Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Since When is Pulling Numbers Out of Your Posterior a "Plan"

Why do we pretend 9-9-9 (whether drawn from SimCity, some sort of permutation of "lucky number 45" or, as I suspect, chosen because it sounds good) or "Hey - how about a 20% flat tax" is a plan? You could flatter such proposals by calling them "ideas", but where is the evidence that any thought, planning or analysis went into them?
The plan would dramatically reduce taxes, particularly on wealthy Americans and corporations. It would reduce the corporate tax rate from 35 to 20 percent, eliminate taxes on dividends and many capital gains and essentially cap individual tax rates at 20 percent. Perry argues these tax cuts will spur economic growth by creating a more favorable environment for wealthy individuals and corporations to start or expand their businesses.
Which is to say that the real plan has nothing to do with a number that popped out of Rick Perry's posterior. The real plan is to continue the Republican strategy of cutting taxes for the rich and using the resulting deficits to justify both massive deficits and the cutting of government benefits for those who depend upon their paychecks to make ends meet. You can argue that strategy to be good or bad, but let's be honest about what it is.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Early Childhood Intervention Matters

I was reminded the other day of a sad fact - we have been experimenting with school reforms of one type or another for many decades and, once you expand the reform to a statistically meaningful population, every single reform has failed. Other than its obsessive focus on handing taxpayer money to private testing companies and for-profit charter schools, there's nothing to distinguish the present round of reforms from past rounds. The biggest lesson appears to be that if you provide struggling children with significantly more hours in a structured learning environment, or provide quality tutoring, you can increase academic performance in the short-term, but those increases are likely to fade once that extra support is removed.

A recent column by Nicholas Kristof describes this phenomenon:
“This is where inequality starts,” said Kathleen McCartney, the dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, as she showed me a chart demonstrating that even before kindergarten there are significant performance gaps between rich and poor students. Those gaps then widen further in school.

“Schooling after the second grade plays only a minor role in creating or reducing gaps,” [economist James] Heckman argues in an important article this year in American Educator. “It is imperative to change the way we look at education. We should invest in the foundation of school readiness from birth to age 5.”
Kristof notes that, although there's reason to doubt that there will necessarily be lasting improvement in test scores from a focus on early learning, there may be strong social and society gains:
One of the most studied initiatives in this area was the Perry Preschool program, which worked with disadvantaged black children in Michigan in the 1960s. Compared with a control group, children who went through the Perry program were 22 percent more likely to finish high school and were arrested less than half as often for felonies. They were half as likely to receive public assistance and three times as likely to own their own homes....

One of the Harvard scholars I interviewed, David Deming, compared the outcomes of children who were in Head Start with their siblings who did not participate. Professor Deming found that critics were right that the Head Start advantage in test scores faded quickly. But, in other areas, perhaps more important ones, he found that Head Start had a significant long-term impact: the former Head Start participants are significantly less likely than siblings to repeat grades, to be diagnosed with a learning disability, or to suffer the kind of poor health associated with poverty. Head Start alumni were more likely than their siblings to graduate from high school and attend college.
Our society seems inclined to approach educational issues from an "all or nothing" perspective. A few months ago I read an exchange between Bryan Caplan and "the Tiger Mom", which largely boiled down to Caplan arguing that whatever parents do a child's academic performance is likely not to be significantly affected, versus the "Tiger Mom" philosophy that with aggressive, controlling over-parenting and demand for excellence, any child can become an educational super-achiever. The truth lies somewhere in between, probably more on the Caplan side (because outside of Lake Wobegon half of the children will actually be below average).

Consider, for example, piano lessons - if you, as a parent, provide the opportunity for your child to learn how to play piano, even if they never make it to Carnegie Hall they will have learned a skill that they can continue to use for life. If you do not, odds are your child will never learn to play the piano. The skills that help people achieve in school and society are largely learned - if you provide a small child a robust set of cognitive tools, you increase the odds that the child will succeed within your society, but the longer you wait to introduce the tools to the child the less likely it is that the child will learn them, let alone master them. Delay also creates the opportunity for a child to learn the wrong lessons, to internalize rules and practices that are maladaptive.

A Caplan-style, "Don't worry, it will even out in the end" approach is not unreasonable for people who are middle class or above, and who live in strong communities, have stable jobs and incomes, and whose children are immersed in a culture that rewards educational achievement, college attendance, and ultimately "getting a good job". Children who live in violent, dangerous communities, for whom fear is a part of daily life, do not enjoy a similar luxury. If you don't attempt to influence their environment, they will never have the opportunity to reach their potential.

Our society seems fixated on the idea that education makes you smarter. That if you force reading on a child who may be too young to cognitively process the lessons, you'll end up teaching strong reading skills that will last a lifetime. That any child can be "college material", that everybody will benefit from a college education, and that everybody can perform jobs that perform a high level of cognitive function.

On the one hand, if people work hard and push themselves, they truly can accomplish a lot more than they would if they take a relaxed (or, if you will, lazy) view toward life, education and career. On the other hand, work that is cognitively easy for some people will be a constant struggle for others and, no matter how much effort the exert, beyond the reach of still others. That's true across the board - every person has subjects or activities that are beyond their skill set, and beyond what they can reasonably hope to master. Education does not make you smarter, but it can expand your horizons, allowing you to identify those areas in which you can achieve some level of mastery and to maximize your performance.

Buchanan's Bucolic America

It has been noted that conservative pundits who talk about "the good old days" in which everything was sunshine and lollipops are writing about their childhood years.
I don’t mean to pick on this one randomly selected citizen. But this is something we hear all the time: that back in my day, things were simpler and better, and the America I remember from my youth is being destroyed. The best answer I’ve seen to this repeated complaint came from The Daily Show’s John Oliver. In the clip below, he makes what ought to have been an obvious point: “So just when was the simpler, better time that all these great Americans want us to return to? … They were children! … It was a better, simpler time because they were all 6 years old! For children, the world is always a happy, uncomplicated place!”
With that in mind it is perhaps not surprising that Pat Buchanan, who turned 12 in 1950, believes that the 1950's were an age of bliss and wonder. Buchanan can wax nostalgic about the age of legal segregation because he was and is blind to its realities, and can comfortably obsess on what he sees as bad hyphenation - black Americans self-identifying as "African-American" instead of simply "American".

I've previously commented on "good multiculturalism" versus "bad multiculturalism". I have never seen Pat Buchanan, or anybody like him, complain that there are 122,000,000 'hits' on Google for "Irish-American", that individuals and groups celebrate their Irish heritage, or that we as a nation celebrate St. Patrick's Day. I have never heard him complain that a person self-identified as Catholic instead of the more inclusive "Christian". That's all "good multiculturalism". Similarly, Buchanan erases episodes of multiculturalism from our nation's history and from world history. He complains,
No more will we all speak the same language. We will be bilingual and bi-national. Spanish radio and TV stations are already the fastest growing. In Los Angeles, half the people speak a language other than English in their own homes.
Never mind that we have always had ethnic communities in the United States, under such names as Chinatown and Little Italy, in which it was anything but unusual to find immigrants who spoke little to no English. Overlooking the fact that it's pretty easy to find television programming and even newspapers in any given language these days, do you doubt that markets would have responded with a greater number of media choices? Capitalism in action.
The old Christian churches — Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran and especially Episcopalian — are splitting, shrinking and dying.
When, at least since the early Sixteenth Century, has the Christian faith been immune from fragmentation and evolution? There's an irony here: many of the churches that are at the biggest risk of dying out are those associated with specific ethnicities. The Episcopal Church is the American offshoot of the Anglican Church - the Church of England. It was strongest when large numbers of Americans felt a strong ethnic affinity with England, and has declined as that connection has faded.

Buchanan's synopsis of the decline of American culture comes first with the lament that only 75 percent of Americans self-identify as Christian (down from 85% in 1990), and the hollow man:
What was morally repellent — promiscuity, homosexuality, abortion — is now seen by perhaps half the nation as natural, normal, healthy and progressive.
While acceptance of homosexuality has increased to the point that a majority now supports gay marriage, no significant number of Americans would describe either promiscuity or abortion as "natural, normal, healthy and progressive". Under Buchanan's thesis, even if the number is lower than in the past, having 75% of Americans self-identify as Christian should be seen as a good thing. Instead, that 75% consensus is said to mean that "The moral consensus and moral code Christianity gave to us has collapsed."

Buchanan complains,
In California’s prisons and among her proliferating ethnic gangs, a black-brown civil war has broken out.
That's quite unlike the "good gangs" of the 1950's - those boys could harmonize.

Buchanan presents an interesting statistical claim,
Where out-of-wedlock births in the 1950s were rare, today, 41 percent of all American children are born out of wedlock. Among Hispanics, it is 51 percent; among blacks, 71 percent. And the correlation between the illegitimacy rate, the drug rate, the dropout rate, the crime rate and the incarceration rate is absolute.
In regard to out-of-wedlock births, it should be noted that there were more teen births in the 1950's than in the present, and more "shotgun weddings". One could make a case that the rising acceptance of divorce and reproductive freedom, and the trend away from compelling young pregnant girls to marry, is a direct response to the societal coercion to which Buchanan would have us return.

But let's take Buchanan at face value. He tells us that the illegitimacy rate is up, and that correlation with the "drug rate" is absolute. But illicit drug usage peaked in the late 1970's, and both alcohol and cigarette consumption have also declined in recent decades. There is a strong correlation between age and illicit drug use, as younger people are more likely to use illicit drugs than are older people, and I suspect that Buchanan is disregarding that correlation in order to try to tie higher drug usage rates to specific ethnicities without regard to average and median age. He tells us that the correlation with the crime rate is absolute, but despite a sharp increase between 1960 and 1970, the crime rate leveled off, with peaks in 1980 and 1991 and a subsequent decline. (There's a stronger correlation between the crime rate and Pat Buchanan's political career than there is with illegitimacy.)

There is nothing talismanic about illegitimacy that raises the incarceration rate - being born to an unmarried mother doesn't change your genome - but it is fair to observe that the children of single parents are more likely to live in economically distressed homes and communities and poverty, an issue that does not seem to be on Buchanan's radar, is associated with a higher crime rate. It is reasonable to argue that marriage is a good way to stabilize households, increasing the chance that a child will have a better lifestyle, better parenting and more opportunity than a child raised by a single parent; it's an imperfect solution, but it is probably the most cost-effective to society.
Neocons says not to worry, the Constitution holds us together.
Which neocons are saying that... and who listens to neocons any more?
How can we be the “one nation, under God” of the Pledge of Allegiance, or the people “endowed by their Creator” with inalienable rights, if we cannot even identify or discuss or mention that God and that Creator in the schools of America?
What prevents classroom discussion of our founding documents, the religious beliefs of the founding fathers and the manner in which those beliefs are reflected in our founding documents? That is, other than the fact that some of the founding fathers had views on religion that would make Pat Buchanan very uncomfortable, perhaps to the point of accusing them of trying to destroy our common Christian heritage and values. Buchanan knows that discussion is possible in the classroom - for goodness sake, many school children open the day by reciting The Pledge of Allegiance - so why the hyperbolic deception?

Buchanan complains,
Do we agree on what the Ninth Amendment says about right to life? What about what the 14th Amendment says about affirmative action? What the Second Amendment says about the right to carry a concealed gun?
Buchanan would have us return to 1950's, when the consensus among those whose opinions mattered were that the Second Amendment did not protect an individual's right to bear arms, that "separate but equal" and segregation were good ways to deal with ethnic minorities, and it was difficult to get a safe abortion unless you were somewhat wealthy? Yeah, that would make everything better.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Whose Fault Is It That Republicans Have Weak Presidential Candidates

It's certainly not Ross Douthat's fault....
What’s more, Republicans have only themselves to blame for his inevitability. Romney owes his current position to two failures: the Bush era’s serial disasters, which left the Republican establishment without a strong bench of viable national politicians, and the Tea Party’s mix of zeal and naïveté, which has elevated cranks and frauds and future television personalities to the party’s presidential stage.
Douthat does not explain how "the Bush era’s serial disasters" have prevented the development of "a strong bench of viable national politicians". It would be interesting to hear the names of the people Douthat perceives as having been wrongly displaced from the 'bench' or not allowed a seat at all, and his description of how Bush's disasters brought about those outcomes, but alas.

When I look around, I see that the Republicans have a lot of Senators, many of whom were in office before Bush. They have a lot of Members of the House, with similar tenures. The also have a number of former members who left during or after the Bush years. They have a large number of sitting and former governors, who to me look pretty much the same as the Republican governors the nation enjoyed before and during the Bush years. To see the present bench as "thin" is, in my opinion, a matter of perception - it's the same as it ever was. If the problem is that the better potential candidates aren't ready to run, that's always going to be an issue - it's a bit like the Olympics, where peaking a couple of years early or late can cost you the opportunity for the gold. But to the extent that good candidates won't run, the issue isn't Bush's legacy: this is in fact an excellent time for a strong Republican candidate to run for President. The problem is that they could not get nominated in the present Republican Party. As John Huntsman can surely attest, at least if you have presidential aspirations, being reasonable, mainstream and consistent does nothing to advance you in today's Republican Party.

What about the Tea Party and its supposed "mix of zeal and naïveté" that "elevated cranks and frauds and future television personalities to the party’s presidential stage"? I would argue that Douthat is missing the forest for the trees, but I think that would be to give him too much credit. The Tea Party did not even exist when the Republican Party's presidential nominee plucked Sarah Palin out of obscurity and made her a national media figure. Palin appears to have made her first Tea Party appearance in February, 2010, at the inaugural Tea Party convention - by which time she had run for Vice President, raised seven figures for her PAC, published a biography, gone on a national bus tour, served as the first guest commentator on Glenn Beck's TV show, and had been hired by Fox News as a regular commentator. Yes, she positioned herself as a darling of the Tea Party movement. And, oops, when push came to shove she didn't even run for President.

To look at it from another perspective, Sarah Palin's popular decline did not begin with her committing some sort of sin against the Tea Party or its ideological litmus tests. It began when Roger Ailes told her that she needed to keep her mouth shut for a while in the wake of the Giffords shooting, and she decided instead to make an "I'm the real victim" video. I don't want to put too much weight on correlation, but I've been arguing all along that Sarah Palin's status as a "fifty foot eyesore" depended upon her being pushed upon the public by the media, so to me it makes sense that her decline resulted from an apparent Fox News decision to put her on the back burner.

Let's take a look at the Republican candidates, and see which (if any) fit Douthat's bill - which are there because they have been elevated by the Tea Party? Not Huntsman. Not Santorum. Not Paul. Not Gingrich, Not Perry. Not Romney. So that leaves Bachmann and possibly Cain? But Cain's story is more one of self-promotion and self-aggrandizement. If a Tea Party connection can be said to be present, it seems more that some of the same highly moneyed interests that coopted and shaped the early Tea Party (e.g., Americans for Prosperity) have a long history of working with Cain, but even that creates a carts and horses issue - Cain has been pushing their agenda since 2005. Also his momentary rise in prominence seems to have a lot less to do with the Tea Party than it does with the Republican Party's dissatisfaction with Romney as the default candidate. He just happens to be the anti-Romney movement's flavor of the month.

That leaves Bachmann, who started the Congressional Tea Party Caucus, and who does owe her ascendence to the Tea Party. But, even if Douthat were to make an explicit case that she were a "crank" or a "fraud", my interpretation of her run is a bit different. It's my interpretation that the moneyed interests that have slapped corporate labels on the Tea Party movement wanted her to run in order to discourage Sarah Palin from entering the race, and that the gambit worked. I also think that to dismiss her as a "crank" or "fraud" is to misunderstand and misrepresent both her intelligence and her commitment to her beliefs. I think she's a lot smarter than those "crazy eyes" photographs might suggest.

It might be argued that there is a correlation between the anti-Romney movement and the Tea Party, and that would make sense given that as the dust has settled the Tea Party has come to largely represent "the moral majority" - a new name for a consistently Republican, religious conservative voting bloc. If you're nervous at the thought of a non-Christian becoming President (and cannot reconcile the acceptance of The Book of Mormon with what you see as Christianity) and believe that being pro-life is a crucial litmus test for any Republican candidate, despite his assurances that his religious views are safe and that he's become pro-life you're simply not going to be comfortable with Romney. These hurdles have nothing to do with the Tea Party movement - they're the exact same hurdles Romney faced four years ago.

The truth is, the Republican Party's problems are entirely self-inflicted. They have created so many litmus tests for an "acceptable" Republican nominee that the only way to pass all of the tests is to be a fraud. You must be religious and, at some level, a Christian. You can't support marriage equality for gay people. You can't be pro-choice. You have to expressly disavow a belief in science on such issues as climate change and evolution. You have to disavow support for any form of tax increase (with the possible exception of creating a "consumption tax" that shifts more of the tax burden from the rich to the middle class), including allowing temporary tax cuts to expire or even eliminating tax subsidies to business and industry. And you have to reconcile all of that with balancing the budget and avoiding cuts to Medicare and Social Security or the military. In short, if you're a rational, honest Republican and you want to propose a serious platform that addresses the nation's most pressing problems, you're doomed. And yes, that makes it pretty much inevitable that Republicans who vote will end up having to vote for a disingenuous, self-serving, opportunistic, flip-flopping gasbag.

Douthat lectures his party,
To date, neither the establishment nor the populists have come to terms with the failures of the last age of Republican dominance. And despite occasional flashes of creativity, neither has groped its way to a credible vision of what the next conservative era should look like.

What they have to offer instead is a largely opportunistic critique of a flailing liberal president.
The problem with that being, Douthat is well-positioned to take on the status quo or to demonstrate some of the "flashes of creativity" he claims his party needs, but instead lectures, "Romney's the candidate, get used to it." Whether it's laziness, indifference or apathy, he can't even explain to us why President Obama's passage of the Affordable Care Act, in essence a federal version of Romney's Massachusetts plan" makes Obama a "flailing liberal" while Romney should be viewed as the inevitable Republican nominee and choice for President. We're in specks and beams territory, folks, with the Tea Party and Bush in the roles of the speck.

You Can't Expect Logic From Propagandists

Angrily responding to a tempest in a teapot over the date his parents emigrated from Cuba, per Jennifer Rubin, Mark Rubio presents what to me seems to be an evasive prevarication:
The dates I have given regarding my family’s history have always been based on my parents’ recollections of events that occurred over 55 years ago and which were relayed to me by them more than two decades after they happened. I was not made aware of the exact dates until very recently.
Forgive me, but I just can't see how the subject of whether Rubio's parents left Cuba before or after the revolution never came up. I have met lots of exiles from post-revolutionary nations, including Vietnam, Chile and Iran, and when they haven't made clear that they departed before or after the revolution, it has not been difficult to figure out. In claiming that his story is based on "my parents’ recollections of events that occurred over 55 years ago", is Rubio suggesting that his parents simply forgot that they left Cuba before the revolution? That wouldn't be credible. But if age and memory aren't at issue, what is the purpose of that statement other than as a smokescreen? Similarly, his claim that "I was not made aware of the exact dates", is reminiscent of "I never broke the drug laws of the United States." The issue has never been whether Rubio knew exact dates, but whether Rubio knew the general story well enough to know that he was deliberately misleading people when he suggested that his parents fled Cuba after Castro took power.

Rubio's defense continues in a manner that suggests that he knew the actual facts, but chose to dance around them in order to confuse his audience:
What’s important is that the essential facts of my family’s story are completely accurate. My parents are from Cuba. After arriving in the United States, they had always hoped to one day return to Cuba if things improved and traveled there several times.....

They were exiled from the home country they tried to return to because they did not want to live under communism. That is an undisputed fact and to suggest otherwise is outrageous.
In other words, Rubio follows up an initial dubious denial that he was being deliberately misleading by suggesting that it wouldn't matter if he was being deliberately deceptive because the "essential facts" are the same - Castro's revolution occurred and to return would mean living under communism.

Rubio is implicitly admitting that he misled audiences about when his parents left Cuba. He is suggesting that he did not intentionally represent that his parents fled after the revolution but instead made assumptions based upon a few conversations and a lack of knowledge of "exact dates", and that even now that he knows the actual dates they don't matter because the larger story is not changed. Perhaps out of recognition of how thin that defense is, Rubin tries to magic up the additional defense that "Rubio has previously stated that his parents left before Castro’s rise". To do that she points to an editorial that argues that Rubio never explicitly stated that his parents fled Cuba after the revolution. That editorial minces and parses Rubio's words to demonstrate how, despite what any person listening to him might think he's saying, he never actually stated "that his parents fled Cuba".
To back up the lead, the Washington Post excerpts from a 2006 address in the Florida House where Rubio said, “In January of 1959 a thug named Fidel Castro took power in Cuba and countless Cubans were forced to flee. . . . Today your children and grandchildren are the secretary of commerce of the United States and multiple members of Congress . . . and soon, even speaker of the Florida House.”

The catch: If you listen to the speech, Rubio isn’t just talking about those who specifically fled Cuba after Castro took power. He doesn’t say that his parents fled Cuba. Instead, he was talking about “a community of exiles.” That is: He was talking about all the Cubans who live in Miami. . . .
In other words, Rubin cites an editorial in which Rubio is quoted as giving a highly misleading statement that does everything but make clear when his parents fled Cuba, and is pretending that Rubio therefore disclosed that his parents left before the revolution. Incredible....

The editorial Rubin finds so persuasive argues,
In one interview, he said "my parents and grandparents came here from Cuba in '58, '59." In another interview, he said his parents came over in 1959. He wasn't asked if it was before or after the revolution. Fox Business host David Asman just presumed "they were exiles from Fidel Castro's Cuba after he took over."

Rubio didn't correct him.

So, to a degree, Rubio could be guilty of failing to correct something in the news media that inured to his gain (he and his people are quick to to criticize inaccuracies they don't like almost the second they hit the internet).
Well, yeah, that's kind if the heart of the matter, isn't it? Rubio has a long history of making misleading statements about his family background that lead his audience into drawing erroneous inferences, but has never, ever complained to a reporter after-the-fact that they needed to correct their story. The editorial claims that Rubio has recently (as in, within the past month) started to give an honest answer to the direct question of whether his parents came to the U.S. before or after the revolution, but as the Washington Post pointed out,
Rubio — now considered a prospective 2012 Republican vice presidential candidate and a possible future presidential contender — mentions his parents in the second sentence of the official biography on his Senate Web site. It says that Mario and Oriales Rubio “came to America following Fidel Castro’s takeover.”
Let me guess.... Somebody else wrote it, they didn't check the facts with him, he never looks at his own online bios or Senate page, he didn't know what his website said? Seriously, if Rubio believed that he had a track record of truthful statements about his parents' emigration from Cuba, he would not be giving evasive, internally inconsistent "defenses" of his conduct, or making nebulous statements about "family lore,"
In a brief interview Thursday, Rubio said his accounts have been based on family lore. “I’m going off the oral history of my family,” he said. “All of these documents and passports are not things that I carried around with me.”
He would be pointing to his history of clear, truthful disclosures and asserting, "I was always clear on this, and have never misled a soul."

I would respect Rubio a lot more if, rather than hiding beind the skirts of useful idiots, he would simply man up: "At times I have made statements that were deliberately vague about when my parents left Cuba, because I felt that it would work to my political advantage if people assumed they emigrated from Castro's Cuba. Apparently my statements were more misleading that I thought, to the extent that somebody on my staff made a mistake in my official Senate biography, and I am sorry for that. This subject is close to the hearts of a lot of Americans, and I should never have danced around the facts."

Monday, October 17, 2011

Politics Shouldn't Be About Sushi

So what if a Member of Congress likes sushi.
“These are exactly the types of childish political attacks that take the focus off of the number one challenge facing Wisconsin middle-class families, and that’s creating jobs,” the NRCC’s Andrea Bozek told TPM. “That’s where Sean Duffy’s focus is, Sean is working with both sides of the aisle to remove Washington’s barriers to job growth in order to get our economy back on track.”
Republicans know what's important, and it's not sushi. It's cheesesteaks and Cheez Whiz. It's lattes. It's Freedom Fries and Freedom Toast. But it's definitely not sushi... unless a Democrat is eating it.
"Howard Dean should take his tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show back to Vermont, where it belongs."
I'll grant that, despite my skepticism that they would issue a similar comment about a right-wing attack ad, past, present or future, the NRCC is correct that Sean Duffy's love for sushi shouldn't be an issue. His whining about how hard it is to get by on $174,000 per year, though, seems like fair game.

Presidential Duties

Daniel Larsion provides yet another example of how the definition of "gotcha question" has been expanded by the political right to mean, "Any question, no matter how relevant to my job if elected, to which I don't know the answer." Herman Cain protests,
I’m ready for the ‘gotcha’ questions and they’re already starting to come. And when they ask me who is the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan I’m going to say, you know, I don’t know. Do you know?

And then I’m going to say how’s that going to create one job?
Larison comments,
What I find interesting about this statement is that it puts a lower priority on one of the main things for which the President is actually constitutionally responsible (formulating and executing foreign policy) than it does on something that he can at best indirectly affect through preferences on fiscal policy and regulation (“creating” jobs).
It's also worth revisiting history, in which candidate George W. Bush proved himself pretty much clueless about foreign policy.
"The new Pakistani general, he's just been elected - not elected, this guy took over office. It appears this guy is going to bring stability to the country and I think that's good news for the sub-continent," the Republican candidate offered.

Good news, but not an answer, and the interviewer insisted: "Can you name him?"

"General. I can't name the general. General" was all Mr Bush had to offer.
You don't need to know much about foreign policy to be a governor. You don't need to know much about foreign policy to run a pizza company. But if you are the President and have little interest in or aptitude for world affairs and foreign policy, even if you promise to surround yourself with experts, the result can be disaster. Bush seemed to compound the problem by surrounding himself with, then relying upon, self-professed experts who knew little if anything more than he did.

This problem is not unique to foreign policy. No President can be an expert on everything, and every President needs to have people who can fill in the gaps. Bush made poor choices for his foreign policy team that contributed to serious, costly foreign policy blunders and misguided wars of choice. President Obama made poor choices for his economic recovery team and, whether or not he could have passed a more aggressive agenda, championed economic policies that proved inadequate or fundamentally flawed. But when a candidate wears his ignorance as a badge of honor and is not laughed off of the stage, it says really bad things about his party and his supporters.

Medicare Is, After All, Health Insurance....

Jane Gross presents a decent case that elderly people would benefit from having long-term care insurance. She also suggests that Medicare would benefit from denying coverage for certain medical treatments and procedures based upon the age and medical condition of the beneficiary.
Yet Medicare, which pays for all of the above, does not, except in rare instances, pay for long-term care in a supervised, safe place for frail or demented old people, or for home aides to help with shopping, transportation, bathing and using the toilet.
Well, yeah, because Medicare is health insurance, not long-term care insurance.

When the Obama Administration attempted modest steps toward educating the elderly about their end-of-life medical choices, the political right went into propaganda overdrive, shrieking about "death panels" and health care choices being dictated by government bureaucrats. When the Obama Administration attempted to create a means of making available affordable long-term care insurance, it became clear that most people would not voluntarily buy it and that, as a consequence, it would be all-but-unaffordable to those who wanted it.
Nationwide, the median annual cost of a nursing home in 2010 was $75,000; room and board in an assisted living facility, with no additional help, was $37,500; and the most basic category of home health aide, who can perform no medical tasks, like the dispensing of medication, was $19 an hour. These expenses are left to the elderly (and their adult children) to pay for out of pocket until their pockets are all but empty.

Then they are eligible for Medicaid, the state-run safety net for the poor. While Medicare, a federal program, is financed by payroll taxes, and thus is an “earned” benefit, Medicaid is “charity,” in the minds of the formerly middle class who worked their whole lives and never imagined themselves destitute.
I'm not sure what to make of this. Medicare was not and is not intended to be long-term care insurance, even if people need long-term care insurance. Even if we could achieve significant savings through elimination of such health insurance benefits as feeding tubes, "Abdominal and gall bladder surgery and joint replacements, for those who rank poorly on a scale that measures frailty," and "Tight glycemic control for Type 2 diabetes" for those who will likely die before suffering serious complications from diabetes, as the author suggests, and even if we deny costly medical treatments and surgeries for those who might not benefit, we would not achieve savings sufficient to offer long-term care insurance as part of Medicare. Meanwhile, at least when you're indigent, Medicaid does provide long-term care coverage. I appreciate Gross's argument that people who spend down their assets and qualify for Medicare might perceive it as "charity", but even if we called it "Medicare" would it be any less of a charitable program? You would still have to pay for the new benefit out of the general fund.
In the case of my mother, who died at 88 in 2003, room and board in various assisted living communities, at $2,000 to $3,500 a month for seven years, was not paid for by Medicare. Yet neurosurgery, which I later learned was not expected to be effective in her case, was fully reimbursed, along with two weeks of in-patient care. Her stay of two years at a nursing home, at $14,000 a month (yes, $14,000) was also not paid for by Medicare. Nor were the additional home health aides she needed because of staffing issues. Or the electric wheelchair after strokes had paralyzed all but the finger that operated the joy stick. Or the gizmo with voice commands so she could tell the staff what she needed after her speech was gone.

She paid for the room. My brother and I paid for the private aides and bought her the chair and the “talking board.” What would her life have been like without the skilled care she required and the ability to get around her floor and communicate her needs? I shudder to think. But none of this was Medicare’s responsibility.

Yet Medicare would pay for “heroic” care for a woman who was dying of old age, not a disease that could be treated: Diagnostic tests. All manner of surgery. Expensive medications. Trips to the emergency room or the hospital — had she not refused all of them, in the last year of her life. So, in less than a decade, by my low-ball estimate, my mother spent $500,000 of her own money and uncalculated sums from her two children before winding up what she considered, with shame, “a welfare queen.”
The author warns us, "Alas, 70 percent of the elderly will need extended care before they die." But I'm not hearing a solution. Yes, we can improve the efficiency of Medicare and, if we can push back against Sarah Palin-style propaganda wars designed to frighten Medicare recipients, we can better allocate resources. But the idea that the savings could pay for meaningful long-term care insurance seems like wishful thinking. The author has been writing about these issues for a long time, yet while she shares the cost of Medicare and lets us know that future costs are "scary", she does not attach any projection of what her proposal to also cover long-term care would cost. Consider,
In 2003, Medicaid paid $83.8 billion dollars for long-term care services, roughly one-third of all Medicaid spending. 27.8 billion of these dollars were spent on community-based long-term care services.
If we are to be frightened that "there are 47 million Medicare beneficiaries, costing a half trillion dollars a year", and that "In 2050, the population on Medicare will number 89 million", what of this:
The aging of the population, especially those 85+—the most in need of long-term care—is expected to result in a tripling of long-term care expenditures, projected to climb from $115 billion in 1997 to $346 billion (adjusted for inflation) annually in 2040.
You cannot pay for that by trimming the fat from Medicare. If people want Medicare to include long-term care coverage, contributions will need to be raised significantly.

Looking for Outliers


Writing about "patterns of misconduct", Paul Krugman observes,
My sense, after 11 years of punditizing, is that people are complicated, but gangs of people less so. Individuals are often mixed in their behavior: incorruptible politicians may cheat on their spouses, political scoundrels may have impeccable personal lives. But groups, like a politician’s inner circle or the management team of a media empire, tend to behave similarly on multiple fronts. If they lie and cheat routinely in one domain, they tend to do it in others as well.
My sense is a bit different - what's true for the group is also true, on the whole, for the individual. I do grant, you're far more likely to find an exception while looking at individuals than when looking at groups, but if the general pattern didn't hold for individuals it would not hold for groups.

For a related study of perception, if you've seen The Ides of March, is Clooney's governor an incorruptible politician who happens to cheat on his spouse, or is he a sociopath?

Just Sayin'

Let me state up front that Michael Coakley is a fine lawyer and I would not hesitate to hire him to represent me in a defamation lawsuit. But if I were the largest law school in the state - the largest in the nation - and were accused by a former student of being little more than a diploma mill, I would make a special point of finding a graduate of my own institution to lead the litigation. (Well, no, even if I believed in its merit I wouldn't file the case at all, for reasons summarized here, but if for some reason I were to file such a case....)

Friday, October 07, 2011

A Walled Garden, Yes, But....

A persistent criticism of Apple is that, with the iPhone and iPad, they have created a "walled garden", limiting what users can do on the devices and restricting which vendors can sell applications that will run on them. For example,
I have no plans to be captured by the Apple ecosystem. It is the height of control-freakery, with Apple telling app developers and even journalists whether what they sell through its storefront is acceptable. Apple wants customers to live in its gorgeous walled garden. No thanks, I prefer to make my own decisions.
It's a fair criticism to a point. Inherent to its business model, Apple does restrict what you can do with your iPhone and iPad. From the technological side, the restrictions keep malicious programs, viruses, worms and the like off of the devices, as well as avoiding technology that causes frequent crashes or drastically shortens battery life (sorry, Flash). Apple was savvy enough to recognize that users would blame it, not software companies, for crashes or for short battery life. Second, yes, by controlling the storefront Apple gets a cut from every product it sells. Apple has made some mistakes in excluding apps from its App Store, and imposes restrictions that keep certain apps out of its store, but pretty much all of that content can be accessed through the browser build right into the device.

The complaint reminds me of the early days of computers, with the introduction of the Mac and mouse. If you remember that era you may recall hearing from PC aficionados that a GUI was too limiting - that you were removed from the real power of the line command, a faster and more efficient means of controlling your machine. That's true to a degree, but even when they were forced to use line commands, most users learned little more than they needed to learn in order to run basic software packages. With improvements to GUIs, most computer users never even fire up a command prompt. Yes, probably 5 - 10% of computer users like and benefit from at least occasional use of a command prompt, most computer users were happy to see it go. The iPad and iPhone can be accused of continuing in that direction: making that same 5 - 10% of the potential user base grumble about it being difficult to program or customize iPads, the pros and cons of "jailbreaking" a device, etc., but producing an easy-to-use stable product that the other 90% of users enjoy.

But if you look at things from another perspective, the iPhone and iPad have, at least, made the cage a lot larger. Consider what was available on the market before the iPhone. If I wanted to develop a software product for the Blackberry or Palm, what was the mechanism through which I would have been able to push it out to the masses? What about a cell phone app - what if I wanted to produce software to run on Sprint's phones? What if I wanted (or want) to sell a VOIP app that will run on any cell phone and let people switch from their cellular minutes to making calls over an Internet connection at a coffee shop? Apple has produced beautiful devices that make us recognize that a cellular phone or tablet-type device is in fact a computer and is capable of doing more than its maker allows (unless you jailbreak the device) but while you're still in a cage, the cage is enormous as compared to what other handset manufacturers previously allowed (and in many cases what they presently allow).

I don't know if the author is a power user. I don't know if he's off writing apps for his Android phone, or if he considers it to be an exercise in freedom to watch Flash videos through a cell phone browser. I suspect that, as with most of the people who used to talk up the freedom and power of the PC's historic command line, it's an "I like to know that I could modify the OS and write my own Apps if I wanted to, and learned how, even though there's no realistic chance of either actually occurring." Let's say, however, that he wants to write and market an app for Android devices. Does he have a realistic option other than selling it through Google's app store or Amazon's app store? If he produces a product that competes with an add-on service from a cell phone carrier, can he be sure that his cellular service won't block or disable the app? That is, where in this market can I find the garden that is not walled - let alone one that has not been forced to expand in response to the iPhone?

As tablet computers become more powerful and capable, we may move into a future in which your cell phone can truly be your personal computer - use it on the go with it's built-in screen or use a wireless connection to have it power a monitor and keyboard for full computer functionality. If that's what the market wants, that's where Apple, Amazon, and the larger world of Android devices will go.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

No, That's Not What Republicans Want

David Brooks describes what Republicans supposedly want in a Presidential candidate:
The central problem is that Mitt Romney doesn’t fit the mold of what many Republicans want in a presidential candidate. They don’t want a technocratic manager. They want a bold, blunt radical outsider who will take on the establishment, speak truth to power and offend the liberal news media.
David Brooks is a Republican, so it's telling that he is saying "they" instead of "we". Brooks is not describing what he or his peers want - his thesis, after all, is that the Republican masses need to get past their visceral need for "Braveheart" and accept Mitt "Organization Man" Romney. (Yes, he really said that Republican voters want their leader to be like "Braveheart".)

The first thing that comes to my mind, though, is that I can't think of a single Republican nominee who has come close to fitting Brooks' description. Certainly not Gerald Ford. Ronald Reagan was literally a spokesperson for corporate America. Bush I and II were the antitheses of "outsiders". If you were to identify a Republican who comes close to fitting the bill you could argue Richard Nixon, although by today's measures of Republicanism he was something akin to a socialist. While Ronald Reagan presented the affable cowboy persona and G.W. played the part of a Texas rancher, as part of their respective efforts to present a public image that might fool people into thinking them something other than insiders, they were both selected and advanced by the party because of the expectation that they would advance the interests of the nation's political and corporate elite - and they did so, in spades.

If you were to challenge Brooks to explain why Republicans keep nominating Robert the Bruce instead of Braveheart, why their typical nominee is a "that ain't me" from Fortunate Son, you're probably going to hear it explained that (as with Brooks' push for Romney) Republicans would prefer Braveheart but to the extent that there's an actual contest for the nomination they'll settle for electability. Barry Goldwater, millionaire's son; George H.W. Bush, Senator's son; George W. Bush, Senator's grandson and President's son; John McCain, admiral's son. Bob Dole was in Congress for more than thirty years before he led the ticket - humble beginnings can't transform a guy who has spent a quarter of a century in the Senate into an outsider. Gerald Ford, despite almost a quarter century in the House, was the closest of the post-Nixon bunch to an outsider, for all the good it did him. Bold? If Brooks means "brash," perhaps he's thinking of G.W. as "the exception who proves the rule," but which of the Republican presidents or nominees had a track record in office (whether in Congress or the Senate) that can truly be called "bold" or "radical"? Blunt? If Brooks means "dull"....

Somehow, despite supposedly wanting a bold, blunt outsider, the Republicans keep nominating and electing establishment Republican insiders. Instead of electing people who will "speak truth to power", they elect corporate spokespersons. Instead of electing candidates who "offend the liberal news media", whatever that is, they elect candidates who get kid gloves treatment from the mainstream media. If you didn't live through his presidency, you might be confused (as Brooks apparently is) and believe that Ronald Reagan was vilified in the media, while in fact he was the "Teflon President". When an obviously unprepared G.W. Bush ran for the Presidency, the mainstream media told us that we shouldn't care because he would nominate and delegate to competent people and he was the guy we would most want to share a beer with. Such harsh treatment....

As usual, Brooks condescends to Republican voters. He knows better than the masses in his party what is good for them and what is good for the nation. They're grunting savages who want Braveheart, and they now need erudite nerds like Brooks to tell them what is best for them. Do I exaggerate?
The only real shift between school and adult politics is that the jocks realize they need conservative intellectuals, who are geeks who have decided their fellow intellectuals should never be allowed to run anything and have learned to speak slowly so the jocks will understand them.
I think it's a fair characterization to say that, in that sentence, Brooks is describing his perception of himself in relation to the typical Republican voter.

Brooks might respond that he's correct about what Republicans want, even if they keep voting for consummate insiders who might, in the vein of an ad for a pain reliever, declare, "I'm not a bold, honest outsider, but I play one on television". But if that's the case he's still not really telling us anything. You may as well make a claim like, "Liberals want the President to be a philosopher king, but keep voting for people who actually exist." What voters of all stripes really want is for their elected representatives to share their values. What insiders like Brooks have done is to both recognize and create a set of litmus tests and cognitive shortcuts, and to instruct voters, "These are the measures by which you know that the candidate is 'one of you'". Voters say they want strong leaders? Outsiders? People who will "speak truth to power" (now a Republican slogan?), and the like? Then, by Jove, that must be what they're voting for in their party nominee until, at the end of the campaign, they compromise on somebody who they think can win the election. I guess we're not supposed to ask why the nominee that best fits the bill of "what voters want" is so often rejected in favor of one who is "electable". Political self-flagellation?

Meanwhile, Brooks' "lunch room poly sci" lunch buddy, David Frum, is dancing on the grave of a politician that David Brooks would have us believe comes as close to the Republican ideal as is humanly possible. To Brooks, that would seem to translate into, "We can't vote for the candidate we all want because nobody will vote for her."