Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Paul Krugman's Word Search

Paul Krugman is looking for a word:
There has to be some word for the kind of person who considers his mild discomfort the equivalent of torture, crippling injury, or death for other people. But I can’t think of it.
Although it's not quite the word he's looking for, the phenomenon he's describing is narcissism. It's not that their pain is so much greater than everybody else's - it's that only their own pain has significance. You're seeing a combination of narcissistic character traits - a lack of empathy crossed with grandiosity, self-importance, and envy of others who are getting the sympathy and attention they deserve.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

More Like A Black Hole Than A Supernova

What happens when you punch a hole through Joe Scarborough's veneer of narcissism on-the-air? Something like this?

Poor Joe - let down by all the publications he reads. If only the New York Times had published an article about the negotiations that he didn't know occurred. Here's an article that obviously didn't appear in the Washington Post. And what a shame it is that Foreign Affairs didn't publish this.

Oh, Spare Me....

Richard Cohen is amazed that G.W. Bush is an avid reader. And he knows, for a fact that Bush is an avid reader because... Karl Rove told him. Seriously.
Still, the fact remains that Bush is a prodigious, industrial reader, and this does not conform at all to his critics' idea of who he is. They would prefer seeing him as a dolt, since that, as opposed to policy or ideological differences, is a briefer, more bloggish explanation of what went wrong. Still, in fairness to these critics (see Rove above), Bush himself has encouraged this approach. Aw shucks is an infuriating defense of a policy.
And Cohen knows this because he read what Bush critics have to say, or because that's what Karl Rove told him about Bush's critics?

Monday, December 29, 2008

What a Long, Strange Tri....

How does that family come up with these names?

Down the Memory Hole

Although the editorial has disappeared from the Washington Post's website, I am reminded that some years back, when he was relying upon common sense rather than dubious "secret sources", Jackson Diehl made some good points about the Israel-Palestine peace process.

Getting Played

It is interesting, although unfortunately not surprising, to see a nationally syndicated columnist "getting played" by somebody who pretends to have inside information. Today's case study, Jackson Diehl. After telling us about Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's various failures, in relation to his failed negotations with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Diehl shares the information he garnered from his secret source - obvious nonsense:
Worst of all, Abbas followed in a long tradition of previous Palestinian leaders by reacting to a far-reaching Israeli offer with an uncourageous demurral. Olmert has never publicly disclosed the terms he discussed with Abbas, but sources say he went well beyond what Israel agreed to at the Camp David talks of 2000, previously the closest approach to a deal. I'm told Olmert offered to support the groundbreaking concession of allowing thousands of Palestinian refugees to "return" to Israel over a period of years; he also agreed to divide Jerusalem between Israel and Palestine. Abbas, like Yasser Arafat at Camp David, refused to sign on to a compromise that the world would have hailed.
So we start with the assumption that an enormously generous offer was made - under a veil of complete secrecy - and was "demurred" by Abbas. That's an odd choice of words, as a demurral is not actually a rejection, but a reference to objection, doubt or hesitation. Without knowing more, it's childish of Diehl to be calling this "demurral" the "worst" reason the, well, fictitious offer was not accepted. On the other hand, the fact that Diehl either doesn't know enough about the conflict, or doesn't care enough about his credibility, to recognize when he's being gaslighted....

Let's step back for a moment in time, some eight years, to the collapse of the Camp David talks at the end of Clinton's presidency. The conventional propaganda twist on the failure is that Arafat received an exceptionally generous offer, the likes of which would never be seen again, and that all fault for the failure of the talks lies with the Palestinians. Israeli peace activists point out that the "generous offer" wasn't so generous, and former Clinton Aid Robert Malley points out that a different spin is possible:
The question is whether, as Barak claims, the Palestinian position was tantamount to a denial of Israel's right to exist and to seeking its destruction. The facts do not validate that claim. True, the Palestinians rejected the version of the two-state solution that was put to them. But it could also be said that Israel rejected the unprecedented two-state solution put to them by the Palestinians from Camp David onward, including the following provisions: a state of Israel incorporating some land captured in 1967 and including a very large majority of its settlers; the largest Jewish Jerusalem in the city's history; preservation of Israel's demographic balance between Jews and Arabs; security guaranteed by a US-led international presence.
What's also forgotten in this is that, even had Arafat accepted (and if we presuppose that the democracy in the Palestinian territories was a sham, such that the agreement could be foist upon the Palestinian people despite likely strong opposition to its terms), it's not at all clear that it would have passed in Israel's parliament, the Knesset.

But what is clear, and should be abundantly clear to even the most ignorant, tin-eared syndicated columnist, is that there is no chance that Olmert would have been able to pass a proposal equivalent to the Camp David offer, let alone one more generous. For goodness sake, Diehl just got through telling us about Olmert's impotence in restraining settlement activity in the West Bank,
Instead of a groundbreaking accord with Abbas or Assad, he will leave behind scorched earth in Gaza, a Lebanese front bristling with Hezbollah's missiles and an Israeli West Bank presence that has expanded rather than contracted during the past two years, with thousands of new homes for Jewish settlers under construction.
And how he lacked the spine to shut down even the flagrantly illegal "outpost settlements", whose residents have engaged in acts against Palestinians that are so atrocious that even Olmert describes them as pogroms. The man who gets all weak-kneed at the thought of standing up to extremists settlers who have almost no popular support in Israel is going to expand on Barak's offer, close down a number of full-scale West Bank settlements, and offer "thousands of Palestinian refugees to 'return' to Israel" and divide Jerusalem? Diehl believes that was promised, let alone that there was any chance of its being delivered? Even after observing,
Despite his bold intentions, Olmert proved unwilling or unable to stand up to the Jewish settlement movement in the West Bank; his government failed to dismantle even those outposts it has repeatedly declared illegal.
How charmingly naive.

Further, were there even a hint of truth to the allegations, Olmert wouldn't be keeping it secret. In the manner of Barak, he would be trumpeting how his generosity was rebuffed, and how the Palestinians deserve their misery. It should also be noted that an agreement with Abbas would have no bearing on the situation in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

I'm left wondering what would happen if I sent Diehl an email, pretending to have inside information that Olmert was prepared to turn the entire nation state of Israel over to Abbas, and that Abbas had still said "no". If I am to judge Diehl by his track record of credulity, my guess is it would be the basis of Diehl's next column.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Business of Charity

You know, sometimes I get a bit tired of columnists who (uncritically) read a book, decide it has the answers to some or all of the world's problems, then pen a column espousing the book's thesis. It's not as bad as stenography of the latest party memo, but generally speaking it's a path to a weak column.

Nicholas Kristof recently read a book by a failed businessman, Dan Pallotta, lamenting how after he raised a ton of money for some wealthy charities he was cast aside. Kristof makes a huge assumption, that the reason Pallotta's company failed was his salary:
But Mr. Pallotta’s company wasn’t a charity, but rather a for-profit company that created charitable events. Critics railed at his $394,500 salary - low for a corporate chief executive, but stratospheric in the aid world - and at the millions of dollars spent on advertising and marketing and other expenses.
Kristof then wrestles, in a peculiar way, with the question of whether higher salaries for the leaders of charities would lead to better or worse results:
I also worry that if aid groups paid executives as lavishly as Citigroup, they would be managed as badly as Citigroup.
Is that the issue? Pallotta worked with the Avon Foundation. Did Kristof call Avon and ask, "Does the person who heads your multi-million dollar charitable trust earn $400,000 or more?" Does he know that the CEO of the Red Cross earns more than $500,000 per year? That the President of the United Way has a salary of about $400,000 in compensation and an expense allowance (plus benefits), but pulled in an additional $800,000 in bonuses in 2007? $1.2 million isn't sufficiently "corporate" compensation? Here's where I'll give Pallotta his due - he was innovative, and shifted the ground for large charitable fundraising events. Have you noticed that the United Way has done anything particularly different or innovative that would justify the huge bonuses "earned" by its president? If so, it has occurred way below my radar.

Sure, it may raise people's hackles that charities are paying their executives astronomical bonuses, but despite some brief negative publicity the United Way hasn't failed. So perhaps we should take a step back, and consider why people give to charity? By spending few minutes on Google, Kristof would have come up with this interesting case study:
When the individual gives money to a charity, no product or service is necessarily provided to them. What the individual purchases is much more ethereal. A contributor to charity receives a sense of reward, self-satisfaction, pride, or deeper purpose from the act of giving. Donors receive the pleasure of altruism as the product of their economic transaction.

The pleasure of altruism is the product supplied by charities. For example, a dollar given to a homeless person on a street corner might buy a small amount of altruistic pleasure, but a million dollar grant to find a cure for AIDS might buy much more. The homeless person and the AIDS cure charity provide different altruistic pleasures. You may not know the homeless man, but you may know someone who has or has died from AIDS. Or perhaps the opposite is true. But such a personal connection is just one example of how a charity creates differentiation among the many suppliers of altruistic pleasure. We most often correlate a charity’s purpose with its worthiness, and therefore with the quantity of altruistic pleasure it can provide.

Here is where the traditional Neo-classical view of markets begins to fall apart. The charity market is not a perfectly competitive market that balances the supply of worthy causes with the demand for altruistic pleasure because no two worthy causes are the same. While the supply of worthy causes is practically infinite, the market is highly differentiated. One cause may be deemed more worthy by more people, create more altruistic pleasure, and therefore receive more funds than its competitors. Price is not the primary means by which the resource of altruistic pleasure is allocated.
Pallotta's company, Pallotta TeamWorks (PTW), was truly innovative in maximizing the altruistic pleasure felt by participants in its events - and then it dropped the ball. Their innovation was in designing targeted events
tailored to elicit the extreme emotions of altruistic pleasure.... such as biking across a dessert to support AIDS charities or walking 60 miles for three days in the footsteps of breast cancer survivors. The events supported people in doing things that they never achieved before in the name of a worth cause, a desirable vehicle for acquiring altruistic pleasure.
They used sophisticated marketing to communicate to participants "the altruistic pleasures that could be received" through participation in an event. They also provided front-to-back support for participants, to help them succeed first in raising a substantial amount of money required simply to enter the event, and carrying through equipment purchases, training, and support during the event itself.
And at the event, PTW created mobile cities in which the participants ate, slept, and most importantly, intermingled with others inspired to champion the same cause. Through such support PTW was able to keep existing participants involved in future events while continuing to attract new ones. “The organizations that are going to survive and effectively provide services,” says Terje Anderson, executive director of the National Association of People With AIDS, “are going to be the ones that figure out ways to market themselves to new private donors and, at the same time, successfully keep their old donor base”
Although none of these ideas were new, Pallotta's innovation was in bringing them together and creating more efficient fundraising processes. If a charity could afford his services, for a flat fee he would provide them with soup to nuts support for their event - they needed no experience or expertise. The only requirement was that they pay his seven figure event planning fee. And while there were events that were not successful, most of Pallotta's events returned considerably more than his fee.
By 2001, PTW’s ideas, people, and competitive fundraising events were creating real economic growth. PTW’s charities had received more than 3 million donor contributions, equal to more than 1% of the US population (Pallotta TeamWorks 2002, p. 30). But in 2001 PTW’s fundraising numbers began to decline and its participants began dropping out. PTW carefully designed an attractive set of attributes, created a higher value product, and lowered transaction costs for their market by reaching a huge audience. So where did the firm go wrong?
The article suggests that PTW's success depended upon "participants’ approval and excitement over the emotional, engaging way that the firm produced money for charity". Early events returned an average of about 67% of the proceeds to charity, but by 2000 that amount had dropped to about 53%, raising concerns about PTW's management of funds. An alternative theory that, to me, seems more intuitive is that annual events were starting to burn out their participants and their participants' sponsors, and may have started to seem like "the same old thing" rather than a new and cool thing you could do for your charity. But no question, when the money stops rolling in, people start looking at the money trail - and that's where a salary that may have been an irrelevancy a year or two before can suddenly seem excessive. And there is no question that, for example, participation levels for Avon's breast cancer walks were dropping. Low participation makes the high cost of these events seem unwise - for the 2002 D.C. AIDSRide, it's reported that 86% of the proceeds went to overhead and expenses.

Pallotta also started to heavily cross-market his own company and, reportedly, other PTW events:
PTW began cross-marketing events for other new events and causes to existing participants using slick brochures, kiosks, and infomercials disguised as safety videos. Event participants “saw Pallotta merchandise, like books by the company’s founder, all along the route” (Winters 2002). T-shirts, sweatshirts, and other collateral were hawked to participants, all trumpeting the PTW brand, not the cause. A former PTW employee and event participant complained that the AIDSRide events “became a Pallotta TeamWorks event, and they stopped even talking about AIDS” (Freiberg 2002). To event participants the PTW brand smacked of commercialism and obstructed their access to the real product, the pleasure of altruism.
(PTW reportedly denies cross-promoting other events at its 3-day events.) This opened the door to criticism and skepticism of PTW and its integrity, ultimately causing its flagship partners to fire PTW. There are a couple of lessons here that Pallotta and Kristof seem to have missed:
Participants didn’t care that PTW was the brand producing the altruistic pleasure. They cared about the means of how it was produced and the quality of that product. As Peter Drucker reminds us, quality “is not what the supplier puts in. It is what the customer gets out and is willing to pay for”
In other words, Pallotta stopped producing the product his customers wanted. And in that respect, PTW was like any other business - if you can't sell the customer what she wants, you'll fail.

The case study goes on to describe some of the economics of scale produced by Pallotta's massive events, and how some charities managed to generate millions of dollars in donations (despite marketing costs approaching 60% of revenues) while more "cost-efficient" traditional fund-raising might have only raised a fraction of that amount. This brings me back to Kristof's piece, in which he observes, "It’s notable that leaders of Oxfam and Save the Children have publicly endorsed the book". No, it's not particularly notable, at least when you get past the notion that Pallotta's innovation was his own salary as opposed to his emphasis on effective marketing and his desire to get away from efficiency as the best measure of charitable success.

Oxfam and Save the Children spend a lot of money on marketing. At the same time, their charitable ratings depend upon their keeping their administrative and fundraising expenses low as compared to the money they apply to their programs. A multi-million dollar investment in marketing might bring in tens of millions of dollars in new donations - but could drag down their efficiency ratings and turn off or scare away another set of potential donors. Charity ratings sites often list, right along with the charity you're evaluating, a series of similar charities - it's easy to find one with a better efficiency rating, and to direct your money to that charity instead. A big part of Pallotta's failure might be attributed to the rating standards of the Better Business Bureau:
The BBB had issued more stringent guidelines, which became effective in 2003. Prior to 2003, CBBB standards limited fund-raising expenses to 50% of related donations (Heaney 2003). The Avon 3-Days historically averaged fund-raising costs close to 40% of total donations through 2001 (PTW 2001), complying with watchdog group guidelines. In 2003, the NCIB and the CBBB merged, forming the BBB Wise Giving Alliance. A new standard required fund-raising expenses to be no more than 35% of “related contributions” (BBB 2006a). This meant that Avon Foundation’s historic average level of performance would no longer be good enough to comply. Another standard called for program spending to exceed 65% of total expenses.

The trend of the Avon events’ fund-raising ratio going into 2003 was not good. In 2001, in part because of disruption caused by the September 11 attacks, the fund-raising ratio had risen from 36% in 2000 to 43%. The 2002 event season had some unusual costs related to the shut-down of PTW in August (Avon 2002), and the fund-raising ratio rose to 49% of related donations. Program spending as a percent of total expenses was only 41%, far below the 65% level specified by the BBB.
Yet it appears that part of that warm, altruistic feeling many people get from making donations arises from the knowledge that only a small part of their contribution will go to administrative costs and marketing. While this is a bit different than the environment for a traditional business, within the world of charitable giving it's something that's not likely to change. The lesson that Oxfam and Save the Children might draw from Pallotta's experience is that by providing a good altruistic experience you can push marketing and administration costs past the 30% level, but as they approach 50% you can expect the backlash to begin. As Pallotta can no doubt attest, that can turn into a microscopic examination of everything you do by the people who feel that you took advantage of your altriusm. Seemingly overnight, you can go from being seen as a helpful symbiote to being perceived as a destructive parasite.

Meanwhile, six years after his business failed, other than marketing himself, what's Pallotta offering to the rest of the world?

Kristof concludes with a couple of stories about how capitalist enterprises can return social utility. This, apparently, surprises him. He describes how a consulting firm helped Rwanda improve its public image in the United States, and significantly increase the price of Rwandan coffee and tea. He also describes how a Nigerian businessman is making money installing pay toilets - he rents, leases and sells port-a-potties. I'm not sure why this would surprise anybody - or why Kristof would see the return of social utility as the province of a charity as opposed to a business. I get my electrical, phone and gas service from profit-making utility companies - I get great benefit from those services, but none of the providers are charities. Furthermore, if there's money to be made and free market forces will result in the spread of a good in a manner equivalent to or better than that which could be achieved by a charity, the charity should invest its efforts and resources elsewhere.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Well Go Figure

Don't tell Thomas Friedman, but here's a little footnote from history.
Though [Isaac Newton] never managed to turn base metal into gold in an experiment, later in life he became Warden of the Mint - the man in charge of making the country’s money. Here, he oversaw the production of gold and silver coins, and ensured that they were made more exactly than they had ever been made before. He also went after counterfeiters, several of whom were hanged.
That's the best and the brightest for you. Always trying to make a mint in banking.

Because That's What They Would Be Doing?

Thomas Friedman sings a tired old refrain,
To top it off, we’ve fallen into a trend of diverting and rewarding the best of our collective I.Q. to people doing financial engineering rather than real engineering. These rocket scientists and engineers were designing complex financial instruments to make money out of money - rather than designing cars, phones, computers, teaching tools, Internet programs and medical equipment that could improve the lives and productivity of millions.
Now, I'm not saying that people who become MBA's or lawyers couldn't have productive lives as engineers and computer programmers. But how many of them do you suppose wanted to enter those professions? Friedman also seems to believe that pretty much all of the "best and the brightest" want nothing more than to chase the almighty dollar. Not everybody chooses to work for Wall Street or BigLaw.

Thomas Friedstein
I suspected long before I reached that point, but my second semester of organic chemistry sent home the message that I wasn't going to be spending my career in a chemistry lab. Please, don't judge chemistry by organic chemistry alone - a tedious bore of a subject that is best "mastered" through rote memorization - but for goodness sake, not everybody who is good at crunching numbers on Wall Street would be particularly useful in scientific or engineering fields. Maybe they would be accountants or lawyers, or economists, or politicians.

For that matter, who says the people who crashed and burned the world financial system are "the best and brightest" at all? Friedman seems to be falling for a pretty typical American conceit that anybody who makes a lot of money is among the "best and brightest", even if they can't change a light bulb unassisted. What makes the people who crashed Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers and WaMu any better than the people who crashed Chrysler and General Motors? If it's such a big deal that GM is gushing red ink to the tune of $74 billion over four years "yet you can count on one hand the number of executives who have been reassigned or lost their job", what's the body count over at Citigroup? It's the auto companies that are "giant wealth-destruction machines"?

When we look at the decline of the nation's newspapers, including the New York Times, can we turn a mirror on Friedman? Friedman likes to look down on GM, but what about his own employer? At what point do we declare that newspapers have "become giant wealth-destruction machines", and insist that it's ridiculous to pay people six figure salaries to write syndicated columns when they could be out inventing something?

I know, I know.... "That's different."

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Strings, Strings and More Strings

As far as I'm concerned, if a bank wants another handout, it's time to tie it up in strings. My suggestions:

    Accountability for Any Prior Handounts - If the bank has received a prior infusion of bailout funds, it must provide a full accounting of the use of the funds;

    Henry Paulson Bailing Out Banks

    An Honest Balance Sheet - Any banks who want handouts must present an honest assessment of any troubled / toxic holdings they possess, with bailout money being directed based on need. If a bank wants to pretend that its toxic holdings are worth 80 - 90 cents on the dollar (or more), we are equally entitled to pretend that they're telling the truth and that the don't need our money;

    A Business Plan - Require a clear statement from the bank of how it got into this mess, and precisely how the cash it requested will help it get out.

    An Insolvency Plan - In case it gets the funds and still can't get its act together, a plan for how it will enter Chapter 11 proceedings, or how it will otherwise facilitate the FDIC in arranging its takeover by another bank.

Henry Paulson doesn't appear to have the cajones to stand up to even a tiny bank, and seems happy to have bailout money wasted on huge salaries and bonuses, corporate jets, shareholder dividends, or whatever secret uses a bank may find for our money, so this will have to come from Congress.

Or, perhaps better, Congress can hang on to the remaining bailout funds for a month, until Pauson is just another historic participant in the Bush Administration's sordid legacy of failure.

Creative Soaps

It's a bit too late to order for Christmas, but other opportunities will arise. We received some of these hand-crafted soaps as a gift, and they're pretty cool.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Stifling TFA's Critics?

I have heard an account that I find credible, that participants in Teach for America are not permitted to publicly criticize the program, at the potential peril of their being expelled from the program. Given TFA's apparent emphasis on its program as résumé fodder, this seems to be part of an interesting set of techniques that TFA uses to minimize criticism:
  • If you're in the program, you're required to keep negative opinions to yourself;
  • If you are kicked out or drop out, criticism is seen as "sour grapes";
  • If you complete the program, you have an incentive to defend it as otherwise its value as résumé fodder is diminished;
  • If you're an education professional who criticizes the program, it seems to me that you're depicted as a defender of a failed status quo, as shilling for unions, or both.
I'm personally wary of any program that bars participants from publicly commenting on the negative aspects of their experience. I would be interested to hear any verification or rebuttal in relation to that alleged policy.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Externally Imposed Business Models

Remember that externally imposed business model that some people and politicians, including Thomas Friedman, want to impose on the Big 3? Greener, more fuel efficient cars, with hybrid engines? Here's a bit of market reality to remind us that the Prius isn't quite the same as Friedman's "iPod of luxury SUV's", the Lexus RX400h.
No, potentially the worst piece of [U.S. economic] news passed by almost without notice: the decision by the Japanese carmaker Toyota to hit the brakes on its construction of a new factory in Mississippi. That decision wrapped up the past and future prospects for the US into one unhappy package. If Toyota cancels its plant, the US economy won't collapse, of course. But it is more than just a bad omen. It's a warning of what is to come for the Federal Reserve and the incoming Obama administration.

Toyota's new car plant wasn't just any assembly line. It was to be the first US factory to make the famous Prius hybrid. Toyota had already invested $300m in it – but it may prefer to kiss that money goodbye than commit the extra $1bn needed to open it.
Prius sales are way down - "in November 2007 Toyota sold more than 16,000 Prius models. Last month it sold just 8,000." But that's not just because gas prices have dipped; it's also a symptom of the bad consumer credit market.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Does "Teach for America" Suck?

Given the fury directed at Linda Darling-Hammond, who has dared to question the effectiveness of "Teach for America", I thought it was worth looking under the hood. Teach for America's website led me to this article from the Hoover Institute's publication, Education Next - in lauding itself, Teach for America presents only the graphic, and not the text of the article. The commentary by Arthur Wise, a proponent of the professionalization of the teaching profession, is what you should expect. He gives a pretty good synopsis of why Teach for America "works" - and what that actually means for students:
At least five studies include data on TFA. The 2004 Mathematica study says that “TFA teachers did not have an impact on average reading achievement. Students in TFA and control classrooms experienced the same growth rate in reading achievement—an increase equivalent to one percentile” [from the 14th to the 15th percentile]. In addition, many of the TFA teachers were actually more prepared than over half in the novice control group: “All TFA teachers had at least 4 weeks of student teaching, while many of the control teachers (and over half the novice control teachers) had no student teaching experience at all.” The abysmally low percentage of students at the proficiency level in both reading and math in this study demonstrates the results of the current policy of having inexperienced, untrained recruits teaching the most-needy students.
Teach for the Kids
Is it truly possible for a certified teacher to be dumped into the most difficult inner city classroom with absolutely no student teaching experience? That's appalling. I wasn't aware that any states permitted teachers to be fully certified without any student teaching experience.
As a group, the studies tend to show that the students of uncertified TFA recruits underachieve when compared to students of new certified teachers, but this gap tends to disappear as the TFA recruits obtain professional knowledge through coursework and certification. Like similar studies in other areas of educational controversy, however, these results are indicative but not uniformly regarded as conclusive.
Thus, as you would expect, as TFA participants get to the point of having two years of experience and benefit from additional training, they are better able to control their classrooms and to teach their students as compared to newly certified teachers. Then, for the most part, they quit.
Whatever the relative performance of the two groups of new teachers, I know of no school or district that has made a conscious choice to hire TFA recruits instead of certified teachers. And the districts do not retain any substantial number of them long enough for the recruits to catch up to their peers. TFA recruits are placeholders in troubled schools where an adult must staff the classroom and no one else volunteers. They are hired because of the lack of certified applicants, not because they are considered more desirable.
At the same time,
Whether TFA has in fact “improved the caliber of candidates,” however, depends on the criterion used to make the judgment. TFA was designed to help solve the “teacher shortage” in “under-resourced” urban and rural schools and should be measured against this objective.
I agree. And within that context, I find Teach for America's exaggeration and triumphalism off-putting. TFA appears to be marketing itself as résumé fodder, and seems to believe that the best way to do so is to diminish the profession of teaching. It may well introduce future policy makers to the genuine problems of inner city schools, and it may well inspire a modest number of its alumni to remain in teaching professions or become school administrators. But it's not comfortable admitting that its most important service is helping to overcome teacher shortages with what, by the design of its program, amount to a succession of temps - intelligent, motivated temps, for the most part, but temps nonetheless. I expect that a lot of TFA participants get a rude awakening their first day of class.

If TFA tried to pitch itself to my local school board, it would be told that its services weren't needed. If TFA tried to convince parents in my town that they should happily have their children taught by one of its participants instead of a certified, experienced teacher, they would be laughed out of the room. If TFA tried to pitch its programs to private schools, it might be told to send over its graduates - but not its novices. It's exceptionally important that enough teachers be available to serve inner city kids, and it's wonderful that TFA helps that happen, but please, let's not pretend that this is the ideal, or even on par with having those same schools staffed with qualified, dedicated, experienced, professional teachers.

Why Rhee Wants To Break the Teacher's Union

CWD comments,
Clearly, Rhee is trying to sell the teachers a pig in a poke. On the other hand, these are the same teachers who have had union president's steal millions from them and who readily admit that they wouldn't want their children to attend the schools where they teach . . . and are surprised that anyone would expect them too . . .

I'm not sure that busting the Union is a necessary step in the process, but blowing the whole system up and starting over has some theoretical merit . . .
I'll admit, Rhee's professed goal - giving teachers a big raise and merit pay - is not the traditional opening gambit of a union buster. I do think it's a "pig in a poke" - that the proposed pay structure is unsustainable. But for now, let's assume otherwise. Obviously the goal here isn't to coerce the union into letting its members be paid more. Nobody's talking about expanding the school year. So what's left... oh, yeah....


Even when they offer wages comparable to other school districts, or above what other districts pay, school districts like D.C. have a hard time attracting quality job applicants for teaching positions. Why? Because teaching in an inner city school is considered to be a miserable experience. Teaching in a school where, despite your best efforts, you wouldn't send your own child? Where your best efforts, applied every single day, will do nothing to improve the status quo? Where your day is consumed with disciplinary problems and you struggle to maintain classroom order? I have admiration for teachers who can work like that, day after day, without burning out or quitting. But there aren't many of them.

So weak administrators hire weak applicants in order to fill positions, aren't diligent enough (or don't care enough) to ferret out those who don't have an adequate skill set before they get tenure, and the district ends up with large numbers of teachers who really aren't equipped to teach. Rhee supposedly will offer remedial programs for these teachers as part of her secret plan, so that they can in theory avoid being fired, but nothing is stopping her from offering remedial training right now. What she clearly wants to do is to break the tenure system so she can clean house.

I can't say that I blame her. I'm sure she can identify a lot of teachers who should never have been hired, and a larger group that may become highly motivated to improve their skills and performance if they can be threatened with termination. I have sympathy for an administrator who inherits a broken system. But let's be blunt: if teacher's unions were the cause of this problem, D.C.'s system should be typical of the nation's schools as opposed to being among the dregs. The roots of the problem lie in incompetent, unmotivated administration crossed with, in much of the system, what many teachers would find to be an unrewarding, often unpleasant, teaching environment.

Rhee was hoping that the offer of big money would be a sufficient enticement to get the union to voluntarily give up tenure, or allow teachers to opt into the merit system (possibly with the longer-term goal of trying to get the teachers who opted for the merit pay system to vote to decertify the union). But it's difficult to see why a union would regard a promise of an apparently unsustainable pay raise for some as grounds to surrender the largest benefit it has historically provided to its members - job security. And even if you're a good teacher, you have to have some concern about whether you would get merit pay, or have the bad luck of having a particularly bad class and be deemed to be underperforming despite strong efforts.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Disdain for Factory Workers

William Kristol, who at times seems to look down on everybody, cautions both parties and the media about looking down at auto workers.
Today, G.M., Ford and Chrysler get no respect. Maybe they don’t deserve much. Detroit has many sins to answer for, and it’s been doing plenty of answering. But — and I say this as someone who grew up in non-car-driving family in New York and who is the furthest thing from an auto aficionado — there is a kind of undeserved disdain, even casual contempt, that seems to characterize the attitude of the political and media elites toward the American auto industry.
Was noblesse oblige a lesson taught at Irving Kristol's dinner table? Today, the wealthiest like to pretend that they were born with no advantage, that no serendipity, inheritance, and nepotism played no role in their success, and that if you are less fortunate it's an indictment of your lack of resolve.

By way of example, has Mitt Romney ever admitted the significance of his father's success and name to his own achievements, let alone acknowledged that he's the millionaire son of a millionaire in no small part due to the efforts of unionized auto workers? When he speaks of his father's blown opportunity to negotiate a new type of labor-management relationship with the UAW, could it be because George shared (perhaps inculcated) Mitt's contemptuousness of unions? Can you imagine candid admissions of how privileged childhoods and powerful parents paved a path to easy prominence from, say, Jonah Goldberg, George W. Bush, David Frum, John Podhoretz, Michael Reagan, Robert and Fred Kagan.... I'm not sure that Kristol has ever candidly acknowledged his own privilege, but this editorial suggests that he is aware of it. Sure, there's a cynical part of me that thinks he's advancing the political reality described by Dick Cheney - that causing the Big Three to fail will turn the Republican Party into the "Party of Hoover," and I'm not endorsing his simplistic analysis of the motivations of either party - but for now I'll give him the benefit of the doubt. Particularly given this:
Now there are other ways to explain the disparate treatment of G.M. and Citigroup. Finance is different from manufacturing, and banks from auto companies. It may be that the case for a huge bank bailout was strong, and that the case for a more modest auto package is not. Still, it seems to me true that the financial big shots haven’t been treated nearly as roughly in Congress or in the media as the auto executives, who have done nothing remotely as irresponsible as their Wall Street counterparts.
As you know, it's worse than that. Companies that would have collapsed in a free market are paying shareholder dividends, gargantuan salaries, and even larger "retention bonuses" (to workers who would otherwise... go where?) with taxpayer money.
Meanwhile, on the right, free-market analysts have explained that our regulatory scheme of fuel-efficiency standards is counterproductive. But despite the fact that the government is partly responsible for the Big Three’s problems, the right hasn’t really been stirred to enthusiastically promote a deregulatory agenda to help the auto companies. What excites it is mobilizing to oppose bailouts for unionized workers.
I have to take issue with that. Kristol's point might be stronger but for the fact that every major car company that is not failing is headquartered in a nation that imposes greater regulation, and in which tax policies have long created high gas prices. Congress has been complicit in preventing the regulations it passes from having teeth, such that the domestic auto makes were able to build huge gas guzzling fleets outside of the limits set by CAFE, but it now appears that had those regulations been more comprehensive, the Big Three would not have experienced their huge drop off in sales the second gas hit $4/gallon. If a regulatory lesson is to be learned, it's that Congress could have better shaped the product line of domestic manufacturers by raising gas taxes than through a body of complex, loophole ridden regulations.
Last week, Senate Republicans picked a fight with the U.A.W. on union pay scales — despite the fact that it’s the legacy benefits for retirees, not pay for current workers, that’s really hurting Detroit, and despite the additional fact that, in any case, labor amounts to only about 10 percent of the cost of a car. But the Republicans were fighting Big Labor! They were standing firm against bailouts! Some of the same conservatives who (correctly, in my view) made the case for $700 billion for Wall Street pitched a fit over $14 billion in loans for the automakers.
Whoah - Kristol's actually bringing facts into the debate. Is that allowed?

I personally don't think the case was made for the $700 billion financial industry bailout, save in the sense that "we don't know what will happen if we don't try to bail out the banks". Sure, you can get my support to build a $700 billion wall between myself and a freight train if I can't otherwise avoid being hit, but that leaves no time for serious reflection or evaluation of how that money is best spent. I'm not convinced at this point that we should continue to bail out financial institutions - they have not been responsible with the money that's been given to them, they're not using the injected liquidity to increase lending, and there does not appear to be any good reason why the government can't tell them, "You have time to put together Chapter 11 plans, so do that. If you're failing, come to us and we'll try to arrange for you to be taken over by a stable institution, or perhaps help ease you into that Chapter 11 reorganization."

The real issue is, should it be the role of government to bail out businesses? Should we (supposedly) champion free markets then declare, "That company is 'too big to fail'" the moment managerial incompetence threatens the viability of a large company, stepping in with a multi-billion dollar bailout? Kristol is right to question why self-professed conservatives are pitching a fit over a $14 billion bailout after signing on to a $700 billion bailout. But he errs in suggesting that it's the size that matters - that if you support the large, it follows that you should support the small. The fundamental question, if you actually believe in free markets, is whether you should bail out any companies at all. Had the managers of these financial giants seriously believed that Uncle Sam would tell them to go to bankruptcy court, at least some of them would probably have made better decisions. And it would be harder to feel sorry for those who didn't. (Assuming it's possible to feel sorry for them.) But back to Kristol's larger point:
Whichever party can liberate itself from its well-worn rut to propose policies that help both American businesses and workers has a great opportunity. That party’s leaders could begin by offering management and labor at the Big Three a little more sympathy, and heaping upon them a little less calumny.
Oh, I'm not sure how much sympathy they deserve, and I somehow doubt that Kristol is the hugging type. But some understanding?

No Union Busting Here, Folks....

In an unsigned editorial, the Washington Post prevaricates,
Ms. Rhee has been accused of trying to break the union when, in truth, she rejected a plan to bring in a firm adept at union-busting in favor of working one-on-one with local labor officials whom she believed shared her philosophy that children come first.
A more realistic interpretation is that she was told by the union busting firm, "It's not going to work here."

It tells you something about Rhee that, before opening negotiations, she even considered hiring a "firm adept at union-busting" to attack the teacher's union. It tells you something else about Rhee (and the Washington Post) that the dream plan she has for teachers - the plan the Post gushes over every week or two - is a highly classified secret, and isn't available anywhere for people, be they curious outsiders like me or teachers who are told how wonderful it is, to read. Rhee's not interested in union busting? Perhaps Fred Hiatt and his editorial writers should, you know, read their own paper.
Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee are discussing a dramatic expansion of their effort to remove ineffective teachers by restoring the District's power to create nonunionized charter schools and seeking federal legislation declaring the school system in a "state of emergency," a move that would eliminate the need to bargain with the Washington Teachers' Union.
Nope... not even a slight interest in union busting there....

I'm prepared to believe that Rhee's proposal is the best thing since sliced bread. But if it truly is such a wonderful plan, and is sustainable, why isn't she focusing her energies on publicizing the plan rather than keeping it under wraps?

Sunday, December 14, 2008

All You Need Is A Perfect Product!

After months of describing how the Big Three need to be forcibly reinvented, and required to build cars under government-imposed environmental and fuel efficiency standards that don't apply to their foreign competitors, Thomas Friedman has shifted course. Sort of.
Over the years, Detroit bosses kept repeating: “We have to make the cars people want.” That’s why they’re in trouble. Their job is to make the cars people don’t know they want but will buy like crazy when they see them. I would have been happy with my Sony Walkman had Apple not invented the iPod. Now I can’t live without my iPod. I didn’t know I wanted it, but Apple did. Same with my Toyota hybrid.
It says something about Friedman's candor that he writes "Toyota" instead of "Lexus", and "hybrid" instead of "SUV hybrid". There's a world of difference between Toyota's least fuel efficient hybrid and the Prius. Had Friedman wanted a roughly equivalent vehicle at a slightly lower price, with slightly greater fuel efficiency, he would have purchased a Highlander hybrid. Was he paying extra for the additional power of the Lexus, even at the expense of fuel efficiency? Real wood trim instead of plastic?

I have a Toyota hybrid. It's nice, it's quiet, it has very low emissions, it's... fuel efficient for a car with its feature set, but hardly the most fuel efficient vehicle on the market. Could I live without it, or easily substitute another vehicle for it? Sure. It's a car. I would love to hear Friedman explain why he can't live without his hybrid, rather than having him simply suggest that it rounds out his life like his... iPod. The fact is, Friedman can easily afford a luxury SUV. He can easily afford the gas that fills it, and could easily afford it at $4, $6, or $10/gallon. When he has argued for higher gas taxes to force consumers to buy vehicles like... his? He sounds a bit like a modern Marie Antoinette.

As for building the cars people want to buy, let's go back a year ago to Friedman's et tu, Toyota, after that company joined the Big Three in opposing more stringent CAFE standards.
Now why would Toyota, which has used the Prius to brand itself as the greenest car company, pull such a stunt? Is it because Toyota wants to slow down innovation in Detroit on more energy efficient vehicles, which Toyota already dominates, while also keeping mileage room to build giant pickup trucks, like the Toyota Tundra, at the gas-guzzler end of the U.S. market?

“Toyota wants to keep its green halo and beat G.M. in the big trucks, too,” said Deron Lovaas, vehicles expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Friedman has consistently conflated two different questions - what vehicles consumers want, and how gas prices affect their choices. Remove gas prices from the equation and, as I quipped the other day, it appears that Americans want a vehicle the size of a small house that does 0-60 in less than 10 seconds and is available for a price between $20-$30K. Toyota's ability to produce vehicles that people want in an era of high gas prices comes, in no small part, from the fact that their domestic market has faced very high gas taxes, and thus very high gas prices, for many years. They, like the Big Three, also wanted to be able to take advantage of U.S. consumer preferences for large, low MPG vehicles.

When I was last shopping for cars, I really didn't see anything transformational. I saw a lot of sameness from one auto manufacturer to the next - domestic, European, Japanese, Korean.... Within the category of vehicles I was considering (and giant SUV's, trucks and Hummers weren't under consideration), my decision was made in part on fuel efficiency (a hybrid versus a non-hybrid model), but that was well behind issues of vehicle quality and expected longevity on my "wish list". My sentiment is apparently not atypical, and presumably is why Lexus offers Friedman's SUV in a better-selling non-hybrid model, and Toyota offers the Camry and Highlander in better-selling non-hybrid models.

But isn't that the rub? Friedman wants Detroit to develop a one-size-fits-all vehicle, popular with consumers regardless of gas prices, but also green and fuel-efficient. A wonderful concept, but something that nobody in the auto industry, including the most innovative, efficient, environmentally conscious manufacturers, believes exists. You want to force consumer choices in that direction? Go back to arguing for high gas taxes or setting floors on gas prices, such that consumers are compelled to buy the vehicles you want them to buy, but don't pretend that you're arguing for a context in which they will be able to buy the vehicles they want.

Friday, December 12, 2008

What A Pathetic Display

The Washington Post, observing that the only proposal to save the auto industry is failing in the Senate - due to, of all things, a Republican demand for what amount to wage caps on auto workers - "What's Plan B?" It astonishes me that a Republican President can't convince enough of his own party's senators of the urgency of action, that they drop their filibuster threat. In what seems like "business as usual", a scheduled vacation appears more important to the Democrats than actually forcing the Republicans to break out their encyclopedias and, if they truly wish to block the bill, actually filibuster.

The short answer to the question, "What's Plan B", appears to be to use TARP money for the bail-out, which could mean that none of the restrictions, compromises, or demands placed upon the Big Three by the bailout bill will be implemented. The Republican Party may be giddy with the idea of harming or breaking the UAW and benefitting the foreign auto manufacturers who are located in "red states", but G.W. is worried about the tattered remnants of his legacy.
"Because Congress failed to act, we will stand ready to prevent an imminent failure until Congress reconvenes and acts to address the long-term viability of the industry," Treasury spokeswoman Brookly McLaughlin said.

And, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said it is considering using the Wall Street rescue fund to prevent the USA's strapped carmakers from failing.
I like that - it's "because Congress failed to act", rather than, "Because the President couldn't convince his own party to back a bill he supports." Perino elaborated that "it would be 'irresponsible' to further erode the economy by allowing failure in Detroit", but how about some honesty here about just who it is that the President is describing as irresponsible.

The Washington Post repeats some common, yet silly, complaints about the auto industry,
Furthermore, if the Detroit carmakers are going to survive, they will have to completely overhaul the way they do business - and start building cars that people will buy.
Lets look back a whole year:
General Motors announced today that it sold 9,369,524 vehicles worldwide in 2007, which puts it in a dead heat with Toyota for the title of world's best-selling automaker.
Now the Big Three deserve criticism for disregarding the end of cheap oil, but really... but for the spike in gas prices this summer and the current financial crises, at current gas prices those highly profitable gas guzzling vehicles "that no one wants" would be flying off of car lots across the nation. (If auto makers booked their profits when those vehicles sold, as opposed to when they were shipped to dealerships, they would be looking a lot healthier right now - because sales appear to be picking up.)
For that, they are going to need new leadership, a rational assessment of their long record of failure and, yes, a much larger infusion of government cash.
We're back to that "new leadership" thing.... Something the Post isn't demanding of the finance industry, despite a perhaps unparalleled record of failure and incompetence by its leaders. Heck, the Post doesn't even appear upset by the astronomical wages, bonuses, and even stock dividends that bailed-out financial companies are paying with taxpayer money.

Perhaps we need a financial industry czar - somebody who saw that derivatives were, let's say, a "time bomb" or as "financial weapons of mass destruction"... Oh, but let's be realistic. Nobody could have seen the financial industry's problems coming. We need to find a Warren Buffett for the intelligence community, and apparently we need a Warren Buffett for the auto industry. It's truly a shame we can't find a Warren Buffett for the financial industry.

I've already commented, but it bears repeating - where exactly does the Post imagine that the Big Three will find "magic men" to lead them in a new direction? Ford got its CEO from Boeing; Chrysler's CEO used to head, of all things, Home Depot. How far outside the industry is far enough to satisfy this ridiculous demand - and what's wrong with looking for people within the industry who actually know about cars and may even have a track record of developing vehicles that are suited to the future?
Nobody - including the carmakers - fully understands the depth of Detroit’s problems or how much money it will take to dig them out. Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s, told Congress last week that rescuing the companies would cost taxpayers $75 billion to $125 billion over the next two years. And that’s probably optimistic.
Now that's a fair criticism. Chrysler, for example, is pretending that the bailout will result in a quick return to profitability. Does it believe that, or is it spinning a fairy tale? If the former, there's good cause to question the competence of its leadership. If the latter, it appears to be part of a mendacious plan by Cerberus Capital Management to get a taxpayer subsidy that allows it to avoid taking a loss on a bad investment. As you already know, I think it's the latter.

If the Big Three are glossing over a future that, realistically, will require a taxpayer bailout exceeding $100 billion, we should be sending them back to revise their plans to reflect that reality - and to demonstrate how they could recover with a smaller infusion of taxpayer money.

Beyond the Post's dream that the Big Three will find "magic men" to take over for their present leadership, it whines,
And the bill doesn’t set any conditions to ensure automakers invest in fuel-efficient vehicles. Any long-term plan must make sure the automakers don’t simply keep making gas-guzzling trucks and sport-utility vehicles, whose popularity - unfortunately - has recovered as gas prices have declined.
There's not even a slight effort to achieve internal consistency. If the idea is to force auto manufacturers to build cars that consumers want, it appears that they are doing so - as long as gas prices are low. If the idea is to force them to give up their gas guzzlers in favor of fuel-sipping vehicles, that's something quite apart from getting them to build the vehicles people want to buy. Let's be blunt - if you could build a car the size of a small house, have it get 25 MPG, do 0-60 in less than ten seconds, and sell it in various forms for $20-$30K, it would be the most popular car in America. (The auto manufacturers are about as likely to be able to create such a car as they are to find the Post's "magic man" leaders, so don't accuse me of being unrealistic.)

It should go without saying, but it doesn't - so here we go again. If the goal is to create a competitive domestic auto industry, you can't do that by hamstringing auto makers and forcing them to build under fuel efficiency standards that don't apply to their competitors. If you want more fuel efficient cars on the road, build an even playing field by instituting new, meaningful CAFE standards that apply to everyone.

If the Post is correct, that it's going to take $75 - $125 billion to turn around the domestic auto industry, then perhaps its time to think about something far different from a bailout that tries to keep the three auto makers in business. There are a number of options, short of and including bankruptcy, that should be considered in the new year. Assuming GM and Chrysler aren't already in bankruptcy by then.

But how about at least passing a contingency plan - an authorization of aid to parts suppliers to keep them out of bankruptcy in the event that Chrysler and/or GM file Chapter 11. If we're going to risk that they fail, let's at least try to keep them from dragging Ford down with them.

Nice Ethics....

What am I supposed to think about this statement attributed to Alan Dershowitz?
I have been in touch with Claus repeatedly. I have not been in touch with OJ Simpson since his trial.
I'm sure it hurts OJ to have been dropped from the Christmas Card list but, whether or not he paid his bill,1 I don't think his former lawyer should be publicly insinuating that he was guilty. Anybody else, opine away, but not the defense attorney.
1. And we know that Dershowitz and the rest of OJ's legal team "got paid".

Vanity Fair on Henry Paulson

This seems like a pretty accurate capsule summary:
The original proposal by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, a three-page document that would have provided $700 billion for the secretary to spend at his sole discretion, without oversight or judicial review, was an act of extraordinary arrogance. He sold the program as necessary to restore confidence. But it didn’t address the underlying reasons for the loss of confidence. The banks had made too many bad loans. There were big holes in their balance sheets. No one knew what was truth and what was fiction. The bailout package was like a massive transfusion to a patient suffering from internal bleeding—and nothing was being done about the source of the problem, namely all those foreclosures. Valuable time was wasted as Paulson pushed his own plan, “cash for trash,” buying up the bad assets and putting the risk onto American taxpayers. When he finally abandoned it, providing banks with money they needed, he did it in a way that not only cheated America’s taxpayers but failed to ensure that the banks would use the money to re-start lending. He even allowed the banks to pour out money to their shareholders as taxpayers were pouring money into the banks.
I would add, Paulson's refusal to hold a steady course, and his willingness to throw "no strings attached" billions at banks based upon criteria only he appears to know (assuming he actually has criteria) could not possibly have created confidence in the banking system, as it's been entirely unpredictable.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

And Next We Find a Philosopher King, and....

David Ignatius urges Obama to find a Warren Buffet of intelligence to be the next director of national intelligence.
The right answer? Find the Buffett-like manager who can create a truly great U.S. intelligence system at DNI, then let that person pick a CIA director who will be nonpolitical. And then, as the late CIA Director Richard Helms liked to tell his trench-coated colleagues, "Let's get on with it."
Sounds good. But... where do we look?

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Cheap Oil - Forever!

Or at least for five years? Does anybody know what Paul Day was saying about the price of oil a year ago? Perhaps he wasn't among those who believed that we would never again see oil below $80-$100/bbl, but I suspect that most of the people presently projecting five years of low oil prices were then projecting indefinite high oil prices.

These low oil prices are a mixed blessing. It's nice to be able to fill up a gas tank for less than $50, and that fewer people will be fretting over whether they can afford to heat their homes this winter. But if prolonged, low gas prices will lead again to short-sighted manufacturing decisions by carmakers, and short-sighted purchases by consumers. It will make it harder to argue for, or justify the budget necessary for, preparing for the inevitable future in which energy prices again hit record levels. If low oil prices persist, they also reduce the amount of exploration for, and development of, hard-to-reach sources of oil, where the cost of production may be $70-$80/bbl.

I suspect that a big part of the drop in oil prices is less a question of world demand, and has more to do with wealthy investors and hedge funds having to sell off their oil futures to cover margin calls. We seem to be in an odd state of uncertainty, in which those large investors are afraid to buy up certain commodities in case their value continues to drop, but where that lack of investment perpetuates a cycle - the falling prices force additional sales, but again with no buyers, so prices continue to drop (or at best hold steady). That uncertainty extends into other markets where the wealthy once thought it was safe to hold their money - anybody looking to buy some contemporary art? (Maybe Hank Paulson should buy up a few billion dollars worth, to restore confidence to the markets....)

Please, Not Centralized Planning....

David Brooks arguesthat there's a popular trend toward community,
If you asked people in that age of go-go suburbia what they wanted in their new housing developments, they often said they wanted a golf course. But the culture has changed. If you ask people today what they want, they’re more likely to say coffee shops, hiking trails and community centers.
Brooks declares,
To take advantage of the growing desire for community, the Obama plan would have to do two things. First, it would have to create new transportation patterns. The old metro design was based on a hub-and-spoke system — a series of highways that converged on an urban core. But in an age of multiple downtown nodes and complicated travel routes, it’s better to have a complex web of roads and rail systems.

Second, the Obama stimulus plan could help localities create suburban town squares. Many communities are trying to build focal points. The stimulus plan could build charter schools, pre-K centers, national service centers and other such programs around new civic hubs.
In other words, Brooks would have us spend tens or hundreds of billions of dollars on new roads, and would favor public transportation that can move small numbers of people, slowly, over short distances as opposed those that would quickly move large numbers of people over longer distances. Brooks would also encourage muncipalities to "build on today’s emerging patterns", then stick their hands out for billions from Obama to pay for their plans. Does Brooks think this is likely? No.
But alas, there’s no evidence so far that the Obama infrastructure plan is attached to any larger social vision. In fact, there is a real danger that the plan will retard innovation and entrench the past.
What "past" is Brooks talking about? The "golf course community" past of, say, five years ago? The "big cities, few suburbs" past of a century ago? The past that, five years ago, Brooks would have been writing while lamenting that the President's vision didn't focus on building the golf courses that people wanted as part of their new social landscape?

To put it mildly, Brooks' idea is bad. Here's an anecdote I previously related,
Later today I will be driving past a large, unattractive cement building, owned by a national newspaper chain. That location of that building will seem peculiar - it is, after all, a relatively new building, but its location will be on the main road to downtown, where it is apparent that many shops and homes once stood. It also is the sort of building that one would expect to be in an industrial park, or at the outskirts of a town, not right at the edge of downtown.

It seems that this town had a brilliant idea some decades back that it would "renew" its downtown area. It set about acquiring a large tract of property, with the goal of clearing off the old homes and businesses and building a large shopping mall. After the land was acquired and cleared, somebody finally asked the important question - "If we build it, will they come?" Okay, so that wasn't the actual question - "Private projects of this type and magnitude don't break ground until they have their anchor tenants signed to leases. Do we even have any potential anchor tenants who have expressed interest, let alone any who have signed leases?" Perhaps you have anticipated the answer to that question.

So the city was left with an empty stretch of land, once occupied by homes and buildings, and a revitalization plan which was not commercially viable. The best offer they got from a private enterprise for the land was from the newspaper company, hence the cement behemoth.
Meanwhile, in the city where I live, after an initial purchase price in the millions, hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars are being expended in relation to what is now a vacant lot because the city's desire for low-income housing on that land have failed to come to fruition. Almost next door in Ypsilanti, the city has struggled for a decade to reinvent an area near downtown into the very type of community Brooks claims everybody wants.

I don't particularly trust municipalities to plan the specifics of redevelopment of a community redevelopment - or even in relation to single lots. I have no problem with a municipality zoning or rezoning areas to encourage the development of more vibrant downtown areas. I have no problem with the federal government joining with cities to clear abandoned buildings and clean up environmental problems, creating brownfields where development will not otherwise occur. But do I want cities to try to impose a David Brooks vision of downtown centers including "restaurant and entertainment zones, mixed-use streetscape malls, suburban theater districts, farmers’ markets and concert halls" on the public? No, I don't.

I can walk downtown and enjoy several such zones - e.g., a Main Street area zone that is dominated by restaurants and upscale and specialty retail with a popular live music venue, the Kerrytown area with its farmer's market and upscale food and specialty shops, or the State Street/Liberty/South University area with its abundance of restaurants, coffee shops, boutiques, movie theaters, and live theater. I appreciate that the city's zoning allowed for that development to occur, and that the University of Michigan's budget allows for a lot of theater and cultural options that would otherwise be missing from this city. But had the city tried to dictate how those areas developed instead of leting them evolve, just as with its troubled effort to turn a single vacant lot into low-income housing, it would likely have impeded or prevented the successful development of those areas.

As for pretending that having "a complex web of roads and rail systems" helps prepare us for a future in which people are not dependent upon cars? While I respect the idea that public transportation should make it quick and easy to get from "point a" to "point b", and that hub and spoke systems can create delays and inconvenience that force people who would happily take a bus to instead drive a car, Brooks seems to be paying no heed to the cost of developing, operating and maintaining the "complex web" he desires. It's almost as if he's demanding, "Build a public transportation system I would use," without considering either the needs of others, or how in fact such a system could be created and operated in a cost-effective manner. (Or maybe that's exactly what he's demanding.)

"We're Almost Full"

I enjoyed this observation by Seth Godin, in relation to the overwhelming amount of data that's not just available to us, but is directed to us each and every day: "The internet isn't full, but we are."
You can't keep up with the status of your friends on the social networks. No way. You can't read every important blog... you can't even read all the blogs that tell you what the important blogs are saying.
That reminds me of advice I see directed at law firms - that they start blogs ("blawgs") and that they can generate clients and referrals through social networking. But that's simplistic.

The blogging advice typically goes along the lines of, "Pick a niche subject, start a blog, post regularly, and make yourself an expert." Blawg of dreams. I'm reminded of Orin Kerr's brief departure from the Volokh Conspiracy to start his own blog. He did all of that, and what? Went back to the much more eclectic, much less scholarly atmosphere of the group blog because it had the traffic. That was two years ago, and the marketplace is now far more crowded. Sure legal blogs can generate business or make people think of you as an authority, but so can a other approaches such as posting online articles, traditional networking, teaching CLE courses, or writing for traditional publications. You may find that, when costs and time are considered, those other approaches offer a far greater return on your investment.

It's amusing to me to read a typical article about the glories of legal blogging, as there seems to be remarkable overlap between the bloggers who are interviewed about their experiences, and they almost always also rely heavily on quotes from people who design and support legal weblogs. You may not get rich mining for gold, but that doesn't mean you can't get rich selling pickaxes to the miners.

Meanwhile, if you look at the ABA's top 100 blogs, how many of them are actually focused on client generation for practicing lawyers? I suspect that if you looked at the blogs that are the most successful at generating business from the public at large, I doubt you would conclude that many of the authors were leading experts in their fields (although they may say that they are on their blogs), and I doubt that you would add many (perhaps not any) to your blogroll. Creating a blog that establishes your expertise to other lawyers such that they refer you cases? That's a lot harder, as you have to get them to notice your blog. And follow it. And, as much as possible, to link to it.

That brings us to social networking. An article I read recently described a lawyer who was active on multiple social networks, and that his combined efforts on his networks generated about $100,000.00 in business for his firm over the prior year. The article conceded that he's an outlier. But it's more than that. It's safe to say he's a younger lawyer, and that his network primarily revolves around younger lawyers. Telling an older lawyer (and no, I don't mean "old" - just old enough to find social networking bit alien) "Find a social network, create a profile, connect to your peers, and learn to use it", will often not be a good use of that lawyer's time, as many of his peers won't be participating in the network, and of those who are many will be passively participating - they will have created a profile that they may or may not check on occasion, and that they may or may not update on occasion, but they're not actively using the network or the service's features.

As for a younger lawyer who is active in five or more social networks, keeps his profile up to date, responds to his friends, and generates referrals, let's not miss this: The emphasis is still on social. I doubt you'll find a person who is that active in social networks who joined and participates primarily for business purposes; but you'll find a lot who participate for social purposes, with a business element growing out of that social involvement. The importance of social networking is likely to rise, as more and more younger lawyers emerge from a generation that is heavily invested in social networks. But unless you're going to be an active social networker, it's unlikely to become a significant source of clients and revenue.

A big part of the problem is the information overload. There are too many blogs (and "blawgs"), and too many social networks. There will be an increasing tendency toward monopoly - just as there used to be many search engines and now there are really only three that matter, one of which is dominant, eventually there will be similar consolidation among social networks. Because even people who can afford to spend hours each day maintaining their profiles on five networks, few of whom work for law firms, will exhaust at six, or seven, or twenty. People who aren't into social networking don't want to be advised to pick between five or more options and hope that their participation leads to more business. They want to be told, "Use this one," and not have to worry about the others. Many would probably perfer a simple, specialized tool - e.g., an enhanced ABA membership that provides simple tools for members to connect to their peers, track practice areas, perhaps follow legal news and weblogs, and refer cases.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

That "Why The Party Failed" Thing

In taking on Ross Douthat's tendentious piece on abortion, I didn't address his headline, ostensibly the thesis of his piece, that "Abortion Politics Didn’t Doom the G.O.P." Of course not. If the GOP's approach to abortion politics were to doom it, it would not be by driving away people like Kathleen Parker and Max Boot. It will be when the religious right gets tired of promises, promises, promises and no delivery, and the single issue anti-abortion voters either vote for a third party candidate or stay home. What doomed the Republican Party in the 2008 election was the Bush Administration's top-to-bottom, back-to-front incompetence, coupled with a dozen or so too many corruption scandals.

Which isn't to say that, within the foreseeable future, I won't be writing pretty much the same thing about a future Democratic administration....

Pushing For A False Center On Abortion

Ross Douthat is not a stupid man, so what am I supposed to make of this? Is there any way to assume that this is offered in good faith?

His editorial starts with a false premise - that factions within the Republican Party are blaming the pro-life movement for its election failure. Initially, it should be noted that when Republican stalwarts such as Kathleen Parker reach the point of being uncomfortable with "The evangelical, right-wing, oogedy-boogedy branch of the G.O.P.," it is a sign of trouble. Parker doesn't represent the center - she's considerably to the right - but appears concerned about a faction of the party that is unwelcoming to her.

It was one thing, during the election campaign, to turn a blind eye to Sarah Palin's version of campaigning and sneer that anybody who criticized her was "elitist". (Incredibly, Douthat suggests that "post-feminist realities" of Palin's lifestyle make it surprising that she was embraced by the religious right, as if Palin weren't a Pentacostal Christian, and as if he hasn't hear a single word she has ever said.) But now some of those within the Republican party who recognize science, accept evolution, want access to birth control, and see room for a certain level of abortion freedom - and perhaps even want people who are openly pro-choice to be comfortable as members of the Republican Party - are questioning their own fit. As Steven Waldman, co-founder of, stated,
More problematic, Waldman tells Fresh Air host Terry Gross, were Palin's comments about God's will and the construction of an Alaska natural gas pipeline.

"That's exactly the kind of religion and politics-mixing that the founding fathers were terrified of — and with good cause," Waldman says. "The slippery slope is when politicians claim to know what God's plan is, and try to figure out the policy in order to match it up to God's plan."
No surprises here - Republicans like Parker see the factions that reject science and call for a complete ban on abortion rights as "the other" who doesn't really fit with the party, while Douthat seeks those like Parker as "the other". It's silly and dishonest to caricature their concerns as suggesting that "If the Republican Party would only jettison its position on abortion, it would be back on its feet in no time".

Douthat later addresses anti-science factions associated with the pro-life movement,
As for the movement’s supposed antipathy to science and social change - well, no doubt you’ll find more believers in young-earth creationism or divinely ordained patriarchy at a pro-life rally than you would at the Harvard Faculty Club. But here, too, the easy stereotypes are increasingly detached from reality.
How does a factual description of people Douthat concedes actually exist become an "easy stereotype"? Douthat presents the following argument to suggest that it's unfair to view pro-lifers as anti-science:
For example, we’re coming off a decade in which pro-lifers responded to the embryonic stem-cell controversy by becoming better versed in the relevant science than their miracle-cure-promising opponents. They insisted, presciently, that scientific advances with non-fetal stem cells, rather than legal restrictions, would eventually offer a way forward.
Except for the fact that their early arguments, parroted by President Bush, were false and held back scientific research. And the subsequent arguments have been variations on a theme - that if we wait long enough we'll see alternatives to fetal stem cell research that are just as good as fetal stem cell research - something that's every bit as "miracle-cure-promising" as believing that stem cell research will bring about immediate miracle cures. Douthat sees every headline suggesting an alternative source of stem cells as vindication for obstructing science; but he neglects to mention that "we're not there yet".

Further, people who hope for miracle cures from stem cell research are not necessarily pro-choice or pro-life. Often they're people who are hoping for a miracle cure for themselves or a loved one. They're egged on by sensational media coverage of potential developments in medicine, just as Douthat is egged on by every article that suggests we will eventually be able to perform unimpeded stem cell research with stem cells derived from non-fetal sources. But neither side is giving any real heed to the science.

But beyond that, Douthat has changed the subject from the anti-science pro-lifers he admits exist, to another group that uses a lay understanding (and oversimplification, and often misunderstanding) of science to argue against stem cell research, without showing that there's any overlap. He presents no evidence that the anti-scientific factions of the pro-life movement have shifted even slightly in favor of science. There's also a maxim he has surely heard, "Even the devil can cite scripture for his purpose." It's one thing to learn to recite "scientific arguments" in favor of limiting stem cell research (or opposing the theory of evolution, or arguing that men and dinosaurs simultaneously walked the Earth), and quite another to actually understand and argue from science.

Douthat whinges that the pro-life movement is familiar with the criticisms of Parker and others:
Most abortion opponents can recite the litany by heart. Their movement should focus on changing hearts and minds, rather than the law. It should be more consistently pro-life, by helping human beings outside the womb as well as those within it. It should cease trying to roll back the sexual revolution and standing athwart science yelling “stop!” And above all, it should be less absolutist, and more amenable to compromise.
But Douthat next attempts a sleight of hand, claiming "pro-lifers have already taken much of it to heart"
Compromise, rather than absolutism, has been the watchword of anti-abortion efforts for some time now. Since the early 1990s, advocates have focused on pushing largely modest state-level restrictions, from parental notification laws to waiting periods to bans on what we see as the grisliest forms of abortion.
That's false, and Douthat writes about these issues with sufficient frequency that he has to know it's false. While there are unquestionably people within the pro-life movement that have embraced goals that fall well short of a reversal of Roe and a national ban on abortion, the largest pro-life organizations and their leaders unabashedly advocate for a 100% ban on abortion. How did Operation Rescue, for example, describe its goals in South Dakota?
Let there be no mistake. The Abortion Bill is an incremental approach to a ban on abortion. It does not represent the total ban sought by many for the sake of the unborn child, but it creates a prohibition of those abortions we can achieve at this time while laying the foundation for the long term goal of an abortion-free America.
So, basically, a law that came close to banning abortion and required doctors to make a highly misleading and inflammatory statement to women in order to discourage abortions, even if they believed it to be medically, factually and legally wrong, was part of a larger scheme to effect a complete ban. And this, to Douthat, represents "largely modest state-level restrictions"? Would he respond that it's an "exception" that is somehow beneath his notice?

Douthat makes no mention of contraception rights, and opposition to contraception and "the morning after pill" within the pro-life movement. Doctors should have the right to choose not to provide accurate, valuable medical information to their patients, without warning them up-front, "I'm pro-life and I won't fully inform you in relation to your legal choices"? And that "right" may even extend to informing patients about birth control? Again, where's the compromise? For that matter, does Douthat support broad contraception rights, given that in his book he is scornful of contraception and its effect on society? What's his level of "compromise" on that issue?

Douthat also describes the conflagration over "partial birth abortion" as "bans on what we see as the grisliest forms of abortion". I recognize that this was sold to the public on the basis of gore, but what sort of basis is that for public policy? Have you ever seen a cesarean section? The surgeries to treat severe craniofacial disorders such as Crouzon Syndrome? A pneumonectomy to remove a cancerous lung? When a doctor devises a treatment that he considers to be the best for his patient, the concern should never be whether somebody might pop into the surgery from the street and find it "grisly".

As for Douthat's claim that efforts have largely shifted from a "culture of (sometimes violent) protest" to "pro-life energy is being channeled into grassroots efforts, from crisis pregnancy centers to post-abortion counseling", how exactly do those "crisis pregnancy centers" typically work? Mostly, it seems, by masquerading as objective providers of information and assistance, then attempting to indoctrinate pregnant women with pro-life propaganda. You don't believe that they're out to lie and deceive? Then tell me, why of all names did pro-life propagandists start publishing under the name "":
Abortion... When is it safe?

No medical procedure is 100% safe so the answer is never Completely,
and less safe than many procedures. To be 100% safe don't have one.
Risks are:
  • Severe Bleeding
  • Having problems in future pregnancy
  • Becoming sterile
  • Needing a Hysterectomy
  • Not completing the job
  • Severe infection
  • Developing Breast cancer
  • Psychological issues
  • Death
Is there truly a moral high ground in spreading falsehoods and using dishonest scare tactics? Also, as Steven Waldman suggests, those of faith who argue for abortion reduction over anti-abortion absolutism are, in many pro-life circles, viewed as allied with the enemy. Where can I find Douthat putting in their place those of his pro-life peers who accuse Obama of supporting infanticide?

In relation to the Supreme Court, Douthat questions whether the pro-life movement can stop attempting to impose "an abortion litmus test for Republican presidential nominees", and then suggests that the real problem is "the inflexibility of the Supreme Court’s abortion jurisprudence." He argues that there are many alternatives to the U.S. model of abortion rights, an argument he's made before:
The trouble with seeking common ground on abortion is that the legal regime enacted by Roe and reaffirmed in Casey permits only the most minimal regulation of the practice, which means that any plausible "compromise" that leaves Roe in place will offer almost nothing to pro-lifers. Even the modest restrictions that prevail in many European countries (and that, not coincidentally, coincide with lower abortion rates) are out of the question under the current legal dispensation.
Did you catch that? Things coincide with each other, but not by coincidence? He's an editor, and he didn't catch that? Or was that the best alternative word he could find for "correlate", and he wished to avoid telegraphing that he is arguing that correlation equals causation. Douthat seems predisposed to present sweeping claims as fact, without any indication that he's actually tried to find out if what he's saying is true. Another consistency? If he has evidence to support his sweeping claims, he is consistent in his failure to present it. Perhaps somebody whispered a few facts in his ear, as European policies don't merit mention in his Times editorial.

Douthat next feigns interest in compromise:
The public is amenable to compromise: majorities support keeping abortion legal in some cases, but polling by CBS News and The Times during the presidential campaign showed that more Americans supported new restrictions on abortion than said it should be available on demand. And while some pro-lifers would reject any bargain, many more would be delighted to strike a deal that extends legal protection to more of the unborn, even if it stopped short of achieving the movement’s ultimate goals.

But no such compromise is possible so long as Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey remain on the books. These decisions are monuments to pro-choice absolutism, and for pro-lifers to accept them means accepting that no serious legal restrictions on abortion will ever be possible - no matter what the polls say, and no matter how many hearts and minds pro-lifers change.
Unless I assume that Douthat has absolutely no familiarity with the court rulings in Roe and Casey, how can I regard that as anything less than intentional dishonesty? Roe gives broad protection to first trimester abortion rights, but allows for significant state regulation beyond 12 weeks. Casey reviewed several state restrictions on abortion rights - parental consent, "informed consent" with 24-hour waiting periods, spousal notification, and certain reporting requirements on abortion providers - and found only the spousal notification requirement to be impermissible. There's obviously a lot of room for regulation that makes it difficult for many women and girls to obtain abortions, even as the basic right is upheld. Fundamentally, Roe isn't much broader a protection than exists under the "modest restrictions" Douthat describes as being in effect with Europe, where abortion is generally available during the first twelve weeks of pregnancy (although a woman may have to recite a talismanic phrase, such as "I'm in a state of distress", in order to trigger that right).

There's really only one reason to wish to overturn those cases - to open the possibility to a complete ban on abortions. That, of course, is Douthat's personal goal, so it should be no surprise that it's his conclusion. But what a treacherous web he weaves in trying to make his maximalist position consistent with "compromise". Was he chuckling when he wrote "that if Americans want laws that better reflect their muddled sentiments on abortion, it is pro-choice maximalism, not the pro-life movement, that’s really standing in the way"?

There are highly principled people on both sides of the abortion debate, presenting cogent arguments. The majority of Americans are torn on the issue, respecting that there should be some basic right to abortion but being uncomfortable articulating what that right should be or what restrictions should be allowed. Women who face abortion still face stigma, and thus even in largely pro-choice communities it's often kept secret. Within this context, it is a shame that Douthat is choosing to be disingenuous, as his brand of faking moderation while working for an abortion ban makes it much harder from those who are trying to reach honest compromise.