Unlike business, the world of politics and public policy is governed not by profits and losses, but by perceptions. A leader or a policy is successful primarily if perceived as successful, regardless of the underlying reality.
For a few recent years, portions of the business world edged into this same dangerous territory of illusion, perhaps with devastating results for our economy. Much-hyped Internet companies such as Webvan.com were touted as pillars of the New Economy, despite mounting oceans of losses and a business plan verging on the insane. But in business, the gullible investors eventually stopped gullibly investing, and Webvan.com recently shuttered its doors and its website, having burned through well over a billion dollars of other peoples money. Hordes of other dotcoms died earlier, and hordes more are still following the same doomed path to the technology graveyard. Headlines of massive failures now dominate our business pages.
But in politics, the money never necessarily runs out since profits are a meaningless concept, allowing failures either to last forever, or perhaps to gradually fade from view, with no need for recriminations. Ardent devotees of a doomed movement can simply claim that the future will eventually be theirs, and this cannot be absolutely ruled out, since the future never arrives.
Thus, thirty years of unbroken and extraordinary failure of bilingual education scarcely dimmed the enthusiasm of the bilingual academics and teachers employed in that industrial-complex, whose continued livelihood and self-esteem depended on their seeing or predicting success, all evidence to the contrary. Since public notice of the success or failure of an effort often depends on the number and intensity of those directly invested in finding such success or failure, much of this non-existent success was widely reported for decades, just as worthless Webvan.com peaked at a market value of over $7 billion.
Similarly, during the hotly contested 1998 campaign for California’s Prop. 227, the opposition constituted the entire political and media establishment of that state, including—with important exceptions—nearly every prominent political figure, educational expert, and major newspaper, the voters being the only important supporters, passing “English” in a landslide. Thus, the ranks of those whose prophecies of doom had led themselves to become invested in finding subsequent failure dwarfed those whose support meant that they would hope to see success. And when rapid and dramatic educational success occurred, silence rather than jubilation reigned, as columnist Joanne Jacobs has aptly noted. http://www.onenation.org/9912/123099.html
Similarly, various major speeches by Presidential candidate George W. Bush touting the benefits of bilingual education came just weeks before the liberal New York Times broke the front-page story on the enormous educational benefits of dismantling that program. Needless to say, the embarrassed Bush Administration has since hardly emphasized this topic, firmly refusing to declare an educational triumph, much like the elder Bush’s administration stubbornly refused to ever declare victory in the Cold War with Russian communism.
But if conservatives may crow over the folly of the bilingual establishment and carp at the public cowardice of their own Republican President, they too have educational skeletons rattling in their own political closets. Over the past decade, school voucher enthusiasts have spent many hundreds of millions of dollars, perhaps as much as a billion or more, promoting their favored solution to our educational ills, sums that probably dwarf those spent on every other conservative educational reform combined. I have often expressed my own deep skepticism of vouchers as public policy. http://www.onenation.org/9901/010399a.html
But whether or not vouchers would be sound policy, they are undoubtedly disastrously bad politics, losing an endless series of political campaigns across the length and breath of America, often by 40-point margins, until today the number of voucher-recipients remains still stuck in the mid- tens of thousands, perhaps one-tenth of one percent of American students, a ratio of marketing expense to market penetration that would make Webvan.com shine by comparison. Perhaps school vouchers are yet the wave of the future; perhaps Webvan.com would have become successful with the infusion of another billion of venture capital. But the burden of proof lies with the advocates, those denizens of the voucher-industrial-complex whose enthusiasm outweighs their realism.
William Buckley, dean of America’s conservative movement and longtime voucher supporter, effectively makes these points in the column below.
- W.’s Strange Flirtation by William F. Buckley
National Review, Wednesday, July 18, 2001