Note: this was written on July 1, 2012 and reproduced from my old blog.
I finished Mitt Romney’s book No Apology (hardback edition). I’ll give a brief summary and then follow the summary with some specifics.
In many ways, Mr. Romney’s book is a decent book; it is well written and it is at its best when it explains things like economic metrics. Note: Mr. Romney wrote this himself; he didn’t use a ghostwriter.
I can recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the 2012 election. I also recommend Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope as a counter…a different vision.
Mr. Romney’s book contains one amusing inconsistency: he, at times, correctly points out that anecdotal arguments are weak and not to be trusted…and then he provides data (sometimes appropriate data) to back up his argument. Then at other times…well, Mr. Romney provides anecdotal arguments!
Mr. Romney also takes a “daddy knows best” tone in many places, suggesting that the rest of the world “know its place” (e. g. that it isn’t up with the United States). In domestic matters, at times it appears that Mr. Romney feels that some (the wealthy?) “know best” and that others just be quiet and listen.
He talks about the importance of The American Dream (to raise one’s economic status) all the while talking up policies that, well, retard that dream.
Still, the book contains an adult discussion of ideas in the way that Sarah Palin’s book does not and has gotten me to at least acknowledge some points of view that hadn’t occurred to me before.
And yes, this book is light years ahead of Sarah Palin’s book. There is no comparison at all.
I think that the strongest part of his book is the first 9 chapters where he gives a detailed discussion of policies. He admits early on that his discussion will be brief because the details are inherently complicated. Still, the outline is reasonably well done.
In the last two chapters he does his fatherly finger wagging. Social conservatives will love this part, but this is the most fact-free region of the book; little is backed up by data here. Instead, he attacks strawmen and relies on anecdotes.
Mr. Romney appears to be interested in education. He points out that we are lagging in the mathematical/technical areas and he points out that our slipping standings in the world rankings (e. g., how we do on science tests) isn’t merely due to poor and minority students dragging the scores down.
He makes the point that the United States tends to NOT pay its teachers well and that we draw them from the bottom 1/3’rd of the college graduating classes, whereas other countries take their teachers from much higher up.
He talks about his experiences as governor and he makes some interesting claims:
First, he says that the quality of the teachers has the biggest impact on how well the students learn. I don’t know how to evaluate this metric, though I think that teacher excellence is a key factor.
Next, he says that there is no correlation between student achievement and class size, and he presents data that charts student achievement versus class size. Wow, that is impressive…until you realize that the class size charts list class sizes from 10 students to 18 students!
Professionally done studies often use a class size of 17 for the cut-off point for a “small class” and use a mid-20’s size for the larger class sizes. And yes, some schools are dealing with class sizes in the 40’s.
Mr. Romney also presents a chart on “spending per pupil”. What I’d like to know: what is this spending for? Is it spending on things like free lunches, breakfast, after school programs and the like? Then sure, you could make a case that spending (by the school system) and student achievement don’t correlate.
He talks about how “teaching to the test” isn’t a bad thing and that there is a need for teacher accountability for how well the students do. Ironically, he touts Finland as a country that has had success in educational outcomes:
In the United States, which has muddled along in the middle for the past decade, government officials have attempted to introduce marketplace competition into public schools. In recent years, a group of Wall Street financiers and philanthropists such as Bill Gates have put money behind private-sector ideas, such as vouchers, data-driven curriculum and charter schools, which have doubled in number in the past decade. President Obama, too, has apparently bet on competition. His Race to the Top initiative invites states to compete for federal dollars using tests and other methods to measure teachers, a philosophy that would not fly in Finland. “I think, in fact, teachers would tear off their shirts,” said Timo Heikkinen, a Helsinki principal with 24 years of teaching experience. “If you only measure the statistics, you miss the human aspect.”
There are no mandated standardized tests in Finland, apart from one exam at the end of students’ senior year in high school. There are no rankings, no comparisons or competition between students, schools or regions. Finland’s schools are publicly funded. The people in the government agencies running them, from national officials to local authorities, are educators, not business people, military leaders or career politicians. Every school has the same national goals and draws from the same pool of university-trained educators. The result is that a Finnish child has a good shot at getting the same quality education no matter whether he or she lives in a rural village or a university town. The differences between weakest and strongest students are the smallest in the world, according to the most recent survey by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). “Equality is the most important word in Finnish education. All political parties on the right and left agree on this,” said Olli Luukkainen, president of Finland’s powerful teachers union.
Emphasis mine. Yes, this bolsters Mr. Romney’s claim that excellent teachers make a huge difference. But it counters him on some of his other most important points: Finland does NOT measure teachers by the their student’s test scores and…yes, they have a strong teacher’s union.
Mr. Romney spends a few pages attacking teacher’s unions. He doesn’t say that they shouldn’t exist or that they shouldn’t bargain hard. He says that politicians (especially, surprise, Democratic politicians) are afraid of them (really?) and that the teacher’s unions strength undermines academic achievement. Of course he provides no data, only anecdotes.
The actual data, even within the United States, at least suggests otherwise:
Average 2009 NAEP Score By State Teacher Contract Laws
States with binding teacher contracts
4th grade: Math 240.0 Reading 220.7
8th grade: Math 282.1 Reading 263.7
States without binding teacher contracts
4th grade: Math 237.7 Reading 217.5
8th grade: Math 281.2 Reading 259.5
As the table shows, the states in which there are no teachers covered under binding agreements score lower than the states that have them. Moreover, even though they appear small, all but one of these (8th grade math) are rather large differences.
To give an idea of the size, I ranked each state (plus Washington D.C.) by order of its performance —its average score on each of the four NAEP exams – and then averaged the four ranks. The table below presents the average rank for the non-contract states.
Average Rank Across 4 NAEP Tests
Next to each state is its average rank
N. Carolina.. 27.5
Out of these 10 states, only one (Virginia) has an average rank above the median, while four are in the bottom 10, and seven are in the bottom 15. These data make it very clear that states without binding teacher contracts are not doing better, and the majority are actually among the lowest performers in the nation.
In contrast, nine of the 10 states with the highest average ranks are high coverage states, including Massachusetts, which has the highest average score on all four tests.
If anything, it seems that the presence of teacher contracts in a state has a positive effect on achievement.
Now, some may object to this conclusion. They might argue that I can’t possibly say that teacher contracts alone caused the higher scores in these states. They might say that there are dozens of other observed and unobserved factors that influence achievement, such as state laws, lack of resources, income, parents’ education, and curriculum, and that these factors are responsible for the lower scores in the 10 non-contract states.
My response: Exactly.
Big Business and the economy
Mr. Romney has some interesting things to say here. Much to my surprise (and delight) he admits that regulations ARE necessary, if for no other reason, to level the playing field for honest companies. He also chides some businesses for being too short sighted and he admits that there is a role for government to play furthering basic research, much of which is unlikely to be economically profitable in the short term.
But, true to form, he goes with the “taxes prevent businesses from reinvesting”. He never mentions where customer demand is going to come from; supply side economists rarely do.
He makes one interesting swipe at President Obama: he chides the President for talking about how big businesses can afford to have their meetings in very expensive, very lavish resorts. Of course, the President’s point is that the problem is NOT that big businesses don’t have enough cash; they have plenty. They don’t have enough demand to warrant hiring more people.
In his “finger wagging” section, Mr. Romney talks about our society being one in which people have the freedom to take risks and fail; but the successes are what make our country great. What Mr. Romney fails to mention is that our society has less social mobility than other societies; that is, the rules Mr. Romney wants to impose would make the American Dream even harder to attain. Witness his recent remarks about higher education; “get all you can afford.” Hmmm, and he doesn’t think it relevant that he came from a wealthy family?
Mr. Romney talks a bit about the economically disadvantaged families (and the usual finger wagging at single parent families) and he points out (correctly) that some safety net rules DISCOURAGE poor couples with kids from marrying. I agree that should be fixed. However his fix is the usual Republican one: get more stingy rather than to get more generous.
He has this idea that rewarding the rich even more will make them work harder and that making the poor work harder for less is good. (???)
Perhaps the best feature of the book is how he explains things like the housing bubble (excellent graph showing what happened) and how one measures claims such as “China spends X on defense”. Of course, on the housing bubble, I wish he had hit the greedy lenders a bit harder(the ones who issued the sub-prime loans and didn’t worry about default because “housing prices always go up”). But he took some appropriate shots at the financial speculators and the problems with the rare events and how the models didn’t account for those.
He talks a bit about TARP; here the Bush version is good, the Obama version is bad, but hey, this is a political book. 🙂
This part is the best the book has to offer; I can recommend it.
When you read his take on energy, you will be reminded that this was written prior to the BP spill and prior to the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Still, the energy mix he talks about makes sense. Yes, he talks about nuclear and yes, he doesn’t seem to mention the problem with uranium mining and the disposal of nuclear waste. As far as Fukushima: remember that those plants started construction in 1967 and went online in 1971; they were literally 40 years old and the design was over 50 years old. We can do much better now.
As far as domestic energy development: he admits that more drilling won’t bring down prices and that over production would be a mistake. He is in favor of exploration and developing the capacity for production as a type of “energy reserve”.
He is in favor of conservation measures (e. g., giving tax credits or breaks for energy efficient vehicles) which he thinks will encourage better fuel efficiency standards. He also seems to be in favor of encouraging more efficiency by a gradual program to make energy more expensive; he is in favor of things like tax swaps (raise energy taxes while lowering another tax in return).
Yes, Mr. Romney discusses climate change and thinks that human activity probably contributed to it. He expresses concern at the possibility that if the United States takes large, expensive measures to cut emissions that the other developing countries (India, China) won’t. He recommends following a “no regrets” policy: taking measures that we will be glad that we took even if it turns out that the climate change skeptics were right. He also says we should work with the global community.
In chapter 7, he gives an excellent defense of Obamacare, though he is talking about Romneycare. 🙂
This is the weakest part of the “policy section.” Of course, he blasts the Obama “apology tour”; this is one of the Zombie Lies that Mr. Romney insists on running with. Reading this: I get the feeling that Mr. Romney desperately wants a contest of the United States vs. Everyone Else, though he is eager to set up some bogeymen. Sure, the terrorists are awful (and probably don’t approve of President Obama either 🙂 ) and yes, this stuff was written prior to the killing of Bin Laden.
Mr. Romney quotes some interesting works. He mentions Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs and Steel and seems to have only partially read it (crib notes version?) Diamond does claim that a region’s geography can heavily influence how the society develops, but then Mr. Romney accuses him of underplaying the value of “culture”. That sort of misses the point: a region’s geography heavily determines HOW a culture can develop (e. g., the society first needs to become efficient enough to have a class of people who don’t have to be concerned with food gathering, /hunting/growing on a full time basis to allow for a culture to develop in the first place).
Mr. Romney also mentions Fareed Zakaria’s book The Post-American World. What Mr. Romney doesn’t seem to understand is that the decline that Mr. Zakaria talks about is a relative one: other countries are rapidly catching up.
Mr. Romney attacks President Obama over reduced military spending not seeming to care that much of the reduction comes from admitting that the cold war is really over and that there new challenges. After all, drones are cheaper than bombers or “boots on the ground.”
Mr. Romney says that he wants a commitment to defense spending to be at least 4 percent of GDP.
The Finger Wagging
The last two chapters are the weakest part; reading them I get the feeling that he was growing tired of the book and just wanted to finish the writing. I’ve mentioned some of the finger wagging already.
I’ll give you an example. On page 261 he dismisses those who want to legalize marijuana:
Some of the battles of the sixties still linger, however, as with the current push to legalize marijuana, which reflects the passion and zeal of those members of the pleasure-seeking generation that never grew up. Their arguments are elaborate but empty-a great nation has never been built on hedonism.
Such nonsense! I favor legalization of marijuana (and other drugs) and I have never used it (or them) and never plan to. I just think that our war on drugs has been costly and has fueled the rise in prison population and the rise in drug related crime.
Mr. Romney spends a lot of time lecturing the poor on their lack of morals without considering that perhaps the economic situation (the dearth of good paying blue collar jobs) lead to the morality situation rather than the other way around.
He did have some interesting things to say though. While he was governor, he sometimes spent the day doing different jobs (e. g. working as a garbage collector). And he described the “feeling of being invisible” to the public! That was a good thing to talk about; kudos to him on that.
But, on the whole, the last chapters seemed to be aimed at the “1 percent”; people who do things like this.
Mr. Romney mentions his religion in passing (e. g., “when I was doing this as a church leader, I saw that”) and mostly doesn’t make a big deal out of it. He even throws a small bone to atheists.
Ok, onk, the passage on page 5, chapter 1 invites ridicule:
My father knew what it meant to pursue the difficult. He was born in Mexico, where his Mormon grandparents had move to escape religious persecution.
That is, his grandfather wanted to practice polygamy; this makes me smirk when I read Mr. Romney’s lectures about “one man, one woman” stuff:
COLONIA JUAREZ, Mexico — Three dozen of Mitt Romney’s relatives live here in a narrow river valley at the foot of the western Sierra Madre mountains, surrounded by peach groves, apple orchards and some of the baddest, most fearsome drug gangsters and kidnappers in all of northern Mexico.
Like Mitt, the Mexican Romneys are descendants of Miles Park Romney, who came to the Chihuahua desert in 1885 seeking refuge from U.S. anti-polygamy laws. He had four wives and 30 children, and on the rocky banks of the Piedras Verdes River, he and his fellow Mormon pioneers carved out a prosperous settlement beyond the reach of U.S. federal marshals. He was Mitt’s great-grandfather.
THIS is the “religious persecution” that Mr. Romney speaks of…and he wants to lecture the rest of us on social norms? Really???