at all stages of education. I've discovered that there are indeed some Chinese "secrets" that work and are worth emulating. Most have to do with attitudes about education.

There are real upsides to a mentality of "teacher knows best." As I worked through my anxieties about submitting to this kind of system, I began to observe that when parents fall in line with teachers, so do their children. This deference gives the teacher near-absolute command of her classroom. My son became so afraid of being late for class, missing school or otherwise disappointing his teacher, that he once raised a stink when I broached the possibility of missing a few school days for a family trip. He was 5.

Having the teacher as an unquestioned authority in the classroom gives students a leg up in subjects such as geometry and computer programming, which are more effectively taught through direct instruction (versus student-led discovery), according to a 2004 study of 112 third- and fourth-graders published in the journal Psychological Science. A 2014 study of more than 13,000 students in the journal Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis found that math-challenged first-graders learned more effectively when teachers demonstrated problem-solving procedures and followed up with repeated practice.

By contrast, Western teachers spend lots of time managing classroom behavior and crushing mini-revolts by students and parents alike. A Chinese teacher who arrived in the U.S. two decades ago recalled to me her surprise the first year she taught American kids. "I started out very controlling, but it didn't work at all. My students talked back!" says Sheen Zhang, who teaches Mandarin at a Minnesota high school. Parents sometimes complained when she assigned too much homework. A mother once asked her to change the way she talked to her classwork-skipping daughter. "She wanted me to say, 'You can do better!' instead of 'You didn't finish this!' " exclaimed Ms. Zhang.

'Chinese society grants teachers a social status on par with doctors.'

The Chinese parent knows that her kid deserves whatever the teacher metes out, no questions asked. In other words, let the teacher do his or her job. As a result, educators in China enjoy an esteem that's tops in the world: Half of Chinese would encourage their kids to become teachers, while less than a third of Americans and Brits would do the same, according to a 2013 study by the Varkey Foundation. Chinese society grants teachers a social status on par with doctors.

There are also educational advantages to the Chinese insistence on elevating the group over the needs of any individual child. The reason is simple: Classroom goals are better served if everyone charges forward at the same pace. No exceptions, no diversions.

My son suffered from asthma during the winter, but Teacher Chen denied my request to keep his rescue inhaler near the classroom—its use might be a distraction to his classmates. When I loudly protested, I was told I could transfer my son out of the school. In other words, no kid gets special treatment, and if I didn't like it, I could get out. (Ultimately, I found a solution: a preventive steroid inhaler that I could administer at home.)

The school's attitude is draconian. But Americans have arguably gone too far in the other direction, elevating the needs of individual students to the detriment of the group. Some parents think nothing of sending an unvaccinated child to school—ignoring community health—or petitioning to move school start times to accommodate sports schedules. Meanwhile, teacher friends tell me that they are spending more time dealing with "problem" students, often through intervention programs that whittle away teachers' time with the rest of the class. Where should we draw the line?

Another bracing Chinese belief is that hard work trumps innate talent when it comes to academics. Equipped with flashcards and ready to practice, my son's Chinese language teacher knows that he is capable of learning the 3,500 characters required for literacy. His primary school math teacher gives no child a free pass on triple-digit arithmetic and, in fact, stays after school to help laggards. China's school system breeds a Chinese-style grit, which delivers the daily message that perseverance—not intelligence or ability—is key to success.

Studies show that this attitude gets kids farther in the classroom. Ethnic Asian youth are higher academic achievers in part because they believe in the connection between effort and achievement, while "white Americans tend to view cognitive abilities as…inborn," according to a longitudinal study of more than 5,000 students published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2014. Chinese kids are used to struggling through difficult content, and they believe that success is within reach of anyone willing to work for it. This attitude gives policy makers in China great latitude when it comes to setting out and enforcing higher standards.

In the U.S., parents have often revolted as policy makers try to push through similar measures. In part, we are afraid that Johnny will feel bad about himself if he can't make the grade. What if, instead, Johnny's parents—and his teacher, too—believed that the boy could learn challenging math with enough dedicated effort?

Americans aren't afraid to push their children when it comes to athletics. Here we believe that hard work and practice pay off, so we accept scores and rankings. Eyes glued to scoreboards at a meet, we embrace numbers as a way to measure progress. A ninth-place finish in the 100-meter dash suggests to us that a plodding Johnny needs to train harder. It doesn't mean that he's inferior, nor do we worry much about his self-esteem.

My son has been in the Chinese school system now for five years. During that time, he has morphed into a proper little pupil who faithfully greets his teacher each morning—"Laoshi Zao! Good morning, teacher!"—and has developed an unbending respect for education. In primary school, I watched, a bit dazed, as he prepared his own backpack for school at 6 years old, slotting his English, Chinese and math books into his bag each morning along with six pencils that he sharpened himself.

When his homework books come home—parents in China are required to sign them daily to prove involvement—he brings them to us immediately. He began teaching his younger brother Mandarin, two small heads huddled over a picture book, naming animals. A little older now, he expertly performs timed drills in arithmetic, his pencil traveling down the page, and he gains confidence from his success. He also eats eggs of his own free will.

When I tell the story of my son's Chinese educational experience to American friends, they gasp. When they spend time with him, they are surprised that he doesn't cower in the corner or obey commands like a Labrador retriever. My son is imaginative when he draws, and has a great sense of humor and a mean forehand in tennis. None of these qualities has slipped away, and I now share the Chinese belief that even very young kids are capable of developing a range of demanding talents.

Still, I must confess that I have been paralyzed by anxiety at times over the Chinese way, which demands fealty. Teacher Chen wasn't just authoritarian; she sometimes delivered very harsh punishments. Once, she isolated my young son and several classmates in an empty classroom and threatened to demote them after they failed to follow in "one-two" step during a physical exercise.

Her power was even more worrisome when coupled with the Communist Party's political agenda. At 4, my son learned the lyrics to "The East Is Red," extolling Chairman Mao. The following year, his teachers began running mock elections for class monitor, part of the grooming process to identify star students for eventual Party membership.

At the same time, China's education landscape is littered with dropouts in a system that perpetuates an underclass: Children who fail to test into regular high schools would populate a city the size of London each year. Because of the high stakes, families sometimes take extreme measures, including cheating and bribery.

And there is no denying that the traditional Chinese classroom discourages the expression of new and original thought. I observed an art class where 28 toddlers were instructed to sketch exactly the same way, with errant drawings tacked to the wall to shame the deviants. "Rain falls from the sky to the ground and comes in little dots," bellowed the teacher, as the children dutifully populated their pages. In this classroom, rain did not blow sideways or hurtle to the ground in sheets. There was no figurative rain, such as purple rain, nor did it rain tears or frogs, much less cats and dogs.

There are clear downsides to China's desire to cultivate a nation of obedient patriots, and Americans naturally resist. We harbor a healthy mistrust of authority, and our freedom to raise a fuss is a right we should celebrate. It's foundational to our national character.

But the skepticism we freely apply to our political leaders can be destructive when transferred to the men and women who stand at the front of our classrooms. Educational progress in the U.S. is hobbled by parental entitlement and by attitudes that detract from learning: We demand privileges for our children that have little to do with education and ask for report-card mercy when they can't make the grade. As a society, we're expecting more from our teachers while shouldering less responsibility at home.

From my years living in a very different country, I've learned that wonderful things can happen when we give our educators the respect and autonomy they deserve.

Sometimes, it is best when parents—and children—are simply obliged to do as they're told.

This essay is adapted from Ms. Chu's "Little Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve," to be published on Sept. 19 by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins (which, like The Wall Street Journal, is owned by News Corp).

Appeared in the September 9, 2017, print edition.