Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Gingrich Takes On Goldman Sachs.... Badly

You know, for a guy who is supposed to be smart....1
Goldman Sachs is a company that has taken billions from the American taxpayer and they had a handpicked candidate in 2008 named Barack Obama. They have a handpicked candidate this year, named Mitt Romney.
This should give you considerable pause... about Goldman Sachs. Because last time I checked, Mitt Romney ran for the Republican nomination back in 2008. Why Does Gingrich imagine that Goldman Sachs would have been repulsed by Romney four years ago, but be eager to have him replace the candidate they hand-selected a mere four years ago?

Like any multi-billion dollar corporation, Goldman Sachs is going to use its money both to help advance political candidates that will support its agenda and to try to put that candidate in golden handcuffs - "You don't want to turn the financial industry against you, because then you won't get the benefit of our wealth in the next election." But they aren't pulling candidates out of obscurity. They're picking the candidates from both sides that they believe are likely to win and are trying to influence the policies of those candidates. If they were capable of "hand picking" a candidate, the present Republican campaign would already be over. Heck, if anybody had that type of control, could Gingrich really believe it would be he and Santorum who would remain the biggest obstacles to Romney's nomination?

To the extent that Gingrich is correct, that Goldman Sachs and the financial industry want Romney and reject Gingrich, given Gingrich's own history of selling out to anybody who will pay him money, the most likely explanation for this outburst is that he's jealous. Gingrich standing up to somebody with a checkbook? Has it ever happened?
1. In fairness, he's lying. But we remain in an odd era in which it's more polite to treat a candidate as being sincere but stupid, as opposed to pointing out that he's a liar.

David Brooks and the Class Divide

David Brooks has been reading Charles Murray, so it's time for another of his another "tenth grade quality book book reports".... Call it an oversimplification if you will, but having built his reputation (so to speak) on a sloppily reasoned book suggesting that African Americans struggle because they have low IQ's, Murray has a new book contending that poor white people struggle for sociological reasons. Brooks, of course, makes no mention of Murray's history, instead lavishing his new book with praise.
His story starts in 1963. There was a gap between rich and poor then, but it wasn’t that big. A house in an upper-crust suburb cost only twice as much as the average new American home. The tippy-top luxury car, the Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz, cost about $47,000 in 2010 dollars. That’s pricy, but nowhere near the price of the top luxury cars today....

Worse, there are vast behavioral gaps between the educated upper tribe (20 percent of the country) and the lower tribe (30 percent of the country). This is where Murray is at his best, and he’s mostly using data on white Americans, so the effects of race and other complicating factors don’t come into play.
Get that? Murray's limiting his data to white people allows him to be "at his best", lest "complicating factors" such as race and, um, "other" confuse his thesis. Perhaps by showing, for example, that The Bell Curve is every bit as bad as its critics contend.

Two things to note at this point: First, Murray's story is that of "white people", and second... why 1963? Did the world begin in 1963? Weren't there white people in American prior to 1963? Or did what Brooks describes as Murray's "incredible data" reveal to him that if he started his story in any other year it would be weaker or completely undermined. We could, for example, compare unemployment rates during the Great Depression to those of today, but that wouldn't work so well for Murray's thesis that white society has somehow grown apart. So, why not pick the peak year for the argument that America used to look somewhat like Ozzie and Harriet, and go from there.

Brooks, predictably, accepts Murray's arguments as proof of his own theories about the nation, and that social norms that emerge from a snapshot reflect the norm of human history up through the present era. Now... something is causing the country to "bifurcate[] into different social tribes" and the rich don't spend enough time associating with the poor. What's more, people tend to marry within their social and economic class. Shocking, really. Except that's the story of human history. To the extent that a couple of world wars flattened things out for a while, we've never lived in a country or world in which class and money didn't matter and didn't affect social relationships and behaviors.
Today, Murray demonstrates, there is an archipelago of affluent enclaves clustered around the coastal cities, Chicago, Dallas and so on. If you’re born into one of them, you will probably go to college with people from one of the enclaves; you’ll marry someone from one of the enclaves; you’ll go off and live in one of the enclaves.
With the difference between now and the rest of history being the location of the enclaves? Does Brooks believe that "in the good old days" an Eton boy would go to Oxford, graduate, then marry a scullery maid and settle in Yorkshire? Does he believe that families with surnames like Roosevelt, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Delano, Carnegie and Astor are known for their humble abodes, modest lifestyles, and marriages with members of the working class?

Brooks overtly breaks from the right-wing dogma that "liberal elites" are ruining the country's morals.
Republicans claim that America is threatened by a decadent cultural elite that corrupts regular Americans, who love God, country and traditional values. That story is false. The cultural elites live more conservative, traditionalist lives than the cultural masses.
That assertion is consistent with my position that, on the whole, people who disfavor legislation of morality are better at moderating their own behaviors and impulses as compared to those who view it as a necessity, and don't want others peering into their bedrooms. The Republicans who want to legislate morality are speaking to a population that is more than happy to pretend that "liberals" are condescending to them, even when the opposite is at least as often the case, and feels, for whatever reason, that people cannot be trusted to behave in a socially acceptable manner unless they are placed at risk of serious consequence, most notably pregnancy or jail.

Brooks, as you might expect, overstates his case for the moral righteousness of the "cultural elite", as it's easier to get married, stay married, remarry after divorce, and remain within the confines of what Brooks would deem a "conservative, traditionalist" life if you are wealthy, or at least financially stable. Nonetheless, this is probably the most honest criticism I've seen Brooks offer of his party - that it's rhetoric about liberal elites is pure demagoguery.

In the name of false equivalence, what the left hand giveth the right hand must take away:
Democrats claim America is threatened by the financial elite, who hog society’s resources. But that’s a distraction. The real social gap is between the top 20 percent and the lower 30 percent.
Funny, although you certainly do hear about the uppermost echelons of wealth these days, most economic analysis I see still looks at wealth quintiles. The "Occupy" movement gave additional attention to the top 1%, with the real story of being the 0.1%, but that's a different story than the one being spun by Brooks.

If Brooks wants to make the claim that "Democrats claim America is threatened by the financial elite", perhaps he could do us the favor of identifying the Democrats of whom he speaks. While there's definitely concern on the political left that tax policy favors the wealthiest Americans, that concern has the virtue of being true. While there's concern on the left that the last three decades have seen the wealthiest Americans siphon corporate profits for their own benefit while workers' wages have stagnated or declined, that also has the virtue of being true.

Perhaps Brooks believes what he is implying, that human nature has somehow changed such that economics are irrelevant, but it seems to me that he's offering a red herring. For most of human history there has been great disparity between the wealth of the rich and poor, and throughout that time there has been suggestion that many or most of the poor are undeserving, victims not of society but of their poor values. I suspect Brooks knows he's offering a canard, because he proceeds to acknowledge the role of economics in the present state of society:
The liberal members of the upper tribe latch onto this top 1 percent narrative because it excuses them from the central role they themselves are playing in driving inequality and unfairness.
The central role being what? Brooks has already told us that the "cultural elites" stand as good role models for hard work and moral behavior. What's left but economics? The top 20% are faring quite well, thank you very much, even as other quintiles have struggled.

From this point, Brooks devolves into what might be called "claptrap":
Members of the lower tribe work hard and dream big, but are more removed from traditional bourgeois norms. They live in disorganized, postmodern neighborhoods in which it is much harder to be self-disciplined and productive.
But Brooks told us earlier,
In the lower tribe, men in their prime working ages have been steadily dropping out of the labor force, in good times and bad.
How can Brooks argue both that "members of the lower tribe" as a class are simultaneously dropping out of the workforce and working hard? Surely it's one or the other.

Really, it seems fair to say that most people work hard, particularly those in menial jobs in which their bosses view them as expendable and easily replaced, but that the fundamental problem is a lack of jobs, and more notably a lack of jobs that people with less education and academic inclination can use as a stepping stone to the middle class. Brooks may want to pretend that this is a matter of sociology - that all we need to do is imbue the poor with the proper values and they'll be working hard and forming stable families - but you cannot honestly compare 1963 to the present without admitting that you're comparing a period of boom times for blue collar workers with a modern era in which anti-union measures, automation and outsourcing have decimated the blue collar middle class.
I doubt Murray would agree, but we need a National Service Program. We need a program that would force members of the upper tribe and the lower tribe to live together, if only for a few years.
Yet another version of, “Even though I didn’t want to, didn’t have to, and personally did not do what I’m suggesting, in order for more people to grow up with my values I think all young people should have to spend years of their lives jumping through hoops I will now arbitrarily define.” Public service, national service, military service, menial jobs.

In other words, even though Brooks tells us that the problem is not an "underdog morality tale in which the problems of the masses are caused by the elites", the way to fix the problem is to force young people, rich and poor, to spend years of their lives performing some form of community service while living in some form of MTV-style "Real World" communal housing. That will surely fix everything.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Mitt Romney's Tin Ear on... This Time, Taxes

"I heard that I'm projected to easily win in Florida, so I thought I would say something really insulting to the intelligence of voters."

Mitt, you pay about 14% in federal taxes on your income, not 50%. No amount of prevarication will change that.

If you consider that the money that was paid to the corporations that paid Romney cycled through other businesses and entities that were taxed, and that some of the money may have come directly from the government - icky tax money - maybe Romney can make the case that his tax rate is 99%.

Thomas Friedman's 'Lake Wobegon' America

Thomas Friedman trips over his own words with his claim, "Average is Over". He skips over the easiest ways to join the wealthiest Americans - being born rich - and the second best way, his personal method, marrying an exceptionally wealthy heir or heiress.
In the past, workers with average skills, doing an average job, could earn an average lifestyle. But, today, average is officially over. Being average just won’t earn you what it used to. It can’t when so many more employers have so much more access to so much more above average cheap foreign labor, cheap robotics, cheap software, cheap automation and cheap genius. Therefore, everyone needs to find their extra — their unique value contribution that makes them stand out in whatever is their field of employment. Average is over.
This is fair to a point. I do sense that unless you're firmly ensconced in the privileged class, a typical job of the future will demand a lot of you - continuously working to stay at the top of your field. Fewer and fewer jobs will let you coast, or allow you to be the person who knows the way things used to work.

But Friedman doesn't appear to understand the law of averages, or the joke of Lake Wobegon. Average is determined mathematically, so even if everybody improves there will remain an average. It's not possible for everybody in every field to find an "extra" that makes them above average. People who can distinguish themselves and prove their value will find it easier to earn a decent wage, and some will rise in wealth and position, but that won't eliminate either the average or the fact that our society includes a lot of dead-end jobs in which being above average simply means you work harder for the same or a slightly higher rate of pay.

Friedman is excited at the idea of going to a restaurant and ordering his food using a tablet rather than being served by a waiter. I expect he's excited for the rest of us, as it's difficult for me to imagine Friedman spending much time in a restaurant where his napkin is not recovered and folded neatly, awaiting his return from the restroom.1 That is to say, Friedman is in a class of wealth that makes it unlikely that he wants to play with a tablet computer to learn what's on the menu, or where he would have to tap the equivalent of a call button to get his water glass refilled.

I think a tablet could be an effective tool at restaurants where people presently queue to place their orders. Rather than waiting in line, trying to decide what you want, you can sit down, take your time, and not have the person behind you sighing loudly at your lack of familiarity with the menu.

There's something else that Friedman is missing in his excitement over iWaiters. The fact that they're not actually a labor saving device - they're a labor shifting device. Perhaps that's why I see them falling into place in a restaurant that doesn't have waiters. In those restaurants you're already used to having what was once the restaurant's job shifted to you - collecting your food at the counter, carrying it to your table, filling your own drink, throwing away the trash at the end of your meal. Banks use ATMs and online banking, grocery stores have self-serve checkout, bag your own groceries. In most states it's rare to find a full-service gas pump. The need for labor hasn't disappeared - it has just been shifted from the provider to the customer.

Friedman is also excited at the idea that a Chinese factory can retool on a moment's notice, and can pull its thousands of workers out of their dormitories to be retrained for the new system. "Sorry for waking you up - here's a biscuit and a cup of tea." No American plant can match that? Well, yeah. But for those of us who don't fetishize China, it would not be such a big deal if workers were trained on a more human schedule when they came to work from their homes, where they live with their families. As excited as Friedman gets about the idea that China is turning all of its workers into highly educated high performers, his anecdote belies that idea - he's describing a society of drones. Where does the reward of not being average fit into that world? "Good for you, you were 3% more efficient than your peers in fitting screens into frames. You get another biscuit."

Friedman is also excited about Siri, the voice interface to the latest iPhone. He quotes an executive of the company that developed the software, gushing about how good it is.
“Siri is the beginning of a huge transformation in how we interact with banks, insurance companies, retail stores, health care providers, information retrieval services and product services.”
Well, yeah, I guess I can see how Siri and similar programs going to take over the world's voice mail systems, perhaps reducing the frustration of the absurd menus most companies impose on consumers by allowing you to have a "conversation" with a computer. But we're not even to that point of the revolution. And many people, particularly those with more complex problems, will still prefer to talk to a human being.

I can imagine the frustration, also, of having a computer keep redirecting you from real answers to your issues, a'la Comcast, because the last thing they want to do is actually help you resolve a problem that should involve their crediting your account. Siri may become smart enough to understand what you're asking, but I can see her being programmed to give you a partial or inaccurate answer, anyway.

Friedman states that, as we enter an era in which "average is officially over,... nothing would be more important than passing some kind of G.I. Bill for the 21st century that ensures that every American has access to post-high school education." Friedman should take a hard look at China, or at least his perceptions of China, as if he thinks about what is happening in that country he should be able to see that they are not trying to turn everybody into an "above average" performer. They'll help the children of the wealthy and of party elites through special schools and opportunities, and will identify some students by talent and nurture that talent, but in large part they understand that they need a lot of drones and, ultimately, their system collapses if their drones become too few or too expensive.

By G.I. Bill, does Friedman actually mean a G.I. bill? Join the military, get a college education? It seems not - I think he means a "G.I. bill" that does not actually require being a G.I. I agree with the sentiment that every American should have access to college, and will take it a step further and state that they should also have access to a K-12 education that gives them a chance to succeed in college. But I think Friedman falls into the class of people who believe that school makes you smarter, and that everybody is or can be college material. We will do better for our society by recognizing that some people aren't cut out for college, or should do something else first, than by trying to push everybody into college without regard for interest or aptitude. We do our nation no favors by pretending that everybody can be above average, or that everybody needs to be. We're a long way from being a true meritocracy.
1. In fairness, perhaps Friedman believes the iWaiter tablet will have an app that refolds his napkin.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Our Enemies Are Crazy... Our Allies?

One of the pretty constant lines of rhetorical attack you see, often from people who would prefer to shift from words to military action, is that the enemy state is "crazy". Its leaders are irrational, cannot be reasoned with, and will do terrible, apocalyptic things if we don't take dramatic action. Within this context, "crazy" often means "Behaves in pretty much the same manner as other despots and tyrants, but isn't on our team." The Shah of Iran treated his people terribly, reminiscent of Saddam Hussein, and lusted for western military weapons including nuclear weapons, and that was fine with us. Then Iran had a revolution, its new government was overtly hostile to the U.S., and Saddam Hussein seemed like somebody we could work with. Then the war he started with Iran came to an end, he invaded Kuwait, and... nutty as a fruitcake. Moammar Gadhafi was a terrible man, sponsoring terrorism, hostile to western interests, then he became a supposed "victory" in the "war on terror" by renouncing his "WMD programs", but after a few years of posing for pictures with world leaders who, no doubt, now regret the documentary evidence of their claims that he had reformed, he once again became a crazy enemy.

The point isn't that these tyrants aren't, to one extent or another, crazy. It's that "crazy" is rarely considered to be a significant issue until our nations' leaders decide it's a problem, and all of the quirks and bad acts that aren't worthy of notice or mention suddenly become evidence of irredeemable insanity. (Sort of irredeemable - as previously mentioned, Gadahfi, one of the nuttier despots of our time, did enjoy a few years of "redemption".)

One of the better aspects of democracy is that when elected leaders do prove to be nutty, they typically either don't rise to the highest offices or don't stay there for line. We may treat our Presidents and Prime Ministers as if they're monarchs, granting them mansions, gourmet personal chefs, personal jets, huge staffs... but we require an element of humility, the willingness for a peaceful transition at the end of the elected official's term of office. Some of our leaders do engage in over-the-top rhetoric about foreign states and leaders, but the leaders of "enemy states" generally take their anti-western rhetoric to a much higher level - volume, frequency and intensity all turned up to 11.

One of the over-the-top claims about Iran is that, if they are able to develop a nuclear weapon, they will immediately be itching to use it against another state. We're told that, unlike any other nuclear state in the world, Iran's leadership is so crazy that they won't be deterred by the fact that any nuclear attack that can be laid at their feet would trigger the annihilation of their nation. We don't talk that way about our allies. At least, most people don't.

Former Bush Administration official Bennett Ramberg is actually using an "Israel is nuts" argument to support... who knows? Invading Iran to stop it from developing nuclear weapons?
If Jerusalem really believes that a nuclear-armed Tehran poses an existential threat — and cannot be contained by a conventional military attack, sanctions, deterrence or regime change — there remains one option to end the threat that people fear to talk about: Israel’s use of nuclear weapons.
At any level, Ramberg's analysis would place Israel's government somewhere between "irrational" and "insane". I'll give him enough credit to assume that he's imagining a future in which Iran is not invaded, develops nuclear weapons, and can use small arsenal to deter any land-based invasion. Does Ramberg believe that Iran would keep all of its weapons and production facilities in one nice, consolidated, non-fortified location, far away from its civilian population such that Israel could swoop in with a nuke or two and eliminate the entire program? He couldn't possibly be that ignorant. So really, what he's proposing is that if Iran has any nuclear capacity, Israel will perceive as its only option a massive nuclear attack against Iran, devastating its urban centers and murdering tens of millions of civilians. There's an ugly word for that type of military action. And you know what? If Iran did have a few small nukes it could be counted on to try to launch them against Israel. So Ramberg is literally telling us that Israel's leadership is irrational, genocidal and willing to risk the annihilation of its own people in order to wipe an enemy off of the map. Which is pretty much exactly what other people in the "we must invade Iran" camp say about a nuclear Iran.

I disagree with Ramberg's analysis. They're at least as self-serving and prone to demagoguery as the leaders of any other nation and, yes, Israel's form of democracy results in some pretty extreme members within the Knesset. And like every other military power they tend to overestimate what they can accomplish through force and underestimate the benefits of resolving conflicts through negotiation - a peril of democracy: when times are good, voters don't want to change anything, and when times are bad, voters don't want to give anything to "the enemy". But they're not insane, they're not genocidal, and they're not going to kill tens of millions of people and send a cloud of radioactive fallout around the globe if Iran successfully tests a nuclear weapon, even if they believe the losses on their own side would be "acceptable".

I don't think Ramberg believes his own argument. If he actually believed that Israel, a nation that has shown past restraint with its nuclear weapons when faced with an actual land invasion, has joined the ranks of nations with "insane" leaders who can't be trusted with nuclear weapons, he should be advocating for the west to join Iran's proposal for a completely nuclear-free Middle East, backed up with thorough inspections of both Iran and Israel to ensure compliance. The most charitable explanation I can offer is that he's tossing this scenario out either as one more reason the west "has to" invade Iran and remove its leadership, or in the hope that over-the-top rhetoric about "crazy Israel" will somehow lead to a cowed and pliant Iran, and thus doesn't care that his argument is detached from reality.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Romney-Gingrich Electability Conundrum

Perhaps the thinking behind present polls goes something like this:
If Mitt Romney is the most electable, and Newt Gingrich is unelectable, Mitt Romney should easily beat Newt Gingrich.

But Newt Gingrich just beat Mitt Romney in South Carolina, and may do so again in Florida.

So maybe it's Mitt Romney who's not electable, or less electable than Newt Gingrich? And maybe Newt's not so unelectable after all?
I recognize that the general election is a different ballgame, but it's difficult for me to see how a candidate who barely squeaks past Newt Gingrich will be inspiring either a great deal of confidence in or the robust support of the Republican base. But perhaps that is Romney's problem to begin with.

Mitt Romney's Love of Democracy

If you can't win an election, fair and square, what else can you do but rig the game?

Monday, January 23, 2012

You Can Choose to Be an Honorable Man

Or not.

You would think a man with a 0% chance of becoming President would be capable of showing the smallest amount of class during what's left of his campaign, but... no.

The Purpose of Sanctions Against Iran is.... What?

I know, I know. Sanctions are supposedly going to convince the Iranian government to give up a nuclear weapons program that it claims it's not pursuing. Nobody believes Iran, so I guess the theory is that if economic sanctions keep piling up Iran will eventually have to deal with corrupt individuals and nations to export its oil despite the sanctions give up its nuclear weapons program. And we'll know that the sanctions worked because of their long and consistent record of failure because Iran will announce that it will have given up its nuclear weapons program and, when that time comes, for some reason its denials will suddenly seem credible. Or something like that.

I'm reminded of another nation which, after many years of economic sanctions, a militarily imposed "no fly zone", and the like, was the subject of an invasion to end its quest for "weapons of mass destruction". For a number of reasons, some quite valid, the invading nations had discounted the nation's denials of having WMD's and engaged in demagoguery about the risk posed by their non-existent weapons and non-existent delivery vehicles. After invasion we learned that the nation had abandoned its programs to develop such weapons but, you know, why worry about a wasted $trillion or two and a decade of occupation, or whether eventual blowback might make the nation or region even more dangerous - we found out for sure.

That situation was, of course, completely different. The nation's name ended with a q.

Seriously, what is Iran to conclude from the behavior of western nations? The principal lesson seems to be that if they claim to have abandoned a nuclear weapons program they won't be believed, that if they allow massive inspections of their territory they will be accused of having secret sites that they have not disclosed, and that sanctions will continue to pile up until the western world announces that the burden of maintaining the sanctions is too high and it's time to invade. (If Iran has a nuclear weapons program, it's difficult to imagine that anything short of an invasion will give any amount of certainty that it has been eliminated.) Or they can act like North Korea - develop an actual nuclear weapon. You may not get rid of the sanctions but you will significantly reduce and eventually all-but-eliminate the threat of military action. (If there's a different lesson they are likely to draw, not from the theory of sanctions but from the past behavior of western nations, please feel free to share it in the comments.)

I guess I'm just not seeing the benefit of pushing Iran to the point that it has nothing to lose by building nuclear weapons and demonstrating that it is a nuclear power. That's not the purpose of the sanctions, and I'm sure the proponents of layering misery upon misery on the Iranian people have somehow convinced themselves that "this time truly is different" and that the sanctions will "work", but at a certain point Iran will be left with nothing to lose by becoming a nuclear power - and potentially a lot to gain if it can remove a military threat from the equation. And I'm not sure how far we presently are away from that point.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Why Support an Argument With Facts

Michael Gerson, reverting to his role as a "compassionate conservative" claims to feel for the growing population of impoverished Americans. His critique of conservatives is a bit nebulous,
Conservatives naturally focus on equal opportunity rather than on equal outcomes. But equality of opportunity is a more radical concept than we generally concede. It is not a natural state; it is a social and political achievement. It depends on healthy families and cohesive communities. But opportunity also depends on effective government — on public safety, public education and public health. Governmental overreach can undermine other important social institutions. Yet the retreat of government does not automatically restore them to health.
The first question is whether it's fair to say that "Conservatives naturally focus on equal opportunity" because they believe in equal opportunity, or because it's a means of avoiding the discussion of entrenched inequality. Implicitly, it was in comparison to the proponents of "All we need is equal opportunity" and their implicit, "So all we need to do is nothing", that Matthew Yglesias found conservative proponents of "absolute mobility" to be the "smartest conservatives". At least they're looking at economic reality. "If you're poor, on the whole you have the opportunity to earn a little bit more than your parents earned."

Gerson acknowledges that if you truly want equal opportunity you need to have - and pay for - government programs that support opportunity, including safety, education and health. He complains, with no attempt at specificity, that "government overreach" undermines "social institutions", but without any attempt to explain which ones, how they're undermined more by government action than by other factors, and a cost-benefit analysis, that observation is worthless. Without examining the context and alternatives, you can easily end up presenting imbecilic arguments about how government intervention ruined the "good old days" when racial covenants and discrimination left wealthier and more successful African Americans living in or near poor neighborhoods where they ostensibly served as role models.

For a more direct example, since Gerson mentions "healthy families", it's possible to argue that social welfare programs have contributed to the breakdown of the nuclear family in poor communities, but it's also possible to observe that many other families are helped by the very same supports, that many other factors contribute to the breakdown of the "traditional" family unit, that some family units are not healthy (Gerson later acknowledges "permissive cultural norms" as well as "downward pressure on wages and... stagnant labor markets" as part of the bigger picture), and that you risk confusing cause and effect - is it the availability of government supports that break down families, or are you seeing instead how dubious choices (leaving aside questions of the degree to which they're forced by circumstance) lead people to seek and remain dependent upon government benefits? Public assistance programs were not created in a vacuum - they were created to serve an already-existing population of poor people, many of whom were already part of a measurable cycle of poverty.

Gerson next takes a page out of George Will's style guide, resorting to a "hollow man" argument:
Liberals often fail to recognize that income redistribution, while preventing penury, is not identical to social equality.
Is there a single "liberal" in the world who believes that income redistribution is identical to social equality? Gerson's suggestion that his fabrication is a mistake "often" made by "liberals" should be acknowledged for what it is - nonsense. But that's the entire point of the hollow man - you can easily critique nonsense that you stick into a fictionalized opponent's mouth, but it's a lot harder to deal with arguments in an honest, substantive manner. When columnists habitually resort to the hollow man, you have to wonder if they're implicitly acknowledging that they're simply not up to the task of addressing the actual issues.
The main challenge of poverty is not a lack of consumption but a lack of social capital — measured in skills and values — and of opportunity. Addressing these problems is more complex than increasing marginal tax rates, particularly when revenue is used to cover the increasing costs of non-means-tested entitlement programs.
Addressing a problem that has nothing to do with "marginal tax rates" is more complicated than "increasing marginal tax rates", he tells us? No kidding - it's a non-sequitur. One has very little to do with the other. Who is arguing otherwise? Perhaps Gerson means to allude to the research documenting that societies with less income equality have more economic mobility, particularly at the bottom, but even that's not necessarily either related to or correlated with "marginal tax rates". Who does Gerson imagine is making this argument - or is he deliberately hollow manning in order to cover the weakness of his argument?
The structure of the modern welfare state is not focused on empowering the poor. Instead, it has increased the percentage of government transfer payments that go to middle- and upper-income seniors.
Egad. So his hollow man liberal has constructed a "welfare state" that redistributes wealth from the middle and upper classes to... the middle and upper classes? And that would be wealth redistribution in the sense of... what?

Gerson is, of course, attempting a clumsy sleight of hand. A change of topic from public assistance programs, a/k/a welfare, to Social Security and Medicare. One might look at those programs, and the before-and-after picture of senior citizens' wealth, and say, "Wow, they were effective." One might look at the present picture and say, "Yes, some benefits are received by seniors who don't need them, but those seniors paid for these insurance benefits over the course of their careers, and other seniors are most certainly kept or lifted out of poverty through their receipt of Social Security and health insurance. If one were concerned about the longer-term picture, one might argue that due to some flaws in the funding model too much of the present cost of those programs is falling upon working adults, and that we need to take steps to make those programs sustainable. But within this context, to attempt a silent change of subject from programs like WIC and SNAP (food stamps) to Medicare and Social Security is dishonest.

When speaking of true public assistance, Gerson seems to be positive:
Welfare reform decreased caseloads and child poverty while increasing employment and income for low-income families. Community policing and zero-tolerance policies reduced crime. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — which used to be called food stamps — has been reformed to better fight hunger. The earned-income tax credit has encouraged work and reduced poverty.
I'm wondering, unless the societal breakdown he complains about is occurring among "middle- and upper-income seniors", what social welfare programs does he perceive as actually "undermin[ing] other important social institutions"?

At the end, Gerson suggests that what we need is for "reform-oriented" politicians from the "center-right and the center-left" to impose market-driven reforms. I'm not sure how any of the reforms Gerson praises reflect market forces in action, but I guess that's a discussion for another day. Gerson places himself among those who pretend that a magical bipartisanship at the center can solve all of the nation's problems - as if it's always the moderates and compromisers who have the answers, and that partisans are always wrong - but predictably resorts to false-equivalence, "Our politics has a surplus of ideology and a shortage of wonkery". If I look, for example, at the Republican primaries or, for that matter, at Gerson's past columns, am I apt to see more of the solution or more of the problem?

Privilege and the Race for the White House

Colbert King is upset that Steven Colbert is (sort of) making a satyrical run for the White House.
I fail to see the humor in Colbert urging South Carolinians to vote in Saturday’s primary for businessman Herman Cain, who dropped out of the presidential race but whose name remains on the ballot. Throwing away votes degrades a system already brought low by the unprecedented airing of negative ads so early in the nominating process.
That, I think, underestimates voters. The classic accusation made against anybody who votes for a third party candidate is "You're throwing your vote away," but that presupposes both that the person casting the vote believes that their candidate can win, and that the voter sees no value in casting a protest vote. On the whole, but specifically in relation to the suggestion that people vote for Cain in South Carolina, I don't think that's true. Realistically speaking, nobody who followed the suggestion would believe that Cain was going to reenter the race, and everybody doing so would recognize their vote for what it was - a protest against the rest of the field.

Colbert used wealth and position to elbow his way into the race? Sure, but what else is new.

Colbert's candidacy reminds me of the Rhinoceros Party in Canada, a satyrical party whose leading promise was the paradoxical, "Our first promise is to break all of our promises." As I recall, they stopped running when they came close to winning an election - they knew that they were a protest vote, as did everybody casting a vote in their favor, but winning would spoil everything. Colbert is going out of his way to ensure that he cannot win - his name was not on the ballot, the protest vote he urged was for a candidate who was no longer in the race, and nobody voting for Cain would have believed that vote would be counted. If Colbert wanted to be a disruptive influence, rather than illustrating some genuine problems with our political process, he could have used his wealth and position to get onto some ballots.

King should give other voters some credit. He recognizes the Colbert campaign as a joke, even if he doesn't see the humor - but the joke is "in your face". Everybody is already in on the joke.

After noting that the constitutional requirement for becoming President is pretty simple to meet, King states,
The road gets rockier from there, however.

There are the personal sacrifices of time, family and privacy, and the wear and tear on the body and psyche.

It’s a marathon that only a few are built to run.
I'm not sure that's true, as I recall any number of candidates with dubious physical and mental health nonetheless making a run for the presidency, sometimes on a perennial basis. It's not for everybody, but if King were to shift his perspective a bit he would see that what to him looks like an endless, wearying chore is, for others, a source of fulfillment, ego enlargement, and reputation-building. Does King believe that all of the candidates for the nomination, this time or in pretty much any other contested national primary, are in it to win? It's not that they wouldn't all take the victory if offered, but some are clearly in the race for other reasons. I suspect that, were he to think about it, King could probably even come up with the names of some historic presidential candidates whose motives were significantly less honorable than Colbert's.
And of course, once again, there’s the money.

Acquiring the millions needed to get a presidential campaign off the ground requires grueling hours of asking people and groups to part with their treasures on behalf of your cause.
Here's where I really have to part company with King. The money? King specifically identifies "Tim Pawlenty, Jon Huntsman, Michele Bachmann, Cain and now Perry". Let's see... Romney's "grueling hours" of asking himself for money and, as his campaign gained traction, asking his fellow multi-millionaire and billionaire financiers to inject money into his campaign and SuperPAC. Jon Huntsman's "grueling hours" of petitioning himself and his father for a few million to seed his campaign. Michelle Bachmann's "grueling hours" of having people blast emails to her supporters and contributors to "tea party" organizations asking them to give money to her campaign. Cain, once again, asking himself for money. Perry being drafted into the race by monied interests who, had he proved to be a viable candidate, would be continuing to shower money on his campaign.

Yes, presidential candidates often have to engage in fund raising, and to schmooze and promise favors to big donors in exchange for the money they need. King may see that process as unpleasant, unseemly, a lot of work. But having seen how professional politicians can work a room, I suspect that their perception is a bit different. They're the center of attention, people want to bring gifts, kneel before them, kiss their ring and beg favors. For some candidates I expect that process is more fun than actually serving in office.

King complains that Colbert fails to take "the political process seriously". If King means a sober process that's supposed to result in voters being able to select the best, most capable candidate with the best policy, that's a sin Colbert shares with most candidates for elected office. And if King means to bring policy into the discussion - the idea that having Colbert (sort of) in the race will somehow prevent the candidates from discussing the issues - when was it that the candidates were actually discussing the issues, let alone policy formation?

If King is complaining that it's not fair that rich people who are in the public eye have "the prominence and enough dough to form a super PAC", while other candidates have to struggle for years to get into that position, isn't that Colbert's point? He, like half of the Republican candidates, is able to enter the race and be backed by a SuperPAC by virtue of his public profile and personal wealth. Lo and behold, the result is that columnists like King are writing columns analyzing whether that's appropriate or fair. Granted, Colbert probably expected them to focus their attention on more than his own sort-of candidacy, but this is a start.

Absolute vs. Relative Economic Mobility

A while back, Matthew Yglesias wrote that, in response to the fact that our society does not have much income mobility,
The smartest conservatives, ahead of the curve, are reframing the issue again. Maybe it doesn't matter whether sons are able to move up the hierarchy from where their fathers were, maybe what matters is whether kids generally grow up to have higher absolute incomes than their parents.
I can see where Yglesias is coming from, in arguing that those attempting to reframe the issue fall among "the smartest conservatives". Yglesias, himself, has sympathy for the position and the article that inspired Yglesias's comment identifies the smart conservative, Reihan Salam, as one of the proponents of this redefinition.

But no, it's not going to happen.

Why not? First, because the "Horatio Alger" myth is central to Republican policy - tax policy, social policy, educational policy.... Consider how, four years ago, "Joe the Plumber" became the poster child for keeping taxes low on the rich. An average, blue collar guy who had aspirations of joining the 1%. You don't get the masses to rally behind regressive policies if you're blunt with them,
"You'll never benefit from these budget cuts and tax preferences, and your boss probably won't either, but rich people will keep a lot more money in their pockets. And your children will fare marginally better than you did, unless present economic trends continue in which case all bets are off."
Second, once you start offering up the nation of "relative social mobility" you lend credence to the concept of "relative poverty", and for that matter to indexing the minimum wage to inflation, to "living wage" laws, and other measures to ensure that your promise of that modest economic improvement become a reality. By the same token, people want "more than that" for their children. People want to believe that their kids could grow up to be successful, even to become President. If while running for office you puncture those dreams with a, "Yeah, your kid might win the lottery, but odds are his life will only be marginally better than yours," even if it's true you're not going to see the working masses embrace your campaign.

Third, you open the door to people challenging you by pointing to past eras of greater income mobility, or other countries that enjoy greater income mobility, and asking "What's the biggest difference between then and now". If your answer boils down to, "The biggest difference is income inequality, and our tax policies and subsidies - which we are not going to change - have so significantly skewed that balance in favor of the rich that as long as you keep voting for us things won't get better and will probably get worse," once again people aren't going to embrace your policies or campaign.

Should our politicians be more honest both about the limits of income mobility and how present policy creates and perpetuates a de facto class structure? Probably so. But it's unlikely enough that Democrats are going to be that honest about a structure they helped create. It's simply not plausible that the modern Republican party is going to be that honest about the results of its key policies.

Continuation of Policy vs. Endorsement

I guess if we're grading on a curve, among his political peer group Frum is "usually pretty honest in his reasoning", but I have a difficult time ignoring his past sophistry, a professed devotion to rationality that arose largely after he found himself somewhat exiled from the Republican inner circle, and his continuing tendency to stray from the facts on hot button issues.

I recently saw Frum echo the line I've heard from various right-wing sources that President Obama has followed the Bush Administration's approach to the "War on Terror", even expanding some aspects of it, and how that stands as both vindication of the Bush Administration and as evidence of the hypocrisy of everybody who criticized Bush's stances on human rights and torture. I have a difficult time accepting that Frum is offering that line as "honest reasoning".

First, it's a simplistic comparison. It's not inherently unfair to take a big picture perspective, nor is it incorrect to argue that in a big picture sense the Obama Administration has largely followed the model defined by the Bush Administration as of, say, Bush's sixth year in office. The Obama Administration has been more forceful in its rejection of torture, but the Bush Administration backed away from its early tactics even as it continued its public defense of those tactics. But the Obama Administration has changed its approach to terrorism to much less of the a state-focused model of the Bush Administration, and its claim that invading nations that posed us no threat would somehow create a peaceful and prosperous Middle East, and much more of an international effort focused on finding and stopping terrorists wherever they are.

Frum ties his hands to some extent, by endorsing terrorist attacks in the name of slowing down the weapons programs of hostile states, specifically the assassination of Iranian scientists - something that nobody seems to argue will have a material impact on its weapons programs, but no doubt does create a lot of fear among the Iranian scientific community. Whatever the U.S. knowledge of, or role in, those assassinations, the Obama Administration has stepped up the use of drones and "targeted killings" in its effort to squelch al-Qaeda. Frum argues that it's legitimate to commit acts of terrorism against Iran, because Iran commits acts of terrorism against other states, never mind the obvious circularity. That's just another display of the outrage directed by those who applauded Reagan's characterization of the USSR as an "evil empire" when hostile states make an equivalent over-the-top condemnation of our nation or an ally. It's always different when "we do it" - and as we're acting as a force of good, we are excused from all constraints of law or morality. Never mind that the hostile nation employs pretty much the same set of rationalizations.

Were Frum able to admit to others, or perhaps to himself, that terrorism is terrorism - that despite the rhetoric of the speeches he helped pen, you cannot eradicate terrorism if you're going to engage in terrorism as a tactic against your enemies - he might sound like Glenn Greenwald, who condems the Obama Administration for escalating aspects of its war effort while ignoring both its campaign promises and issues of law and justice. But even if Frum perceives that escalation, he has bound himself to a narrative in which this isn't something new, it's more of the same. But I don't see how somebody as bright as Frum, and somebody as intimately familiar with the tactics of the Bush Administration during its first few years in office, is unable to find meaningful distinction between the Bush Administration's approach and that of the Obama Administration. Many of the same people who were squarely behind the invasion of Iraq now favor the invasion of Iran. It would be more than fair for Frum to acknowledge that President Obama is disinclined to start new land wars, let alone a project as vast as an invasion and occupation as Iran. But part of me suspects that Frum is among those who would favor the invasion, so perhaps there's self-interest in his failure to draw that distinction.

Second, the continuation of policy from one administration to another is not a surprise - it's to be expected. Many presidents have inherited wars started by a predecessor. Not a one has summarily ended the war on his first day in office, and many have continued or escalated wars that they, personally, would likely not have started. The U.S. government is like an ocean liner. You can't simply spin the wheel and head in a different direction. Turning the ship is a long, slow process. President Obama promised to wind down Bush's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it was inevitable that doing so would be a years-long process.

As many have pointed out over many decades, even when an incoming administration is critical of the policies of a predecessor, even when it characterizes the policies as "undemocratic" or as a "power grab", it's rare for an incoming President to actually roll back the change once in office. Even if they are less likely to employ the power, or choose not to do so, Presidents enjoy having the potential of exercising the new powers claimed by a predecessor. In the context of "national defense" this phenomenon is further complicated by the fact that as the face of the government, the President is apt to be held personally responsible for a security issue that his opponents claim resulted from his retreat from a prior President's position, even if the new position is more consistent with our nation's heritage and professed values. Consider, for example, right-wing demagoguery in response to the reading of Miranda rights to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the "Underwear Bomber". If we uphold our nation's basic values, at least from the professed standpoint of those demagogues, the nation is doomed.

Here's the deal: Even if there are material changes in the details, Frum's argument boils down to any "big picture" continuation of policy stands as proof that the former administration's policies "worked". Often that will be the case, but in many cases we're dealing with the aforementioned problem of momentum - once the country starts heading in a particular direction you can't turn on a dime. Frum knows this - his own demagoguery on health reform reflects his understanding that, whatever flaws the program might have, once you implement a national healthcare program it's virtually impossible to eliminate that program. Frum could also look to programs like Social Security and Medicare - would he argue that their continuation reflects the Republican Party's acceptance of those programs as sound policy? That G.W.'s massive, unfunded expansion of Medicare through a prescription drug benefit shows a wholehearted Republican embrace of Medicare? Of course not.

Which is to say, when it comes to addressing some of the most important issues of our time, Frum's not being honest.

Update: More of Frum's "honesty" in action.

Let's Get "Elitist" With Our Schools

A lawyer I know used to quip that, in a lawsuit, every lawyer added to the case would double the amount of time it took to resolve the litigation. A similar concept appears to apply to classrooms - each disruptive student added to a classroom doubles the amount of time a teacher must spend on classroom management instead of teaching. I saw that effect when I was in fifth grade and my classroom was split between neighborhood students and kids with emotional disabilities. I saw it in my high school, which had voluntary academic streaming, whenever I was in a class that was not academically streamed. I saw it during my brief stint as a substitute teacher. I will add the caveat that some teachers are much better than others at managing and redirecting classroom disruptions, but the multiplier appears to nonetheless be the same.

When people point to charter schools and argue, "This school is a great success," and I see a school that looks more like a juvenile detention center, with children subject to intensive behavior codes, required to march silently from class to class, squaring off their corners as they turn down another hallway, I see three things: First, the rigidity will almost certainly reduce the amount of time any given teacher has to spend on classroom management, even if they otherwise have weak skills. Why? Because the schools have a clear escalation schedule for behavior issues and clear consequences for repeated infractions. Second, even without considering the accusation that some of these schools actively "counsel out" kids who cannot adhere to their behavior codes, I see how the codes become a mechanism for discouraging problem students from enrolling and in ensuring that many or most who do enroll won't stay. Third, I see a school environment that most middle class parents would find unacceptable for their own children.

And when I hear how "success" is defined by many of these schools, with the trumpeting of any modest improvement over the performance of an average school in the district, I can't help but note that there are often public schools in the same district that perform as well or better, but are largely ignored. There are instances of public schools being hailed as significantly better than others in the district, and when politics enter that process the touted school can turn out to be as overblown in its success as a typical charter. But for the most part charter school advocates and the media portray this as a battle between successful charters and failing public school, whatever the facts.'

When I hear proposals for school reform, I am reminded not only of the failure of one reform after another, I'm reminded of the partial success of the British grammar school model. That model, in very simple terms, involved testing children at age 11 and, on the basis of the result, tracking them into technical, 'modern', or intensely academically oriented grammar schools. In the following passage, George Orwell made observations that suggest that he, like everybody else, can form opinions based upon the passions of the time:
The time was when I used to lament over quite imaginary pictures of lads of fourteen dragged protesting from their lessons and set to work at dismal jobs. It seemed to me dreadful that the doom of a 'job' should descend upon anyone at fourteen. Of course I know now that there is not one working-class boy in a thousand who does not pine for the day when he will leave school. He wants to be doing real work, not wasting his time on ridiculous rubbish like history and geography. To the working class, the notion of staying at school till you are nearly grown-up seems merely contemptible and unmanly. The idea of a great big boy of eighteen, who ought to be bringing a pound a week home to his parents, going to school in a ridiculous uniform and even being caned for not doing his lessons! Just fancy a working-class boy of eighteen allowing himself to be caned!
I'm also reminded of visiting my stepfather's home town in the north of England, seeing two towering schools built side-by-side to respectively educate the boys and girls of a very working class region, and of the fact that for my stepfather and his brother that project was an undeniable success. A critic of the grammar school era who has come to soften his tone observes,
For a considerable time now, however, I have been in the process of changing my mind: did people like me, both a beneficiary of a grammar school education and also a vociferous critic of it at the time, make a grave error?

My thoughts coalesced when I was questioned while taking part in a BBC4 documentary, The Grammar School – A Secret History (to be next screened on Thursday at 9pm). This was a much more difficult U-turn for me than many because I wrote a book in 1975 about my former school, Dagenham County High (now defunct), entitled Goodbye to the Working Class. I was extremely critical of the school specifically and grammar schools in general. Though I do not recant everything, including the book's overall thesis, I now concede that I totally underplayed the value of the education itself.
The atmosphere of the grammar school, or of British schools in general, of the post-WWII period was critiqued, in a manner of speaking, in the movie and song, The Wall.

The concern was not on creating a warm, caring environment for the children, but for those who were lucky enough to make the cut at age 11, and took advantage of what was offered to them, there was the opportunity to advance through education: Getting not only a very strong (for lack of a better term) K-12 education, but also passage into top universities with very low tuition. When I heard my stepfather describe his experiences I had mixed feelings: Fist that I would have appreciated that type of academic opportunity myself and second, even as a student who didn't often get into trouble, that I would not have enjoyed the rule-driven authoritarian structure of his school. (I started school in the U.K., so I had a taste of the tail end of that authoritarianism, and I didn't like the taste even then.)

My stepfather once commented on high school reunions, that his grammar school had never held a reunion? Why? Because by the time he graduated, there were only about twenty students left in his class. There was some truth to what Orwell had to say about the clash of cultures in grammar school. That attrition rate, no doubt, was a significant factor in the winding down of that particular social experiment, but at a cost:
Indeed, when I bump into old boys and girls, the majority of them extol the virtues of the school and the education system which gave them – the sons and daughters of largely blue-collar workers – the chance to take a step on the ladder to a better life....

I supported the transformation to comprehensive schooling in the egalitarian belief that we should dispense with a two-tier state system (the third tier, technical schools, never worked anyway). But I now accept that we should not have rejected the educational ethos of grammar schools. As the testimonies in the documentary illustrate, they did a fine job. In phasing them out, we dumbed down instead of smarting up. And those grammars that have managed to survive prove the point.
The author also notes that although "only 1% of the children of semi-skilled or unskilled workers went on to higher education"
There were economic reasons for many not going on to university, allied to the fact that obtaining a place was difficult because there were fewer universities at the time. Most significantly, the schooling itself provided a springboard to the professions and led many to go to university later, as mature students.
The author concludes that grammar schools, "and particularly the disciplined culture they cultivated", worked, and that the present need is to reinvent them, not to dismiss them. But here's the thing: that takes us back to academic tracking.

I recently discussed tracking with a professor who spent a good part of his career helping K-12 teachers learn to better teach English, and he commented on how different a school environment could be within a large school district, with some schools under pretty good control and others largely out of control. He expressed sympathy for teachers who oppose tracking, as the net result can be that they're left with a classroom full of kids who don't see much or any value in learning. But he seemed to accept that in many school districts, tracking was pretty much the only way you would get the more academically capable students into a learning environment where they were challenged. The conceit of the public school is that smart kids will take care of themselves. Some will, but others will meander or drop out.

The best solution we seem to have developed for students with special aptitude is to offer magnet schools - to allow kids to voluntarily funnel themselves into schools that support academics, the arts, or even specific career training. It's an imperfect solution and, in my opinion, generally starts later than would be ideal. Like British comprehensive schools, even academically focused magnet schools are dumbed down as compared to the historic British grammar schools, but at least students have a shot at being not only prepared for college, but prepared to do well.

To the extent that the British once operated under the conceit that if you identified bright children and gave them the opportunity for a top quality education, albeit in a setting that was too rigid and authoritarian for many kids who were channeled into it, you could make them all college quality and they would all attend college. The reality did not meet that expectation, but when you look at what was accomplished you have to acknowledge a transformation of culture and the economic elevation of a great many kids who were otherwise unlikely to have moved beyond working class employment and wages. Their rise was buoyed by a number of factors, including the post-WWII economic expansion, the increased need for educated workers, and the fact that traditional class structures arguably contributed to a larger-than-otherwise-likely population of bright young people with supportive families who were nonetheless pretty much locked into the bottom end of the nation's class structure. But a valid takeaway is that you do help achieve social mobility, better society, and better the lives of individual young people when you give them the opportunity to pursue academically rigorous education.

Our nation presently operates under the conceit that schools can turn anybody into "college material" and that everybody will benefit from having a college degree. I disagree on both counts. In terms of the value of a college degree, a strong case can be made that an excessive population of college graduates, emerging from colleges that have dumbed down degree programs to ensure high completion rates, makes a college degree less valuable. When employers can no longer safely make assumptions about the academic abilities of a college graduate based upon their degree, and when there are many underqualified or lightly qualified graduates who look pretty much the same on paper as the ones who would be a good hire, the hiring decision is apt to turn on other factors. That's not new - the elite colleges that have traditionally served society's scions still carry intense brand value that is arguably in gross disproportion to their comparative academic rigor - but it puts many college graduates back in the position that high school graduates enjoyed back in the 1950's and 60's. A college degree is in some ways analogous to a union card - it doesn't necessarily show that you can do the job, but at least it opens the door for your application. A "college for all" attitude dilutes that value.

Also, even for some highly capable or highly intelligent students, completing college can consume years and money that would be better invested in other pursuits, such as jumping into a challenging field based upon a display of ability, or starting a business. Also, some students benefit from taking time between high school and college, as they lack the interest or motivation to study. (Think: the entire phenomenon of the "party school".)

I would like to see educational reform focus on helping students identify their aptitudes, and maximize the development of their skills. I would try to provide a structure in which a student whose interests changed, or whose aptitudes shifted, move from one track to another - or perhaps be the equivalent of a "dual major" - rather than locking kids into a track based upon choices made or test results from too young an age. And while I would try to provide equal opportunity for all, and to give all kids safe schools with competent teachers, I would not concern myself with notions of "elitism" when I allowed kids to choose academically tracked programs. It may well have been an "elitist" system that allowed my stepfather and his brother to leave a small, working class town, get Oxbridge educations, and pursue successful careers in business, but our nation's "reforms" of the past decade seem more likely to have kept them in under-performing schools while the nation's resources were poured into trying to bring sub-average students up to average and pretend that would make them all "college ready". If you pretend that the smart kids, or those who excel vocationally or artistically, in failing schools (or the mediocre charters we pretend are fantastic) will take care of themselves, you'll disadvantage those kids and deprive society of the full extent of their gifts.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Newt Gingrich and Open Marriage

The uncharitable translation: "Did I ask for an open marriage? No way! That would mean she would get to sleep around as well."

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Fools, Frauds and Politicians

Paul Krugman summarizes his "Fools and Frauds" theory of politicians, and its effect on the present Republican primaries:
I view the primary race through the lens of the FOF theory — that’s for “fools and frauds”. It goes as follows: to be a good Republican right now, you have to affirm your belief in things that any halfway intelligent politician can see are plainly false. This leaves room for only two kinds of candidates: those who just aren’t smart and/or rational enough to understand the problem, and those who are completely cynical, willing to say anything to get ahead.
FOF is a close cousin to the "stupid or lying" debate that has at times come up in comments to this blog - when politicians say things that are patently untrue is it because they're stupid (fools) or because they're frauds (lying). The fraud assumes either that you're uninformed, and not likely to become informed, or that you're too stupid to see the facts that are right in front of your face.

But here's the thing: even if it is a fine illustration of the phenomenon at work, FOF is not unique to the present primary campaign. In fairness, if that's the word, every politician is a little bit of a fool (asked to comment on issues that he doesn't fully understand, and bluffing his way through at risk of being accused of making a "gaffe") and a little bit of a fraud (making representations or campaign promises that he knows won't bear fruit, or that he knows are at best partial truths, because part of the problem is that the public often doesn't want the whole truth). To some degree, FoF stands as an illustration of the maxim that people get the government that they deserve.

One thing is certain, though, as long as fact checkers approach the issue of facts with fear of being accused of partisanship if they don't balance out their truth-telling between the sides, as long as the news media chooses not to "take sides" even when the truth is objectively determinable, and as long as the primary focus of "news analysis" is either partisan commentary or a battle between pundits who are often, themselves, fools and frauds, people will continue to have difficulty getting accurate information or separating the truth from fraud and fiction. And that's before we get into the foibles of the human mind, and how we tend to dismiss or diminish facts that get in the way of our beliefs, even when our beliefs are wrong or irrational.

I've recently commented on the bizarre impact that FOF is having on the Republican primary process, but I don't think it's so much the Republican candidates that are the problem. It's that they are dealing with a base of voters that has been trained and empowered to demand that candidates pass certain litmus tests, and that modern campaigns are driven by polls. The Democrats benefit, if you can call it that, from having a less cohesive base and thus far fewer "make or break" litmus tests, but the downside is that, at least historically, it's harder to unite the base behind a candidate.

It may be that polls are now so central to campaigns that we'll increasingly see candidates distinguishing themselves from each other in the manner of the present Republican campaign (or in the manner that Gore failed to distinguish himself from Bush during his campaign, lending credence to the myth that there was no significant difference between them).
That opponent is plain, ordinary supermarket vanilla. The candidate over there may taste like vanilla but he's vanillin, only pretending to be vanilla. The candidate in that other corner is Mexican vanilla. You may thing he tastes better than the supermarket brand, but don't be fooled. Oh, and my other rival? Vanilla bean paste - he's a little bit thick, if you know what I mean.

Me? I'm Tahitian vanilla. Strong, flavorful, aromatic (in a good way), and just what we need to bake a perfect Republic.
To the degree that this election is different from those that came before it, it's only a matter of degree.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Poor Romney: Struggling to Get By While "Unemployed"

A funny little nugget buried in Romney’s statement this morning on his tax returns. In passing, Romney said although most of his money came from investment income, a small amount came from speeches. “I get speakers fees from time to time but not very much.” Well, it turns out that amount is over $374,000 last year. Which is a fair amount of money, though to give some perspective, not a wild amount of money compared to what other retired politicians make giving speeches.
In fairness to Romney, he probably thinks that unemployment benefits pay more than $400,000 per year.

Lies and the Lying Liars....

Shorter Rick Santorum: Republicans are only supposed to lie about Democrats.

Romney's Tax Return Tactics: Delay and Obfuscate

I guess, last April, it didn't occur to Mitt Romney that somebody would want to see his tax returns.
Under new pressure to release his personal income tax returns, Mitt Romney on Tuesday acknowledged that he pays an effective tax rate of about 15 percent because so much of his fortune comes from investments he made in the past.
Romney presents himself as some form of business and financial genius, so I have to assume he knows how to take the amount of tax he paid, divide it by his AGI, and come up with the actual figure. So why "about"? The most obvious inference is that his opponents have been throwing around the 15% figure, and Romney figures that lower amount he paid is "close enough" to 15% to justify adopting that figure. But it's also obvious that Romney is hiding something that he sees as potentially extremely damaging to his candidacy.
By Tuesday morning, Mr. Romney said that April's tax season seemed to be the appropriate month for such a disclosure, and that he was following "tradition" from previous presidential races.
You see, it's not his fault he's obfuscating and waffling on the issue. It's the fault of people who ran in the past. It's the fault of Congress for making tax returns due in April. He simply has no power to act independently of all that "tradition".
"And I know that if I'm the nominee, people will want to see the most recent year, and see what happened in the most recent year and what things are up to date and so they'll want to see the tax returns that come out in April," Mr. Romney said. "So rather than sort of have multiple releases of tax returns, why, we'll wait until the tax returns for the most recent year are completed, then release them."
The problem with multiple releases of tax returns being exactly what? That the people will have the information they want and be happy? The horror!

But wait - I think Romney gave away his game when he said "we'll wait until the tax returns for the most recent year are completed, then release them." It's not only that he wants to stall before releasing his returns, lest facts harm him in the upcoming primaries. It appears to be that he only plans to release his taxes for the 2011 tax year.

I think Romney wants to hide not only his actual tax rate, which as I previously indicated he should be able to calculate in seconds. I think his concern is that his tax return for 2010 exploits an extraordinary number of tax dodges and loopholes, such that although his tax rate is nonetheless "about 15 percent" he has avoided paying any taxes on millions of dollars such that the average person would see his tax rate is being substantially lower.

I can't help but wonder, if that's the case, after filing his 2011 taxes and releasing them to the public will Romney be filing an amended return to take advantage of the tax dodges, shelters and loopholes he doesn't want the public to know about?

Keep in mind, also, that if Romney becomes President this is exactly how he'll govern: Misrepresentation, obfuscation, delays, deception, excuses... except as President, it won't only be his money that he's playing with.

Monday, January 16, 2012

There's No Return in Backing a Loser

Some people in South Carolina are irate that their governor, supposedly a tea party type,1 has backed Romney. Some people are puzzled that Jon Huntsman, having decided that he's the only major candidate who is never going to get a "bubble", is reportedly going to endorse Romney.

But there should be no surprise in any of that.

If you want to be on good terms with the man who is potentially the next President, you back him. You don't try to tear him down. Ask Hillary Clinton's backers how they have fared in terms of cabinet positions and political appointments in relation to those who backed President Obama.

Still, I sense no enthusiasm.
1. Gov. Nikki Haley was troubled by Romney's healthcare reforms in Massachusetts. Not when she backed him in 1988, mind you, but only after it became fashionable to demagogue about the issue in order to curry favor with Tea Partiers. I'm sure the timing is a coincidence.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Republican Candidates Stand For... Nothing?

If you follow the debates, the news coverage, the analysis of the Republican primaries, you might get the sense that you're dealing with a wide set of issues and solutions. If that's what you think, look again.

The debates turn largely on personality, not substance. The only candidate who offers a materially different perspective is Ron Paul. Otherwise, while might hear suggestions to the otherwise (e.g., Santorum advocates for the working masses), there is very little difference between the candidates. Their policy proposals vary only in the details. None question party orthodoxy. I can give Huntsman some credit for acknowledging the reality of global warming, or for accepting the science behind evolutionary theory, but I haven't heard how that acknowledgment translates into different policy.

What position do the non-Paul candidates take on taxes?1 They all want to cut taxes for the rich, debating only in relation to how much the cuts should be. Reproductive freedoms? They all claim to be pro-life, arguing only about whether a rape or incest victim should be permitted access to an abortion. Immigration? The status quo, with debate only over how aggressively to deport illegal immigrants. Entitlements? Cut 'em....

Perhaps the oddest aspect of the campaign is that the undisputed frontrunner, the guy who is all but certain to take the nomination, is widely considered to be a liar. He cannot get the religious right to rally behind him because they don't trust that his conversions on their litmus test issues are genuine. Meanwhile many on the political left view him as the least offensive candidate because they assume he's lying about his present policy positions and that if elected he will reveal himself to be politically moderate - or perhaps I should say, will govern from the center out of the belief that it's the best way to get reelected.

Meanwhile, the Republican candidates take it for granted that they can make absurd claims and lies about President Obama and his administration and get away with it. So far they're right - the media is not holding them to account.

Were Romney an honest man and consistent in his position, no matter where on the political spectrum he stands - I would feel reasonably comfortable about the possibility of his becoming President. He's stiff in his public presentation? Sometimes puts his foot in his mouth? Seems more comfortable with his family than when schmoozing? None of that bothers me - I can empathize on all counts. But unless you believe that he truly has had a miraculous transformation in his core beliefs that just happens to bring them into alignment with (a) the opinions of Republican primary voters as measured by polls, (b) positions sufficiently consistent with the litmus tests applied to Republican candidates, (c) and the positions of the other candidates competing for the position, you have to accept that he's a liar. And that if he weren't a liar, he would already be out of the race.

How sad is that?
1. Paul often stands with his Republican colleagues on the issues. I except him from this list not because he necessarily differs from the others, particularly in relation to allowing states to deprive citizens of their rights and freedoms, but because I am describing the uniformity of the other candidates.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Santorum Skips the Light Fandango

Just to be clear, when Santorum compares Newt Gingrich to the President with a comment like, "We need contrasts, not just a paler shade of what we have", it's not because the President is a bla...ah person.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Auto Bailout - Venture Capitalism in Action?

Mitt Romney's position on the auto industry bailout has been anything but consistent, but his latest spin is to try to compare the process of the bailout to the actions of a venture capitalist. Paul Krugman points out that Romney is now trying to claim a form of "credit for the very policy he trashed when it hung in the balance",
So what the story of Romney and the auto bailout actually shows is something we already knew from health care: he’s a smart guy who is also a moral coward. His original proposal for the auto industry, like his health reform, bore considerable resemblance to what Obama actually did. But when the deed took place, Romney — rather than having the courage to say that the president was actually doing something reasonable — joined the rest of his party in whining and denouncing the plan.
But there's something else we need to recall: at the time of the bailout, Chrysler was not a publicly traded company. It had been acquired and mismanaged by a private equity firm.

I don't want to overstate Obama's role in the bailout, as I don't think President Bush would have done things much differently, but here's the thing: President Obama pushed Chrysler through a managed bankruptcy after the private equity process failed. You can't say "It's the same thing a private equity firm would have done" because we know what the private equity firm actually did before the government had to take over and clean up its mess.


How to Make Rush Limbaugh's Head Explode

Thursday, January 12, 2012

"Fed Up"

Idiots in an echo chamber.

"We're Not Attacking Romney - We're Helping Him!"

In an article that probably should be titled, "Perry says it’s better to exploit Romney’s business record now before Democrats discuss it", Rick Perry defends his attacks on Mitt Romney by, it would seem, conceding that he has no expectation that he's going to win the nomination and pretending that his continued candidacy and attacks on Romney are for Romney's benefit.
“If that’s a flawed candidate because of that practice we need to talk about it now,” Perry said. “I can promise you, this wasn’t something that wasn’t going to get talked about. I think it’s better that we talk about it now in January instead of in September.”

The Texas governor has endured blowback from conservatives who saw his description of “vulture capitalism” as an affront to free-market values. Earlier Thursday, a prominent Perry supporter switched his allegiance to Romney over the issue.
Translation: Perry gave one of his prominent backers an excuse to noisily change his allegiance from a candidate who is now openly telling his supporters, "You're wasting your money", in favor of the candidate Perry admits is going to be nominated.

But can't anybody in the Republican campaign be honest? Perry's out to help only one person with his attacks on Romney: himself.
Perry is desperate for a strong showing in South Carolina’s primary on Jan. 21 to keep his presidential hopes alive.
No, he's not. There's a theory that he's spending down his remaining campaign cash, a favor to his staffers who would otherwise be laid off, but his own contentions belie the notion that he's in it to win. Unless you're stupid enough to believe that he actually does want to help Romney, in which case I probably can't help you....

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Romney's Inevitability

For those of us who have seen Romney as inevitable, pretty much from the time the candidate pool was established, answering the question, "How did it happen", has been easy: The rest of the candidate pool was not very good. Most of the candidates had serious flaws, baggage, or credibility problems that made it seem pretty obvious that they would fail. The fact that many within the party want an alternative to Romney has been obvious, also from the outset. But there are two problems: First, the various people who did not enter the race who have been ballyhooed as possible saviors of the party are also seriously flawed, and second, the number of litmus tests imposed on Republican candidates make it very difficult for a candidate to enter the race without seeming as empty-headed or two-faced as the candidates who are already running. Romney is in a unique position in that to the extent that he fails to meet litmus tests he is nonetheless a known quantity - he failed those tests four years ago.

Daniel Larison suggests,
Conservatives did not rally behind any one candidate to oppose Romney months ago because I think many of them expected Romney to falter or implode long before this, so they thought they had the luxury of time to choose from among the alternatives. Romney didn’t implode, and conservatives frittered away valuable time on various long-shot and incompetent candidates.
I think, more accurately, Jeb Bush chose not to run because he would still be dragged down by his brother's disastrous record, and he is young enough to wait four or eight years to try for the nomination, Rick Perry revealed himself to be a woefully incompetent candidate, and the rest of the names that get tossed out don't reflect candidates any better qualified or more appealing than the better half of those who were already running,1 and some are just plain unelectable.

But there's more to the analysis than people being used to Mitt Romney, or pundits waxing romantic about how presidential he looks. If you examine his record it's fair to say that the man has no core beliefs, that he's willing to bend and compromise on anything in order to gain power, that he stands for nothing but himself. But that would be completely wrong. There is one issue for which Romney has been 100% consistent, as far as I can tell, from the day his daddy bought him his first copy of the Wall Street Journal: He's 100%, unequivocally on the side of Wall Street and the financial industry. Josh Marshall finds it weird that "Romney surrogate and former New Hampshire Governor John Sununu" has "suggested that the investor community might punish Newt-backer Sheldon Adelson for funding Newt’s anti-Bain Capital movie".
Does he think that people don't remember when you attack them and pay for the attacks in a primary, especially when one ever the parties receiving that attack is a party he likes to go to to finance his expansions?
The "King of Bain" movie may be an attack on 1980's style corporate raiders and leveraged buyouts, and it's certainly an attack on Mitt Romney, but it's only arguably an attack on Wall Street by proxy - when you go after their boy you go after them.2

I believe that concern about Romney comes from two directions:

First, from Republicans who believe that he cannot be trusted to hold to the party line on anything, given that he has a history of political compromise. Quite notably, the compromise that led to his health insurance program being implemented in Massachusetts reveals not only his support for a plan almost identical to the Affordable Care Act, it reflects how he will orchestrate a compromise bill that cedes a lot to his political opponents in order to position himself for his next anticipated election.3 That is, once in office Romney's concern will be to be reelected, and probably also to try to rank as a great President, and he knows full well that the gridlock and partisanship of the past few years will do nothing but tarnish his presidency.

Second, there appears to be a genuine concern that Romney will prove to be a wooden, uncharismatic candidate whose past waffling, and present advocacy for wealth and power, will lead to his self-destruction on the campaign trail. The Bain stuff is coming out now, some say too early. But he seems intent on maintaining his tax returns as a campaign issue - not wanting to disclose how much he earns as an "unemployed" person, the comparatively tiny amount he pays in taxes on his millions in passive income, or confirm that he exploits overseas tax shelters to further reduce his tax obligations.

Romney is subject to attacks on his personal integrity - and he doesn't do much to help himself on that front with his own dubious commitment to facts and truthfulness - and to political attacks from the right ("He's a phony, he will compromise with Democrats") and the left ("Why should we worry about President Romney? Sure, he'll fight tooth and nail to prevent reasonable regulation of the financial industry or steps to hold them accountable, and will bail them out in a heartbeat, but on pretty much every other issue he has at one time or another staked out positions to the left of President Obama.")

Concerns that Romney is not sufficiently in line with the religious right? As long as no third party candidate runs to draw off the most ardent of religious conservative voters, it will be Republican politics as usual: Say what it takes to get the religious right to come out and vote Republican, toss them a few bones once in office, talk a good game, but deliver little of substance. To a degree it's better to keep the religious right unhappy, because if their issues were actually addressed they might lose the fire in their collective belly and stop performing as such a reliable Republican voting bloc. But no danger of that - the Republican Party is personified by Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum - public piety, perhaps in Santorum's case actually believed, but advancing an agenda that benefits wealth and power, and helps them obtain and maintain wealth and power once they leave office. it's called lip service - they should be used to it by now.
1. Common suggestions are Chris Christie, Mitch Daniels, Bobby Jindal, Haley Barbour, Paul Ryan, Mike Pence, and John Thune.

2. (Added) Since I wrote this, it has been observed that Romney appears to have prepared to respond to attacks on his record by Democrats with childish, misleading name-calling - and he has not changed his tactics, so his hacks and proxies are now accusing other Republicans of being socialists or "sounding like" Occupy Wall Street.

3. The insurance reform he achieved as governor was supposed to be a cornerstone of his campaign for the presidency as the man who could bring a conservative, free market reform to the nation's health insurance market. The frenzied, reactionary opposition to the Affordable Care Act turned his success into something of a liability, but one to which voters have become accustomed - perhaps it was voter opposition to a Massachusetts/ACA-style reform that has proved to be overstated.