Friday, April 30, 2010

"But That Could Hurt Us In The Next Election"

One of the key features of democratically elected government is also one of the key faults - politicians face reelection. Thus, we suffer through year after year of postponement of the difficult issues to legislate, with the most likely consequences being that problems become more difficult to solve, that we reach a crisis point that forces change (given Republican opposition to even tepid financial industry regulation, one must wonder how big a crisis that must now be for Congress to act responsibly), or both.

As a consequence, even after the passage of (tepid) healthcare reform, we have people who should know better arguing that the Democrats should have abandoned that effort when it became clear that the going was tough... That the Democratic Party " have pursued that until the economy was moving in the right direction". Michael Tomasky admits that, once the Democrats embarked on that journey, "losing healthcare would have meant political death", but seems to believe that the lesson to be learned is that you should not even attempt to fight the difficult fights unless the success and popularity of your efforts are guaranteed - which would never have been the case with a healthcare reform bill.

The primary impediments to the passage of healthcare reform, up to Scott Brown's election, were internal. They were hobbled by a self-serving "independent" as well as party members intent upon lining their own pockets (future jobs, or money directed to family members), filling their campaign coffers, pandering, the contingent of moderate Republicans who were elected as Democratic "blue dogs", people paralyzed by political cowardice, a handful of people who are out of their depths as Members of Congress, a faction that felt it for some reason urgent to act in a bipartisan fashion thereby empowering the opposition party's stated goal of defeating the bill and damaging the President... categories that aren't mutually exclusive. The paralysis was self-inflicted. And yes, that level of paralysis made it appear that Congress is capable of addressing only one or two issues at a time. But that's simply not the case.

Had the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate chosen to do so, they could have agreed that they were going to be the most efficient, effective, forward-looking Congress in our nation's history. A one year covenant to set aside all of the impediments to progress I previously listed (to the extent possible, considering the Dunning-Kruger effect), where they worked hard to put together and pass legislative packages on a series of tough issues. Some would be popular, others unpopular, and some would not inspire much reaction; and then, one year later, they could revert to their unfortunate prior form to prepare for the November election. Alas, it's like that "joke" about the scorpion who stings the frog who is transporting him across a river, even though he knows he'll drown. For the Members of Congress who weren't prepared to be part of such a concerted solution, which is to say "most of them", their own personal success, fortune, and interests are what matter, even if the choices they make will drag down the party. A similar effect is presently manifesting itself in the opposition party - do and say whatever it takes to win the next election, even if it causes long-term damage to the party and its ability to govern.

The price of a huge, public display of inability to govern, sausage-making, and a reluctance to tackle hard issues? That's why Congress has perennially low approval ratings. I can't guarantee that a Congress that had the courage to act as I suggest would reap rewards at the polls, but I nonetheless suspect that if Congress demonstrated a year of efficiency and leadership, and tackled some of the tough issues that they prefer to let stagnate, they wouldn't have much to worry about in the coming election.

Simply put, I reject the notion that Congress should run away with issues because they're hard. A quote from another time, "We choose to go to the moon in this decade, and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard."

Translation: "But I Like Neckties"

The Guardian has published a defense of the necktie, in apparent response to the question of whether the necktie is "a symbol of oppression" in the workplace. The author doesn't like the look of a collared shirt with no necktie, finds them perfectly comfortable, and sees them as "a stylish tool of self-expression." The first argument is esthetic - I personally don't have a problem with people who wear collarless shirts, open collars or turtlenecks under their suit or sport coat, no tie required. I will grant that it's a less formal look, and isn't going to be suitable in all present contexts where a necktie is expected. To each his own. Nobody would ever accuse me of being a member of the fashion police.

The final argument is true to a point. The necktie is about the only true area of self-expression allowed to men in a business setting. Sure, there are other contexts where you can be more expressive in the cut, color or fabric of your suit, but (as long as it's not too wide, or too narrow, or to short, or too long, or too bright, or too eccentric) you can add some individuality and personality to business dress with a necktie. But really, it's a limited form of self-expression, and many men don't really give that aspect of the necktie any substantial amount of thought.

But this is just plain wrong:
The most common complaint I've heard is that they're "uncomfortable". Nonsense. As a former seller of fine tailoring, I can let you in on a secret: if your tie feels uncomfortable, it's because you've got a fatter neck than you thought, and have bought your shirts a collar size too small.
No, really, for some people a necktie (or even a properly fitted dress shirt with the top button fastened) is uncomfortable, period, end of story. I'm not going to argue that people whose shirts and neckties form tourniquets around their carotid arteries won't experience more comfort if they invest better fitting shirts, but for some of us even a collar that's a half-inch "too big" doesn't give enough relief from the discomfort of having a silk noose wrapped around our necks.

But even if you're fortunate enough to feel no real discomfort when you're wearing a necktie, it's worth considering both the expressive and comfort value within the context of what you wear "the rest of the time." If you're only wearing a necktie when you have to do so, in response to certain work or social expectations, ripping the thing off of your neck at the first opportunity and not looking at another until you again "have to" wear one, it's reasonable to say that it's not a very good expression of either comfort or individuality.

If you don't believe me, just take a look at the author's headshot. When off duty, he apparently expresses his individuality through facial hair and an open collar.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

What George Will's World Looks Like

George Will writes,
Arizonans should not be judged disdainfully and from a distance by people whose closest contacts with Hispanics are with fine men and women who trim their lawns and put plates in front of them at restaurants, not with illegal immigrants passing through their back yards at 3 a.m.
Seriously - that's Will's personal perception of the integration of Hispanic people into American life, or how he imagines life to be for anybody who questions the Arizona legislation? What does he imagine that Justice Sotomayor was hired to do at the Supreme Court building?

The Limited Virtues of Teen Parenting

A couple of months ago, I read an argument in favor of teen parenting - not just the parenting part, but with the notion that society should unblinkingly subsidize teen mothers. The author starts out with a description of her own pregnancy, and how much she looked forward to being a mother - because, as you know, assuming that everybody else's experience is exactly the same as yours is the next-best thing to following the scientific method. She next conflates the disinterest of teen mothers she has encountered with learning how to parent with there being "something enviably instinctive about the mothering skills of those I met":
Their kids meant everything to them: at six months they were having their ears pierced, by one they had their own TV. There was no angst about, "Am I doing this right?". No textbook consulted, and on the whole, apart from what their mums advised them, no authority revered. A new pregnancy, however many children already lived in the house and whether there was a man around or not, was almost always a cause for celebration. And in the end, these mothers ended up teaching me. Like how to share your bedroom with five kids and not get wound up. Like how to rely on no one but yourself. No bloke was ever worth trusting, I was told; they were just useful for one thing, sex. These young women had an important job to do. They were bringing up the next generation. They were mums.
It gets better - why do a difficult job to make money and support yourself, maybe even getting an education, when you can simply have a baby and get a government check? As if having a family and supporting your family are incompatible concepts.
I couldn't agree more. Motherhood engendered responsibility. When we talk about teenage mothers not having aspirations, what are we talking about? Working in a chip shop? A cleaning job? Are we saying those are more noble, more "aspirational" pursuits than motherhood
As you can see, it's the people who disagree with the author who are the ones being judgmental, by thinking that it's not beneath somebody to work in fast food or housecleaning during their teen years while they lay a foundation, even get the education necessary, for a better life. It's not at all judgmental to sneer at entry level jobs as being beneath people who have not yet developed the skills or gained the education that will lead to better jobs.

But it gets even better....
When I was pregnant I decided to give a dinner for all the pregnant girls of Corby who were under 16. It was fun. We compared our bumps, ridiculed our partners, told each other anecdotes about bad sex. All had got pregnant "accidentally on purpose", and not because they had no aspirations but because they had: being a mother, living in their own flat, and being paid pocket money by the state to do so. None felt that real life was passing them by: they had each other for company. It would be a laugh. They'd have pushchair races. They'd take sandwiches and eat them in the park together. They all loved kids. Kids were the best company of all, they said. I was impressed.
Teenagers getting pregnant "accidentally on purpose", with a life plan of going on the dole, and with no deeper thoughts about parenting than "I love kids" or "It will be a laugh"? This impressed the author?

The author then describes how having three children in relatively rapid succession wore her down - how parenting was hard work. How she was competitive with other parents, particularly with her first child. How whatever control she had over her life after she had her first child was gone by the time she had her third. How resentful she became (and still appears to be) over friends who, without children, traveled, "were being artists or training for the professions", "were in restaurants with potential lovers", and didn't have any interest in her parenting stories. How her husband had to travel a lot, leaving her alone, without a similar "cool" peer group to the group of teen mothers she met on council estates (public housing). So in her twenties she was completely ill-equipped to be a parent, and yet she wants us to believe that impoverished teenagers can naturally parent in a way that she, with money and education, and resources she chooses to elide from her self-pitying summary, could not.

She closes with an example of the "natural" parenting she is talking about:
A few years later, I became, for a brief while, a truant officer. I was persuaded by every single family I interviewed that school was a waste of time. The mum would argue, 'My lad's just not happy at school. He's bullied. He finds lessons boring. He doesn't concentrate and then the teacher shouts at him. I just don't see the point of school, when you can be at home."

And I would say: "But don't you have aspirations for your child? Don't you want him to grow up and be a brain surgeon?"

And the mum would say: "What I want is for my child to be happy. And being happy with a little is better than being unhappy, isn't it?..."
And a few years after that (or maybe not) the little truant would knock up one of the "cool" teenage girls, "accidentally on purpose", who would simultaneously describe him as unreliable, untrustworthy, and useful only for sex. And those who had sons would persuade her that all that matters is being happy... with no education, no prospects, and a scattering of children being raised by mothers who want nothing more than their children to be "happy" even as their daughters come to view their sons as human detritus? Meanwhile, their fourteen year old daughters are so gratful for being raised by such a "cool" mother that they can't wait to get pregnant "accidentally on purpose" so they can get out of the home? Boy, this does sound enviable.

She never takes a step back to ask herself if the principal goal in getting pregnant "accidentally on purposes" is "living in their own flat, and being paid pocket money by the state to do so", perhaps it might be better for everybody involved to set aside her own fantasies of how "cool" these teenagers are, their fantasies of how fun and easy parenting would be, and simply directly subsidize their move to independence. Heaven forbid we present a choice that's more stark, such as, "Get pregnant, and your choices are to continue to live at home until the age of 18, or if that's not possible to live in a group home setting where you will continue your education, learn how to parent, and be supervised in your activities until you're 18." (The problem with that last idea, of course, is that in the short-term it's more expensive than saying, "Okay, here's an apartment of your own and a government check.")

I know that there are teen parents who step up to the plate, who effectively give up their childhood to do right for their own children. But sorry, a young teen who gets pregnant on purpose with the idea that she'll cast off the father and raise her child on welfare is unlikely to fall into that category - and a father who's passive about being cast aside doesn't even come close.

A much more conservative, albeit at times misguided, take on things from another author:
I visit many schools and Sure Start centres. I meet women of my age (47) who are now great-grandmothers. These women have never had jobs; have multiple children by multiple men – none of whom have ever contributed to their children's upkeep, welfare or moral guidance. They have lived on benefits because grandma did and mother did. These young girls see nothing wrong in this lifestyle and that it is their right to live like this. No one else is telling them that they shouldn't.

I visited a Sure Start centre1 a couple of weeks ago where there were six 16-year-old girls with one-year-old babies. Three were pregnant again, none by the same boy, and they saw nothing wrong in this "lifestyle choice". They did not see anything wrong in claiming benefits and were adamant that they did not want the boys who impregnated them having anything to do with their first-born as they were now with the latest partner. It is so sad to see this and their attitudes are astounding.
I largely concur. The previous editorial's perspectives having been duly considered, there's nothing "cool" about any of that. I think, though, that it's a misperception that these teen pregnancies are principally based upon the past choices of parents and grandparents - the modeling plays a role, but I think the previous editorial made a valid point that these are in many ways economic decisions. The author also shares an implausible statistic:
I then went to a Catholic primary school that, five years ago, said around 90% of its children were living with two parents; that had now changed to 60% who were living with single parents.
Sorry, even if I thought the anecdote were relevant to the topic, I simply don't believe that such a transformation occurred over the past five years.

Now we enter the realm of hard choices:
We have to tell these girls that it is unacceptable to get pregnant outside of a stable relationship unless they can support themselves, that the taxpayer cannot afford to keep them and that they have to train to work when they leave school.
Okay, let's assume we tell them all of that, and they get pregnant anyway? I've previously described a tougher response than "give them their own apartment", but I am skeptical that the government is going to invest in supervised, structured communal housing for teen mothers. Those who stay home will see more money come into the home, and those who are kicked out have to live somewhere.

Wait, did I say "Those who stay home will see more money come into the home"? Why is that? Why not simply maintain support at the prior level, as if no new child came into the home? After all, if these families had jobs, they wouldn't get an increase in their wages merely for having another baby. Alas, there's no easy answer to this one. If you don't give additional benefits when another child enters the household of a welfare recipient, you "punish the children". And if you do, you subsidize the expansion of a family that cannot support itself, and arguably create a context where the mothers at issue benefit from either choosing to again become pregnant, or being indifferent to that outcome.

Sorry, telling these mothers, "We can't afford to keep doing this," or "You need to get a job so you can support yourself before you have children" will only work if it's true. You can say whatever you want, but nothing will change as long as the government checks keep coming. Further, in those countries where there are no government subsidies, where each new child literally does take food off of the table for everybody else in the family, it's hardly the case that impoverished people defer or opt against having children - in fact, their birth rates may be substantially higher. I wish there were easy answers to this, but there are not.
They have to be given more sex education (it is not compulsory, despite the myth, and this should start at puberty, not five years old) and offered more contraception.
That argument qualifies as silly. Sex education at age five is "good touch, bad touch" - anybody who gets upset at children being taught such concepts really should defer discussion of sex education to people who are either more informed or more comfortable with sex. Sex education preceding puberty often includes valuable information about puberty that a lot of children do not otherwise get from their parents. It may be better that a young girl learn about menarche from her mother, but I think most will agree that it shouldn't be a surprise - in retrospect, even Carrie's mom probably agrees. Also, what... we're going to assume that all kids mature at exactly the same rate? Or is it that we're going to single out kids who mature faster or slower, so that nobody learns about sex before puberty. That won't stigmatize anybody....
It is only by talking openly about marriage, sex, relationships and responsibility that we can change this. It will take a generation, but we have no choice.
By all means, let's start the dialog... but please, not with the illusion that it will transform society, let alone do so inside of a generation.

The second editorial was inspired by an essay by J.K. Rowling in which she describes how, thrust into single parenthood, she was able to make ends meet with the help of some not particularly generous government benefits, while she struggled to better herself, qualified as a teacher, and wrote 1-1/2 novels. Quite reasonably, she describes how the benefits helped her get past a difficult post-divorce period, how she resented being demonized by politicians for being a "single mother" during that time of struggle, and the silliness of the British Conservative Party's notion of a tiny tax credit that is supposed to encourage marriage.

Rowling explains how Britain's social safety net has factored in, as she's become wealthy beyond her wildest dreams:
I chose to remain a domiciled taxpayer for a couple of reasons. The main one was that I wanted my children to grow up where I grew up, to have proper roots in a culture as old and magnificent as Britain’s; to be citizens,2 with everything that implies, of a real country, not free-floating ex-pats, living in the limbo of some tax haven and associating only with the children of similarly greedy tax exiles.

A second reason, however, was that I am indebted to the British welfare state; the very one that Mr Cameron would like to replace with charity handouts. When my life hit rock bottom, that safety net, threadbare though it had become under John Major’s Government, was there to break the fall. I cannot help feeling, therefore, that it would have been contemptible to scarper for the West Indies at the first sniff of a seven-figure royalty cheque. This, if you like, is my notion of patriotism.
Save for becoming a billionaire author, my mother had a post-divorce period not too different from Rowling's. That's actually the historic story of most "welfare recipients" - about three years of benefits following a divorce or crisis, then they're back on their feet, having theme parks built based upon... again reaching a point where they can support themselves and their families. I'm with Rowling - that's a good thing. The hard part is to translate welfare as a short-term solution into communities where it is an acceptable lifestyle choice.


1. Quoting Rowling, Sure Start centres are "service centres where families with children under 5 can receive integrated service and information." She adds, "Unless you have previously grappled with the separate agencies involved in housing, education and childcare, you might not be able to appreciate what a great innovation these centres are."

2. Subjects, actually. But there's little practical difference, I suppose.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A Big Part of How Medical Mistakes Become Malpractice Lawsuits

If recovery continues I suspect that this won't turn into a malpractice lawsuit, but the money quote comes at the end:
I notified the administration of the ER of the situation and was told that I would receive a call. No one has called in the past 8 days. An apology would have been nice.
Doctors, read up.

No Amnesty... For Others

This seems like an odd statement from a child of Cuban immigrants:
I hope Congress and the Obama Administration will use the Arizona legislation not as an excuse to try and jam through amnesty legislation, but to finally act on border states' requests for help with security and fix the things about our immigration system that can be fixed right now - securing the border, reforming the visa and entry process, and cracking down on employers who exploit illegal immigrants.
Dare I ask, then, if Marco Rubio would call for the repeal of the automatic amnesty we grant to any Cuban national who sets foot on U.S. soil?

Riding Coattails on Religion

Apparently Peter Hitchens is trying to ride the coattails of his brother's success, with his own book in support of religion. I haven't read it, but unless this is a really bad paraphrase of his ideas I don't expect that it would be worth my time:
When it comes to his brother's blast against God, he makes a number of points. On the "good without God" question, he argues that morality must make an absolute demand on you, so that even though you constantly fail to reach its high standards, you are not able to ignore it, as he believes people and politicians now do every day: witness everything from common rudeness to the suspension of Habeas Corpus. If there are no laws that even kings must obey, no-one is safe.
It's difficult to imagine that Hitchens, being British, is that ignorant of the history of monarchy. Belief in God is convenient when it explains why a particular "royal family" is on the throne - God's will - and I suppose no shortage of monarchs have believed that to be true. But who, absent perhaps a few members of the House of Windsor, presently believes that?

Meanwhile, over the course of history, how well did religion do in reigning in excess by the various kings, queens, princes, and potentates of Europe? For all of its faults, would Hitchens not concede that modern secular rule is not objectively superior in pretty much every respect?

How did we come to have the right of habeas corpus? Does Hitchens believe that an angel appeared before King John, handed him a divinely scripted Magna Carta, and that King John signed it out of his respect for God's will thereby beginning the transformation of habeas corpus from the right of the king to a right belonging to the people? (King John... another glorious example of the divine right of Kings.) What sort of alternate history does Hitchens embrace, and is it available in something other than comic book form?

Hitchens truly believes that prior to the 1960's, people were nicer and more honest because they feared eternal damnation? No surprise, before the 1950's Hitchens was a child. I recently read a commentary taking a somewhat tongue-in-cheek perspective on the various laments about how awful the world is, pointing out that in each case the speaker was reminiscing of the warm and wonderful world they enjoyed when they were pre-adolescent children. I think there's a bit more to the nostalgia than that, even if "the good old days weren't always good", but the shoe very often fits.

In any event, history is replete with kings, queens, lords, ladies, titans of industry, and others who professed to worship God yet lived lives of cruelty and debauchery. Despite the flaws of modern society and government, and the parallels between modern leaders and those of history, I can't join with Hitchens (at least as paraphrased) in nostalgia for a past that was often dismal to dreadful for ordinary people.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Story Of Our Country

Paul Gottfried writes,
What are at issue here are two different conceptions of the welfare state, both with rival advocates. The Tea Partiers favor a massive welfare state, providing that entitlements are aimed at them. They oppose the increased use of revenues and above all, the increase of taxes to finance a different welfare state, one designed to accommodate low-income minorities, government workers, and amnestied illegal aliens.
I disagree with Gottfried, on the whole. The population in this nation that wants a social safety net that helps others is quite small. Pretty much every population, individual or corporate, fits the description Gottfried assigns to Tea Partiers, "favor[ing] a massive welfare state, providing that entitlements are aimed at them".

For those trying to ensure a social safety net to benefit others, I'm really not aware of any of note who favor what is so easily caricatured as "a massive welfare state". That may be a suitable description for some of the advocates of social welfare programs in the 1960's or 1970's, but the notion of "a hand up, not a handout" seems more resonant post Reagan's "welfare queen" stories and Clinton's welfare reform. (G.W.'s advisors recognized that fact, and thus put those very words into his mouth; unfortunately, he had little interest in doing more than mouthing them.)
These are the groups that are likely to benefit most from the present Democratic revamping of the public sector. They are also groups that will propel Democratic victories in the future; and what such legislation as national health care, and the bill to amnesty illegals, now under congressional consideration, will do is create a more solidified Democratic constituency.
Even if you accept Gottfried's thesis that the Democrats are trying to build a welfare state that will inure principally to the benefit of low-income minorities, government workers, and beneficiaries of what to-date is an imaginary amnesty bill, what he describes is in no way altruistic. He's describing G.W.'s push for immigration reform in the early months of his Presidency (when his approval ratings were quickly tanking), G.W.'s push for a massive expansion of the corporate welfare state, G.W.'s unfunded "Medicare, Part D", G.W.'s financial industry bailout proposal (initially "You give us $1 trillion or so, you get no oversight, we're not answerable to anybody in how we spend the money", but "refined" into a corporate welfare program both parties could support). You could argue that Bush thought each of those welfare programs was "for the good of the nation" but, as with Gottfried's cynical interpretation of the Obama Administration's agenda, "for the good of the party" might be a better answer.

Gottfried's idea that "a gift-bearing regime always lands up producing squabbles among the gift-recipients" is not untrue, but given the actual track record of the Republican Party the conceit that we're talking about a "democratic welfare state" is laughable. Both parties got us into this mess, and it's usually the Republicans who strive to identify and exploit wedge issues to create the various "squabbles" over who gets what.

Bush was trying to serve business interests that want immigration reform, and to gain advantage in the immigrant communities that would benefit from reform and amnesty; it's not that the Democrats have an advantage in implementing immigration reform, so much as it is that the Republican Party's catering to populist rage against immigrants "taking our jobs" has poisoned the well for that party's outreach. It's the same thing Chairman Steele conceded to the African American community. The Democratic Party doesn't have to work very hard to gain an advantage in the communities the Republican Party is content to alienate as they instead attempt to leverage Tea Party rage.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Political Knowledge

Via Kathleen Parker, I took the "2008 Survey" / Civics Quiz offered by the ISI. I could quibble with some of the questions, granting that whenever you boil the answers down to a short sentence you're going to at times force people to select the "least wrong" answer as opposed to the right one. But really, it's an easy quiz. Even for somebody who, as a student, didn't set foot in a U.S. K-12 classroom. (But I overstate my case - I am interested in politics, studied political science in college, and went to law school, none of which are necessary to success on the quiz, but all of which are no doubt correlated with doing well. I will blame my U.K/Canadian K-12 education for my missing a couple of answers on this quiz, but I'm similarly amazed by the average score of 44%. CWD, our resident military historian, would have aced this test by the time he was ten.)

I don't agree with what appears to be the political agenda of the ISI, which seems to want to inject their favored form of Christian conservatism into our education system. But I do believe that by the time a student graduates from high school they should have a basic sense of how the U.S. political system works. And I'm appalled (appalled, I tell you)... well, not really appalled, but I wanted to get your attention... that colleges are dropping an introductory level political science class on the U.S. system of government from their basic studies requirements. (Parker is more concerned about history courses, but unless colleges were requiring survey courses on American history I'm not sure that a "you must take a history class" requirement would have much of an impact.)

Same As It Ever Was

Matt Miller anticipates "class warfare" between the haves and the have-mores:
For several years I've predicted that a new wild card in American life -- the presence of economic resentment at the bottom of the top 1 percent of our income distribution -- would become a powerful force for reform. The SEC's fraud case against Goldman Sachs may be the first shot in what I think of as the revolt of the "lower upper class."

Lower Uppers are doctors, accountants, engineers and lawyers. At companies they're mostly people above the rank of vice president and below the CEO. Their comrades include well-fed members of the media (and even part-time Post columnists who earn their livings as consultants). They include government officials -- and, yes, SEC lawyers -- who didn't make or inherit fortunes before entering public service. Lower Uppers are professionals who by dint of education, hard work and good luck are living better than 99 percent of anyone who has ever walked the planet. They're also people who can't help but notice how many people with credentials much like their own seem to be living in the kind of Gatsby-like splendor they'll never enjoy.

This stings. If people no smarter or better than you are making $10 million or $50 million or $100 million in a single year, while you're working yourself ragged to scrape by on a million or two -- or, God forbid, $300,000 -- then something must be wrong.

Especially when it's clear that many of the Ultrarich are not simply reaping the rewards of the "free market" but of rigged systems that are as likely to reward failure as success.
Miller anticipates that this could rear its head in a "big skirmish" over taxes, leading to a "nightmare" scenario for the "Ultras":
First they're trying to close down our derivatives casino, the Ultras fret. Next they'll turn private equity's dubious capital gains into (more highly taxed) ordinary income. Before you know it, they'll claim the economy will hum along fine even if we raise marginal tax rates on income above $5 million a year to 50 percent! The revenge of the Lower Uppers may have only just begun. . . .
You know, just the other day I was noting that if I had a seven figure income, I could deal with a 50% tax rate. But as part of a discussion about how when you are making big money, taxes hurt a lot less than they do when you're struggling. I did concede that to a Donald Trump type, who "must" have six or seven fully staffed mansions at his disposal, along with at least one private jet for travel between them, such a tax increase may require an "unacceptable" level of sacrifice. But for the rest of us, living on $500,000+ per year, after taxes, wouldn't be much of a trauma.

But I digress.

I don't find any great insight in the idea that these "class warfare" issues may ultimately be resolved among the upper / ruling classes because that's the way they've been resolved pretty much since the dawn of time. Most of the population isn't attuned to politics. A relatively small subset of people who follow politics are sufficiently wealthy or connected to have the ear of politicians. And that's the level at which policy gets made.

Yes, if enough people in the top five percent of the population become offended by a policy, even if it's favored by the top 1%, they have the necessary access and clout to press for change. Whatever is (or is not) going on in the streets, the bulk of the transformative moments in our nation's history have been driven by the attitudes of the top 5%. Agitation on the streets may be what inspires the elite to examine an issue, but save for those exceptionally rare occasions when it appears that revolution may follow, mass movements can be placated, ignored or, if necessary, suppressed. Or, if the elites decide that it's time for change, the agitation can be useful.

Perhaps Mr. Miller saw Capitalism: A Love Story, or otherwise came across Citigroup's theory of "plutonomy". Or perhaps it simply occurred to him that if you create a system that's overtly skewed toward showering riches on plutocrats, you will eventually generate significant resentment. The difference between his perspective (the rich will turn on the ultra-rich) and Citgroup's ("labor will fight back against the rising profit share of the rich") is that, in my opinion, he more accurately identifies the segment of the society from which pressure for change would have to come.

As a society, as long as we can convince the guy making $10 per hour that, as long as he works hard every day, he can become rich, we don't have to worry about a mass movement. It's when the people who know better decide to stop defending that myth that the ultra-rich have a problem. Turning to Reihan Salam,
There is at least one structural change that is undeniable: namely that there's been a delinkage between corporate profits and the health of the U.S. labor market. U.S.-based multinationals now look to emerging market economies as engines of growth. At home, these firms continue to aggressively cut costs and produce more with fewer workers. This has meant robust productivity increases, a sign of good things to come. But hiring and expansion is happening where the breakneck growth is happening, and that is not in the United States.
The real danger for Citigroup and other proponents of "plutonomy" is that the top 5% of wage earners will respond not only to the concerns of the middle and upper middle class that their economic future is threatened - that, even with college educations, their children won't do as well as they have done - but that the to 5% of earners will recognize that their own futures, and their children's futures, are being plundered to feed the anti-meritocracy of the "Ultras".

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The High Cost of Incarceration

Albeit from Canada, a recent editorial in The Globe and Mail by Conservative activist Tom Flanagan illustrates some of the folly that leads to an over-investment (i.e., a waste of money) in prisons. The present is compared to the past in an overtly sentimentalized fashion:
I’m not delighted about getting older, but it does have the advantage of conferring a longer memory. I can remember what it was like to be a boy in the 1950s, when crime was virtually unknown in the lives of ordinary people. My father drove all over the county in his work but never locked his car. We didn’t lock our house unless we went away overnight. I could ride my bike downtown to the Saturday-afternoon movie and leave it unlocked on the curbside. I never saw a bike lock until the 1970s.
A couple of movies ago, Michael Moore chose to depict Canada as a place where people still leave their doors unlocked, but simply put it's really not something that people do any more in any developed society. What has changed since the 1950's? Population density, mobility, income disparity.... Sad to say, yes, the world has changed - but not in ways that most people want to undo. Wistful nostalgia is great, but there's no indication that increasing the prison population will allow anybody to go back to the days of unlocked homes, cars and bicycles (to the extent that those times actually existed).
The explosion of crime has changed all that. Today, we lock up our bicycles, cars and houses. Parents are afraid to let their children walk to school or play in the park alone. I can’t even imagine what my childhood would have been like if we had been so obsessed with security.
To a significant degree we're talking odds and perceptions. There's a perception that your house is more likely to be burgled if you don't lock the door, so you lock the door. But remember that day you forgot to lock the door and didn't get burgled? The odds are nobody's going to be checking the knob - although if a would-be burglar is checking door knobs on your street (or trying car door handles), your door is unlocked, and all of your neighbors locked their doors, the odds of your house (or car) being hit go way up. And remember that day the neighbor's house was burgled, with somebody breaking a window or jimmying a lock to gain access? Some good the lock did.

When I was a kid, well after Tom's childhood days, we were still able to go to the park alone or with friends, walk to and from school, and engage in a lot of unsupervised activities even as young children. A big part of that was that our friends were doing the same thing - there were kids everywhere. Some of those kids had parents, older siblings or babysitters around, so there were older, more responsible eyes watching the activity. As we've moved our activities indoors, and have restricted kids from unsupervised activities, the odds have again changed. It's not unusual to drive by parks in my town and not see a single person there, or to see one or two families present. If a child goes there alone, the odds are that the child will spend some time with no other adult or child present. That significantly changes the risk to a child.

But again, none of this has anything to do with the incarceration rate. There's no reason to believe that if we incarcerate every known criminal for life, children will once again frolic unsupervised in the park. Given the perception of danger on every corner, we're unlikely to regain the public confidence necessary to restore the population of kids and parents in public places that renders them safe. It's not just the overblown "stranger danger" - when a child falls off a swing in an empty park, who's there to help?

The author argues that aside from the homicide rate, something he associates with ethnic minorities, the crime rate in Canada is not much different from that in the U.S. Me? I'm a murder capital kind of guy, I guess, having moved from Saskatoon (2007) to the Detroit (2001, 2008) area (no, those aren't the only years they won). In fact, my welcome to Saskatoon back in the 1970's was a murder across the hall at our hotel. But I digress. If the argument is that we should send murderers to prison, well, yeah, there are few better places for them.
The relevant comparison is between the cost of incarceration and the savings to society generated by crime prevention. The cost of crime is so high (estimated at $70-billion annually by Statistics Canada in 2003) that imprisonment of serious and repeat offenders is an excellent investment in purely economic terms – to say nothing of the value of restoring people’s faith in justice.
It is fair to consider costs and benefits when comparing the cost of incarceration to the cost of crime to society. But... it's not that simple.

First, where did that $70 billion figure come from? What does it include? I tried to find out from the Statistics Canada website, but instead found this 2007 publication:
Tracking the total financial and economic costs of victimization has yet to be undertaken in Canada.
I see....

I did find a reference to a Department of Justice statistic with the $70 billion price tag - broken down as $13 billion for criminal justice, $10 billion for "defensive measures" and $47 billion as victim cost - but a University professor should know better than to compare the cost of incarceration to a figure that includes the cost of incarceration, even if the goal is to show that prison costs are comparatively low. For that matter, why didn't he offer us a figure for prison costs to compare to that $70 billion figure?

Then there's the question, what is "victim cost"? The Statistics Canada publication mentions a 2004 attempt "to derive a monetary counter for the cost of crime, taking into account the cost of pain and suffering associated with crime in Canada" estimating a cost of $36 billion. I mean no disrespect to theoretical pain and suffering awards, but if we're inserting that type of projection into "cost of crime" statistics we're moving outside of the realm of hard numbers and into the realm of politics.

What else is missing from the analysis? First, any demonstration that increased rates of incarceration affect the cost of crime to society. Second, any support for the implicit thesis that if you assume incarceration "works" on a cost-benefit basis, you need not consider alternative punishments that are less expensive to administer. When we hand out long prison terms to people who were not deterred by the prospect of serving long prison terms, what does that say of the value of prison as a deterrent? When we claim that we're protecting society from their continued offenses, we both overlook that first time offenders rarely end up in prison or jail, many of the offenders in prison have a long history of both detected and undetected crime, and that the likelihood of recidivism is usually not a significant factor when handing out long sentences. (Murderers have a comparatively low rate of recidivism; many shoplifters repeat offend like there's no tomorrow.)

Would we be better off, for example, by investing in ways to improve crime detection and speed up prosecution, ensuring that a higher rate of criminals are caught and that they receive swift justice. Is it better to give a shoplifter probation several times before either imposing a jail sentence or escalating the charge to a felony, or might people be better deterred from habitual petty crime if they knew that a conviction would lead to at least a weekend in jail.

The phrase, "Yes, it costs a lot of money. But so what..." is usually indicative of somebody who is happy to spend other people's money to advance his own political or personal agenda, and that appears to be where Mr. Flanagan stands. Yes, crime costs society a lot of money. Yes, we do need prisons. But that's no justification for ignoring the possibility that there may be better, more efficient ways to spend the billions we pour into prisons - approaches that could better reduce crime and recidivism.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Republican Ideas for Healthcare Reform

As Newt Gingrich says, it's not enough to simply oppose healthcare reform - you have to demonstrate that the Republican Party has better ideas. Which leads us inexorably to a chicken in every... er, WTF?

Another step in our twirl toward freedom.

Update: Colbert:

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Soylent Spelt Tagliatelle?

Or perhaps a politically incorrect edition of "To Serve Man"? My guess is spell-check run amok and a sleepy proofreader.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Disappearing, Reappearing D.C. Schools Budget Deficit

It's enough to make your head spin. First the D.C. Schools have a serious budget deficit and must lay off teachers. Then they don't have a deficit at all, and can use the money to fund their new teacher contract. Next thing you know, after a lot of (justified) criticism over what is at best fiscal ineptitude, the deficit has reappeared.

This raises the obvious question of whether D.C. can presently afford its new proposed teacher contract, even with the private contributions that are necessary to carry it through its first five years. Meanwhile, the litigation that this type of budget ineptitude made inevitable is under way.

Inevitably, the Washington Post is concerned with "saving" the new contract. But if the contract can't be certified as financially viable by C.F.O. Natwar M. Gandhi, it's a dead letter.

Fiscal Sustainability Without a V.A.T.

Jon Walker, commenting on left-wing factions that are pressing for a V.A.T. (Value Added Tax, a/k/a national sales tax) believes that such a tax "is not going to happen". My response to his thesis is that it would actually be quite easy to lay the foundation for a V.A.T., and once that foundation is laid it's relatively easy to expand or increase the tax.

The easy introduction of the tax is as a "national sales tax" for goods that are sold across state lines. While Internet merchants will lobby hard against such a tax, state governments very much want to tax those sales - they want the sales tax revenue and, let's be honest, most people don't voluntarily pay sales tax on their "tax free" internet purchases. A national sales tax could be reasonably low, would be payable to a single (federal) tax authority and thus easy for merchants to administer (they only have to keep track of the value of shipments they make to any given state, and forward that information to the feds along with their payment). It could even allow merchants to opt out if they already collect sales tax in every state, or for those states in which they collect sales tax.

The door is then open for expansion - having the federal government become the agent of collecting all sales taxes, with distribution to the states. Of bumping up the tax and having the feds keep a larger share. Or of bumping up the tax to "pay for" a bailout of the states.... Or to argue that we can "keep the tax low" by extending it to services as well. If you can open the door, just a crack, I think the bulk of the inertia is overcome, and we would inch toward a full-scale V.A.T./G.S.T. (Goods and Services Tax). As George Will observes,
A VAT is collected on value added at stages during the process of production, but most of its burden is borne by consumers. They file no VAT returns, so its stealthiness delights the political class, which can increase it in small, barely noticed increments, with every percentage point yielding another $100 billion.
The idea that Republicans would hate a V.A.T. is questionable - there is a faction of the political right that wants a V.A.T. For the anti-tax ideologues, or those who have signed an anti-tax pledge... well, let's see what George Will has to say:
When liberals advocate a value-added tax (VAT), conservatives should respond: Taxing consumption has merits, so we will consider it -- after the 16th Amendment is repealed.
It's possible to create a revenue-neutral V.A.T. - cut income taxes at the same time you introduce it - and like magic it's tax-neutral. The idea of turning it into the disingenuously named "FairTax", a replacement of income taxes, isn't viable - but I think you can read George Will's statement as reflective of a faction of budget hawk conservatives who would be happy to replace part of the income tax with a new tax that shifts more of the tax burden to lower wage earners. I do think that there will be difficulty getting a President to sign off on a V.A.T. (although perhaps not if it starts out as being "a favor" to the states, and creating a system that's "more fair" to "Main Street's" brick and mortar stores, and grows from there). But I think it is possible to create a bipartisan majority willing to pass such a tax.

The idea that everyone will hate a V.A.T. may be true, but I'm not aware of any country that has passed such a tax and has later repealed it. I'm not aware of a political party anywhere in the world that has collapsed as a direct consequence of implementing a V.A.T. To put it another way, people hate taxes, period - but we have them, and we pay them.

I think George Will gets this wrong, not numerically but as a matter of perception:
Because the income tax is not broadly based, it radiates moral hazard: Its incentives are for perverse behavior. The top 1 percent of earners provide 40 percent of that tax's receipts; the top 5 percent provide 61 percent; the bottom 50 percent provide 3 percent. So the tax makes a substantial majority complacent about government's growth.
I think most people see about a quarter to a third of their paycheck disappear each month for a range of reasons - state and local taxes, FICA, unemployment taxes, deductions for their contribution to health insurance, even deductions for their contributions to retirement plans - and they see that amount as the amount they paid in "taxes". I suspect that if you asked that "bottom 50 percent" of earners if they paid federal income taxes, most would answer, "Yes, and I pay a lot," simply because they don't differentiate one tax from another.
And wait until the political class's most imperious masters, the elderly, are heard from. When they worked they paid taxes on their incomes; retired, they will resent -- they are virtuosos of resentment -- being taxed when they spend their savings.
Here, Will is of course describing his own demographic - and what appears to be his own mindset. I wonder if he's connected the dots.

I believe it is possible to move toward a more sensible tax policy without implementing a V.A.T., and I think it would be a bad thing to create a V.A.T. CWD, who is perhaps more conservative than George Will, advocates something quite sensible - fixing the federal budget by increasing taxes and cutting spending, even though that necessarily means cutting entitlements and military spending. I suspect that slapping on a V.A.T. would be a band-aid, allowing us to postpone the pain rather than having the difficult conversations that we need to move the nation's budget toward balance and sustainability. We're not going to retreat to what George Will describes as "the Founders' vision of limited government" - why do I picture Will reading Oliver Twist and thinking, "Yeah - workhouses!" - quite literally, the world has changed. But we don't need an entirely new tax before we start the discussion of how to create a sustainable future.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Spinning On An Axis

Michael Tomasky is concerned about developments in the Middle East, and not without cause:
The news broke two days ago across the region about Syria supplying Hezbollah with Scud missiles. Syria denies but it seems to be true, and if true it raises the stakes there considerably, because Scuds have a longer range than anything Hezbollah is now assumed to have. What that statement really means, boiled down to its essence, is that they can reach Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
The issue thus becoming, will Israel attack Lebanon to try to eliminate the Scuds, effectively proving that Hezbollah with Scuds is no more capable of deterring an attack than was Hezbollah without Scuds? In which case, what's the point of the Scuds?
With regard to Syria, the administration's attempted engagement with Assad has so far been one of its genuine failures. If US overtures to the country are met with responses like this, they're pretty clearly not working. And it gives Syria more influence in Lebanon, which breaks explicit promises Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton made in early visits to Beirut. The poor Lebanese are used to this, alas, and their country typically bears the brunt of these failures -- a war will likely scar its landscape more than Israel's or Syria's.
In fairness to the President, the well was poisoned before he got there. We can imagine alternative histories in which one of Israel's past Prime Ministers sprouted a backbone, stood up to the settlers and negotiated a resolution of the conflict with Syria. We can similarly imagine worlds in which the U.S. embraced the death of Hafez al-Assad as an opportunity to inspire his son, Bashar, to turn away from Iran and embrace modernity. Unfortunately instead we got Bush's foreign policy ineptitude, quickly followed by "Axis of Evil" rhetoric that contributed to Bashar's rejection of sensible measure would have been Syria's best option, using 9/11 as an opportunity to break with its past, negotiate the resolution of its conflict with Israel, and inviting western aid and development.

Tomasky points to Simon Tisdall's theories about why Syria might be interested in giving Scuds to Hezbollah... insurance against another Israeli attack, disappointment that President Obama hasn't "rebooted" the peace process (especially in relation to the Golan Heights), closer collaboration with Hezbollah as part of an effort to re-establish Syrian influence in Lebanon, and highlighting the double standard that Israel can have a huge nuclear arsenal, and for that matter a gargantuan arsenal of conventional arms, rockets and missiles, while most its neighbors are expected to have no appreciable offensive or defensive capacity. But I think he's focusing on the wrong country.

I can't imagine Syria exporting Scuds to Lebanon without the blessing of Iran. This suggests that Iran wants to increase the deterrent effect of attacks from Lebanon that might follow an Israeli attack on Iran, something Israel's been threatening for years. And while it makes little sense for Syria to draw itself into another war in Lebanon, Iran may look at the Israeli invasion and occupation of that nation as "the good old days" - with the U.S. bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Israel again occupying Lebanon, Iran's need to worry about any concerted military action against its territory will plummet. No doubt other people lose, but from the perspective of Iran the consequences for Lebanon do not appear to be a concern - whether the Scuds increase deterrence or lure Israel into a costly war and occupation, it seems like a win for the mullahs.

Tomasky also links to Blake Hounshell's aptly named article, The dumbest country in the Middle East. With all due respect to Tisdall's speculation on how Syria might benefit from Scuds in Lebanon, Hounshell's perspective seems more accurate to me. The best outcome for Syria in an armed conflict with Israel is that it only gets its nose bloodied. Hounshell speculates that the pressure for the deal is coming from Iran, "to show the West that any strike on its nuclear facilities would be extremely costly for the United States and its allies." Yeah, but what a way to treat those allies.


Not a mistake I would have historically expected from the Globe and Mail.

Isreal Headline

What's perhaps even more interesting is that a moderator cleaned up some of the comments, but left (presumably lacking authority to edit) the headline. I suspect this is a continuation of the modern media's focus on immediacy crossed with budget cuts for professional editing staff.

What Are the Three R's, Again?

Is it Fred Hiatt's conceit that "The best offense is a weak defense?"

We shouldn't expect a school chancellor to understand arithmetic? Even when everybody who isn't vested in her agenda has been screaming for months, "Your numbers don't add up"?

Following her revelation of the best little deficit in D.C., the Washington Post, in an unsigned editorial, is putting up its best defense of Michelle Rhee. Maybe they should have slept on it?
Fact No. 1: Ms. Rhee does not control school finances.
Um... and the President doesn't control federal spending. Except he kinda does, because he's the chief executive, is involved in the budgeting process and has to actually sign off on the budget.

Seriously, she is the boss. And if somebody goes to the boss with a budget that requires serious blood-letting, it's part of her job to try to figure out how things went wrong. "Let's see... income's not down that much but, whoah, spending is way up. For teacher salaries. How did teacher compensation jump 15% in a year?" If she can't read a balance sheet, I'm sure there are many people in the administration who can - and, in fact, who are paid to do so, to audit for errors, and to make sure the numbers are correct. They truly all fell down on the job? What happened to Rhee's famous devotion to accountability and the firing of incompetent employees?

Moreover, with the former CFO fired, when it came time to slash the budget once again nobody was able to figure out how to use the real numbers? The "before" and "after" budget pictures were both created with the same erroneous, inflated salary data instead of the real thing?
Fact No. 2: Last August, Noah Wepman, the chief financial officer assigned to schools, told Ms. Rhee the schools faced a shortfall of $21 million. Ms. Rhee had no choice but to respond in some way; in September she opted for the layoffs rather than the cuts to summer school that some D.C. Council members preferred but which she believed would be more harmful to students.
Because laying off teachers doesn't harm students? They flourish in overcrowded classrooms, and when teachers are suddenly replaced or grades are merged? Let's be honest - Rhee picked the option that was most disruptive because it best advanced her agenda:
She made no secret at the time that in laying off teachers, she would try to get rid of those who were not effective -- as we would hope she would.
Right. And I'll accept that she did focus on getting rid of some of the worst teachers - although it is beyond question that she also eliminated the jobs of teachers who had good performance reviews. As long ago as October, there was a shadow over the layoffs:
But questions remain about the severity of the crisis Rhee has described, in light of the growth of the school budget. The $779.5 million spending plan for 2010 represents a net increase of $14.9 million over fiscal 2009, according to an analysis by Gray's office.

Critics suggest that Rhee has contrived the shortfall to pursue her long-term goal of replacing most of the city's teacher corps, especially veteran instructors -- a charge she denies. Last fall, she directed principals to notify teachers they regarded as underperforming that they faced dismissal at the end of the 2008-09 school year unless they improved. About 80 instructors were terminated. ...

In a Sept. 23 interview, a week after announcing the layoffs, Rhee said the budget crunch was legitimate but acknowledged that she intended to use it as an opportunity to continue removing under-performing teachers from the system.
And now we know that, in addition to being exaggerated by Rhee's hiring of 900 teachers over the summer, the budget crisis was not legitimate. The question becomes, what did Rhee know and when did she know it?
The layoffs were challenged in court; their legality was upheld. No one questioned their financial foundation.
The layoffs were challenged in court, yes. But in the very Washington Post article to which Hiatt's crew links it is stated,
A D.C. Superior Court judge on Tuesday upheld Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's decision to lay off 266 public school teachers and other educators to close a budget gap, flatly rejecting union arguments that she contrived financial problems to rid the system of older instructors.
So tell me again how "No one questioned [the layoffs'] financial foundation". The judge's ruling was predicated upon the reality of the deficit - "a reversal of the layoffs would only force Rhee and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) to make other cuts." Except now we know it wouldn't have, or would have required only minor cuts.
Fact No. 3: In February and March, George Dines, who replaced Mr. Wepman as the chief financial officer's deputy for schools, provided Ms. Rhee with information that the system was spending less than forecast on teacher salaries this year, generating what appears to be a $34 million surplus.
In other words, Rhee knew about the budget reality not later than March, probably sooner. So why didn't we hear about it before now?
Whether this should have been obvious to the CFO before the September layoffs would be a useful question for the council to ask and for Mr. Gandhi to answer. It is clearly not a question that is properly posed to Ms. Rhee.
Why is the word "clearly" so often used when the speaker wants to beg the question. Why is it improper to ask Ms. Rhee what she knew and when she knew it? It would appear that she negotiated with the teachers unions throughout the entire time at issue with knowledge of what future budgets would have to look like - how is it that she "knew" that the money that was supposedly absent from the school budget would reappear next Fall to fund her the new contract? She's truly that bad with numbers?
Does the council want to move forward, affirming a contract that will promote teacher quality and morale? Or would it like to obfuscate the facts surrounding this latest development and try to score political points?
Act like mature adults, or act like Fred Hiatt's editorial board... tough choices indeed.
1. Writing that, I cringe at how strained the notion of "the three R's" is... Three words, each containing an "r" sound....

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Upward, Not Forward

And always twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom....

Marc Thiessen is sad that Republicans are backing away from what he and Newt Gingrich believe to be a winner of an idea for the upcoming election - the repeal of healthcare reform. I realize that Thiessen's not particularly good with facts, but what's his idea of a campaign theme song? This? Because when it comes to alternative plans, the Republicans have consistently revealed that they have nothing to offer. Or perhaps I should say that, to the extent that they raise alternatives, there's no reason to take them seriously - either there's no follow-through or they're laughably bad. And there's no sign of any willingness to put their own money (or should I say "health") where their mouths are.

It's interesting to see Thiessen team up with Gingrich, given the techniques the Republicans used to try to defeat the reform bill. "People like their current plans. We can't have anything that takes away their current plans!" Congratulations, Republicans, you got that. So now you're going to run on Gingrich's "slash and burn the current system" proposals? We're going to sell people, many of whom ("hundreds of thousands" of whom) can't afford to pay their mortgages, on the idea of paying for their medical care out of their savings? Even before we consider how the Republicans anti-reform rhetoric would be turned back on them, good luck with that.

I know that when Gingrich claims that the Republicans can't just oppose reform and promise repeal, but must "explain how [they] would replace Democratic legislation with something better", he's talking about his own ideas. But if Thiessen is not, his sniveling about Republicans "losing their nerve" makes him part of his party's problem, as (like pretty much everybody but Newt, who merely lacks good ideas) he has nothing of substance to offer. Really, the time to have anted up would have been during negotiations, when even modest Republican cooperation could have made for a much better bill.

Update: Dan Larison takes a look at the supposed majority of Americans who desire the repeal of healthcare reform, expressing skepticism that the majority of those voters "will actually vote in such a way as to make repeal more likely". That's a fair point, but I suspect the phenomenon will be made worse by the fact that there's no offer of "something better" behind the call for repeal. Other than lies or misinformation, how does a candidate running on repeal answer questions about disqualifying children from health insurance due to pre-existing conditions, dropping college students back off their parents' policies, etc.?

Some Mistakes Aren't Just Incompetent....

They're "Detroit under Coleman Young" incompetent. What's the plausible explanation for this?
Rhee explained that part of the teacher raises contemplated in the new contract would come from a $34 million surplus in the schools budget. Of course, various members of the council were quick to inquire how the school system could be running a surplus now, when just last fall Rhee justified the dismissal of 266 teachers due to a $43 million deficit. According to Rhee, the surplus was uncovered because a previous budget estimate mistakenly used $81,000 as the average teacher salary, about $15,000 more than it actually is.
Well, it's not like they could have looked at actual payroll figures, is it? Two possible explanations: They deliberately inflated teacher salaries to justify the layoffs, despite the inevitability of being caught and subjecting the city to numerous lawsuits (covered, I would venture, by a different budget); or they are hopelessly, woefully incompetent. I am trying to give Rhee the benefit of the doubt at this point, but I have a great deal of difficulty seeing how this could occur without her knowledge - and it appears she has known of the "error" for quite some time.
The best Rhee, Parker and Gandhi will be able to do is blame the miscalculation on Noah Wepman, the DCPS CFO who resigned late last year after having failed to report on an apparent budget deficit in the schools budget, the one that forced Rhee to lay off the 266 teachers to begin with.
So he was fired for not detecting what now appears to be largely or entirely a fake budget shorftall, most likely because prior to detecting the "deficit" he based the figure for teacher salaries on actual teacher salaries? Trying to (again?) scapegoat him doesn't sound very promising, although I would be very interested to learn the back story to how his "error" occurred.

I guess we're supposed to cut Rhee some slack because she is thinking of "the good of the children", when the Young Administration's incompetence - defaulting on lawsuits, allowing police executives to loot unaudited slush funds, etc. - often seemed to be more about creating cover for theft, graft and embezzlement. But it looks like this "little deception" is going to cause D.C. a great deal of difficulty and potentially derail the new teacher compensation and accountability deal.

Which Liberals, Again?

I recognize that David Brooks is inclined toward making platitudinous observations. The difficulty at times is determining if he believes them, or if he's pandering to those factions that pay him to speak or might buy his book.
First, let’s all stop paying attention to Sarah Palin for a little while. I understand why liberals want to talk about her. She allows them to feel intellectually superior to their opponents. And members of the conservative counterculture want to talk about her simply because she drives liberals insane. But she is a half-term former governor with a TV show. She is not going to be the leader of any party and doesn’t seem to be inclined in that direction.
Um... First of all, David Brooks plainly feels intellectually superior to (among many other people, including those for whom he sees himself as an opinion leader) Sarah Palin.1 Is that why he talks about her? Second, if somebody truly embraces Sarah Palin as their "leader", why shouldn't their opponents (as personified here by Brooks) feel intellectually superior to the Palin adherent? What intellectual basis exists for regarding Palin as a leader?

Meanwhile, what "liberals" are "driven insane" by Palin? From what I can see, it would be more accurate to describe her as the punch line for a running joke.
The Sarah Palin phenomenon is a media psychodrama and nothing more. It gives people on each side an excuse to vent about personality traits they despise, but it has nothing to do with government.
A statement admitting that people like Brooks are the parents and principal beneficiaries of "The Sarah Palin phenomenon", that she substitutes personality for substance, and that whatever relevance she has to discussion of politics she has nothing to contribute to a discussion of government or governance. Which, no doubt, is a big part of reason he looks down his nose at her.

Palin for President? By all means, "Bring her on." It won't bring about anxiety, let alone insanity, on the political left. More like a sigh of relief, probably punctuated by laughter. Absent an absurdly unlikely "tortoise and the hare" outcome of the campaign, it would mean President Obama's reelection in an easy walk.
1. When it was convenient for him Brooks acted more like a boy with a crush, gushing about her as personifying "freedom, individualism, opportunity and moral clarity"

Monday, April 12, 2010

Stating (And Missing) The Obvious

In an unsigned editorial, Fred Hiatt and his crew share this insight about North Korea:
There's debate over whether [inducements from China] would be useful in restarting diplomacy or unhelpful in easing the pressure that alone might someday spur a deal [on denuclearization of North Korea]. What's most likely is that it doesn't matter: that the North Korean regime will never give up its nuclear weapons, because it has nothing else -- no legitimacy at home or abroad. As in Iran, the problem is the regime more than the weapons. That's not an argument against engagement with Kim Jong Il any more than with the mullahs. It is an argument for clear-eyed engagement, though -- with a recognition that in the long run only a change in the nature of North Korea's government is likely to solve this problem.
And thus we create a circle - absent regime change, nations like North Korea and Iran will continue their nuclear weapons programs... because the possession of nuclear weapons pretty much ensures that they won't be invaded by the nations seeking to effect regime change. It's easy to cheer for regime change when you are speaking of one of the worst governments on the planet, but its not realistic to expect that sabre rattling will inspire North Korea to give up its nuclear program (or its chemical weapons, or its fortified conventional arsenal that's positioned to devastate Seoul in the event of a western attack).

But what if we achieve regime change? As Dan Larison frequently points out in relation to Iran, there's no reason to take on faith that a new regime will be any less interested in pursuing a nuclear weapons program, and there are plenty of reasons that have nothing to do with being "evil" that might impel a successor regime to continue its program.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Tax Pledges

For years, Republicans have led the charge to mindlessly sign on to the Americans for Tax Reform pledge, with about 70% of their candidates promising not to raise taxes (but also not to cut corporate welfare). So it's no small wonder that Fred Hiatt and his crew offer up an unsigned editorial aimed at... a pretty much irrelevant tax pledge requested by a teacher's union back in 2006.
In 2006 the union, known as the Montgomery County Education Association, included this question on its questionnaire for candidates seeking its endorsement for the Montgomery County Council: "Would you support a tax increase, if necessary, to fund the school budget and the negotiated agreements [setting salaries and benefits for teachers]? If so, in what way would you increase taxes?"
Asking a politician if they would raise taxes if necessary to fund schools? The horror!

It should be noted in this regard that the Washington Post has been squarely behind Michelle Rhee and her unsustainable plan to reform teacher pay. In another of the Hiatt crew's unsigned pieces,
Minimally effective or ineffective teachers would lose job security. In addition to the generous pay raises -- which would give the District a competitive edge in hiring -- teachers would also benefit from a rich offering of new opportunities for professional development as well as enhanced policies on school security and discipline.

To finance the contract, Ms. Rhee was able to attract $64.5 million from foundations that hope the District will serve as a national model.
I don't know if they haven't put down the crack pipe long enough to realize that not every school district in the nation is going to get private concerns to donate tens of millions of dollars per year to help them pay salaries that cannot be sustained by taxes. I'm not sure that they put it down long enough to ask what will happen in D.C., five years from now, when that money runs out. But it is clear that Hiatt and his crew would whine incessantly if D.C.'s teachers dared to ask if elected officials would "support a tax increase, if necessary, to fund the school budget and the negotiated teacher salaries and benefits", even though there's no reason to believe that the private money will fill the huge financial void that will exist when current commitments expire.

It's no surprise, given that the Washington Post Company's principal profit center is Kaplan, that they are much more concerned with getting public money into private hands than in ensuring that public schools are sustainable. In that light, it's similarly no surprise that Hiatt and his crew can't muster even a word of criticism toward the tax pledges that the vast majority of Republicans and some Democrats sign onto every year, even if it makes it effectively impossible to balance the federal budget. But to the extent that the Post pretends to care about education, why isn't it fair to ask politicians how they plan to pay for schools and teachers when the economy turns bad, or when private charities can be found to fill multi-million dollar holes in school board budgets - because the overwhelming experience of school districts in the current recession is that they are experiencing significant budget cuts.

Movies About Bullying

When writing about bullying in schools, I mentioned a number of films that deal with bullying. Some movies that highlight the various forms of bullying come to mind:

The "Antisocial" Bully:
The "Pack of Bullies":
(Lots of Stephen King here.) Bullying by the "In Crowd": Bullying by Teachers and School Administrators:
  • Scent of a Woman
  • Sky High (Administrators support a social order of "heroes" vs. "sidekicks"; also includes a pair of traditional student bullies.)
  • The Karate Kid (Kids bullying kids, but the root of the problem is a bully turned karate instructor.)
  • Mr. Woodcock (The gym teacher is a relentless bully; the movie takes the incredible view that many of his victims became grateful.)
  • Matilta (Worst principal ever?)
  • Ferris Bueller's Day Off (Principal Rooney)
  • The Breakfast Club (Principal Vernon)
There are films with teachers who bully, or have bullying tendencies, such as Fast Times at Ridgemont High, but it seems like bullying principals get a lot of screen time.

There are, of course, many more.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Bullying in Schools

On the rare occasions when bullying in schools leads to tragedy, we get a momentary flurry of activity - calls for stronger anti-bullying laws or policies. Then, for the most part, its back to business as usual. The Onion touched on this after Columbine, a tragedy at a school with a serious bullying problem, but that appears to be wrongly attributed to bullying (and the perps in which engaged in bullying):
Just like at any other school, the computer geeks are mocked, the economically disadvantaged kids are barely acknowledged, and the chess-club, yearbook and debate-team members are universally reviled. While these traditions are nothing new, from now on they will be much easier to preserve, thanks to the high-tech, draconian security measures that now dominate Columbine life....

Thus far, the beefed-up security measures have done wonders to restore the self-esteem of Columbine's jocks, who say they feel safer shunning, berating, belittling and picking on those who are different from themselves than ever before. And the jocks are doing their part to keep the untouchables in line, more than doubling the number of swirlies, noogies and wedgies doled out to Columbine's many outcasts since last year.

Happily, the many efforts to protect Columbine's jocks seem to be working. In fact, schools across the country have begun to pick up on the Columbine model, with many districts imposing measures even more stern than those at Columbine itself. These include mandatory dress codes, transparent book bags that are subject to random search, metal detectors, electronic handprint-identification systems and automatic expulsion of anyone who goes out of his or her way to "separate themselves socially" from classmates or "break the status quo."
That's a parodic look at behavior that is par for the course for most of this nation's schools. But even that is too narrow a look at bullying behavior. You can find bullying behavior within the "chess-club, yearbook and debate-team", or pretty much any other group context. Sometimes it's transitory, sometimes it's not. But often it's ignored, tolerated, or even encouraged by teachers and school administrators.

When we think of bullies, we often look straight to the stereotype of the angry, sullen, misfit loner who beats up kids for lunch money. When I was in ninth grade we had a kid like that at the school... I'm not sure if he ever stole lunch money, but he was big, he was miserable, and he was happy to share his misery with others. He disappeared from school until I was a senior, then reappeared as a tenth grade student. I found out, one way or another, that he had been incarcerated for much of the interim. I didn't have enough contact with him to know whether his experiences transformed him.

But in a sense, that type of bully is the easiest to deal with. No, not if he's sucker punching you in gym class, but in terms of psychic trauma. Nobody defends him, nobody joins him. If you can duck him, he's irrelevant. The more dangerous variant works in packs - a more social bully who has a number of tag-alongs. Think Jimbo, Dolph and Kearney on the Simpsons (Nelson can work with them, or work alone). Their pack behavior is not atypical of pack animals - identify somebody who appears to weak to put up much of a fight, isolate their prey, attack. These bullies are quite easily identified by school administrators who, in many cases, seem to ignore them. Perhaps that's because their typical targets don't matter much to administrators?

But when you look at the two instances of bullying that have received significant press coverage, the bullying of Phoebe Prince and the bullying of Constance McMillen, you're not going to find the bullies I just discussed. In the case of Pheobe Prince, the bullying appears to have been that described in The Onion - the cool kids turning on a peer, then ostracizing and hounding her. In the case of Constance McMillen, it appears that the bullying and ostracisim - the rejection of a teen due to her sexuality - was acceptable within the student body, the faculty, school administrators, and among parents. She and the special needs students (also special targets for bullying at Columbine) weren't worthy.

This piece from the AP is remarkably clueless:
Parents might not realize that the stereotypical bully of generations past — a swaggering schoolyard lout, low on self-esteem, quick to lash out, easy to identify — has become as anachronistic as the blackboard at many schools.

Educational psychologists describe a new kind of bullying. The perpetrators are attractive, athletic and academically accomplished — and comfortable enough around adults to know what they can and can't get away with, in school and online.

These bullies are so subtle and cunning it's hard for school staff to know if what looks like bullying really is, and what to do about it. "Some of it is so under the radar that without training, you can't see what's in front of you," says Marlene Snyder, a Clemson University expert on bullying.
Yeah, subtle. So subtle that it's been the subject of movies like "Revenge of the Nerds", "Lucas", "Heathers" or "Mean Girls" for generations. Snyder may have a point that some of their behaviors are not immediately identifiable as bullying, but the author of the piece is out to lunch.

Going back to something I touched on before, the victims of concerted bullying don't typically draw much concern from school administrators. That can be because they're different and the school administrators sympathize with the bullies, as appears to be the case with Ms. McMillen. But if we move from transitory bullying, something most kids experience at one time or another, into situations of chronic or repeated bullying, you'll usually find a pattern of reactions or behaviors that make it easy to blame the victim. The child is hypersensitive. The child responded to the bullying by calling the other kids names, then got upset. The child withdraws. "They bring it on themselves." Sometimes the kid is targeted because he identifies as gay, or is perceived as gay - if that type of intolerance is acceptable within the school, it's really hard for the kid to reshape his reaction to end the bullying.

More accurately, they show pain. Psychic pain. They don't have good defense mechanisms that allow them to either shrug off the attack or hide their hurt. If you can shrug off the attack, give as good as you get, hide your pain, you're not a rewarding target. (This is true for physical bullying as well - a kid who doesn't overreact to pain and hits back effectively isn't a good target; bullies will seek weaker prey.) A display of emotional pain is blood in the water for bullies. It's possible to teach kids to resist bullying, but these kids' parents are usually (no offense) clueless (or worse) and school administrators, again, indifferent.

Again, it's not just kids. How did Pink Floyd put it? "When we grew up and went to school, there were certain teachers who would hurt the children anyway they could". That's perhaps a good child's-eye view of the bullying teacher, and yes, there are teachers who inflict pain indiscriminately. But teachers who are bullies are adult versions of the kids I've been talking about, although they'll typically pick their prey differently and bully their kids by less obvious means. I recall a couple of my gym teachers from high school, one of whom was the same bullying jock he had been during his own teen years, and the other of whom viewed bullying as a natural rite of passage - something you put up with until you have a growth spurt or graduate. No big deal. Time for dodgeball!

I recall the second teacher's lecture about fighting - it's not that it's a big deal to get in fights, but things can get out of control and somebody might get kicked in the head or break a limb, so don't do it. This was before schools widely implemented "zero tolerance" policies on fighting; his approach might be deemed the "tolerance" approach. He was the school's front line person for addressing fights, ahead or instead of the vice principal, and I don't recall anybody ever facing a serious consequence.

I expect that the parents of the kids from the Phoebe Prince case see their kids as "good kids" - jock and cheerleader types, "leaders", popular.... Odds are that their parents value success in the high school social scene and implicitly, perhaps explicitly, send the message that their form of bullying is simply part of the social order. The reaction to the case is seen as disproportionate to the crime. But if the reaction to similar bullying around the country is used as the measure, the parents have a point - the kids are being vilified and prosecuted because of the outcome of their bullying, while thousands upon thousands of kids around the country are "getting away with" the same thing.

If we're serious about eliminating bullying in schools, it needs to start from the top down. Administrators who turned a blind eye to the bullying of Constance McMillen should face consequences - perhaps career-ending consequences. If they don't, you'll know exactly how seriously their school districts take bullying.

In other schools, I'm not going to call for "zero tolerance" of bullying because I don't think that's achievable - and I expect it would be abused. A kid who is hounded until he lashes out should not be treated equally to the kids who do the hounding (and no, I'm not talking Columbine here - I'm talking about a normal reaction). A child who is upset with a friend and pulls the "You're not my friend" routine or attempts to get others to ostracize her "former" friend, should be viewed in an age-appropriate light. You can deal with that range of behaviors by establishing a culture of kindness within a school - setting a range for what's appropriate in interacting with other kids, then interceding and correcting behaviors when the rule is violated. And you can also teach kids from an early age how to respond to bullying behavior, and how to bring in an adult when necessary. And school administrators need to allow for serious sanction, to the extent of placement in 'alternative' schools, of even "cool" and "popular" kids who get off on bullying kids from outside of their social circle. Even if they're star athletes.

To put an end to the worst of bullying, teachers and school administrators need to be 100% on board with the new ethos. There is room for a "zero tolerance" policy toward teachers who turn a blind eye toward bullying behavior, and ample cause for such a policy toward teachers who engage in bullying.