The Moynihan Challenge

Posted on October 12, 2005
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The late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) related an insightful anecdote in his book Miles to Go.  Senator Moynihan asked Laura D'Andrea Tyson of the Clinton administration for two supportive studies to justify the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars on a favored program. Moynihan received two studies the following day, but after reading them, noted that both studies actually concluded similar programs had failed to produce any type of measurable results. In response, Moynihan sent the following letter to Tyson:

I write you at such length for what I believe to be an important purpose. In the last six months I have been repeatedly impressed by the numbers of members of the Clinton administration who have assured me with great vigor that something or other is known in an area of social policy which, to the best of my understanding, is not known at all. This seems to me perilous. It is quite possible to live with uncertainty, with the possibility, even the likelihood that one is wrong. But beware of certainty where none exists. Ideological certainty easily degenerates into an insistence upon ignorance.

The great strength of the political conservatives at this time (and for a generation) is that they are open to the thought that matters are complex. Liberals have got into a reflexive pattern of denying this. I had hoped twelve years in the wilderness might have changed this; it may be it has only reinforced it. If this is so, current revival of liberalism will be brief and inconsequential.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Arizona politics is not immune to such ideological certainty. Jon Talton of the Arizona Republic, for example, used his Sunday column to describe the school choice corporate scholarship tax credit that passed the Arizona legislature with bipartisan support as "right-wing utopianism."

Having actually read the school choice literature, I will pose the Moynihan challenge. If within the week Mr. Talton can provide two control-group studies of the attitudes of parents who have actually used one of the private school choice programs showing something less than substantial improvement in satisfaction with their child's school, I will happily buy him a steak dinner at a downtown restaurant of his choice. I can produce a large number of studies that demonstrate the opposite, but two will do the trick for Mr. Talton.

Alternatively, I invite Mr. Talton to produce two control-group studies of any of the nation's school choice programs that show students learn significantly less after exercising choice. Again, I can produce a large number of studies from scholars at Harvard, Stanford, and Georgetown concluding that students learn significantly more in school choice programs, but a mere two studies showing the opposite will win the bet for Mr. Talton.

Mr. Talton has the opportunity to eat steak while making me eat crow. I look forward to a response.

Key Links:


-Jon Talton: "As Democrats go, Napolitano makes a good Republican"

-HarvardUniversity: Program on Education Policy and Governance

-Manhattan Institute: A Survey of Results from Voucher Experiments: Where We Are and What We Know

-Daniel Patrick Moynihan: Miles to Go

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