Columnist: The election — Issues, not personalities

Published 12:00 am Monday, September 12, 2016

Cheered on by the media, abusive and personal invective have dominated the campaign. But beneath the mud-slinging, the election is really about issues that are critical – policies that will shape the country over the next one or two decades. To the extent these topics get ignored, we the people are the losers.

There are dozens of issues facing the electorate: public school education, the economy, the Supreme Court, immigration, race relations, inequality, political correctness, national security, the war against Islamic terror and extremism, cyber-attacks, disintegrating democracies in Latin America and relations with Russia, China, Iran, Israel and Europe. This essay will focus on the first two problems: public school education and the economy.

This is not to trivialize other issues. A Democrat victory in November will assure that the Supreme Court becomes more activist – with relativism subsuming universal moral truths, and the bending of the Constitution to fit an interpretation that suits current mores.

Immigration has been elemental to our success as a nation; but we need a policy that promotes legal immigration and that relies on secure borders. While it is unrealistic to deport 11 million illegals, we cannot allow criminal aliens to remain, nor should we permit sanctuary cities to take the law into their own hands.

Does anyone believe that United Health and Aetna dropping out of ObamaCare markets will be positive for the pricing of health insurance? Or that a single payer will allow for better and less expensive healthcare?

Sadly, our first African-American president has presided over worsening race relations. National security remains a priority.

The next president needs to be forthright with the American people about Islamic terrorism and how long the war against it might last. She or he needs resolve and leadership. We cannot back away from our responsibilities and commitments. The world is fortunate that the strongest nation on the planet is one with democratic principles and free market capitalism.

However, education and economics are fundamental to success in all endeavors. A democratic republic requires an educated electorate.

Similarly, we cannot do all we want, or be all we would like, without a robust economy based on free market principles. When children graduate from high school without basic groundings in English, math, history, science and geography, we assign them to lives of deprivation. When our economy is seen principally as a source of revenue to government, and when regulation is biased toward the large and the favored, we find ourselves on the path to diminished economic returns.

The most highly regarded indicator of high school competence is the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which every three years tests half a million 15 year olds in math, science and reading, in 70 countries and educational jurisdictions including the other 34 OECD nations.

Results for the 2015 tests will be released in December, but the ones for 2012 showed American students lagging in achievement. They ranked 17th in reading, 20th in science and 27th in math – essentially unchanged from tests taken twelve years earlier.

The problem is not our children – the success of Basis charter schools in Arizona and Success Academy charter schools in New York show the capability of minority and impoverished students. The problem, in one word, is unions.

Union leaders are more interested in expanding membership than in producing qualified graduates. Nonteaching administrative jobs have proliferated. In most cities and towns, public schools are monopolies.

Unions don’t want school competition, especially from those that hire non-union employees, which is why they fight charter schools and voucher programs with such intensity.

The problem of substandard public school education is biggest in inner cities, and especially for poor and minority children.

The wealthy have choices. They can opt for private schools, or they can move. Without people like Olga Block, co-founder of Basis charter schools, and Eva Moskowitz, founder of Success Academy charter schools, the poor have no options.

Yet charter schools are in constant battle with union leaders. Fifty million children are educated in roughly 100,000 public schools in the U.S., and about 7,000 charter schools. Another 5 million attend private schools.

It is little wonder that minority parents scramble to get their children admitted to these alternate venues. Often they must resort to a lottery system and live with the angst that brings.

While Democrats and progressives claim to represent the people most negatively affected by this situation, they don’t because of large dollar donations teachers’ unions make to their political campaigns. In 2014, the NEA, National Education Association, and the AFT, American Federation of Teachers, gave $50 million to political campaigns, with over 99 percent going to Democrats.

I accept that unions have improved labor conditions for millions of workers over decades, but I also believe that the power they have in our public schools works to the detriment of students. They have essentially shut off competition – the single most important factor in driving down costs and improving results.

The anemic economic recovery of the last seven years – since recession ended in June 2009 – is not the natural consequence of the credit collapse that preceded it. It is because the Obama Administration relied on a stimulus plan that, in primarily supporting existing public sector unions, did not stimulate.

They ignored the recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles Commission. They depended on the Federal Reserve to keep interest rates artificially low, which served to mask the increased federal deficit. They raised taxes, diverting money from the private sector, and implemented a series of regressive regulations that hampered new business development.

According to a Feb. 12, 2015, article in The Washington Post, the number of business start-ups has declined by over 20 percent since 2008, while the number of businesses that have closed has increased. For the first time, more businesses are now closing than opening.

Success in human development and progress is based on failure, on the concept of “creative destruction.” If 150 years ago I was making harnesses and you were developing an internal combustion engine we know that you became rich and I poor.

When people in New York found it difficult to get a cab on a rainy evening at rush hour, Uber came up with differentiated pricing. It was what people wanted, even if they had not known that they did.

Central planning cannot solve myriad problems people face in a dynamic economy. Only free market capitalism can do so.

Others may disagree with the issues I find most important, but education and the economy are too important to ignore. A democracy cannot function without the former. And our financial well-being is dependent on the latter.

The key to both is increased competition, giving hope to aspirant youth and letting markets discover prices. Monopolies, whether the Trusts of Theodore Roosevelt’s day, a single payer in health insurance, or public schools today, inhibit creativity, curb development and keep prices high. If AT&T still had a monopoly, would cell phones be as sophisticated, ubiquitous and inexpensive as they are?

There is much in the character of Donald Trump I don’t like, and he is untested in public office. Can I, or anyone, be certain he will endorse those policies I believe are decisive? No. But the path we are on leads in the wrong direction; so a change seems necessary and the choice seems clear — at least to me.

By Sydney M. Williams

Contributing columnist

Sydney Williams, a retired stock broker, writes about politics, the economy, global affairs, education and climate, among other topics. He may be reached at