Thursday, January 31, 2008

Breaking News

Nicholas Kristof has figured out that Bill and Hillary Clinton are related.
If Hillary Rodham Clinton serves two terms, then for 28 years the presidency will have been held by a Bush or a Clinton. By that point, about 40 percent of Americans would have lived their entire lives under a president from one of these two families.

Wouldn’t that make our democracy seem a little, er, Pakistani?
No. For that we would need a military coup.

I have previously shared my thoughts on "dynasty" and my conclusion,
I personally have some real problems with Hillary Clinton's ascendency, but they aren't about dynasty. With no offense intended, as good as the Democratic slate of candidates looks when contrasted with the Republican slate, is this truly the best we can do? I think not, so perhaps it is time for our nation to spend some time thinking about why those we would truly like to serve as President are turned off of politics, or are unable to get any traction within the major political parties. With no slight intended to Ms. Clinton as compared to anybody else in national politics, if our political system were currently elevating our best and brightest to the leadership positions of our nation we wouldn't be having this discussion.

McCain and Alito

Today, Robert Novak rambles about whether John McCain is a "conservative", based upon rumors that McCain would have picked John Roberts for the Supreme Court but not Samuel Alito.
That was the background for conservative John Fund's Wall Street Journal online column the day before Florida voted. Fund wrote that McCain "has told conservatives he would be happy to appoint the likes of Chief Justice Roberts to the Supreme Court. But he indicated he might draw the line on a Samuel Alito because 'he wore his conservatism on his sleeve.' " In a conference call with bloggers that day, McCain said, "I don't recall a conversation where I would have said that." He was "astonished" by the Alito quote, he said, and he repeatedly says at town meetings, "We're going to have justices like Roberts and Alito."
Personally, I would not pick either of them.

That's not about ideology, as such. It's about personality. I am not particularly enamored with people, no matter how bright and accomplished, who appear to possess authoritarian personalities. Nor am I particularly enamored with people who seem to be locked into a particular ideology, where "All roads lead to Rome." It's a bit like seeing Scalia concoct a brand spanking new version of "sovereign immunity", which I'm sure he would insist is 100% consistent with the intentions of the founding fathers (even if he was the first to notice). I'm not thrilled with eagerness with which the Roberts Court approaches voting rights - not with an eye to protecting voters, but what seems to be an eye for preventing challenges to unconstitutional laws until after an election is over. Gerrymandering? Reproductive freedom? Habeas Corpus? What surprises do you expect?

When you take any particular question going before the court, nine times out of ten you can guess how the various justices are going to vote before you read the decision. If you are handed a decision and get the vote count, probably 19 times out of 20 you can accurately guess which Justices joined the majority opinion, and which dissented. And that's if you're not a Supreme Court scholar, but just a passive observer of the court. The factions of the political right that are infatuated with Roberts and Alito like to skewer the court's "swing voters" - those who don't consistently fall under their preferred ideology. It isn't that those factions know something about the law or Constitution - their only concern is the advancement of a specific political agenda.

Maybe I would feel differently if I were President, and had the opportunity to appoint a justice so rigid in his beliefs that I was confident that he would provide a consistent vote for my political agenda - continuing perhaps for decades after I left office. But I'm not the President, I get to be more idealistic, and I want justices who actually wrestle with the issues rather than consistently falling back on ideology. And I would just as soon avoid having any authoritarian personalities on the Court.

If You Smooth Out All The Bumps....

Sites like Alexa are fun, but how good is their data? The blue line in the following graph is Alexa's interpretation of my website's "reach" - . The red line is an estimate of reality, based upon my own analytics data. Unfortunately I did not actually experience the frenzy of activity Alexa shows for mid-2005 through early 2007, and my traffic has increased considerably since what Alexa shows as a "peak".

I like the actual statistics bit better than Alexa's version, as in reality I have slow, steady growth in my website's traffic, not a peak followed by a decline.

A Mistake? On Our Website? Impossible!

After a couple of days trying to book a flight on, and receiving a variety of error messages, I received an error message instructing me to call their reservations center. So I did. The person who answered instructed me that she could take my reservation, but it would cost an extra $10 per person. I objected on the basis that I had to call because there was an error on their website. The rather condescending response? No, the problem was that I was entering my information incorrectly, and if I wanted she could put me through to technical support so somebody could tell me how to enter it correctly.

I explained again that the problem was with the website. I was told again, no, the only possible cause of an error had to be me. But she could book the flight for that extra $10/person fee. So I instructed her that if there was somebody who could magically fix the problem with their website over the phone, I would love to speak to that person. (Yes, a little bit of condescension in return.) Again, "There isn't anything wrong with our website." So, I instructed her, by all means, please... transfer me to the magical person in technical support.

I know - you'll be shocked to learn this. It took about thirty seconds for their technical support person to recognize that they had an error on their website which was preventing my online reservation.

The tech support person was great. But as we could not work around the error on the website, ultimately she had somebody from reservations book the flight.

Really Dumb Spammers

Okay.... Here are the back-to-back emails:
On 1/31/08 6:14 AM, "Hadley Sandford" ( wrote:

> Hello ,
> My name is Richard Thompson and I am interested in having a link on your
> website (
> ).
> I will be very thankful to you if you give me some prices for the following
> ads:
> 1) text link on your homepage/all pages
> 2) text box ad 120x60, 125x125 on homepage/all pages
> Thank you in advance!
> Richard Thompson

(If you want a non-work-safe set of search results, google "Hadley's" email address.

On 1/31/08 5:25 AM, "Tansy Cowper" ( wrote:

> Good day,
> My name is Edward Johnson and I am looking to buy links from good websites as
> yours (
> I will be glad if I can have a text link or a text box 120x60 or 125x125 on
> your site. Please advise what what will be the price for each of these ads, if
> it is placed:
> 1. On your homepage only
> 2. On all site pages
> I will be very thankful to you if you take into consideration my requrest.
> Kind Regards
> Edward Johnson

On 1/31/08 5:42 AM, "Tatyanna Walker" ( wrote:

> Hello,
> Browsing on the Internet I came upon your website
> (
> ) and I find it very interesting and useful.
> My name is Daniel Lee and the reason I am contacting you is my interest in
> purchasing advertising spot on your site.
> I will be very thankful if you tell me how much a text link or banner 120x60 /
> 125x125 on your home page or all pages will cost.
> Thank you in advance!
> Daniel Lee


On 1/31/08 4:57 AM, "Salome Baum" ( wrote:

> Hello ,
> My name is Richard Thompson and I am interested in having a link on your
> website (
> I will be very thankful to you if you give me some prices for the following
> ads:
> 1) text link on your homepage/all pages
> 2) text box ad 120x60, 125x125 on homepage/all pages
> Thank you in advance!
> Richard Thompson

I'm sure there are more to come... (and probably some deeper in my unread mail of the day.) is registered to:
NJDomains / Gerald Gorman
Fax: +12124254200
90 Washington Valley Road
Bedminster, NJ 07921
Learn more about Mr. Gorman here, here, here and here.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

A Bit Late, But....

The five most popular "stopped clock" posts of 2007:
  1. The "Murder" of Vince McMahon - Nothing else came close. Maybe I should convert this blog to some sort of Perez Hilton gossip fest.
  2. Unbundled Legal Services And Ghastly Legal Opinions - Apparently more than a few people agree with me.
  3. Fraud on eBay? No Kidding.... - Even after two years, this post remains remarkably popular.
  4. Internet Fraud Goes "Old School" - I guess the fraudulent use of my website name and logo was pretty widespread.
  5. Teaching People To "Think Like Lawyers" - My somewhat stream of consciousness critique of a weak editorial by legal gossip columnist Ann Althouse. (There really is something to this gossip angle.)

Bipartisanship As The Cure For All Evils?

Bob Graham identifies five areas of Congressional "gridlock":
  • Huge gaps in national and homeland security;
  • Nearly 50 million Americans have no health insurance, and the number is growing;
  • We have recklessly neglected our nation's infrastructure;
  • We have no "real" energy policy;
  • Seven of 10 Americans now believe that our children will be less well off than their parents.
Although it's a bit ugly to view it this way, those five points are not the consequence of "gridlock" - they are the consequence of Republican success in controlling legislation and policy on those issues.

It is reasonable to infer that Graham is dissatisfied with the status quo, but none of his proposed reforms in the parties' nominating process, campaign finance laws, or voter education will affect this "gridlock" in the short term. And I doubt that they will have any effect in the long term. If a party wishing to break the status quo gains control of the White House and Congress, preferably with a 60-vote majority in the Senate, they have a great deal of power to implement change against the wishes of the opposition party. If you demand that there be compromise and consensus, you will never achieve the desired change, as you will always be conceding ground to the party that opposes change.

Don't speak to me of a theoretical future where the parties hold hands and merrily agree on all the major issues. Tell me how we get the necessary majority in office to effect change, even over the strong objections and obstructionist tactics of the opposition party. Certainly you can look to building a consensus greater than 51%, but at the end of the day if you want your ideas to win you had better be ready to fight for victory.

Turning A Corner....

Or perhaps going around the bend? The Corner brings us this fantabulous display of... should we call it "McCain Derangement Syndrome"?
In November, we'll be sending out our most liberal, least trustworthy candidate vs. to take on Hillary Clinton — perhaps not more liberal than Barack Obama, but certainly far less trustworthy.
This is Michael Graham's response to McCain's defeat of Romney?

Edwards Drops Out

Normally I wouldn't comment on this, but under the circumstances I wanted to dedicate a song to Charles Krauthammer. Here you go.

Monday, January 28, 2008

That's The Problem With Civil Rights Leaders

No matter where they look, they just can't see racism. That's why we always need to have condescending, rich white men around - to set them straight.

Jesse Jackson, who supports Obama, seems to be giving the candidates some sound advice:
Still, Mr. Jackson said that he had spoken to Mr. Obama on Saturday night and to Mr. Clinton a few days earlier and that he had appealed to both to “take it to a higher ground.”

* * *

He said his chief concern was that Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton not “bloody themselves” so much that they can’t unite against the Republicans in November.
With Kristol being that upset about reaching back a couple of decades to compare between Barack Obama and Jesse Jackson, what sort of racism would he infer on the part of somebody who reached back 150 years or so to compare Barack Obama to Stephen Douglas?

It's So Cute It Could Make Your Head Explode

My three-year-old has entered the phase where almost anything you say to her inspires the question, "Why?"

This does not appear to be a short phase....

Nothing Makes You Seem More Interested In The Truth...

... Than threatening your critics with a lawsuit.

The site,, has generated controversy by allowing people to post attacks on pretty much anybody, then charging people a fee if they wish to dispute the attacks. Although the site suggests that responding is free unless you have a significant number of complaints, I know somebody who tried to respond to a single complaint against him. He indicated that he was told that he would have to pay a fee for his rebuttal to be posted. I can't verify what happened - it's second-hand information - and this happened a couple of years ago so perhaps they've softened their policies. But I can verify that a search of the site produces only one complaint under his name.

The site claims to fall under the safe harbor provisions of the DMCA. Thus, a new round of lawsuits attempts to take them outside of the safe harbor by suggesting that they create or modify posts, have engaged in extortion, or are in violation of RICO.

Judging from the number of lawsuits the site has defended, it seems reasonable to infer that their business model generates significant revenue.

One of the site's lawyers, Thomas B. Duffy, has responded to a summary of the allegations and legal claims about the site. Two of the comments suggest that the keyword-stuffed, often repetitive titles of the site's pages are truly user-generated. I run a site where I get a lot of user-generated complaints about people and businesses, so I am only partially willing to accept this explanation. I do get some lousy titles, but there is a strong correlation between the quality of the title and the quality of the post. RipOff Report seems often to have a lousy title followed by a reasonably well-written post. Also, while many of RipOff Reports' titles seem to be lengthy and keyword-stuffed, I get few posts with such rambling titles.

You have to register to post a "Ripoff Report" and I'm not willing to take that step, but I suspect that the title is composed of three different fields - first, the target's business name, second a summary of the complaint, and third the target's location. Those components appear to be strung together into the title for the post and page. Either that, or there is instruction to provide a title composed of those three components in that order. This can't be random.

But none of that inspired this post. What got to me was this:
I do know that on several occasions during the course of the phone call, Duffy informed me that Magedson was upset, talking to his "litigators," and thinking about suing the SEO community for "ganging up" on him. While he did not go into detail, Duffy hinted that Magedson may try and bring some kind of antitrust lawsuit against everyone who has participated in the recent online discussions about RipOff Report.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

But What If... He's Not?

When I read things like this:
I have never had a president who inspired me the way people tell me that my father inspired them. But for the first time, I believe I have found the man who could be that president - not just for me, but for a new generation of Americans.
I can't help but wonder, what if he's not? And for that matter, what's so great about being "inspirational"? If you have two candidates vying for the same job, one of whom is inspirational and the other of whom is competent and capable (but dry as toast), who can you trust more to get the job done? I'm not arguing that the two are mutually exclusive, but being "inspirational" does always correlate with being effective. There is no guarantee a President's words, no matter how inspirational, will translate into Congressional action. History also suggests that being "inspirational" won't stop a President from involving us in ill-advised, catastrophic wars.

Given the best of all worlds, I suppose we would have an inspirational President who is also extremely competent and effective. But until we're doing more than hoping that a candidate will be inspirational, my focus will remain upon the candidate'smeasurable attributes. To me, Obama appears intent upon, as much as possible, remaining a tabula rasa upon to which his supporters can project their own dreams and wishes for the country. What if he is the type of candidate who is inspirational only up to the day he enunciates a platform or implements specific policies?

Oh My... John Edwards Is a Politician

For reasons I can't quite grasp, Charles Krauthammer devoted a lengthy column to attacking a candidate he views as having no chance of victory, John Edwards. It seems like a waste of a column to me, but maybe Krauthammer was out of ideas this week. Or maybe he hates Edwards "that much". Read it, and see how Krauthammer (yes, really) rushes to the defense of "left liberals":
A cynical farce that is particularly galling to authentic and principled left-liberals. "The one [presidential candidate] that is the most problematic is Edwards," Sen. Russ Feingold told the Post-Crescent in Appleton, Wis., "who voted for the Patriot Act, campaigns against it. Voted for No Child Left Behind, campaigns against it. Voted for the China trade deal, campaigns against it. Voted for the Iraq war. . . . He uses my voting record exactly as his platform, even though he had the opposite voting record."
I think the critique of Edwards is largely fair - you should judge a candidate upon their actual voting record and, if they wish to depart from their record, they should have a good explanation. I don't think Edwards' departures have been adequately explained. But in fairness to Edwards, you could write a very similar piece about some of John McCain's more notable changes of heart, or perhaps noting his sometimes foolish consistency. And good luck finding any consistency in Mitt Romney's record....

Krauthammer saves the best for last:
It profits a man nothing to sell his soul for the whole world. But for 4 percent of the Nevada caucuses?
I'm sure that sent a chill down Edwards' spine. When you hear the voice of experience talking like that, it has to put a scare into you.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Take It On Faith - The Markets Will Heal Themselves

Today David Brooks gives us another of his "there are two types of people" columns, this time in relation to the financial markets. As usual, one type of person agrees with David Brooks and is correct, and the other type of person disagrees with him and is wrong. The latter group accepts a "greed narrative" of the financial markets, in which:
The financial markets are dominated by absurdly overpaid zillionaires. They invent complex financial instruments, like globally securitized subprime mortgages that few really understand. They dump these things onto the unsuspecting, sending destabilizing waves of money sloshing around the globe. Economies melt down. Regular people lose jobs and savings. Meanwhile, the financial insiders still get their obscene bonuses, rain or shine.
Smart people like Brooks know better, and endorse an "ecology narrative":
It starts with the premise that investors and borrowers cooperate and compete in a complex ecosystem. Everyone seeks wealth while minimizing risk....

Hedge funds have proliferated to help investors manage risk. These things exist precisely because investors want to smooth out volatility. In the old days, a blow to, say, the Texas economy could have dried up lending in Texas, but now funds flow globally, and money from one part of the world can shore up weakness in another.
The problem with the ecology narrative, according to Brooks, is not greed, but is inexperience:
When a new instrument enters the market, it takes a while before people understand and institutionalize it. Whether the product is high-yield bonds or mortgage-backed securities, there’s a tendency to get carried away.

In the first stage of this adolescence, investors look around and see everybody else making money off some new instrument. As Nicholas Bloom of Stanford notes: “They assume they are fine because they see everyone else buying it.”

Brooks assures us that this rush into the new and unknown isn't driven by greed - it's just inexperience. There is no "greed" to be found when an extremely well-compensated investment banker or financial professional pours investor money into an investment vehicle that he doesn't understand. He's like a teenager who gets to drive a muscle car - he may get a little bit carried away, wrap the car around a tree, and cause a great deal of anguish for the owner, but what can you expect from a teenager? I mean, an investment professional earning six or seven figures a year.
Then, finally, maturity sets in. Those who have lost great gobs of money get fired. People still find the new product useful, but within parameters and with greater safeguards.

The lesson of the Ecology Narrative is that, in most cases, the market corrects itself.
Whence the parameters and "greater safeguards"? Voluntary self-regulation? Government regulation? Either way, why is it necessary? Brooks has already told us that investors only crashed the car because of their inexperience - under his "ecology model", after the instrument is understood and institutionalized, why would they make the same mistake again?
People who embrace the Ecology Narrative don’t like the offensive bonuses that get handed out on Wall Street. They just don’t see any way the government can curtail them without rending the fabric of the ecosystem. They don’t like the periodic crises, but don’t see how government can prevent them without clamping down on innovation.
Yet they have no qualms about having the government pour billions into a failing company to subsidize up a failing industry, pour billions upon billions into failing savings and loans to prop them up, pour billions upon billions into a "stimulus package" to offset a recession brought on in part by the way adolescent investment professionals crash their new fiscal vehicles. The "fabric of the ecosystem" is only rendered when the government tries to prevent calamity or, Heaven forbid, put responsibility for righting the mess on the shoulders of the recipients of those "offensive bonuses".

Perhaps I should have saved some typing and simply pointed out that Brooks regards the two narratives, greed and ecology, as polar opposites. In fact, they can and do coexist in the markets. It's foolish to pretend otherwise.

Is This How The Bush White House Thinks Of Conservatives?

David Frum has a column in today's Times, in which he presents his versions of the three "types" of Conservatives - social, fiscal and foreign policy. His caricatures are a bit, well, self-serving, particularly the last (foreign policy):
Have you people gone crazy? Have you forgotten there’s a war on? And that we’re in real danger of losing? Don’t you have any sense of priorities?

You tax guys insisted on fighting this war on the cheap. So we didn’t expand the armed forces after 9/11 — and fought Iraq with half the troops the generals told us we’d need. You social conservatives are happy to talk about putting tariffs on Chinese toys. But the real issue is that the Chinese are underwriting Iranian energy development — and the North Korean weapons program. Can we do something about that, please?

If we’re going to fight terrorism, we need to get off oil. But that means accepting higher energy prices, including energy-tax increases, and you economic conservatives always reject those.

And is it too much to ask you social conservatives to support a presidential candidate with some kind of background in foreign affairs, maybe one who can find Pakistan on a map? Christian leadership is all very well, but this is no moment to turn the other cheek.
I know a lot of foreign policy conservatives who view military interventionism as anathematic to conservatism. Yet Frum wants to paint all foreign policy conservatives as sharing his set of values - favoring military adventurism and continued warfare until the "job" (however ill-defined) is "done" (whatever that means). He paints Reagan as an economic conservative ("less spending, lower taxes and no more of these weird social and foreign adventures"), apparently because he is ill-informed of Reagan's military adventures in such places as Grenada and Lebanon. To the extent that Reagan is a model for conservatism, the lessons would appear to be, "Don't pick a fight unless you know you're going to win", and, "If you misjudge the fight, cut your losses and get out." Arguably these lessons were learned by both George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, with the latter lesson (cut your losses) being most evident in the withdrawal from Somalia. People like George W. Bush (and David Frum) are unable to wrap their minds around either lesson.

Frum supported a President who walked away from Clinton's approach to North Korea's nuclear weapons program because he thought it wasn't a good deal, and was contemptuous of diplomacy. Years later, the same President offered North Korea a similar deal. Frum supported a President who ignored the generals and wanted to fight the Iraq war "on the cheap". Now he is suggesting that it was a mistake, but Frum omits mention of his own historic support of that mistake. As for higher energy prices, we already have those. Frum doesn't appear to notice that our higher energy prices are lining the pockets of the leaders of various totalitarian states. He simply assumes that adding a new tax on top of those higher prices will somehow lead to energy independence. He doesn't explain why we can deficit spend our way through a poorly planned war, with no end date in sight, but have to apply paygo to any program for energy independence.

And he saves the best for last. He snickers at the religious right for backing Huckabee, the candidate who thought that Afghanistan was on Pakistan's eastern border. Here's the candidate Frum backed in the 2000 election:
"Can you name the general who is in charge of Pakistan?" Hiller asked, inquiring about Gen. Pervaiz Musharraf, who seized control of the country October 12.

"Wait, wait, is this 50 questions?" asked Bush.
If given a map, I don't think Bush would have done very well in trying to attach names to any of the countries in South Asia, save possibly for India.

Perhaps Frum should consider his own role in marginalizing the class of foreign policy conservatives who eschew notions of reinventing foreign nations as democracies. Perhaps Frum should take a look at his own works in kicking at the social conservative leg of his wobbly stool, or note how he forgot to attach a "paleo-conservative" leg, and ask himself, is he truly more informed or more intelligent than the voters he ridicules?

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

... But First He Has To Win The Nomination

David Brooks appears to believe that John McCain is the best hope for the Republican Party in a presidential election. He's probably correct:
While various conservative poobahs threaten to move to Idaho if Huckabee or McCain gets the nomination, the silent majority of conservative voters seem to like these candidates. Huckabee has done very well among evangelical voters while loudly deviating from conservative economic orthodoxy. John McCain leads among Republicans nationally. He has a 71 percent favorable rating and a 23 percent unfavorable rating. He has a 63 percent favorability rating among Huckabee supporters, 66 percent favorability among Romney supporters and 81 percent favorability among supporters of Rudy Giuliani. These are much higher second choice ratings than any other candidate.
Except.... First he has to win the nomination, and as Brooks concedes there are many within the party establishment who not only vehemently oppose McCain, they are actively savaging him. If McCain wins the Republican nomination, he will have to overcome the consequences of that internecine warfare. Many of the people who are currently warring against McCain will not get behind him in the general election, and those who do risk looking like clowns (although in some contexts that's probably not much of a change). Some of those critics will also have to open their wallets to support his campaign.

At the same time, "moderate, centrist" McCain will have to overcome the infamous "hug" photograph, his flip-flopping on the religious right, and... his willingness to commit to a century or more of "more of the same" in Iraq. If, as Senator Clinton believes, a McCain candidacy will turn on issues of national security, I think he has the wrong message.

McCain also has a senior Senator's problem - an enormous voting record which makes it pretty easy to map out where he stands on the issues - and where his votes have changed, or where his current promises are inconsistent with his voting record. Also, although this isn't his fault, McCain is looking rather peaked.

It was (and is) a mistake for the Republican Party to underestimate McCain (and overestimate the likes of Giuliani, Romney and Thompson). I agree with Brooks' suggestion that it would be a huge mistake for the Democratic Party to underestimate McCain (or, for that matter, to underestimate any Republican nominee). But I think that when the Democrats finally get down to defining a platform - one that is appealing to the public while departing substantially from the Republican candidate's platform - it will be much easier to do so against McCain than against any other leading candidate, and that could be a real advantage going into the election. They can also stress commonality on some of the issues that drive the Republican establishment crazy. So yes, McCain has a shot at winning, but if Brooks is putting him forward as the strongest Republican candidate things still look very promising for the Democratic Party.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

It Was Nice To Meet You Too, And Don't Let The Door Hit You In The....

Was this the introduction we've been waiting for?
Don't Be Argumentative With The Candidate.
If so....

Will The Real Mitt Romney Please Stand Up

Having won Michigan, I believe it is time for Mitt Romney "to introduce the public to the real Mitt Romney". (I'm not expecting that he'll describe himself as "a man of wealth and taste," although I would be amused.)

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

It's So Much Fun to Be Contrarian, But....

In the New York Times, Steven Landsburg takes on Romney and McCain for offering retraining for displaced workers:
All economists know that when American jobs are outsourced, Americans as a group are net winners. What we lose through lower wages is more than offset by what we gain through lower prices. In other words, the winners can more than afford to compensate the losers. Does that mean they ought to? Does it create a moral mandate for the taxpayer-subsidized retraining programs proposed by Mr. McCain and Mr. Romney?

Um, no. Even if you’ve just lost your job, there’s something fundamentally churlish about blaming the very phenomenon that’s elevated you above the subsistence level since the day you were born. If the world owes you compensation for enduring the downside of trade, what do you owe the world for enjoying the upside?
Isn't there more to this than "morality"? Is it economically sensible for the nation to let workers free fall from their middle class jobs, because they lack sufficient skills to get jobs at comparable wages? Do we as a society benefit when a factory worker ends up in a service industry job at a fraction of his former salary, in foreclosure, in bankruptcy, or on public assistance?

This is not to overlook the costs of retraining programs, the difficulties of retraining career factory workers for well-paying jobs, or the difficulty of identifying a future job market that will need their (new) skills. Even with retraining many will never achieve the same salaries they previously enjoyed. But the costs of successful retraining (with a reasonably designed program) should be less than the cost of losing a worker's productivity, financial fallout from their job loss, and possible cost of public assistance. Also, as compared to job skills training directed at nonproductive segments of our society, it seems to me that there is likely to be a greater return on the investment if you retrain somebody who wants to work. Thus, to me, it makes economic sense to help displaced workers find jobs within their skill set, and failing that to help them update or upgrade their skills such that they can qualify for available jobs.

As for what you "owe the world" for enjoying the upside of trade? It's not so much what you owe the world, but what you owe the government. Taxes. Landsburg may perceive the provision of "taxpayer-subsidized retraining programs" as purely a moral question, and may see a worker's demand for some return on decades of tax payments as being selfish, but can he truly see no economic benefit to the state in getting a formerly productive citizen back into a decent job?

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Left Hand And the Right Hand

On the editorial page, the New York Times questions how helpful Iraq's new law, opening certain government jobs to Baath Party members, will be:
No one, it seems, has a clear sense of what the law will do. Some suggest it could actually exclude more former Baathists than it lets in — a sure-fire way to fuel political tensions rather than calm them.
Er... No one has a clear sense of what the law will do? Or is that nobody on the Editorial Page? Because if they ask their new Op-Ed hire, my guess is that he will tell them exactly what the law will do.
And now Iraq’s Parliament has passed a de-Baathification law — one of the so-called benchmarks Congress established for political reconciliation. For much of 2007, Democrats were able to deprecate the military progress and political reconciliation taking place on the ground by harping on the failure of the Iraqi government to pass the benchmark legislation. They are being deprived of even that talking point.
"And it's all good."

Free Ad Space For Romney?

Today the New York Times offers an editorial by Dean Barnett, who speaks about how unfair it is to depict Romney as a flip-flopper, and how his wonderful political skills put him head-and-shoulders above every other candidate. Oops - wrong link. I somehow got today's column confused with something Barnett wrote a year ago. That was then:
THE OFT-REPEATED CHARGE AGAINST MITT ROMNEY IS THAT HE’S A FLIP-FLOPPER and an opportunist. As someone who knows him and who is familiar with his character, it annoys me no end to see Romney’s detractors so relentlessly peddle such an inaccurate caricature. ...

The fact is, Mitt Romney will have enough money and enough political skill to define himself when the time is right. The fact that the hostile factions of the press will no longer be relevant when that time comes is a wonderful bonus.
This is now:
I often marvel at how the public perception of Mr. Romney differs so radically from the man I know. The blame for this lies in the campaign he has run.

Early in the presidential race, Mr. Romney perceived a tactical advantage in becoming the campaign’s social conservative. Religious conservatives and other Republicans with socially conservative views found the two early front-runners, John McCain and Rudy Giuliani, unacceptable. As someone who shares the beliefs of social conservatives, Mr. Romney saw an opportunity that he could exploit. He made social issues the heart of his candidacy.

This tack rang false with the public because it was false. The problem wasn’t so much the perception of widespread “flip-flopping” on issues like abortion. The public allows its politicians a measure of flexibility. But the public correctly sensed something disingenuous about Mr. Romney’s campaign.
While Barnett now concedes that Romney was running "a campaign that tried to exploit wedge issues rather than focus on the issues that in truth most interested the candidate", he wants to have it both ways. He insists that "Mr. Romney cares passionately about social issues". Not too many people are perceived as phonies when they speak about their passions. With all due respect to the "measure of flexibility" the public may offer a political candidate, Romney's diametric changes of heart on pretty much every major social issue should be explained by more than what comes across to me as "That was then, this is now."
I know few voters will believe this, but Mitt Romney wants to be president out of a sense of duty. He feels our government needs someone with his managerial skills.
Ah yes... he sees our desperate need for an "MBA President".
He also feels that to fight the long war facing us, we need an intellectually curious president who’s willing to learn about an unfamiliar foe and who will fight resolutely to defeat that foe.
I'm sorry... I guess that would be an intellectually curious MBA President.

I love this part:
This past weekend, Romney-distrusting portions of the conservative blogosphere kicked up a fuss over seven words Mr. Romney said to volunteers who were dialing for dollars at a fund-raising event last week: “Make all the promises you have to.”

Without knowing the context, it’s impossible to know precisely what Mr. Romney meant.
Mr. Barnett - Mitt Romney appears to be your friend. You've known him for years. You're one of his biggest supporters. You're defending him in the New York Times.... Did it occur to you to pick up a phone and ask him what he meant?
But for voters who have learned to distrust Mr. Romney, the comment probably sounded a lot like, “Tell whatever lies are necessary.”

The Mitt Romney I know would never say such a thing. But the Mitt Romney I know is sadly unrecognizable to today’s voters.
If I were defending a candidate in a similar context and truly didn't know what he meant, I would probably suggest that it was "wry humor" - where else can you go with a comment like that? Isn't Barnett's "defense" starting to sound a bit like, "Governor, I served with Mitt Romney, I knew Mitt Romney, Mitt Romney was a friend of mine. Governor, you are no Mitt Romney"?

I will concede this - the public perception of Mitt Romney is a caricature. Some aspects of a caricature are inevitably unfair or grossly exaggerated. The problem for Romney, as Barnett now concedes, is that the caricature was built upon a foundation that is true, and thus it sticks and resonates with voters.

A year ago Mr. Barnett opined,
When the press is all punched out, Romney will have $100 million and his own formidable political skills available to make his rebuttal. ... The fact is, Mitt Romney will have enough money and enough political skill to define himself when the time is right.
I hope Mr. Romney does well enough in Michigan today that he gets the opportunity to introduce the public to the real Mitt Romney.
Not that I want to second-guess his campaign, but perhaps the time for Mr. Romney to introduce himself was yesterday. Or perhaps even earlier.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Lurching Along In The Ditch....

To build his case that "The Democrats were wrong in their assessments of the surge", William Kristol cherry-picks a strange statement from Barack Obama as a basis for attack:
When Obama was asked in the most recent Democratic presidential debate, “Would you have seen this kind of greater security in Iraq if we had followed your recommendations to pull the troops out last year?” he didn’t directly address the question. But he volunteered that “much of that violence has been reduced because there was an agreement with tribes in Anbar Province, Sunni tribes, who started to see, after the Democrats were elected in 2006, you know what? — the Americans may be leaving soon. And we are going to be left very vulnerable to the Shias. We should start negotiating now.”

But Sunni tribes in Anbar announced in September 2006 that they would join to fight Al Qaeda. That was two months before the Democrats won control of Congress.
Yes... And it was at least three months before "the surge" began, and nine months before the troop buildup was complete.

So is Kristol taking the position that Obama should be berated for failing to attribute to the surge something that preceded the surge? Or does he truly believe that everything positive that has ever happened in Iraq must be attributed to the surge, regardless of when it occurred? Nebuchadnezzar's Hanging Gardens of Babylon? Thank the surge!

In fairness to Kristol he does describe those non-surge accomplishments as having been "sustained" by the surge, not caused by it, but his sloppy logic more or less kicks the foundation out from under his entire attack.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Michigan's Weak Economy

I've been in Michigan a lot longer than George Will. In fact, I'm not sure that he's ever been to Michigan. But for some reason he felt obligated to discuss Michigan in his latest column:
Tuesday's Republican primary is in one of the nation's worst-governed states. Under a Democratic governor, Michigan has been taxed into a one-state recession. Native son Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate who best understands how wealth is created, might revive his campaign by asking: Whom do you want to be president in 2010 when the Bush tax cuts, which McCain opposed, expire?
I'm no defender of Jennifer Granholm, but her administration did not occur in a vacuum. She inherited a disaster left by John Engler, both in the form of a massive budget deficit and an ill-considered tax policy that was made part of the state constitution. Between that and the fact that during most of her tenure the Republicans have controlled both chambers of the State House, it's a child's game to put the blame on the governor or her party. In this particular game, as played by the likes of Will, when roles are reversed (a Republican governor and a Democratic House) all failures are still assigned to the Democrats as "they control the budget." I would personally argue that Michigan's economy has been badly managed for decades, by governors and legislators on both sides of the aisle.

If Michigan has been "taxed into a one-state recession", it is not because of the amount of taxes. The Tax Foundation recently ranked Michigan's "State Business Tax Climate" twenty-seventh out of the fifty states. Given Will's love of Mitt Romney, it is perhaps worth noting that Massachusetts ranked thirty-sixth. So maybe there's more to the picture than taxes. Maybe there's a lot more.

That's not to say that nothing about Michigan's tax policy hurts its future. Consider, for example, the fact that so much revenue is poured into corrections. In the 80's and 90's, legislatures had lots of fun being "tough on crime" - but all that toughness carries a huge price tag. The fact that if you move to Michigan, you'll pay a lot more in property taxes than your neighbor who has lived in the same house for a few years. Say what you want about businesses moving to California (49/50 for tax climate) anyway - Michigan is not California. Paring back public services and funding of state universities to avoid a tax increase? I'm not convinced that many people look at the quality of education available in the state, and the quality of education likely to be available in the future, then say, "I would rather have bad schools than slightly higher (or progressive) state income taxes." I am convinced that many people look at the quality of schools in a lot of the areas where they might locate their businesses, and worry that employees won't want to move there with their families. Oh yes - and the nearest big city is Detroit. (Chicago has the Magnificent Mile, but move to Michigan and you get Eight Mile....)

As for Mitt Romney being the candidate who "best understands how wealth is created"... well, yes. Romney was born into a wealthy, powerful family, so he would have a pretty good idea of how effective that can be at generating wealth and power. (Will provides some of the history, but I'm looking forward to having Bill Kristol fill in the details in his next column on "well-born" Americans.)

Let's close with an explanation of Michigan's budget woes that is somewhat more... competent than George Will's.
Michigan's seemingly perennial budget shortfall, now approaching a five-year run, is rooted in two fundamental issues: a cyclical economic downturn made worse by an endemic, structural deficit. ... Simply put, as its own economic recovery lags behind the rest of the nation, Michigan finds itself faced with the challenge of funding programs with costs that rise faster than available revenues, even in economic boom times. ...

The state's record 1.43 million Medicaid recipients are seeing cuts in services that could grow worse - and, ultimately, more costly to individual patients - if proposed cuts in federal funding are approved by Congress. Michigan's cities and townships have 1,100 fewer police patrolling streets since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and communities are struggling to provide services like fire protection and road and infrastructure maintenance. And as other programs such as corrections swell, more tax dollars are diverted away from higher education, leading to steep increases in tuition and other fees that many say are putting college educations farther out of reach at a time when a changing economy most demands the degrees.

A perfect fiscal storm.

In Michigan's case, steady increases in corrections, Medicaid and K-12 expenditures and what Clay calls an antiquated revenue structure created for a yesteryear economy are leaving the state in a persistent hole....

In balancing annual budgets, Granholm and state lawmakers so far have combined more than $3 billion in cuts, the transfer of nearly $6.5 billion in one-time resources - including draining the state's $1.36 billion rainy day fund - over four years and selective tax increases and shifts to balance annual budgets.
The article also discusses the consequences of the state's failure to invest in education and infrastructure. Almost three years later, things look... no better, probably worse.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Fearing Huckabee

I don't underestimate Mike Huckabee. I've seen how personable he can be, and how he can get laughter and applause even from an audience that is hostile to many of his idea. (Check out, for example, his appearances on Real Time with Bill Maher.) He comes across as personable, likable, and even superficially convincing. He manages to bob and weave around direct questions without seeming excessively evasive. He keeps his cool under pressure. Those are all good things in a political candidate.

Does that mean I would vote for him? Hardly. As I've previously stated, I think that any politician who supports FairTax should be disqualified from office on that basis alone. His use of coded messages to the religious right makes Bush's similar efforts seem understated. He opposes abortion rights (a valid position), but also opposes sex education, and some (perhaps all) forms of birth control. He is anti-gay and, while championing "covenant marriage", cynically used his "covenant marriage" to his wife to obtain wedding gifts - circumventing state laws limiting the amount of gifts to public servants. His supposed belief in reform and generosity with pardons, transformed by concern for his standing in the polls into braggadocio about how many death warrants he has signed. He is ignorant of... pretty much everything, as evidenced by his stated tax policy, historic statements on AIDS, disbelief in evolution, and woeful ignorance of foreign policy.... Need I continue?

I'm not going to argue that all of this is obvious to voters. For goodness sake, last night I heard somebody on a call-in show explaining that he was trying to figure out whether to support Dennis Kucinich or Ron Paul. But he's no Clinton. When the media ultimately goes after him and his scandals, I don't think he'll be able to charm his way into the nomination, and even less the Presidency.

While the Republican Party's fear of a Huckabee nomination is palpable, Bill Kristol attempts to turn conventional wisdom on its ear and make his potential victory a bad thing for Democrats.
Some Democrats are licking their chops at the prospect of a Huckabee nomination. They shouldn’t be. For one thing, Michael Bloomberg would be tempted to run in the event of an Obama-Huckabee race — and he would most likely take votes primarily from Obama. But whatever Bloomberg does, the fact is that the Republican establishment spent 2007 underestimating Mike Huckabee. If Huckabee does win the nomination, it would be amusing if Democrats made the same mistake in 2008.
Okay... let's review.

First we assume Huckabee and Obama are nominated. Next we assume that "well-born" and monied Republicans are so happy with this outcome that they push Michael Bloomberg as a third party candidate, pouring their time and money into Bloomberg's campaign. Strangely, Kristol does not imagine that Bloomberg will draw any votes from Obama. That should leave Obama with a comfortable lead in the polls. Except Kristol also assumes that Huckabee will siphon away support from Obama - so much that he could win the election.

This seems to come back to the Republican attack machine's line that Huckabee is a liberal populist and, of course, every Democratic candidate is a liberal populist. Thus, when asked to choose between a Democratic Illinois senator with a progressive record on social issues, and a Republican Arkansas governor with a reactionary record on social issues, voters truly won't be able to tell the difference. And this is before we consider the investment Bloomberg and right-wing 527 groups would be making in trying to draw voters away from Huckabee - Bloomberg will need those votes to win.

Am I arguing that the Democratic Party has nothing to fear from Huckabee, or shouldn't take him seriously if he in fact gets the nomination? Not at all. But I'm not convinced by Kristol's straw man. Is he truly trying to convince Democrats that Huckabee is a threat, or is he trying to convince himself that his party still has a shot at winning the next election?

A question for Kristol's next column on this subject: Who does he imagine is going to bankroll a Mike Huckabee presidential campaign, particularly if Bloomberg enters the race?

Don't Call It Nepotism....

Jonah Goldberg, son of Lucianne.
William Kristol, son of Irving.
Albert Gore, son of Albert.
John Podhoretz, son of Norman.
George W. Bush, son of George.
David Frum, son of Barbara.

What do they all have in common? Some might call it nepotism. Some might call it taking advantage of family wealth and connections. Or do you prefer Bill Kristol's language? They worked really hard to get where they are today, by being "well-born". (Do you have any idea how hard you have to work to be born into a wealthy or powerful family? Some of them may not do much else very well, but you can't take that away from them.)

How many people whom Kristol would not deem "well-born" would actually use that term to describe someone else? Even among those in the category, how many would choose that term?

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Get That Hussy Off Of My Television

A teen mother? And they think she belongs on television? What sort of role model could she possibly be. Cancel her show!

But enough about Oprah.

Have you noticed that much of the coverage of the Jamie Lynn Spears pregnancy is beyond insipid? To the point where Lisa Whelchel is the voice of reason?

Here's one which... well, what can you say. After concluding that teens were extra-careful about birth control during the Reagan years due to fear of stigmatization, the author notes that the answer can't lie in stigmatization because teen birth rates were actually higher during her teen years than they presently are.
So why the increase? Some experts say it's because condoms are not quite the must-have item they once were now that AIDS is increasingly being perceived, rightly or wrongly, as a manageable disease rather than a death sentence. But I also have to wonder if, in the grand scheme of things, pregnancy is just not as frightening to the current crop of teens as it was to past generations
We have had the Bush Administration actively trying to suppress sex education throughout the country, and that may also play a role in the reduction of condom use. But isn't it interesting how, after the author recognizes that her stigmatization theory is bunkum, she just can't keep herself from returning to it? This leads her to call for society to find a "balance" between stigmatization and acceptance in order to... what? Keep teenage girls from having sex? (Because it's all about the girls - and always about the girls - right? The L.A. Times column is about consequence, not actions - the reasonable inference from the column is that the author was particularly careful with birth control, but that she didn't "say no.")

I don't know if the writer's strike is making media coverage of the Spears family better (in the sense that there are no zingers on the late night talk shows, SNL, or The Daily Show) or worse (in the... same sense - with the media trying to fill a void). Maybe somebody should take note that, whatever other faults she had, big sister Britney got it right on this one.

My uninvited suggestion for Britney at this point would be to check into a secluded rehab facility for a few months, even a year, and work on her sobriety and her mental health. She got cold feet the first time she went to Crossroads, but I expect they can find her a room.

My uninvited suggestion for everybody else is to refrain from attacking Jamie Lynn Spears over doing something that most teenagers do, or excoriating her for choosing pregnancy over a secret abortion. And that goes double for self-professed conservatives who purport to be "pro-life". Because, just in case I need to spell it out, the message you're sending is that Jamie Lynn Spears could only have remained a role model had she chosen to have an abortion.

David Frum Explains His Qualifications....

Asked, "How did you, as a native Canadian, end up working in the White House", David Frum replied,
The same papers that allow you to work at Taco Bell allow you to work at the White House.
I choose to interpret that in light of a prior question,
As a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and former speechwriter for President Bush, you’re surprisingly critical of him in your new book, claiming he has appointed “consistently mediocre people” to important jobs and made “a shambles” of the Iraq war.
He's now a "senior policy advisor" to Giuliani? Perhaps to be expected from the guy whose résumé seems to be comprised primarily of penning the phrase, "Axis of Hatred".

Saturday, January 05, 2008

I Haven't Seen Him This Angry Since Clinton Was Elected....

Had Romney won in Iowa, would George Will be this angry?
Huckabee fancies himself persecuted by the Republican "establishment," a creature already negligible by 1964, when it failed to stop Barry Goldwater's nomination. The establishment's voice, the New York Herald Tribune, expired in 1966. Huckabee says that "only one explanation" fits his Iowa success "and it's not a human one. It's the same power that helped a little boy with two fish and five loaves feed a crowd of 5,000 people." God so loves Huckabee's politics that He worked a Midwest miracle on his behalf? Should someone so delusional control nuclear weapons?
Did Will similarly decry George W. Bush's allusions to being guided by the hand of God, or does it only matter in this case because will thinks Huckabee believes what he says, whereas G.W.... And that's the rub, isn't it?
Like Job after losing his camels and acquiring boils, the conservative movement is in distress. Mike Huckabee shreds the compact that has held the movement's two tendencies in sometimes uneasy equipoise. Social conservatives, many of whom share Huckabee's desire to "take back this nation for Christ," have collaborated with limited-government, market-oriented, capitalism-defending conservatives who want to take back the nation for James Madison. Under the doctrine that conservatives call "fusion," each faction has respected the other's agenda. Huckabee aggressively repudiates the Madisonians.
Huckabee's "faction" is supposed to bring out the voters for the wealthy elite who run the Republican Party, and gratefully accept the crumbs scattered to them following each election. There has long been the whisper that swing voters shouldn't be overly concerned about the Republican Party's overtures to the religious right, because they have no intention of carrying out their promises. The problem is, the religious right is dissatisfied with lip service. Having seen G.W. run the government with, for most of his tenure, a majority in both houses, it hasn't been lost on them that their agenda was not a priority.

I saw a chart this morning which reflected that the Republicans who are the angriest with their party are most likely to support Ron Paul. Those Republicans who are less angry with their party, but nonetheless angry, are turning to Huckabee. Why aren't they turning to Romney, who promises that (despite his record) he has been transformed into a social conservative? Could it be that they think he's a phony, and they don't see it as part of their "bargain" with the monied factions of the Republican Party to pretend that he represents their interests?

George Will has joined the efforts of the monied factions of the Republican Party to depict Huckabee as a populist liberal. This isn't a new approach, and hasn't worked very well for Romney. I guess they just don't see how, when every important battle within the party is resolved in favor of what Will deems the "Madisonian" faction, it is breaking their side to get behind the one candidate they believe will actually try to put their agenda first. Or, as David Brooks puts it,
Second, Huckabee understands much better than Mitt Romney that we have a crisis of authority in this country. People have lost faith in their leaders’ ability to respond to problems. While Romney embodies the leadership class, Huckabee went after it. He criticized Wall Street and K Street. Most importantly, he sensed that conservatives do not believe their own movement is well led. He took on Rush Limbaugh, the Club for Growth and even President Bush. The old guard threw everything they had at him, and their diminished power is now exposed.
And yes, that's enough to make George Will's head explode.

Friday, January 04, 2008

"Trust Me"

Recall with the Bush plan for the privatization of Social Security, how we wouldn't be trusted to invest our own money, but would have to choose from a selection of government-approved plans?

Because governments are really good at investing. (And that's when they're trying to invest responsibly. When they're not, it's worse.)

This can be done well - the mutual fund-type plans government employees are allowed to invest in seem to do well. But, of course, the Bush Administration took those off the table for privatized Social Security. I suspect because there's not enough profit in that type of plan for those to whom they would steer our "investment".

Finding Success in Failure, III

As if his mendacity on the Iraq War and education policy weren't enough, Gerson shares this gem:
Democratic candidates attack the Bush tax cuts as a fiscal disaster -- just as a growing economy has boosted tax revenue to its highest level in history, halving the federal deficit in three years.
Wow... here I was thinking the tax cuts were put into effect back in 2001-2003, quickly turning a sizable budget surplus into a massive deficit, yet as it turns out they didn't go into effect until 2005! Thank you so much for clearing that up, Michael....

(How long is the boost in tax revenues from corporate profits likely to last?)

So here we are, with a surplus transformed into a deficit, no end to deficit spending in sight, no Republican plan to balance the budget or spend responsibly, and growth of tax revenues far below what the Bush Administration promised, trillions in new federal debt... and a one-year upward bump in corporate profits is deemed to prove that the tax cuts should never be touched - or perhaps that we should completely eliminate taxes and run the government on pure deficit spending.

Finding Success in Failure, II

Having shared his insights on Iraq, Gerson also shares his equally valuable insights into education policy.
Attacking No Child Left Behind is a reliable campaign applause line -- Hillary Clinton promises to "end" the law, because it is "just not working." Actually, the imposition of educational standards and testing has improved math and reading scores and begun narrowing the gap between disadvantaged and affluent students.

There is an angry backlash against NCLB among some Democratic interest groups. Suburban districts resent being labeled as failures just because some minority and disabled children aren't making progress. But that is the whole purpose of the law -- to prevent districts from hiding the poor performance of minorities behind the success of other students. Such districts should feel less resentment and more shame.
If he were to inform himself of the facts, Gerson might learn that the problem is not that the "failing" schools aren't outperforming other "successful" schools, or that they didn't have far better performance by students from minority groups or with disabilities, he would find that they were "failing" due to the fact that they were not showing sufficient "improvement" over prior years. Under the silly NCLB rating system, the best school in the state can be deemed "failing" while the worst can be deemed to be "succeeding". Also, where much of the "success" in lesser schools derives from "teaching to the test", there is a legitimate question as to whether education has actually improved along with the test scores.
Teachers unions object to standardized tests, preferring more subjective, nonacademic measures of school success. And that, from one perspective, is understandable. Failing corporations do not like accurate financial disclosures. Slow runners resent those pesky stopwatches. The unions want underperforming schools and ineffective teachers to be shielded from objective scrutiny. But testing is the only way to determine when disadvantaged students are being betrayed -- and by whom.
It would be more correct to say that teachers oppose standardized testing (not all of it, but the excessive focus created by NCLB), and that the unions are reflecting the positions of their members. This has nothing to do with teachers fearing that standardized tests will demonstrate them to be poor teachers, and Gerson should know that - part of Gerson's complaint appears to be that these tests do not affect job security. And as previously noted, if Gerson knew anything about school ratings under NCLB he wouldn't be describing the school ratings it promulgates as "accurate". Whatever accuracy might be derived from raw scores, it is lost in the system of rewarding individual school "improvement" even if it means classifying the worst schools as succeeding and the best as in need of improvement. It is noteworthy that in his attack on teacher's unions, as with everything else in his column, he omits any facts to support his slur. How worthy of a Bush Administration alumnus.
Instead of attacking a successful education reform, it would be helpful to hear some practical ideas for improving teacher quality. In the real world of failing schools, the main problem is not too much accountability; it is too few effective instructors. Why should teacher pay be determined by collective bargaining instead of teacher competence, especially in low-income schools that need to reward and retain good teachers? Why not give districts more flexibility to fire teachers who would serve children better by changing professions?

And again we have Gerson demonstrating his abject ignorance. He should pick up a phone and talk to some good teachers in the public school system, and get a sense for how NCLB has demoralized the profession, discourages good teachers from entering the profession, and has a lot of good teachers considering early retirement. Gerson's silly notion that teachers will line up to teach in failing schools because they may get a raise or bonus pay if they don't "fail" by... whatever measure he wishes to impose, be it a standardized test or the subjective assessment of a school administrator... and have no job security whatsoever? What planet is he on, where there's an abundant supply of teachers, and the only constraint against firing bad teachers and replacing them with good ones is the teachers' unions? What's he smoking?

People like Gerson also embrace a fanciful notion that no matter what else is wrong in a child's life, and no matter what educational or language deficits the child experiences, any "good" teacher can find enough time in the day to bring that child up to grade level (along with the thirty or so other kids in the class), and the only person who should face consequence for a child's lower-than-grade-level achievement is the teacher. If we assume that a teacher has six hours of classroom time per day for thirty students, and manages to pour all of that time into one-on-one mentoring... that's a whopping twelve minutes per student. Add, you know, teaching to the mix, and....

Well, Gerson likes to talk up his Christianity, so maybe he believes in educational miracles.

Finding Success In Failure

Michael Gerson, the feeling man's Republican, shares a few gems:
But Gen. David Petraeus's counterinsurgency strategy has succeeded with disorienting speed. Its combination of vision and competence will fill chapters in military textbooks.

In spite of these gains, Democratic presidential candidates still insist on reckless timetables for withdrawal -- the surest way to rescue defeat from the jaws of victory. And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid -- who declared that the surge had "failed" even before it was fully implemented -- now contends that "the surge hasn't accomplished its goals."
If Mr. Gerson would acquaint himself with the facts, even slightly, he would be aware that Harry Reid's statements are true. The surge has been a success militarily, but it has not accomplished its goals. To quote, you know, the President:
A successful strategy for Iraq goes beyond military operations. Ordinary Iraqi citizens must see that military operations are accompanied by visible improvements in their neighborhoods and communities. So America will hold the Iraqi government to the benchmarks it has announced.

To establish its authority, the Iraqi government plans to take responsibility for security in all of Iraq's provinces by November. To give every Iraqi citizen a stake in the country's economy, Iraq will pass legislation to share oil revenues among all Iraqis. To show that it is committed to delivering a better life, the Iraqi government will spend $10 billion of its own money on reconstruction and infrastructure projects that will create new jobs. To empower local leaders, Iraqis plan to hold provincial elections later this year. And to allow more Iraqis to re-enter their nation's political life, the government will reform de-Baathification laws, and establish a fair process for considering amendments to Iraq's constitution.
By what measure beyond the military - something the President told us up-front was an inadequate measure - is the Surge a success?

Ethnic cleansing preceded the surge (not as part of U.S. policy, but as a consequence of ethnic warring), and part of the surge plan has involved erecting huge concrete barriers between ethnic factions so as to minimize conflict. That has helped bring about a reduction in a reduction of ethnic violence and reduced casualties, both civilian and military. What lesson should we draw from other nations, as to what is likely to happen if the authoritative hand is removed and the ethnic groups are freed to renew their conflict? (The Yugoslav "ethnic civil war" model; The Chechnya/Slovakia "split the country" model... is there another?) Even with significant federal reconciliation, it will take a great deal of effort by the Iraqi government to keep ethnic tensions under control, and I have some doubt as to their ability to do it within the... indefinite future. So does John McCain - who is prepared to commit our forces to Iraq for a century or more.

Meanwhile, we are at the crossroads between "surge" and "escalation." Gerson is ready to engrave our military success in Iraq into the history books. Yet members of the military in Iraq see it as taking six years or longer to achieve our goals. And unfortunately, no matter what our military does, it contributes nothing to the willingness of Iraq's various factions to form some form of unity government. It may in some senses encourage certain groups to be intransigent, knowing that we remain present to keep a lid on things while they hold out for more. Meanwhile, we have a growing question of what it will take to hold our military together for that six years (or for McCain's century) while we wait for the promised political progress that never seems to come.

I think the question that Gerson should be addressing is whether the U.S. and Iraq will be better served by a Bush-style "Let's see what happens in the next (and the next, and the next) six months" approach, a McCain-style "Don't worry about progress, as we'll hold your hand for as long as it takes" approach, or a Democratic-style, "You had better shape up, or you're going to have to do this without us" approach. Which approach would he deem more "conservative", if not more "compassionate"?

A McMansion In My Back Yard?

Robert Samuelson, apparently inspired by the construction of a huge house in his neighborhood, takes on the McMansion:
Down the block from my home, workmen are finishing a new house. It replaces a bungalow that had measured about 1,500 square feet. The new home has a covered front porch, two fireplaces and a finished basement. It comes in at just under 5,700 square feet. What is it with Americans and their homes?
Eugene Robinson has a passing comment in today's column, Outside the Echo Chamber, which seems germane:
We in Washington are increasingly isolated from the people in whose interest we claim to labor. The economic gap between us and most of the country is widening to a chasm. In most American cities, a $600,000 house in a leafy neighborhood would be considered an extravagance reserved for the wealthy. Here, we'd call it a bargain.
Assuming a $600,000 purchase price, the person who replaced the old bungalow with the modern "McMansion" paid probably $400,000 - $450,000 for the land under the bungalow. Samuelson, sitting in what is no doubt a very large house for the era in which it was built, should consider the economics of the redevelopment of that lot - the value of the huge house that is being built is likely commensurate with the value of the lot.

It is interesting to me that "housing lust" is only a problem if it reaches "the masses" - the "huge" house Samuelson describes is small compared to many mansions (and let's not forget castles) of the past - the difference appears to be one of prevalence and availability. If you're going to focus on our planet's limited resources, and whether this form of housing is wasteful, that's one thing. But if you're going to get moralistic and speak of "house lust", I think you should explain why it is suddenly wrong for the average (or, really, the average upper middle class) American to want the same type of self-indulgent, showy, overpriced housing that the rich have always enjoyed (even if on a smaller lot).
Worse, government subsidizes these supersize homes along with suburban sprawl and, just incidentally, global warming. In 2008, the tax deduction for mortgage interest payments will cost the federal government $89 billion. The savings go heavily to the upper-middle class and the wealthy -- the least needy people -- and encourage ever-larger homes. Even with energy-saving appliances, those homes are likely to generate more greenhouse gases than their smaller predecessors. As individuals and a society, we've overinvested in housing; we'd be better off if more of our savings went into productive investments elsewhere.
In the case of the house in Samuelson's neighborhood, the issue of "subsidy" was resolved decades ago (probably 80 or so years ago) when it went up as an upper middle class (or wealthy) suburb of Bethesda. If the home is well constructed, its heating and cooling bills may not be much different from that of neighboring houses (including Samuelson's). If it uses geothermal heating and cooling - something that I think the government should be actively encouraging and subsidizing - the cost will be substantially less - perhaps $150 per month to heat and cool an enormous house. And yes, I think it is better for a lot in an existing neighborhood to be redeveloped, than for a similar home to be built in a new subdivision. (No houses like that will be going up in my neighborhood - the lots aren't big enough, and the land's not worth enough.)

I do agree with Samuelson that indulging in an oversized house is an extravagence, and that we should be concerned about the environmental impact of new developments, as well as the cost of bringing municipal services to those developments. But those concerns are neither new nor limited to Toll Brothers-type neighborhoods. I am also of the opinion that we are not likely to suddenly put the brakes on American consumerism or a mentality of "keeping up with the Joneses", so our energies are probably better spent focusing on how to minimize the environmental footprint of our present levels of consumerism while taking a more gradual approach to the reinvention of society.