Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Mainstream Media at its Finest....

In keeping with the philosophy of David "Don't Say Anything Bad About The Rich and Powerful" Brooks, the Washington Post offers an anonymously sourced article alleging that Michael Hastings, the author of the Rolling Stone profile on General McChrystal, broke "ground rules" by reporting comments that were supposed to have been off the record. No claim was made that the reporting was inaccurate.
On Friday, however, officials close to McChrystal began trying to salvage his reputation by asserting that the author, Michael Hastings, quoted the general and his staff in conversations that he was allowed to witness but not report.
Officials, plural, quickly becomes official, singular:
A senior military official insisted that "many of the sessions were off-the-record and intended to give [Hastings] a sense" of how the team operated. The command's own review of events, said the official, who was unwilling to speak on the record, found "no evidence to suggest" that any of the "salacious political quotes" in the article were made in situations in which ground rules permitted Hastings to use the material in his story.
A Rolling Stone executive editor, Eric Bates, gave an on-the-record statement under his own name denying the innuendo. It seems fair to ask, why exactly is it that the official who is alleging otherwise is unwilling to attach his name to his allegations? To quote the Post's own ombudsman,
Anonymity, granted judiciously, can benefit readers. Sources often require confidentiality to disclose corruption or policy blunders. On a lesser scale, stories can be enriched with information from sources who would suffer retribution if identified.

But by casually agreeing to conceal the identities of those who provide non-critical information, The Post erodes its credibility and perpetuates Washington's insidious culture of anonymity.
More specifically,
The Post's internal policies say: "We must strive to tell our readers as much as we can about why our unnamed sources deserve our confidence." That means offering enough description so readers can evaluate the quality of the source. Did they actually see or hear what took place? Do they have first-hand knowledge?
Standards that the Post once again failed to meet.

Leaving the quotes aside for the moment, if the purpose of allowing Hastings get a sense of how McChrystal's team operated, wouldn't the accurate reporting of the sense conveyed by the team's comments and conduct have resulted in the same outcome?
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Thursday that the atmosphere of disrespect for civilian leaders that McChrystal apparently tolerated and participated in was grounds for dismissal regardless of the context in which the offensive comments were made or who made them.
If I were to draw an inference it would be that McChrystal and his staff assumed that they were operating with a David Brooks-type reporter with Tim Russert-style ground rules - "My personal policy is always off the record when talking to government officials unless specified" - and found themselves dealing instead with an old school investigative reporter who took the traditional approach that, absent an agreement, anything said or done would be on the record and that his job was to accurately convey a what he observed even if it was at times unflattering to his subjects.

The "he broke ground rules" innuendo represents an attempt to distract readers from the substance of the story by suggesting that the messenger did something wrong in delivering it. "Don't kill the messenger", a cliché that dates back (at least) to Ancient Greece, highlights an inappropriate response to bad news from the front lines - yet here it is being anonymously invoked to shield a military leader from criticism. The Washington Post "broke" this thinly sourced story with the explicit suggestion that, truth aside, a conclusion by the general public that the General thought that the remarks were off the record might "salvage his reputation". We can expect that a number of pundits and commentators will work hard to advance that theme, picking up where the Post left off, their having internalized Brooks' position that embarrassing facts about powerful people should rarely if ever see the light of day.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Wrong on the Economics, Wrong on the Justification....

But there's something to be said for approaching chronic unemployment in a different way.

Ben Nelson is taking some heat for his comments and voting stance on extended unemployment benefits, "At some point, it ceases to be an emergency. It’s ongoing… I think the bill should be paid for." In terms of the fact that we have very high national unemployment, an economy that's at best in a fragile state of (jobless) recovery, and the amount of money at issue is not (by federal budget terms) substantial, Nelson is wrong. But there's something else to consider.

Prior to the current recession we have had states, cities and regions of the country with long term high to very high unemployment rates. In theory, states could provide extended unemployment benefits within such areas. In practice that hasn't happened. Once unemployment benefits ran out, if they could not find work the people in those areas had to find other ways to get by. The current jobs situation is different, as historically (at least in theory) people could move from high unemployment areas to lower unemployment areas in search of work.

As a society we didn't feel much sympathy for those who couldn't get their act together, whether to learn new job skills, to relocate, or to take an unpleasant, low-paying job. Ben Nelson and those making similar statements aren't displaying a new sentiment - they're simply extending society's traditional view of long-term unemployment to a larger population of the chronically unemployed.

At the same time, those ignorethe realities of the job market in favor of a perpetual series of extensions of unemployment benefits aren't addressing the underlying issues. Yes, to the extent that the extensions help bring money into local economies and sustain local businesses, prevent evictions and keep people out of foreclosure, it may be sound public policy to extend unemployment as part of a recovery plan. But if the problem of long-term unemployment is not simply a shortage of jobs, but reflects a structural change in the job market, the extensions are a band-aid solution. It's fair to say that in an economy like this we shouldn't just cut people off, but it's also fair to question whether the chronically unemployed are likely to ever be reintegrated into the job market. Can they compete even for entry level, minimum wage jobs against people who are not just twenty or more years younger than they are, but who have grown up immersed in the technologies that are part of pretty much any modern workplace?

If you take a look at the data and find that a big part of the "chronic unemployment" problem is structural, the appropriate response is to evaluate whether you can take steps to remedy the structural problem and, if not, how to best address the plight of a population of people that are likely to remain chronically unemployed and underemployed for the duration of their working years. If you wait long enough the statistic may disappear - the unemployment rate among other groups may rise to a level that it masks the continuing problem of chronic unemployment - but that's not a solution. If your objection to Nelson's stance is that it's cruel, cutting off unemployment benefits to such a population would not be any less cruel when a lower unemployment rate hides their plight than at the present.

Don't Say Anything Bad About the Magic Man!

Throughout recorded history there have been people who, whether self-declared or declared by others, are deemed indispensable - they're magic men, without whom a business, a nation, perhaps the world is doomed. Occasionally there's a kernel of truth to the claim, and a business can falter when a skilled leader quits or dies. But even then in most cases the business carries on and, when it doesn't, the fault is usually because the "magic man" neglects to engage in succession planning. Beyond that, death remains a constant. "Magic," indispensable men have always died, and yet the Earth continues to spin on its axis.

It's not particularly surprising that somebody like David Brooks romanticizes our nation's political leaders as various incarnations of magic men, and even less so that he does the same for military leaders. But I still found his argument in defense of media self-censorship to be surprising. Not that Brooks would believe in or endorse self-censorship in the name of protecting the rich and powerful, but that he would so readily admit that to be his estimation of what constitutes good, responsible journalism.
The reticent ethos [in which journalists didn't report facts harmful to the rich and powerful] had its flaws. But the exposure ethos, with its relentless emphasis on destroying privacy and exposing impurities, has chased good people from public life, undermined public faith in institutions and elevated the trivial over the important.

Another scalp is on the wall. Government officials will erect even higher walls between themselves and the outside world. The honest and freewheeling will continue to flee public life, and the cautious and calculating will remain.
David Brooks seems to personify what he views as a "good journalist" - eager to please those in power, and the first to censor out of his column anything that might embarrass or jeopardize future access to one of his sources. Never mind that he's putting himself in a category of journalist that is happy to repeat without attribution attacks and innuendo about others obtained from their carefully cultivated, flattered and protected stable of "insiders".

Brooks is also eager to brand General McChrystal as an irreplaceable magic man, never mind that he has already been replaced. The offense is not that the general displayed contempt for the civilian leaders working in Iraq and of the Vice President, and reportedly spoke poorly of the President while on the record with a reporter from Rolling Stone. That's forgivable as "kvetching" or "venting". The place to find offense is that a reporter, having observed military officers making unprofessional comments while on duty and on the record would dare to report the facts.
But McChrystal, like everyone else, kvetched. And having apparently missed the last 50 years of cultural history, he did so on the record, in front of a reporter. And this reporter, being a product of the culture of exposure, made the kvetching the center of his magazine profile.

By putting the kvetching in the magazine, the reporter essentially took run-of-the-mill complaining and turned it into a direct challenge to presidential authority. He took a successful general and made it impossible for President Obama to retain him.
From what I have heard about General McChrystal, including his carefully calculated leaks to force the Obama Administration's hand on its Afghanistan war policy, it seems reasonable to infer that he's a very competent soldier and officer. The position of general is highly political, and for McChrystal to reach his rank despite his tendency toward the impolitic suggests that he must be good at his job - otherwise I suspect he would still be a colonel. But at the same time he's not a magic man, his policy has not been playing out as he had projected, and he is responsible for his lapses in judgment and for failing to squelch similar lapses of judgment by his staff.

Brooks appears to believe that the sin is on the part of the reporter - that it was perfectly reasonable for the general to assume that the reporter would act as Brooks would prefer, treating him as a magic man whose words should never see print lest they derail a glorious career (not to mention cutting off a high level source). Brooks admits that McChrystal would have to be blind to fifty years of history to have assumed that his remarks would not be reported, so as defenses go it's a weak one. But it comes through, loud and clear, that Brooks himself would prefer his romanticized era of media self-censorship and believes that he, personally, would have killed any part of the story that reflected badly on McChrystal.

Brooks isn't particularly careful with his facts. He claims, "[McChrystal] had outstanding relations with the White House and entirely proper relationships with his various civilian partners in the State Department and beyond," despite the fact that McChrystal's own comments suggest a poor working relationship with pretty much every civilian leader save for Hillary Clinton - and insofar as there is evidence, whether you call it "venting" or "kvetching", the facts suggest that McChyrstal's comments reflect reality. Brooks also accuses the reporter who broke the story of making "the kvetching the center of his magazine profile," suggesting at best that he hasn't read the article and at worst that he doesn't care about the facts when he's defending a powerful figure. The "kvetching" would better be described as the addition of colorful anecdotes to a long article with a much broader focus. It was not the Rolling Stone article that led to McChrystal's resignation, but the manner in which mainstream commentators and pundits responded to the "kvetching".

I haven't been following the commentary very closely, but I have yet to find commentary by a retired military officer who either defends McChrystal's conduct or dismisses it as "no big deal." Brooks may not be comfortable with the fact that the U.S. military has civilian leadership, but some people actually do regard respect for the constitutional role of the Commander in Chief to be relevant to both military discipline and our system of government. It was not a reporter who "took a successful general and made it impossible for President Obama to retain him" - McChrystal is responsible for his own fate.

Going back in time to the period of journalism that Brooks romanticizes,
During World War II and the years just after, a culture of reticence prevailed. The basic view was that human beings are sinful, flawed and fallen. What mattered most was whether people could overcome their flaws and do their duty as soldiers, politicians and public servants. Reporters suppressed private information and reported mostly — and maybe too gently — on public duties.
The culture of reticence, of course, worked to protect the rich and powerful. The not-so-rich and not-so-powerful did not enjoy similar immunity. A political figure might have a health problem that could cause many to question whether he could properly serve in elected office, and reporters would leave the story alone. But if a less powerful rival were to have a similar affliction, or were caught in a scandal, it was fair game. B-list actors were called out and blacklisted for drug use and affairs, while A-list actors largely enjoyed media immunity.

Brooks may believe that the politicians protected by that system were, for the most part, in government "because they sincerely want to do good", but there's no reason to think differently of the less powerful people who were regarded as fair game for the media. We're still not working on a level playing field - the mainstream media sat on inflammatory stories about GW's military service (or lack thereof), of Clinton's affairs, of Edwards' love child, and now we find of Al Gore's supposed mistreatment of a masseuse. There are reasons for that reticence, good and bad, but less public figures get a lot less benefit of the doubt, and a lot less media worry about fallout from the publication of possibly false, inflammatory stories to their careers.

No, nobody wants to be raked over the coals by the media. Yes, that's a factor that keeps some people out of public life - even if they don't have skeletons in their closets, some people are put off by the idea that the media will nonetheless be poking through their closets for skeletons, real and imagined. But sometimes the public really does have a right to know, and it's not better to go back to an era that was even more skewed in favor of the rich and powerful than what presently passes for media analysis. We may lose a magic man from time to time, but in hindsight the magic will usually be revealed as an illusion and the world will keep on turning.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Cutting Afghanistan Into Pieces... With Honor?

No surprise here.... Henry Kissinger has crawled out of the woodwork to warn us of the perils of abandoning a "war forever" approach to Afghanistan:
We have a basic national interest to prevent jihadist Islam from gaining additional momentum, which it will surely do if it can claim to have defeated the United States and its allies after overcoming the Soviet Union. A precipitate withdrawal would weaken governments in many countries with significant Islamic minorities. It would be seen in India as an abdication of the U.S. role in stabilizing the Middle East and South Asia and spur radical drift in Pakistan. It would, almost everywhere, raise questions about America's ability to define or execute its proclaimed goals.
Does that sound an awful lot like Kissinger's laundry list of reasons for why we had to stay in Vietnam? And yet after U.S. forces withdrew his parade of horribles did not come to pass. Yes, the consequences were horrific for the allied Vietnamese we left behind. But it was in fact Vietnam that brought an end to the rule of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and despite being one of the five remaining communist nations on the planet (Cuba, Vietnam, Laos, China, and North Korea) it now welcomes tourists from the U.S. and is a trading partner. (Kissinger should perhaps think long and hard about the list of the five remaining communist nations, and contemplate whether all of them would still be communist but for the policies and interventions he favored.)

In many ways Kissinger is engaged in the same exercise that others engaged in before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, presenting apocalyptic hypothetical scenarios of what could happen if the U.S. proceeded with the wars. Yes, we could get the worst case scenario. But we could get something that looks quite different and, let's be honest, the accuracy of Kissinger's prognostications have historically been abysmal, including in relation to the Iraq war.

The people who deserve credit for their predictions are those in the first Bush Administration who advised Bush the Elder that having accomplished our military goals for Iraq it was best to depart as opposed to toppling Hussein's regime and getting bogged down in endless war. No doubt, there were some extremely ugly consequences to that decision, which Bush the Elder was willing to accept. Where was Kissinger when the "candy and flowers", "it'll be a cakewalk" crowd got the ear of Bush the Younger, and talked him out of wars that focused on narrow military objectives and into "regime change".

Don't get me wrong, I have long held the position that top-down democratization of a nation without either a democratic tradition or institutions was unlikely to succeed. It's much easier to impose a steel-fisted tyrant, with or without a velvet glove. Russia's experience indicates such a tyrant is unlikely to maintain his hold in Afghanistan absent significant outside military support. But let's pretend that Karzai's regime were about to flower into a progressive democracy. Is it not self-evident that the military commitment necessary to support and nourish a nascent democracy would be far greater than that needed to support a tyrant? To look at it another way, western powers have a long track record of imposing, supporting and otherwise backing various leaders in the post-colonial era. When we compare the number of flourishing democracies that resulted to the number of tyrannical regimes, how do things stack up?

At the start of the Iraq War, CWD and I had several discussions about the Bush Administration's approach, why it was unlikely to succeed even if it abandoned its grandiose ambitions to simultaneously attempt shock therapy-style privatization on the nation, how building democracy at the local level would make sense, and why that would not be acceptable to the Bush Administration. There are no state secrets in any of that. What was amazing is how we were supposed to take seriously the "it'll be a cakewalk" crowd - the idea that post-war occupation could be done on the cheap, and that Bush's hand-selected proposed leaders for both Iraq and Afghanistan would be welcomed by willing, grateful nations with showers of candy and flowers.

So now, as the Afghan War becomes the longest in U.S. history, Kissinger wants to take a bottom-up approach to reinventing its government. Or perhaps it's "start at the bottom and stay there," with regional warlords kept in check with the perpetual placement of U.S. occupation forces, as opposed to by a national government or military. Many of those local governments would look like, no, they would be the Taliban. Many others would be non-Talibani, but would take an approach every bit as oppressive to the rights of girls and women. War advocates seem to flip-flop between "We can't leave because it will be horrible to women," and "We really can't do much even if we stay" - for most of them the human rights side of the war has always been an argument of convenience, not belief. Kissinger, on the other hand, isn't making a human rights argument and makes no argument that his ideas will result in democratization - his record suggests that he has interest in neither.

The difference between the Afghanistan of days gone by, in which local warlords ignored, imperiled, and even overthrew a central government, while trying to amass as much wealth and power as possible, and the one that Kissinger envisions is... well, his warlords would apparently behave themselves. Beyond that, Kissinger's ideas sound a lot like what one might read in an annual report, were Afghanistan a corporation....
A regional diplomacy should seek to establish a framework to insulate Afghanistan from the storms raging around it rather than allow the country to serve as their epicenter. It would also try to build Afghanistan into a regional development plan, perhaps encouraged by the Afghan economy's reported growth rate of 15 percent last year.
Kissinger's notion that the U.S. would be less able to engage Iran, as opposed to more able, were its military not bogged down in a perpetual Afghan war, is laughable - and should the U.S. withdraw from Afghanistan I would not be surprised if he's one of the loudest voices arguing "Don't bring them home when Iran's right there, next door, waiting to be invaded." His fear seems to be less that Afghanistan might devolve into chaos, or that it might again provide safe haven for international terrorists, and more that a competing power might manage to take control of the nation and its resources.

Republican Concern Trolls on the Afghanistan War

"But if the war in Afghanistan is winding down starting next July, we won't be able to use it as a campaign issue when attacking President Obama."

After all, whatever the facts on the ground and despite the Republican Party's history both of abject failure and lack of ideas on how to do better, it's better to have war forever, at immense cost to both Afghanistan and our own nation, than to have one less issue with which to attack the incumbent President.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Well, That Explains the 2006 Elections

The Republicans lost because of public reaction to the resignation of Andrew Card as GW's Chief of Staff. Seriously.

Okay, not so seriously, but the analysis perhaps highlights how overseas analysis premised upon the claims of Beltway journalists and pundits can result in their exaggerated belief in the importance of palace intrigue on U.S. elections.
You see, Alex Spillius has a rather intriguing scoop in the Telegraph this morning, alerting the world to the possibility that the American President’s Chief of Staff may leave the White House before two years of Obama’s first term are up.

He seems cheesed off at not getting his way.

It’s hard to overstate the extent to which Republicans, already feeling that they’ve got the wind in their sails ahead of the mid-term elections, will jump on this as a sign of administrative failure in the White House. That would be a great shame, not least because it is partly true.
Like Colin Powell's resignation as Secretary of State, if it is actually to occur after the election it won't affect the election. (This stuff needs to be explained?) Rumors of resignation are, for some reason, being treated as news today - to the extent that people care, they will be stale in November.
His departure would be interpreted by a large portion of the American populace, and many of the right wing cable channels and radio stations, as a sign that things are at breaking point in the Oval Office, and not enough is getting done.
A "large portion"? Again, seriously?

More realistically the average American voter will react by asking, "Rahm who? Who did what?" As important a role as the White House Chief of Staff can play, I'm skeptical that Emanuel has much national name recognition and, to the extent that people know who he is, I'm skeptical that more than a handful could describe his job title and, of those, only a fraction would know what the job entails. Perhaps the resignation, should it occur, would be highlighted by right-wing commentators and Beltway concern trolls as signs of problems in the White House, but it would be just another talking point - useful to advance a predefined narrative, and of interest only to people who believe the narrative, as opposed to being of actual significance.
Emanuel is a man whose reputation enters a room long before he does; and he was appointed to that post specifically because he was a fixer with a record of getting things done.
Okay, so Emanuel has a reputation, "deserved or not", for "getting things done," but since he took his present position he has failed to "get things done", so he's angry at the President? That interpretation seems to explain Emanuel by a combination of the Peter Principle and narcissistic injury, which I'll grant is quite possible given the personalities often at play in Washington, but how is it anybody's fault but Emanuel's if he can't live up to his reputation.

President Obama wanted to pass healthcare reform in his first year in office. Emanuel reportedly got cold feet, and urged Obama to abandon comprehensive reform in favor of a modest bill. Obama ignored Emanuel and Obama got things done - and if somebody can be said to have been Obama's fixer on the issue, it would seem to be Nancy Pelosi.

This story from the Telegraph is the source of all the buzz... An unnamed person says that Emanuel may resign in six to eight months, and another unnamed person would "bet on" that happening.
Friends say he is also worried about burnout and losing touch with his young family due to the pressure of one of most high profile jobs in US politics.
With absolutely no disrespect intended to the @1% of cases in which this is true, "I'm resigning to spend more time with my family" is the cover story given principally by people who know they have no chance of keeping their job, either because they're about to lose an election or because they're about to be fired. I have no more reason to start a rumor that Emanuel may be fired than I do to believe a badly sourced rumor that he plans to resign, but if we're going to resort to doublespeak explanations for why one or the other might occur let's at least translate that doublespeak accurately.

Friday, June 18, 2010

About That Value Added Tax (VAT) Idea....

In response to the right-wing push for a VAT, I commented,
Taxes tend to work like leaky faucets. It's really easy to turn them up, but really hard to turn them off. The uber-wealthy thought that they had lobbied their way out of estate taxes, but it turns out not to be so easy. Although exceptions occur, particularly where the wealthy and powerful are concerned, once a tax is implemented its natural tendency is to go up.
I argued that the big picture goal by right-wing advocates involves tax cuts for corporations and the rich, with the difference made up for by a regressive tax that hits the poor and targets the middle class. So let's turn to news from across the pond:
The Schroder forecast was this: whichever party got into power in May, Labour or Tory, would jack up VAT from 17.5% to 19%. Which may just sound like a bunch of numbers (heavens, it is a bunch of numbers) – but economists don't normally put their necks on the block like this, for fear of getting them chopped off.
Does that give you a sense of how high a VAT tax can go, once the money stops flowing? Once implemented, what do you think the odds are that the government will ever back away from a VAT as an ongoing revenue stream?

The author of the piece admits that a VAT "cannot be called progressive" (mainly because it's unambiguously regressive), but defends the tax on the basis that "it is not the most regressive tax I can think of" - identifying VAT exemptions for food and children's clothing as making it less regressive than it might otherwise be, but without actually identifying a tax that is more regressive. The author then argues that because the rich have a lot more money to spend than the poor, "looked at by spending, a rise hurts the richest most". All those poor little rich boys....

It would be interesting, by the author's thesis, to crunch the numbers a different way - would the poor be better off if the exemptions were eliminated and the VAT reached food and children's clothes? It would make the tax, on its face, more regressive - but would it increase the tax burden on the poor to the same degree as the predicted increase "to as much as 20%"? If not, given the author's argument that the rich buy more stuff - certainly, on the whole, more expensive children's clothing and food - he might even be able to argue that "looked at by spending" the elimination of those exemptions is progressive.

Yes, with a VAT we can not only look forward to higher taxes, and VAT increases as a source of revenue that's perhaps the least offensive to the nation's wealthy interests, we can look forward to analysts turning cartwheels to explain how later increases are fair because the rich have so much more money to spend than the poor.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Form Over Substance, Revisited

Newsweek points out how the mainstream media obsessively covered the form of the President's speech on the BP spill - what he should or must say, how he should say it, whether he said things the right way, how happy or disappointed they were with what he said....
[Chris] Matthews was even more chagrined by the feeling of expectations not being met: “I don’t sense executive command. And I thought that was the purpose of this speech tonight. Command and control.” Then he offered a sample of a superior speech that he would have given. “ ‘I’m calling the shots. My name is Barack Obama. I’m the boss. I’m telling people what to do.’ ” (The word he was fishing for seems to be “decider,” but maybe he had just enough self-awareness not to say it, considering how it turned out for the planet the last time our president talked that way.) Borger, for her part, fretted that “I don’t know how much inspiration this will give to people.” On the bright side, she continued, “at least he said [he’s] in control.”
After all, who cares about the issues or the substance of the speech, right?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Obama's Agenda and the Progressive Movement

Katrina vanden Heuvel comments on recent stories about "demoralized activists" and the "'liberals eat their own' storyline",
Yet what's happening on the left isn't the equivalent of the anti-incumbent anger on the right. Most progressives support Obama and want his agenda to succeed. And although Pelosi may have been bushwacked by a disability-rights group last week, she was celebrated by most of the conference attendees for her ability to forge a majority for hard votes.
And on the purpose of the primary challenge to Blanche Lincoln:
Actually, the point of the exercise was that those opposing Obama's reform agenda will not get a free pass.
My impressions are a bit different, that the message is less about those supposedly "opposing Obama's reform agenda" and more about the suspicion that President Obama doesn't have much of a reform agenda. That he's willing to push things back to the soft conservatism of the Clinton era, but that he's not interested in pushing any harder than that. The concern seems to be that, fundamentally, he's a centrist, and that the comments that emerge from his administration that are scornful of the progressives and the netroots reflect his actual beliefs. Part of the reaction to Obama is the perception that he hasn't pushed back against the G.W. Bush era hard enough, even that there's no real difference - a perception that is removed from reality, even if you hoped for more. (Let's not forget that the "Obama's just like Bush" agitprop was being advanced by Republican Party operatives even before he was elected President - it's not true, but their goal is to demoralize Obama's supporters.)

The rest wasn't exactly difficult to predict - if you took Obama at his word during his campaign instead of assuming that "he's only saying what he has to say to be elected, but once elected he's going to embrace my own, personal philosophy of government and force Congress to bend to his will." When candidate Obama spoke skeptically of the "public option" in healthcare reform, and was tepid in his support during the debate, I don't think that it was merely a reflection of the political reality in which no such plan would get through the Senate - it seemed clear from his words that he would have accepted a bill with a public option but didn't see its absence as a big deal.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Should We Be Drawing a Message?

For those who believe that there's a divine hand behind lightning strikes....
Thank you, Globe and Mail, for your comprehensive coverage of bolts from the blue.

Education Reform - The Hunt for a Magic Bullet

A few days ago Michael Gerson shared his thoughts on education reform. I'm left suspecting that Gerson has never attended a public school. I'll admit, criticizing a Gerson's column is fairly criticized as going after the low-hanging fruit - easy picking - but at the same time, given its prominent publication in the Op-Ed section of the Washington Post, I don't think that Gerson's witch's brew of ignorance and contempt for the profession of teaching should be left unchallenged.

One of the most obvious flaws in Gerson's commentary is his eagerness to attribute students' academic successes to rookie teachers from Teach For America, while criticizing the prior state of the school and suggesting that the school has only recently been rescued from chaos and failure:
Public school students here [in D.C.] perform two grade levels behind their peers in New York City. Last year, Smith taught some children who were "nonreaders" -- meaning they had somehow reached the fifth grade with the reading skills of kindergartners.
Nobody is disputing that the situation is atrocious.
Trinidad's local elementary school reflected the chaos around it. "Students ran the school," says Scott Cartland, the principal of the Wheatley Education Campus. "The kids were running down the halls, roaming."
Certainly, that's something that can be said to be a failing of prior administrators.
[TFA corps member and fifth grade teacher Amber Smith] teaches a boy named I'Kareem, who sits in the front row, raising his hand at every question and sometimes in the lulls between questions, just to get a head start. He is a handful. No thought goes unexpressed. He has some social challenges. But he reads at the eighth-grade level, and he told me that in chess club, "I'm always winning." In Smith's classroom, I'Kareem gets extra time and attention. In a chaotic classroom, he would be lost.
But wait a minute. First, we're talking about a child who has presumably been at this school for going on six years, with Gerson telling us that the school has had order in the halls only for the most recent two years. Whether in terms of Smith's teaching, order in the halls, or any other change in the school, Gerson tells us that it's "still too early" to see any improvement in student performance. Smith makes no claim that she's responsible for I'Kareem's above-grade reading skills in a school where on the whole his peers lag significantly behind him. So, quite plainly, I'Kareem was not lost before the changes were implemented and, despite having acknowledged "social challenges" (whatever that means), he was not lost. I expect that Gerson was introduced to I'Kareem as an example of the good the reforms can do, but he should have had the perception to realize that there was a lot more at play in I'Kareem's above-grade reading skill than a couple of years with more orderly hallways and the attention of his fifth grade teacher.

Gerson's lecture that "I'Kareem gets extra time and attention" being duly noted, what's his basis for suggesting that I'Kareem gets time and attention in his fifth grade class that he did not get in prior classrooms? Believe me, I am fully aware that some teachers will ignore kids who are working at or above grade level in favor of focusing on the kids who are lagging behind, and to a large degree programs like "No Child Left Behind" force teachers and schools to focus on lower performers - there are only so many hours in the school day, and hours of teaching time must be divided between all students. But we shouldn't simply assume that he didn't receive "extra time and attention" from prior teachers.

Also, if the prior context involved teachers giving "extra time and attention" to students other than I'Kareem, to try to bring them up to grade level, its' fair to ask what is happening with those kids in Smith's classroom. We're dealing with a zero sum game - there are only so many minutes in an hour, and even the most dedicated TFA corps member can't add extras. If Gerson weren't slurping up the Kool-Aid, he could as easily criticize Smith for diverting her attention away from "those who need it the most" in order to engage in the more rewarding task of teaching a student who is already ahead of the curve. That might be completely unfair to Smith - I don't know how she divides up her classroom time or what motivates her decisions - but when you take a "facts be damned" approach to analysis the data you skim off the surface can often support any number of divergent, even mutually inconsistent hypotheses.

If we assume that I'Kareem did not receive "extra time and attention" during his earlier schooling, to what do we attribute his above-grade reading level. If he went to the same classes with the same teachers as the rest of his peer group, but ended up reading at the eighth grade level while they (on average) read at the third grade level, shouldn't we be asking "What makes him, or his experience, different?" Also, if we assume that I'Kareem was reading well above grade level before Principal Cartland took over the school, as I expect was the case, would Gerson be still be holding him out as an example of "evidence of success"? Whether then or now, the exception doesn't prove the rule.

We've had pundits who were in love with the idea of rigid disciplinarians "turning around" inner city schools for... how many decades, now? Yes, we want safe, secure schools that can provide a decent learning environment for students. But if we're going to pretend that there is nothing special about the inner city school, that the kids there are no harder to teach than kids anywhere else, why the intense focus on behavior codes and rules that often go way outside of what would be tolerated by parents in a middle class school. Some of the practices of successful inner city school programs seem designed to make up for shortfalls in the children's home environment, even as lip service is paid to the notion that kids are the same everywhere and that the teaching staff is at the root of all problems.

Gerson implicitly concedes that discipline, of itself, does not bring about automatic gains in academic performance. Two years into Wheatland's reform under principal Scott Cartland, "It is still too early... to see dramatically rising test scores". For that matter, the school's performance has bounced about a bit and has not appreciably changed during Cartland's first two years of service - that's not an indictment of him or school discipline, but highlights how you need to be careful about "magic bullet" solutions. Toting a baseball bat as you patrol the newly pacified halls of your high school (and here I describe Joe Clark, not elementary school principal Scott Cartland) may inspire a hagiographic motion picture about your life, but it won't of itself significantly improve the school's academic performance.

As for the only specific detail Gerson offers, a fifth grade classroom in which "disruption is confronted immediately, with a note of the infraction put up on the white board", substitute putting a child's name on a chalkboard and you could be describing a scene from the one room schoolhouse in Little House on the Prairie. Gerson believes this to be innovation? (Strangely, during my tenure as a substitute teacher - the person who often gets the worst from even the best kids in a class - that wasn't a tactic I found necessary to maintaining classroom order. What's the point of the list? The teacher knows who has misbehaved, so do the students, and if you're going to write somebody up (or not) the only thing that counts is that action.)

Gerson also effuses about Teach For America, with little indication that he's done more than read their promotional literature. His first comment wouldn't strike most people as praise, but that's before you recognize that he's contemptuous of the teaching profession as a whole:
Smith is a Teach for America corps member, meaning that fresh out of college, with five weeks of training, she was thrown into the deep end of the teaching profession in a low-income school.
More accurately, she graduated from a college with decent grades, applied to Teach for America, was admitted into its ranks, and was treated like pretty much any other rookie teacher entering an inner city classroom - with the exception that TFA corp membership is a short-term commitment. With due respect to Gerson's suggestion that 65% of TFA corp members pursue a career in education, the crucial question is how many of them stay in the classroom? (The answer appears to be "less than 20%".) Becoming a principal, administrator or policy maker has value, but TFA sometimes sends the message that those are the only roles that matter, and that teachers are fungible. I'll commend the teacher profiled in the piece for choosing to stay in the classroom beyond the end of her two-year commitment, but heck - if the next teacher to come through the door is every bit as good as her, why does that matter?

Gerson fictionalizes,
Teach for America has become a revolutionary force in education reform because it has taken a rigorous, scientific approach to teaching. Contrary to the mythology of the profession, successful teaching is not a matter of inspiration or credentials. In the exhaustive study of its own outcomes, Teach for America has isolated some common characteristics of good teachers: perseverance, high expectations and the constant adjustment of methods to achieve ambitious outcomes.
First, where can I find any evidence that TFA "has taken a rigorous, scientific approach to teaching"? Which of the "insights" Gerson attributes to TFA represent this "scientific" approach? Perseverance? High expectations? Adjusting your methods when they don't work? Um... yeah. And they care so much about all of this "science" that they cram it all into a five week summer course?

During my aforementioned days as a substitute teacher, I spoke with another teacher and commented how it would have been helpful to have had some of the formal training that I assumed to be part of a standard education degree on teaching technique, classroom management and behavior issues. The response? "To tell you the truth, we had a single, one semester class on teaching and managing the classroom, and it wasn't very helpful." To me, that reflects a contemptuousness of a "scientific approach to teaching" akin to that displayed by TFA's five week summer course - the rough equivalent of a one semester course on actual teaching technique. (Granted, an experienced teacher could probably give me the rudiments of what I wanted to know - principally, techniques to manage disruptive behaviors and the testing of limits, inside of an hour.) There's nothing magical about TFA's five week course - not surprisingly, it results in the bright graduates of elite colleges performing at roughly the same level as any other rookie teacher:
Studies have found that, when the comparison group is other teachers in the same schools who are less likely to be certified or traditionally prepared, novice TFA teachers perform equivalently, and experienced TFA teachers perform comparably in raising reading scores and a bit better in raising math scores.

The question for most districts, however, is whether TFA teachers do as well as or better than credentialed non-TFA teachers with whom school districts aim to staff their schools. On this question, studies indicate that the students of novice TFA teachers perform significantly less well in reading and mathematics than those of credentialed beginning teachers.
TFA corps members who become credentialed and stay in the classroom "do about as well as other similarly experienced credentialed teachers in teaching reading; they do as well as, and sometimes better than, that comparison group in teaching mathematics." In other words, as should come as no surprise, teachers get better over time. Even Michelle Rhee admits she was a disaster as a first year TFA teacher - due to the fact that she had not yet learned to manage a classroom. So what's with the contempt for teaching as a profession?

Some interesting facts about teacher performance: teachers tend to perform better when they're in schools with other high-performing teachers. Also, a teacher's high performance in one school does not automatically mean that the teacher will be equally effective in another. Beyond that, an absurd number of teachers, sometimes exceeding 50%, teach out of field. I recall a high school computer science class in which a math teacher substituted for the regular teacher - the first thing he did was try to turn on an Apple II computer (remember those) by hitting the power light (the actual power switch was on the back of the machine) and declaring "This computer doesn't work." Teachers will be less effective if they don't know the subjects they are teaching.

If I were to extract a one-word takeaway from what makes a great TFA corps member great, or what sets high performing teachers apart from the crowd, the word would be "enthusiasm" - or in a few more words, enthusiasm for teaching coupled with the firm belief that you can make a difference and that your students can perform, translated into action to make your beliefs a reality. What do we call somebody without enthusiasm? Burned out. Talk to teachers in inner city schools and what do you hear of as a serious problem? Teacher burnout. Have you ever worked in a context in which your peers were energized and enthusiastic about their jobs? Or a workplace full of clock watchers? Both enthusiasm and burnout are contagious, and it's in no way surprising that students pick up on a teacher's or school's enthusiasm (or lack thereof).

How do you make a teacher "better" coming out of the gate? There's of course the school of thought that if you pay teachers better, you'll attract better candidates. That may be true to some degree, but in our society it's a moot point - save for in a handful of elite public schools and in a few experimental programs around the nation, we're not going to pay teachers appreciably better - and when hard budget choices are to be made, teaching jobs will remain among the first to go on the chopping block. Meanwhile we have people like Charles Lane saying that teacher layoffs are no big deal because "300,000 is the upper end of a range that could be as low as 100,000" - about nine percent of our nation's teachers being laid off versus a "mere" 3% - and suggesting that the only people who think that's a big deal are those beholden to teacher's unions. He also pretends that layoffs will only marginally affect classroom size, as if the layoffs will primarily hit regular classroom teachers as opposed to those with specialized skills - art, music, physical education, foreign languages, etc.

But more to the point, who are we trying to draw into teaching? If we're trying to attract people who are presently drawn by high salaries, buying into our nation's mythology that the highest earners are invariably "the best and the brightest", we're going to be both investing a phenomenal amount of money in teacher salaries and disappointed in the outcome. I know some really great trial lawyers who are very smart people, but would hate every minute of their lives if they were accountants. And the opposite is true. Even if you assume that teaching is a job that "anybody can do", there's a legitimate question of whether it's a job anybody would want to do.

Raising salaries does make a difference within the current pool of candidates - school districts that offer better pay and working conditions will, on the whole, get more applicants for their jobs than those that do not, and will generally have more high quality candidates to choose from for any job opening. And salary competition isn't enough - many "failing" school districts pay well, but people don't want to work in the schools. That is in no small part why TFA dresses itself up as a "corps" of teachers providing a form of public service, with a commitment short enough that its recruits can see a clear end date to their service. A new teacher applying for the same job is doing so with no similar short-term commitment. With some that represents a level of commitment to a cause far above and beyond what TFA asks of its corps members. With others it's because they can't find a job elsewhere. Particularly in this economy, TFA is displacing some certified teachers who are applying for jobs that are going to corps members, but by the same token they're allowing struggling school districts to be more selective in who they hire.

Related to increased salary is the issue of "merit pay", something that seems to be advocated by those who place the most faith in standardized tests and a means of measuring teacher and student performance. But when I talk to good educators, they speak of how "No Child Left Behind" and its emphasis on standardized test scores takes away from the time they can spend educating their students, and sucks the joy out of teaching. Helping kids prep for a test is different than helping them learn. I can't think of a single person, ever, who has praised the teacher who taught a test prep course as "inspirational" or as "having made a difference in my life." I guess it's a way to be objective, forcing teachers to comport to the role of fungible drones, but it seems inapposite to what I think of as quality education. And frankly, I'm skeptical that standardized test scores are a good measure of student performance. Practicing for a test will raise your performance for that test, but without necessarily providing any other benefit.

There's a valid question of whether colleges of education do a good enough job educating teachers. Should more time be spent focusing on pedagogy, the principles and methods of classroom instruction? Should teachers be held to higher academic standards than is often presently the case - one college I know of doesn't require calculus for its undergraduate economics classes because they're heavily populated with students from the college of education; many offer less rigorous classes for non-majors that may be sufficient for a teacher's subject matter certification. A teaching college should be trying to prepare highly qualified teachers, not tiptoeing around the possibility that academic rigor will scare off applicants and leave its classrooms with empty seats. But... let's just say that problem is far from unique to colleges of education. Note also, the cost of an education at a top college is far beyond the investment justified by a $30-$40K starting salary. Absent a subsidy, students who pay for an elite college through loans can't afford to take an entry level teaching job.

On the other hand, some view teaching more as an art. You could add more classes on pedagogy to a teaching program, but they're not going to make much difference - what matters most are the skills you learn on the job. Most likely there's actually a balance to be reached, with college classes providing a foundation. New teachers are likely to benefit from strong support, mentoring, and instruction on pedagogy once they're in the classroom - and may be better able to retain and implement what they learn within that real world context. Students are also less likely to encounter classes on the theory of the theory of teaching - classes taught by people who are far removed from their classroom experience, or who have never taught in a classroom, but are still "qualified" to teach new teachers how to teach. (The epitome of the cliché, "Those who can do; those who can't do, teach; those who can't teach, teach teachers.")

One way or another, with due respect to TFA's ability to market itself and the commitment and good work of its corps members, an approach that appears both better for teachers and (in the longer run) students and schools is that of The University of Chicago's Urban Teaching Education Program (UTEP):
UTEP, a two-year master’s program in education that focuses on urban education in Chicago, drastically differs from TFA, which provides only five weeks of summer training for teachers before dropping them, often alone and unsupported, into these extremely difficult environments. What results is a 61 percent retention rate for teachers after five years. Comparably, after the initial two years of training that gives graduates a master’s in education, UTEP teachers have cohort supervision and support for three years after they begin teaching. UTEP has a 95 percent retention rate for teachers after five years, and 91 percent are still teaching in Chicago. These high levels of commitment can be attributed to the significant training and support networks that Huang says are necessary to teach effectively in urban schools.
TFA cannot adopt a UTEP-style model. It has to stay sufficiently light to scale to the large number of corps members it recruits, and it's not positioned to provide the type of training or support that UTEP can offer. By the same token, UTEP can't produce enough graduates to serve the nation's need. The proper criticism of TFA is not that it provides limited education to college graduates, pats them on the behind and puts them in inner city schools - the proper criticism is of those in its ranks who deliberately advance the line that a five week course is all it takes to be an effective classroom teacher, who cherry-pick pro-TFA research to suggest that corps members outperform other teachers (whatever the facts), and who scorn teaching as a profession - and, of course, with credulous columnists like Michael Gerson who eagerly lap up and regurgitate that tripe. At this time we have about twenty years of TFA alums to look at - twenty years that firmly establish that TFA no magic bullet.

UTEP should not be an exception, nor should its focus on teacher support and skills development be limited to the inner cities. Colleges of education should start doing a better job researching and teaching educational technique. Most seem content to produce graduating class after graduating class of teachers "qualified" to get an entry level position in a conventional school environment - but why not engage in research that challenges some of the conventions? We've had how many decades of "sit quietly in rows of desks while the teacher lectures you", and our biggest "innovations" are along the lines of mandatory homework policies? Surely we can do better.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Bob Etheridge's Behavior

I'm mostly with Paul Wells on this one - it wasn't necessary for the confrontation to become physical:
I don’t know the first thing about this congressman and it’s entirely possible he’s a nasty piece of work. But so what. The kid with the insightful questions (“Do you fully support the Obama agenda?”) didn’t begin to identify himself properly to the congressman. When asked he had no answer. Even today, posting his cheaply earned martyrdom on the web for the world to see, he won’t identify himself or his cause.

If the kid had done this on an airplane in flight, it might be easier to parse the right and wrong here. But it makes no difference that he did this on a street. Nor would it matter if Bob Etheridge were a Republican. If some snot-nosed little ass comes bounding up to a U.S. Congressman in these addled times and starts firing off questions, and refuses to identify himself either before or the grilling begins or when asked, that congressman has my personal permission to break the kid’s nose without ado.
If you ambush a Member of Congress in the street, you should expect to do more than lie about your identity and agenda, as the two "students" in question appear to be doing. It would be interesting to see an unedited video. Fat chance, right?

Update: This isn't what I had in mind in relation to an unedited video, although it does give greater context (i.e., it takes away any doubt that the two cameramen did anything to provoke Bob Etheridge beyond the words recorded in the edited video). But it offers nothing to identify the two men who made the videos.

Does Etheridge have a reputation for acting like this? Did these two target him, or were they looking for random Members of Congress to target with a silly question and, as they say, get lucky?

Monday, June 07, 2010

OMG - The President Is Paying Too Much Attention to the BP Disaster!

Where would we be without Beltway journalism. One day its stars are patting themselves on the back for getting President Obama to devote significant face time to the Deepwater Horizon spill. The next thing you know, watch out, that could distract him from the nation's real problems.

In writing that "It's devilishly difficult to explain why deficits are good now and bad later," Dionne neglects to state why - and contrary to the implication of his article, it's not because of the Deepwater Horizon spill. With a Democrat in the Oval Office, the most ardent defenders of Bush's trifecta "joke" and his runaway spending have reinvented themselves as deficit hawks, and a sizable percentage of the voting public is buying it. The media has done a lousy job explaining how deficits work and why this may not be the time for austerity - and if Obama were to support another enormous stimulus package they would resort to the "he said, she said" routine, letting the newly reminted opponents of government spending misrepresent the effects of stimulus spending to date and attack the President for his "out of control" spending. Finding responsible tax increases that could offset the spending? That would only grease the wheels of the Republican noise machine. Dionne knows this.

This is a bit like the bursting of the housing bubble. Nobody saw it coming, right? Except, you know, for everybody who is actually paying attention. It's more accurate to say that there was a lot of intentional blindness and the mainstream media chose to tune out the voices of doom. The President is not going to set himself up for a lecture by Dowd as to how he's being "professorial" and out-of-touch, or the inevitable round of editorials excoriating him for not slashing spending ("Oh no - we're Greece!") knowing full well that neither the media nor his own party has any interest in covering his back. Yes, "advocates of further stimulus have to know they are losing the political argument", but it's not because they've been silent, or haven't been trying to educate the public.

(On a related note, via The NonSequitur, consider what life would be like if political scientists covered the news.)

Sunday, June 06, 2010

BP vs. The President

Here's a little rhetorical trick that is surprisingly effective:
The evidence is overwhelming. Any fair-minded person who examines the Gulf of Mexico oil spillage is compelled to two conclusions. First, that there is no evidence of wrongdoing by BP. Second, that the President of the United States has behaved disgracefully.
Wow... there's a lot of evidence, even if I haven't heard it all? And I'm fair minded, right? So how can I not agree with whatever comes next?

Truly, the trick is effective. If you're addressing an audience that hasn't spent much time thinking about the issue, the rhetorical flourish "any fair-minded person would agree," or "as any thinking person would concede," can embarrass a lot of people out of challenging your position. Even if the facts are much more ambiguous, or if you're advancing a position you know to be misleading or wrong.

The author, British right-winger Bruce Anderson, complains that the world needs oil or, more accurately, " meet increased demand and replace declining production in mature fields, [over the next twenty years] we will need the equivalent of two new Middle Easts or four new Saudi Arabias." So, yes, absent a miracle the world will either have to make due with a lot less energy than it wants, invest heavily in alternate sources, and engage in oil exploration in areas that are increasingly remote and difficult to access. Anderson insists, facts be damned, that the oil companies that are pursuing the elusive "four new Saudi Arabias" are "obsessed with safety". That's not to say that safety isn't important to them, or avoiding the cost of a disaster such as the one we're presently experiencing doesn't motivate a significant degree of care and safety, but "safety obsessed" is not a term I would use to describe BP or the management of the Deepwater Horizon.

Anderson suggests that nothing more could have been done, something that is patently false. He also suggests that oil disasters are an inevitable consequence of oil exploration, particularly the complicated and dangerous forms of exploration that are necessary to quench the world's unquenchable thirst for oil, something that is true but in no way excuses the inexcusable. He pulls out the red herring that it would be "absurd to force all oil rigs to cease drilling", something that nobody of consequence has suggested. While it's fun to trot out a straw man, such as his suggestion that the "international left has always hated the oil industry", even if that were true it has no relevance to the present discussion. It's similarly fun to accuse "the Greens" of wining "naive support by exaggerating the threat which oil-drilling poses to the environment", but Anderson's own sin of granting an undeserved industry-wide exculpation for any environmental consequence of the industry's practices.

So what of Anderson's attack on President Obama? He compliments the government's response to the disaster,
Government agencies were on the scene rapidly. There was a much greater sense of grip than over Hurricane Katrina.
So... what is it then? Being unable to criticize Obama's job performance, Anderson attacks (of all things) his speaking skills, suggesting that they're inferior even to GW's. Um... alrighty, then. Anderson also contends that he's incapable of "mak[ing] Americans feel good about themselves", something that if true seems again irrelevant to the present discussion. He then ignores Obama's record, pretending that prior to his becoming a presidential candidate "he took ultra-left wing positions on almost everything", then abandoned those positions "in pursuit of electability". No, actually, Obama has been more consistent than most politicians. He has been very good at maintaining a certain level of ambiguity about his positions, and letting others assume that he agrees with them, but his actual record demonstrates a consistent approach to the issues. But Anderson's on a rant, so facts be damned, right?

So what's Obama's biggest sin, at least according to Anderson? Trying to make up for his inability to make Americans feel good about an oil catastrophe by defaming BP. Anderson offers one, and only one, example of this phenomenon:
It has been 10 years since BP stopped calling itself British Petroleum (patriots could be tempted to conclude that its present misfortunes are divine punishment). Yet the President constantly reverts to the old name, as if "British" were a term of abuse. Not only is Britain the US's most important ally. BP has 24,000 American employees and 10,000 British ones. So when he denigrates this great company, Mr Obama is damaging US interests as well as British ones.
It's almost enough to make you choke on your Kentucky Fried Ch... KFC. Seriously - Anderson's knickers are in a twist because President Obama is calling BP "British Petroleum", making "British" a "term of abuse", and thus transforming any criticism of BP into an attack on Great Britain itself? Let's call Anderson's attack for what it is - a swing and a miss.

Meanwhile, on another (virtual) page of the same paper, David Usborne shares his experience trying to squeeze some candor out of BP.
That BP is now accused of underplaying the awfulness of what is happening in the Gulf is the fault mostly of its CEO, Tony Hayward, who recently said the environmental impact would end up being "very modest". The American public were less than impressed.
No, wait, it's all because Obama doesn't make us feel good!
Ten days ago I was at BP's Houston HQ to interview Mr Hayward at a crucial juncture – the effort to plug the well with the "top-kill". Mr Hayward changed his mind and we didn't see him. But we did see BP's PR machine.

Just before noon on 27 May, I met managing director Bob Dudley and Hayward spokesman, Andrew Gowers. They told me that the top-kill was moving forward. "The top kill operation continues," Dudley told me. "The fluid right now is going in two directions; some out the top and some down into the well and we want to reduce the amount that is going out the top and then we will continue to inject the heavy fluids down into the well..." Please note the "right now" bit.
Usborn later found out that the claim was not true, that "Only later – when the markets had closed – did we learn that all pumping of mud into the well had ceased the night before."
I challenged Gowers by text message about the impression given that pumping was going on. "We cannot offer blow by blow commentary on something as difficult and delicate and market sensitive as this," was his response. There it is – market sensitive.
I think Usborne is too hard on BP. After all, high stock prices make Americans feel good.

(In case you can't get yourself enough of that Bruce Anderson, here are a couple of memories.)

What Passes for Scholarship on the Political Right

Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, has penned the type of editorial one would expect from the Wall Street Journal editorial page, an exercise in jaw-dropping mendacity. For example,
The International Social Survey Programme asked Americans and Europeans whether they believe "It is the responsibility of the government to reduce the differences in income between people with high incomes and those with low incomes." In virtually all of Western Europe more than 50% agree, and in many countries it is much higher—77% in Spain, whose redistributive economy is in shambles. Meanwhile, only 33% of Americans agree with income redistribution.

Simply put, Europeans have a much stronger taste for other people's money than we do.
Leaving aside for the moment that the difference in results isn't all that dramatic - on the whole, one sixth of people who responded to the survey, skewed markedly upward by outliers like Spain - to somebody who is actually interested in the issue, it would be helpful to know the means by which the survey's respondents expect the government to close the income gap. For example, they may favor greater investment in education, from pre-school through college, to help ensure broad access and opportunity for the best students. It could mean job training for lower skilled or displaced workers. It could mean attempting to reduce discriminatory policies in the workplace. But it's Europe so Brooks doens't feel any need to find out the facts, and instead assumes that the only possible means to the desired end is to tax the rich and redistribute their assets.

Brooks next complains that some politicians are skeptical of the origins of the Tea Party movement, particularly in relation to the "tax day tea party protests in April 2009", and their assertion that some wealthy interests are funding the movement. Rather than looking at the facts, Brooks turns to of all things an opinion poll, asserting that "more than half of Americans viewed the [2009 tax day] protests favorably" and, shifting gears to healthcare reform in 2009, "61% of those polled" believed that the people protesting healthcare reform at town hall meetings were "mainly individual citizens coming together to express their views" while 28% thought the protests "were mainly coordinated by health-care interest groups." This, Brooks tells us, means that "Average Americans are not as cynical" as Democratic politicians. But as you might expect, he begs the question of who was correct - presumably because he knows the facts aren't on his side.

Brooks next moves on to a dishonest attack on civil service wages:
The increasing size of the federal work force is an early indication of what lies ahead. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in the last year the federal government added 86,000 permanent (non-Census) jobs to the rolls. And high-paying jobs at that: The number of federal salaries over $100,000 per year has increased by nearly 50% since the beginning of the recession.

Today, the average federal worker earns 77% more than the average private-sector worker, according to a USA Today analysis of data from the federal Office of Personnel Management.
We've gone through decades of outsourcing, leading to a present in which a lot of the low-skilled and unskilled jobs once performed by government workers are instead performed by contractors. In no small part as a result, the average government job requires a significantly higher skill set and level of education than the average private sector job. If you include the jobs performed by those contractors in the average government wage you'll see the average go down, just as you would if you had the government fire its contractors and hired new federal workers to perform the outsourced services. Brooks isn't honest enough to concede the former point, and he would of course (and appropriately) strenuously object to ending outsourcing even though it could cause what he pretends to be a problem, the average wage of a federal worker, to plummet.

Brooks could have done us the favor of identifying specific federal employees or classes of employees who are paid at a higher level than their private sector counterparts. But... I guess that would be too much to ask. I haven't checked to see if Brooks railed against the Bush Administration's policies on compensation and bonuses for civil servants, but let's not forget that the Bush Administration implemented a system of bonuses for its appointees - a practice that had been banned by the Clinton Administration - insisting that government wages alone were too low to attract and retain the best candidates. Which is it - are government wages too low, with private sector jobs siphoning off the best talent with offers of far greater compensation, or are they too high?

Further, the claim that "The number of federal salaries over $100,000 per year has increased by nearly 50% since the beginning of the recession" tells us nothing about how many federal salaries are over $100,000 so that we have context about what a 50% increase actually means, and doesn't tell us why the increase has occurred. On the first point, it's reasonable to assume that we had more than two federal workers earning more than $100,000 at the start of the recession, but an increase from two to three would be a "50% increase". With Brooks deliberately removing the context, the statistic is supposed to shock his readers but is in fact meaningless. Second, for the statistic to have any meaning we need to know how many federal employees were making almost $100,000 at the start of the recession. Brooks presumably wants to send the false message that the Obama Administration has been lavish with salaries and raises since taking office. The mundane reality is that we're talking about salary scales and annual cost of living adjustments that were put into place before President Obama took office.

The piece calculated to inspire an anti-government reaction on the part of the reader, and to that end it probably works. But it takes a deliberate attitude of facts be damned. Brooks doesn't even attempt to introduce facts, save as red herrings (i.e., opinion poll results to challenge accusations of astroturfing). While typical of the AEI's contributions to public discourse, it's a shame that the Institute has so little regard for the quality of that discourse.

Being Unemployed vs. Being Unemployable

Calculated Risk offers a graph that displays the duration of unemployment over time, from short-term (< 5 weeks) to long-term (27+ weeks). The past year has brought about improvement in the duration of unemployment in all categories except the longest-term unemployment.
In May 2010, there were a record 6.763 million people unemployed for 27 weeks or more, or a record 4.38% of the labor force. This is significantly higher than during earlier periods.

It does appear the number of long term unemployed is near a peak (the increases have slowed). But it is still very difficult for these people to find a job - and this is a very serious employment issue.
For all the talk, mostly from desk jockeys, of raising the retirement age, it's my impression that we're looking at a shift in the workforce - a consequence of modernization and globalization - that has created a significant population of workers whose skills are no longer needed and who, due to age and circumstance, aren't good candidates even for low wage or unskilled jobs in other fields. It's difficult to talk about "retraining", as a lot of the jobs for which people could retrain are in limited supply even in good economic times, and even where that's not the case it's often difficult for a worker who is twenty or more years older than her classmates to get hired into an entry level position.

I am concerned that a substantial percentage of the long-term unemployed are verging on unemployable, for conditions outside of their control. It's not enough to want a job or to have a long history of dedicated work if your skill set is no longer relevant to the workplace. Retraining will help only a subset of these workers find new jobs, mostly at a fraction of their prior earnings. This is also a population whose plight won't be much helped by stimulus spending. Even if the recession was responsible for the loss of their jobs, many or most of their jobs will be outsourced internationally or eliminated in the post-recession economy.

For Many Environmental Groups, Cash Is The New Green

Jonathan Adler, commenting on BP's slipshod approach to safety and environmental issues, states,
BP’s lax operations and corporate culture contributed to the series of events that caused the spill. (See, e.g., this WSJ article.) What’s ironic about this is it was not so long ago that environmentalists were lauding the oil giant for its “progressive” approach to environmental issues (and substantial financial contributions to environmental causes). One CEO even sought to rebrand BP as “Beyond Petroleum” to reflect its commitment to alternative energy sources. Yet it’s becoming increasingly clear that BP’s commitment to the environment was just window dressing.
One of the barely kept secrets of the modern environmental movement is the introduction of corporate money. What better way, after all, to get an environmental organization on your side than to lavish it with funds that could be taken away the moment it dares to criticize you.
[Jay Hair – the president of the National Wildlife Federation from 1981 to 1995] found that the big oil and gas companies were happy to give money to conservation groups. Yes, they were destroying many of the world's pristine places. Yes, by the late 1980s, it had become clear that they were dramatically destabilising the climate – the very basis of life itself. But for Hair, that didn't make them the enemy; he said they sincerely wanted to right their wrongs and pay to preserve the environment. He began to suck millions from them, and his organisation and others gave them awards for "environmental stewardship". Companies such as Shell and BP were delighted. They saw it as valuable "reputation insurance": every time they are criticised for their massive emissions of warming gases, or for events such as the massive oil spill that has just turned the Gulf of Mexico into the "Gulf of Texaco", they wheel out their shiny green awards to ward off the prospect of government regulation and to reassure the public that they Really Care.

At first, this behaviour scandalised the environmental community. Hair was vehemently condemned as a sell-out and a charlatan. But slowly, the other groups saw themselves shrink while the corporate-fattened groups swelled – so they, too, started to take the cheques. Christine MacDonald, an idealistic young environmentalist, discovered how deeply this cash had transformed these institutions when she started to work for CI in 2006. She told me: "About a week or two after I started, I went to the big planning meeting of all the organisation's media teams, and they started talking about this supposedly great new project they were running with BP. But I had read in the newspaper the day before that the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] had condemned BP for running the most polluting plant in the whole country... But nobody in that meeting, or anywhere else in the organisation, wanted to talk about it. It was a taboo. You weren't supposed to ask if BP was really green. They were 'helping' us, and that was it."
What is the consequence of the dependence on corporate case? I expect you already know.
On its website, the Sierra Club says: "If the level stays higher than 350ppm for a prolonged period of time, it will spell disaster for humanity as we know it."

But behind closed doors, they tried to stop this becoming law. In 2009, the EPA moved to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, which requires the agency to ensure that the levels of pollutants in the air are "compatible with human safety" – a change the Sierra Club supported. But the Center for Biological Diversity – an independent group that doesn't take polluter cash – petitioned the EPA to take this commitment seriously and do what the climate science says really is "compatible with human safety": restore us to 350ppm. Kieran Suckling, the executive director of the centre, explains: "I was amazed to discover the Sierra Club opposed us bitterly. They said it should not be done. In fact, they said that if we filed a lawsuit to make EPA do it, they would probably intervene on EPA's side. They threw climate science out the window."
It isn't that environmental groups can't do good work while taking corporate money - it's just that they will bend to the will of their corporate masters, muting criticism of companies like BP and shifting their focus to environmental issues that their corporate sponsors don't care about - those that don't affect corporate profits - while in the worst case scenario lobbying against needed environmental reforms that might imperil the flow of corporate cash.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Carl Fiorina - Stupid or Lying?

Let's leave alone for now the matter of how you can become fabulously wealthy and positioned to buy yourself into a Senate seat as a consequence of your tenure as the failed leader of a formerly top shelf brand that may never recover from your executive decisions.... The fundamental issue created by her latest attack ad is the classic, "Is she stupid, or is she lying"?

Fiorina's ad points to Sen. Boxer stating, "One of the very important national security issues we face, frankly, is climate change", Boxer prattles, "Terrorism kills, and Barbara Boxer is worried about the weather." Fiorina plays up her tenure as the (failed) head of Hewlett Packard, and states that she "chaired the external advisory board for the CIA", so you would think she would be aware of the facts, summarized by the previously linked article:
The Pentagon, in its quadrennial defense review in January, ranked global warming as a destabilizing force and directed direct military planners to keep track of the latest climate science, according to the Guardian, a British media outlet.
But that only touches the surface. Fiorina is either so ignorant of the issues that she does not recognize the enormous difference between climate and weather, or she's hoping to obfuscate the issues and confuse voters into supporting her by falsely pretending that there's no difference. Fiorina is placing herself in the category of people who sputter, "It was cold last night, and it snowed last winter, so how can the climate be changing?"

If Fiorina doesn't know better, and lacks sufficient interest in the issues to learn the difference between climate and weather before producing her attack ads on the issue, she is not competent to serve in the Senate - and she's giving us a much clearer picture of how she managed to cause so much damage to Hewlett Packard. If she does know better but is lying to score a political point, intending to mislead and confuse voters on the issue, well... she might find plenty of similar company should she make it to the Senate, but she's the last kind of person we need there. And that's before we consider that climate change is a bona fide national security issue.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Political Hypocrisy

Offering up a defense of his friend, Mark Souder, Michael Gerson writes,
Moral conservatives need to admit that political character is more complex than marital fidelity and that less sensual vices also can be disturbing. "The sins of the flesh are bad," said C.S. Lewis, "but they are the least bad of all sins....

Yet moral liberals have something to learn as well. The failure of human beings to meet their own ideals does not disprove or discredit those ideals. The fact that some are cowards does not make courage a myth. The fact that some are faithless does not make fidelity a joke. All moral standards create the possibility of hypocrisy. But I would rather live among those who recognize standards and fail to meet them than among those who mock all standards as lies. In the end, hypocrisy is preferable to decadence.
By "moral conservative", Gerson apparently means the class of conservative that wants government to regulate and legislate moral issues - people like his friend, Mark Souder, who was a big-time advocate of the war on drugs and "abstinence-only" education. It's Souder's "abstinence-only" video that is the source of most of the mockery that Gerson deplores. He's also opposed to abortion rights, the funding of family planning education, and gay marriage. It would seem that much of his political career was dedicated to attacking the sins of the flesh that Gerson now tells us, at least in the context of his defense of his friend, aren't that bad.

Fair enough. If politicians like Souder de-emphasize their moral crusading, they will be less susceptible to accusations of hypocrisy or to having their world collapse due to their own moral failings. But in the absence of moral crusading, what's the point of electing somebody like Souder? In terms of his political career, isn't his railing on the moral weakness of others the very thing that made him special? Take that away, and how much is left? Souder may well be a poster boy for "There, but for the grace of God, go I," but if he didn't internalize the lesson (or decided that there was no political benefit, and perhaps even political peril, in espousing a less judgmental brand of politics) what makes his downfall the wake-up call that Gerson (now) believes "moral conservatives" need?

Gerson introduces the concept of the "moral liberal", not in the sense that you might have previously encountered the phrase - a political liberal who espouses moral values - but apparently as a neologism for "libertine". He's using a pretty standard "hollow man" argument, as the vast majority of people on the political left see absolutely no contradiction between living moral lives and having the government stay out of our bedrooms.

To advance his argument, Gerson uses the broadest possible conception of hypocrisy. Yes, we all hold ourselves and others to standards that, try as we might, we sometimes fail to meet. There's a sense in which that is hypocrisy, but what we're addressing with people like Vitter (and John Ensign, Henry Hyde, etc.) is something different. We're talking about people who are happy to condemn, and profit from their condemnation of, the moral failings of others not as they struggle to live moral lives or atone for past transgressions, but without caring that they are applying a double standard. I'll give Souder the benefit of the doubt - he got caught fooling around and he resigned from office. What are we to make of Ensign?

So step back and ask, what's being mocked? If Souder was mocked only for having an affair, assuming he truly believes in marital fidelity and makes a sincere effort to be faithful, Gerson has a point. If Souder was being mocked for sitting next to somebody with whom he is having an active affair, in front of a camera, and lecturing the world about the importance of sexual abstinence outside of the institution of marriage, there's a colorable case that he's a hypocrite of the second sort - the type who doesn't believe the message he's preaching.

When Gerson calls on us to show mercy to Souder, to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume his sincerity, he does so within the context of knowing Souder and considering him to be a friend. But he overlooks two things: First, that most people lack the context to know that we're only dealing with "moral shoddiness, laziness and frailty", and not with a guy who deliberately applies a double standard and advocates for principles and causes he does not actually believe. Second, that although there's nothing wrong with defending a friend, and it can be a good thing to come to the aid and defense of a friend in need, it's not ordinarily a difficult thing to do. The difficulty is demonstrating that same grace and mercy toward somebody you don't know, even to somebody you don't like. Even if that person is Jimmy Carter or Barack Obama. We all have room to grow.