Thursday, April 30, 2009

Downhill From Now Until Publication Day....

There's no shortage of work left to do, but my co-author, Steve Harms, and I just wrapped up the first draft of Credit & Collections Kit For Dummies, coming soon to bookstores near you.

Chrysler Is In Chapter 11 Bankruptcy

The news stories seem to be saying that Chrysler "will" file, but that's just because they're a bit slow with their updates. It's a done deal.

Let's hope this gets them past the hurdles set by creditors (whose expectations were, in my opinion, quite unreasonable given that Chrysler is bankrupt), and facilitates a quick deal with Fiat. Good luck to the employees and retirees, who may get hit pretty hard.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

If We Find Ways To Make Torture Work, It Will Work!

Well, duh. It's valid to state that it's dangerous to argue "torture doesn't work" because we may eventually find ways to make it work. It's the same point It's similar to premising arguments against the death penalty on its cost - if your opposition is in fact based on moral grounds, what do you do if we find a way to avoid the expense currently associated with death penalty trials and appeals? Switch gears and say, "No, really, ignore what I said before..." and try to salvage some shred of credibility? The response to that is to say "It's not likely that we'll find a way to avoid those costs, so I'll take the risk", but that doesn't exactly vindicate you on the moral front.

In terms of torture, Megan McArdle argues,
I've long said that we shouldn't waste time arguing that torture doesn't work. For one thing, the evidence for those arguments seems empirically shaky, especially since many people employing them insist on arguing that torture basically never works, rather than that it doesn't work very often and therefore has a bad cost-benefit ratio. For another, arguing that something doesn't work isn't necessarily an argument for not doing it--it could just as easily be an argument for improving our technique. And if advances in brain scanning research let us develop a reliable lie detector, as seems possible in the relatively near future, then torture will work very, very well.
Superficially the argument is the same - we can use torture to get answers and we'll know they're true because the bran scan lights up in a particular way. We're assuming, I guess, that we'll find a way to fit a water board inside a PET scanner. Perhaps the torture would be administered by remote control, via a robot, so that the technician could avoid being exposed to undue levels of radiation. And how would we conduct studies to determine whether the torture was interfering with the results of the scan? Trial and error?

At risk of falling into my own trap, let's talk brain scans. Eventually we may develop a waterproof version of the PET scanner that does not expose people outside of the device to radiation (I'm assuming we're not too concerned about the person inside the device), and have gathered enough information from its use to screen out any effects on the brain scans due to torture. Well, that seems like it would be a lot of unnecessary, costly work because if we do have an effective lie detector that works off of brain scans... why would we actually need to torture?

Assuming you have a working lie detector test, do you need anything more sophisticated than "yes or no" questions to get virtually any information you require? If you have a bit of intelligence to work with, it's even easier. If we're imagining this sophisticated brain scanning lie detector technology, it may be that we don't even need an answer - we may be able to determine the answer to a binary question by the way the suspect's brain lights up just from hearing the question. It's much easier to apply a lie detector to a binary question than to a narrative, where truth may be mixed with fiction, and both may be mixed with pleas for mercy. ("He's telling the truth that there's a plan to bomb a U.S. military target, or that he wants us to 'please stop', maybe both.")

Let's also not forget what a lie is - it's deliberate deception. If I think I know the answer but am wrong, my "honest" answer will "pass" the lie detector test, but you will nonetheless get bad information. Let's say I'm an evil terrorist mastermind. A couple of things I might do:
  • Feed misinformation into the heads of people I will set up to be captured. They are caught, information is elicited and... it's all bad, but the "lie detector" says they think its true.

  • Occasionally brainstorm plans with my colleagues, from the pedestrian to the ludicrous, with no actual plan to carry them out. If somebody is captured, they "spill the beans" on all the plans, they think they're real (or may be real), and the government that obtained the information will spend thousands of man hours chasing shadows.

Why wouldn't that work?

The reason it's difficult to debate on moral issues is that your opponents either don't see things the way you do, or simply don't care about the morality. Religions have a pretty simple way of resolving the moral dilemma - morality is what God tells you to do, and you can't question God. If the answer is, "I disagree," or "I think the tangible benefits outweigh the moral cost," or "I don't care," how can you really respond? Keep repeating yourself?

It's the difficulty of making a moral case that leads people to try to sidestep that issue, raising arguments of morality and efficacy. And yes, if you're not willing to change your position if the arguments you make are undone yet pretend that your opposition is based upon something other than morality, you're risking that a solution will be found and that you'll lose your credibility. Sure, you can raise the argument honestly - "I oppose torture on moral grounds, but consider the following..." - but you're still not making the case for what you believe to be the best reason to oppose torture. So do make the moral case. But at the same time, it's fair to point out that the type of technology we're prognisticating that might make torture "work" should also make it unnecessary.

Friday, April 24, 2009

It's Citibank

I mean, really, we have to wait for the results of "stress tests" to know that Citibank's in serious trouble?

Now sure, there may be cause for concern that the few people who don't know about Citigroup's financial distress may suddenly become concerned about their savings, but (even without considering deposit insurance) I'm not anticipating a run on the bank. Talk all you want about investors fleeing the market or short-selling Citigroup stock, the fact that Citigroup isn't already in bankruptcy or hasn't already been taken over results exclusively from huge infusions of federal cash and the continued belief that the government won't allow Citibank to fail.

But on the other hand, will anybody be surprised when we learn that the government's grading on a very soft curve? Leaving aside the soft nature of the test itself, and whether or not it's an accurate gauge of a bank's viability, would you be shocked if Geithner announces that the results of the stress tests show that all of the banks examined are above average?

Feel The Optimism

To support his contention that "Americans have always felt that they are masters of their own fate", David Brooks cites statistics that:
  • Sixty-four percent of Americans believe there are more risks that endanger their standards of living today than in their parents’ time.

  • Fifty-Eight percent of Americans believe there's no more opportunity for advancement, or is less opportunity for advancement, than there was a generation ago. (Brooks tries to spin this as a positive "Forty-two percent believe there are more opportunities to move up than a generation ago.")

Brooks thus concludes that "Americans stand out from others in their belief that their own individual actions determine how they fare", a belief that "has been utterly unshaken by the global crisis".

As you might expect, Brooks isn't looking at the statistics with a questioning eye. He has his preconceptions of what "the rest of" America is like, and has spent his career reinforcing dichotomies that often exist largely in his own mind. He is happy to see the glass as half-empty when his world view is challenged, but today's statistics reflect how hard he works to avoid admitting the glass is less than half-full. No, I'm not arguing that Americans don't see themselves as self-reliant, or embrace the concept of upward mobility (including the Horatio Alger myth), but it does occur to me that there are a whole lot of Americans who fall less into that archetype that Brooks presents, starting, yes, with David Brooks himself.

Let's be blunt - in the corridors of government, the opinions and desires of the wealthy, politically connected 5% of the country into which David Brooks falls count for a lot more than lectures about how the rest of us "want a return to normalcy, with balanced budgets and a limited state." If a return to "normalcy" means that people like Brooks must cede power, wealth and influence, well, you can guess how far that'll get. Do you need to be reminded? Normalcy in those circles means getting six and seven figure bonuses even after you run your company into the ground. (And if you can only afford those bonuses by applying taxpayer bailout funds? No worries.)

I'll give Brooks some credit for departing from the "Obama's a failure" line advanced by a lot of conservative pundits or commentators. His observation that support for Obama will fade if the public perceives him as less than competent, well, could you have guessed?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

A Challenge to the Pro-Torture View

An FBI supervisory agent, Ali Soufan, joins the torture debate, explaining among other things that the claim that key information was obtained through the torture of Abu Zubaydah "don't add up."
One of the most striking parts of the memos is the false premises on which they are based. The first, dated August 2002, grants authorization to use harsh interrogation techniques on a high-ranking terrorist, Abu Zubaydah, on the grounds that previous methods hadn’t been working. The next three memos cite the successes of those methods as a justification for their continued use... There was no actionable intelligence gained from using enhanced interrogation techniques on Abu Zubaydah that wasn’t, or couldn’t have been, gained from regular tactics.
The first part of that claim is verifiable - if Zubaydah was simply repeating what he had previously stated without the application of torture. The second part is no more verifiably than the claims of the pro-torture crowd that information was obtained that could not have been "gained from regular tactics" - once you choose to torture or not torture, it's not possible to be certain where the other path would have led.
In addition, I saw that using these alternative methods on other terrorists backfired on more than a few occasions — all of which are still classified.
It's no surprise either that torture can backfire (and here I assume we're speaking of bad intelligence, not injury or death), or that those responsible for the bad outcomes would use classification as a shield.

This is troublesome:
One of the worst consequences of the use of these harsh techniques was that it reintroduced the so-called Chinese wall between the C.I.A. and F.B.I., similar to the communications obstacles that prevented us from working together to stop the 9/11 attacks. Because the bureau would not employ these problematic techniques, our agents who knew the most about the terrorists could have no part in the investigation.
This consequence reflects an unfortunate short-sightedness that could in fact have cost us a lot more actionable intelligence than we could reasonably have expected to gain through torture. Absent a compelling case that torture would improve the amount or accuracy of information obtained as compared to traditional interrogation, something that is so far lacking, it seems that it would have been a wiser course to refrain from torture and avoid this schism.

The author asserts that it's a good thing that the torture memos were released, and that we should accept that the CIA agents involved in the torture intended to protect the country and had no alternative to applying torture (short of quitting their jobs). For this reason, while advocating taking steps to "ensure that the mistakes behind the use of these techniques are never repeated", he opposes prosecuting agents who committed acts of torture.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Contest Resumes

Apparently, feeling that he was falling behind his peers, Marc Thiessen has decided to pull out all the stops. Speaking of the torture of suspected terrorists, Thiessen relies upon a memo written in 2005, which contends by torturing Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the CIA gained information that may have prevented a terrorist attack against the Library Tower in Los Angeles. Mind you, he confessed to 31 plots, past and future, including a scheme to assassinate Jimmy Carter.

Strangely, although KSM's confession was to a plot to attack the Library Tower in Los Angeles, the Sears Tower in Chicago, the Plaza Bank building in Seattle and the Empire State Building in New York, Thiessen mentions only the Library Tower... doesn't he think the other confessions were credible? Thiessen neglects to mention that these attacks were supposedly to occur in 2002, and KSM was not captured until 2003. So perhaps KSM wasn't the best or most important source of intelligence on that.... But it makes for great hyperbole ("without enhanced interrogations, there could be a hole in the ground in Los Angeles to match the one in New York"), so... whatever. One of the glories of arguing in the manner of Thiessen is that you can present whatever horrible you want, contend that torture prevented it, and declare victory in the argument. Who cares about the details, right?

It shouldn't need to be said, but Thiessen's argument is circular: torture works because it worked. Is it better at eliciting information than other forms of interrogation? Is it the best way to get accurate information? Is it moral and is it consistent with our nation's values? Sorry, Thiessen doesn't think those are important issues, so you'll need to get your answers somewhere else.

In terms of morality, history informs us of many ways to pacify restless populations and elicit information that we now deem vastly out of line with civilized society. Does Thiessen give so much as a breath to saying why we shouldn't simply open the floodgates - at what point do moral issues become so pressing that we simply won't go there, even if we know we could benefit? The question should have occurred to him but, of course, he gives no answer.

Is this claim supposed to be reassuring, or disturbing:
The Office of Legal Counsel memo states "we discuss only a small fraction of the important intelligence CIA interrogators have obtained from KSM" and notes that "intelligence derived from CIA detainees has resulted in more than 6,000 intelligence reports and, in 2004, accounted for approximately half of the [Counterterrorism Center's] reporting on al Qaeda."
So throughout 2004, the world of U.S. intelligence operations turned on KSM's torture-based confessions. And the best Thiessen claims for it is that it may have helped foil a plot that was supposed to have been put into effect a year before KSM's arrest? Thiessen's quick to blame Obama for this - he's supposedly sitting on mounds of evidence we could not have collected but for the torture of KSM. Yet Thiessen's former boss, G.W. Bush, proudly bragged about the fruits of the "enhanced interrogation" of KSM back in 2006. When did Bush or Cheney ever back away from declassifying information they believed would help their political agenda? Certainly not when giving that speech. No, don't think - you should instead accept the speculation of a former speechwriter and shut up.

Thiessen is, of course, continuing his line of personal attacks on Obama - that Obama's backing away from torture is putting us all in danger. That Obama's actions are among the "most dangerous and irresponsible acts ever by an American president during a time of war" and "Americans may die as a result". That Obama's deliberately withholding evidence that would show us all how great and useful torture is. Left unanswered: why would Obama do such a thing? If I were to speculate, even Thiessen was able to see how directly addressing that question would reveal him as an unprincipled hack.

Thiessen also suggests that Obama's releasing the secrets of our torture will prevent us from being able to effectively torture people in the future. Apparently because everybody who isn't in U.S. custody is oblivious to the fact that KSM, Abu Zubaydah and friends remain alive and their families unharmed by U.S. forces. Is Thiessen seriously contending that unless captured terrorist suspects thinks we're going to kill them or torture their children, torture won't work? Because I suspect that by now, most of them have figured out that we won't do the former (on purpose) or the latter.

This is the best part:
Critics claim that enhanced techniques do not produce good intelligence because people will say anything to get the techniques to stop. But the memos note that, "as Abu Zubaydah himself explained with respect to enhanced techniques, 'brothers who are captured and interrogated are permitted by Allah to provide information when they believe they have reached the limit of their ability to withhold it in the face of psychological and physical hardship."
We know that torture works because when we tortured Abu Zubaydah and then asked, "How do we know you're telling the truth now," he answered, "Because you've tortured me so much that Allah's cool with my telling you the truth." While Thiessen should have recognized this as begging the question, he nonetheless uses the claim in support of his own circular argument - essentially supporting one circularity with another. Thiessen should have quit while he was "ahead", back when he was accusing Obama of burying all the evidence of how great torture is.

If torture is so great, and is so defensible, why did the Bush Administration work so hard to distance itself from the term? Why does Thiessen still attempt to advance a rhetorical sleight of hand - under which we want to inflict so much agony on a terrorist suspect (in Thiessen's words, "help[ing] the terrorist do his duty to Allah") that he cannot take any more brutality (at which point, in Thiessen's words, the suspect has "reached the limit of their ability to withhold it in the face of psychological and physical hardship")? If this truly takes waterboarding somebody with the astonishing frequency that was imposed upon KSM, why are people like Thiessen so afraid of a little bit of blood?

Monday, April 20, 2009

Oh, The Poor Children....

The Internet is buzzing with news of Susan Boyle's appearance on ITV’s Britain’s Got Talent. The Telegraph's Rupert Christiansen laments that people with "touching" stories get on this type of talent show and, despite being significantly short of professional quality, gain celebrity.
Poor nice Miss Boyle. The story of her deprived, honest life is touching. In a more rational society, she could have had a enjoyable part-time career singing for pleasure rather than profit in the local choir and amateur operatic society, which is where talent such as hers honourably belongs....

But Susan Boyle is past the point where informed criticism would make any difference, projected into a crazy fantasy world where all our dreams come true and anyone can earn the equivalent of a Goldman Sachs bonus in a nanosecond.
Let's be honest for a moment. Boyle did a nice job with a song, but were she a stunning beauty by conventional standards she wouldn't be receiving this level of attention. It's the contrast between the expectations of the audience and her performance that has made her a sensation. (For an illustration of the opposite effect, consider Joshua Bell's performance in the DC subway.)

Yet how does that make her different from any other celebrity? Some of the world's most recognizable celebrities were born in to fame, bought their way into fame, or had a chance encounter with an agent or producer that led to fame. How many of them were boosted not by talent, but by their appearance? And at that, often an appearance that was in small or large part purchased at a cosmetic surgeon's office? Which of the top earning actors are among the world's most skilled? Which of the top ten earning singers? It seems fair to ask, is Christiansen offended by the serendipity involved in Ms. Boyle's sudden fame, or by the fact that it's not the type of serendipitous outcome with which he's comfortable?
What really bugs me, however, is that Miss Boyle’s success gives out the entirely misleading message that anyone who can pass muster at karaoke can become a star overnight and that it’s luck, rather than slog, that does the trick. How can we expect young people to take the surer path and train for years in drama schools and music conservatoires when there’s this short-cut smash-and-grab approach to stardom on offer?
Think of the poor, talented children who will look at Ms. Boyle's case and recognize that there's a huge amount of luck in achieving fortune and fame. Because... what? They're not going to notice it from the success of pretty much every other celebrity out there? Because the most famous entertainers in the world, the highest paid actors and singers, trained for years in "drama schools and music conservatoires"?

But leaving that aside, assuming Boyle even had the opportunity to spend years training in a drama school or music conservatory, what would have happened next? Let's even assume that she would be "in the class of Elaine Paige or Patti LuPone". Is it not fair to ask, would people like Christiansen be able to get past her physical appearance? ("She's an exceptional talent, but....") What lesson would Christiansen have children draw from the fact that people who look like Boyle are most often relegated to the chorus, or become backup singers?

The idea that Ms. Boyle is exceptional in how she found celebrity? It's nonsense. The idea that Ms. Boyle would have had a strong chance of finding fame, let alone equivalent fame, by pursuing years of training in a music conservatory? In my opinion, also nonsense. I'm not arguing that the knowledge that fame, and the huge paycheck that goes along with it, has more to do with serendipity than with talent and hard work is the most inspirational lesson for young people. But such is life. Most people have to train and work harder than a lot of celebrities did, yet settle for far less reward.

There's one more thing Christiansen overlooks. That fame and fortune frequently come in what seems like a flash, and it's easy to forget that there's often a great deal of effort, preparation, and work that leads up to somebody's being able to get to the point that they become an "overnight sensation". Another expectation bias comes up when we hear the background to a particular performer's success and learn of their years of formal study and practice, years of minor performances when nobody had heard of them, or, similarly, hear a beautiful celebrity speak out on an issue and are surprised that they appear both intelligent and informed. That surprise is just as much a consequence of our instant-celebrity, beauty over talent culture, as is Ms. Boyle's attaining fame and possible fortune by virtue of her TV appearance. It's every bit as much a bias to see beauty and assume "unintelligence" as it is to see somebody of average or below average appearance and assume "untalented."

Christiansen's quick to embrace formal training as the proper path to fame, and for vocal performers there's no real doubt that formal training can make a huge difference. But it appears that Ms. Boyle took advantage of the formal training opportunities she could reasonably obtain. She didn't just wake up one morning and say, "I think I'll go on TV today and sing glorified karaoke." She studied and practiced (within the confines of her day-to-day life), got an opportunity, grabbed it, and by virtue of extraordinary luck and timing it worked out for her. That doesn't make her exceptional in the world of celebrity - it makes her pretty typical. I don't begrudge her the opportunity to make the most of her fifteen minutes - she should go for it.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

And Yet He Still Has A Job?

Bush advisor, Harvard professor and "economist" N. Gregory Mankiw shares a harebrained idea for inspiring people to spend. It amounts to a 10% tax on savings,1 although its implementation is murky. Mankiw suggests that the Fed should set negative interest rates, and then coerce banks into lending money at a loss for fear of the tax. Mankiw is apparently aware that this idea is silly, and thus blames it on a student:
At one of my recent Harvard seminars, a graduate student proposed a clever scheme to do exactly that. (I will let the student remain anonymous. In case he ever wants to pursue a career as a central banker, having his name associated with this idea probably won’t help.)
Wow. It's such a brilliant idea that Mankiw writes a New York Times editorial about it, but it would cost this poor student the potential for a job as a central banker if Mankiw gave proper attribution? And if the student did decide to develop the idea, he can't now because Mankiw has grabbed it and published it? Oh, it's a small loss - assuming the student exists, and is not a construct meant to enable Mankiw to raise his own ideas without accountability, it's a lousy idea. But Mankiw should be more honest here - he's raising the idea and he still has a job.
Imagine that the Fed were to announce that, a year from today, it would pick a digit from zero to 9 out of a hat. All currency with a serial number ending in that digit would no longer be legal tender. Suddenly, the expected return to holding currency would become negative 10 percent.
And if we did this every year for ten years, no currency would remain legal tender and we'll all be rich! Seriously, the day before such a 10% tax were imposed, what do you think the U.S. dollar will look like on foreign currency exchanges.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. How will this work? If my bank is solvent it will be taxed 10% on its assets? My bank account does not contain any actual money - it's just a balance, not a stack of physical bills - does Mankiw propose that the bank will pass this tax along to its customers - 10% off the top? What percentage of the nation's wealth does Mankiw believe can be tied to physical, paper money? What accounting games would this invite, so that financial institutions and other companies could claim to have no cash assets on tax day? Will banks and business shut down on tax day so that they can avoid taking cash that might suddenly become worthless? After the tax day announcement, how many man hours will be spent scrutinizing the serial numbers of bills, one at a time, to ferret out which are valid and which are not? (Or does Mankiw figure we'll replace all paper money with new bills, at enormous expense and inconvenience?)
People would be delighted to lend money at negative 3 percent, since losing 3 percent is better than losing 10.
And people will be delighted to switch their currency holdings to Euros and other stable currencies well in advance of tax day, to avoid the massive tax Mankiw proposes. This "stroke of genius" may be just what it takes to inspire the world that the greenback can no longer be trusted, and that it's time to make some other currency the standard for international commerce.
Of course, some people might decide that at those rates, they would rather spend the money - for example, by buying a new car. But because expanding aggregate demand is precisely the goal of the interest rate cut, such an incentive isn’t a flaw - it’s a benefit.
Thus Mankiw illustrates that he very much intends this tax to hammer consumers. Why not? Every institution where we might save our money will be hammered. You can apparently get exempted from the tax by, for example, holding stocks and bonds or foreign currencies. And if you're not in the investment class, what does it matter if that money is your retirement savings, your kid's college tuition, the money you're using to start a business, your employee payroll account, money for anticipated medical expenses.... Buy a car with it or pay the tax - and everybody benefits! At least, everybody Mankiw cares about.

Mankiw proposes something less "outlandish", effectively producing negative interest rates through inflation:
In this case, while nominal interest rates could remain at zero, real interest rates - interest rates measured in purchasing power - could become negative. If people were confident that they could repay their zero-interest loans in devalued dollars, they would have significant incentive to borrow and spend.
Didn't we have something like that a while back? A serious recession with a downturn in consumer confidence, coupled with inflation? Is Mankiw proposing stagflation as a cure for economic malaise?2

In any event, it's nice to know we have people like Mankiw out there, searching for clever ways to make the recession and recovery even harder on working Americans.

1. Is it inaccurate to call this a tax? It amounts to "unprinting" 10% of U.S. currency, not pulling 10% of savings into government to be spent on deficit reduction or government projects. But it is, in essence, the government's taking of 10% of your cash savings and using it to reduce the money supply.

2. This is Something of a caricature, but I'll blame Mankiw for that. If he believes inflation is the "real solution" he should have used his column to explain how that would work and why it would not create risk of stagflation or impeding an economic recovery, the common reaction to any suggestion of inflation, and apparently a fundamental belief of the Fed, rather than spending so much time discussing an absurd tax on savings. Also, it seems that a proposal for sustained inflation is no more likely to endear you to central bankers than is the proposed 10% tax on savings.

Assuming Mankiew believes that inflation would be kept low and could help the recovery - that is, if Mankiw wants to join with economists like Paul Krugman and endorse a modest, sustained rate of inflation to help reduce the consumer "debt overhang" dating back to the housing industry collapse without having a material negative impact on growth and employment - why not just say so?

Friday, April 17, 2009

The First Amendment... According to Pat Buchanan

Apparently I've been misreading it?
Congress shall make no law impacting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, as long as the religion is Catholicism.....
Buchanan rants,
Consider. In every referendum in 16 states, where homosexual marriage has been on the ballot, majorities ranging from 52 to 86 percent have voted to outlaw it as an absurdity and an abomination.
I'm sure that was the exact ballot language. And I wouldn't be surprised if Buchanan feels the same way about civil rights rulings and anti-miscegenation laws.
For five decades, Americans resisted Godless Communism. If they come to realize they did so to save Godless Capitalism, or Godless Socialism, what happens to loyalty and love of country?
The answer, at least to Pat Bucahanan, seems to be blowing in the wind.

Certainly Not Courageous....

And if you want to stop it from happening again, probably not all that wise. But it's good politics.
The Obama administration acted courageously and wisely yesterday with its dual actions on interrogation policy. The pair of decisions -- one essentially forgiving government agents who may have committed heinous acts they were told were legal, the other signaling that such acts must never again be condoned by the United States -- struck exactly the right balance.
If you expected the Washington Post to run an (unsigned) editorial drawing any other conclusion, you've paid no attention to that page for the past decade, or Fred Hiatt's various inane rambles on war and torture.
The administration announced that it would not seek to press criminal charges against CIA operatives who participated in enhanced interrogations of terrorism suspects during the Bush administration. "It would be unfair to prosecute dedicated men and women working to protect America for conduct that was sanctioned in advance by the Justice Department," Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a statement.
Nonsense. I find Holder's tactic of wrapping torture and criminality in the flag to be offensive. But more to the point, it's a sleight of hand - you don't have to prosecute the "dedicated men and women" at issue - you can focus on any crimes detected by those within the Justice Department or the upper levels of the Bush Administration in laying the path for torture, and contriving this thin legal cover for acts of torture.
Yet the decision to forgo prosecutions should not prevent -- and perhaps should even encourage - further investigation about the circumstances that gave rise to torture.
My position remains removed from this. I recognize the impediments to conducting a broad criminal investigation - it would be ugly, protracted, would involve most witnesses taking "the Fifth" (with their lawyers objecting vociferously if we offered to treat them by the standards they previously deemed constitutional), and would likely end up with a round of low-level scapegoating in the manner of the Abu Ghraib investigation. (Not that the low-level scapegoats don't deserve punishment, but do you believe the problems at Abu Ghraib began and ended with the few who were prosecuted?) Not to mention, who among those spearheading the investigation truly have clean hands? The details may have been secret, but the gist of what was going on was not - and some high level Dems were briefed on at least some of the details.

If you're going to do a Washington Post-style investigation, let's at least do this: Offer amnesty or immunity only within the context of the witness agreeing to give full, unlimited, cooperation with the investigation, and making as many statements as the investigators request both under oath and subject to the penalty of perjury. If somebody refuses that deal and is inculpated in crimes, prosecute away.

It's Not Just Cream That Rises To The Top....

Not that nations don't have the right to pick their own leaders, but sometimes....
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that he'd require Palestinians to accept Israel as a Jewish state in any future negotiations — a demand that Palestinians have up to now rejected — Israeli government officials said.
This is a perfectly fine demand - a perfectly reasonable demand. Except for one thing:
"U.S. policy favors — with the respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — a two-state solution, which would have a Palestinian state living in peace alongside the Jewish state of Israel," Mitchell said before meeting with Lieberman.

Netanyahu has refused to embrace that formula....
It's a two-way street. If Israel won't recognize the right of Palestinians to a free, independent state, it has no business trying to impose that as a precondition on negotiations with Hamas or other Palestinian factions.
Netanyahu ... has instead floated the idea of offering Palestinians limited rights that would fall short of independence.
There's a word for that. It eludes me. Can somebody help me out?
Yossi Alpher, a former official with Israel's Mossad spy agency and a co-founder of the Middle East political Web site, said that Netanyahu's conditions could be a poison pill that prevents any peace talks from getting under way.
Ya think? Ya think, just maybe, that's Netanyahu's intention?

Who Wants to Dance With Chrysler?

I'll give Jerry Flint credit for sounding the alarm bell on GM and Chyrsler, but I think he's off-base in suggesting that, to stay out of bankruptcy, Chrysler has any realistic alternative other than merging with Fiat.
This deal makes no sense to me. It would take two to three years for Chrysler and Fiat ( FIA - news - people ) to figure out how to make this work. In that time, Chrysler could design and build its own new cars as long as the government is providing the money. So why does it need Fiat?

* * *

Chrysler's pickup, the Ram, is well thought of, as are are its minivans and Jeep. The big trouble is its cars; they don't sell, and the lineup is weak. But with government money, Chrysler could rehire engineers and design new ones.

A better possibility could be some kind of affiliation with someone other than Fiat, someone that builds cars here now. The perfect partner would be Nissan, because as Chrysler could use its cars, rebadged as Chryslers and Dodges, Nissan could use Chrysler's pickups and minivans, rebadged as Nissans.
But, as Flint notes, Nissan doesn't want to dance. It might be convinced to buy GM's truck division, possibly also its minivans, but that would make Chyrsler even less viable as a going concern.

Flint and others seem taken aback by how little Fiat has to bring to the table to get a significant stake in Chyrsler, replace its CEO, and redefine its management structure. Not only does Fiat pay no cash, it won't assume responsibility for any of Chrysler's debts. And it wants more labor concessions. The fact that Fiat's considered a possible suiter tells you a lot about Chyrsler's condition. The fact that it's the only suitor, perhaps, tells you even more.

Flint believes Chyrsler could presently hire engineers, have them design a next generation drivetrain, retool its plants, and have the new vehicles in production within two or three years? For real? Even assuming that the government hands it the billions necessary to stay in business while that happens, I think it's more realistic to expect it to take two or three years for the next generation of cars to be designed, and another two or three years for factory retooling. Even before you look at Chrysler's hit-or-miss track record, and its overall inability to design cars that people want to buy, you should have a sense that it's not going to happen.

Fiat appears to be willing to take on Chrysler as a gamble to get its cars back into the U.S. market, both as FIats and perhaps also rebranded as Chryslers. It may see value in some of Chrysler's brands, and its truck and minivan business. But despite Flint's concern about how long it might take for Fiat to get its cars into production while meeting U.S. safety and emissions standards, that can be done in half the time (perhaps less than half the time) that it would take for Chrysler to develop and produce next-generation vehicles. And assuming the synergy goes better than with Daimler-Chrysler, Chrysler vehicles may be able to integrate some of Fiat's technologies within the relative short-term.

Cerberus appears to be doing the absolute minimum that it can get away with doing, while continuing to pretend that Chrysler is a viable going concern. Waiting to see if another dance partner comes along, or hoping that the government will carry Chrysler indefinitely in the hope that Cerberus and Nardelli will suddenly become competent, caring custodians of Chyrsler1 is neither wise nor realistic. Each day the hole gets deeper, and it's only a matter of time before even Fiat walks away from the dance floor.

1. Alliteration worthy of Safire?

Just Checking

Is there anybody who still believes this crap:
Cerberus specializes in providing both financial resources and operational expertise to help transform undervalued companies into industry leaders for long-term success and value creation.
Because, well....

Sure, I admit, that sounds better than saying, "We're a bunch of politically connected hacks with access to lots of money who take over distressed companies through highly leveraged acquisitions, and try to flip them or carve them into pieces for quick profit, and demand multi-billion dollar government bailouts when we screw up."

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Monday, April 13, 2009

Nobody Wants To Know The Truth

I'm an advocate of premising social policy on sound research and analysis. You try to find out what's working in other places, and build on those ideas. You monitor your own implementations of those ideas to be sure that your policies are, in fact, working. Ideally, you can build on working ideas, revise or eliminate ideas that aren't working, and make things better.

But what happens when those who implement policies, and those who are affected by those policies or by potential changes in those policies, either don't care about implementing the best public policy solutions or are afraid of what they will uncover if they shine a spotlight on existing policies or the alternatives? One of the most obvious contexts where you can see this phenomenon at work is in K-12 education. When "reforms" come, they're often ad hoc, seat-of-the-pants, "this sounds good"-type reforms, that may or may not last. But most of the time, there appears to be little to no interest in achieving actual reform or improvement. Sometimes you get the worst of both worlds - a reform agenda that doesn't appear to be concerned with quality, and which may in fact be rooted in a political agenda that is something quite apart from ensuring quality public education.

For example, advocates of charter schools are often strong advocates of standardized testing of children in public schools, but they often seek to exempt charter schools from those testing requirements. That prevents a direct, side-by-side evaluation of charter schools and public schools in the same district. Ideally you would be able to track individual student performance, year by year, through their entire progress through the grades. That allows you to compare schools and classes not only by the performance of students at the end of a year, but also to compare the quality of students going in. If schools accept public funding, why shouldn't they have at least that much accountability? For that matter, shouldn't we be taking a similarly hard view at this type of data that already should be available in public school settings?

It isn't just the supporters of charter schools who don't get behind mandating across-the-board testing. It's also many proponents of the status quo. When you don't have the data that supports a side-by-side comparison, it's easier to argue that the status quo is better than (or at least as good as) the alternative. Teaching schools don't appear interested in collecting and analyzing data that might suggest that teaching certificates aren't superior to accelerated or alternative certification programs, or even in comparison to uncertified teachers. Teacher's unions don't necessarily want to see data that suggests that contract standards for hiring, promotion, and assignment to schools and classrooms aren't optimal or may impede good classroom learning.

A related example of this phenomenon in action comes from Teach for America. TFA has been around for about two decades, so there's been ample opportunity to develop good data. To some degree that could be done internally - TFA could develop performance tests to be administered at the start and end of the school year, to help gauge student needs, performance, and improvement in performance over the course of a school year. A school district interested in comparing general teacher performance to TFA corps member performance could administer those tests in its regular classes - or, conversely, it could develop or license tests and require their use across the district. Instead, even when students are being tested and it appears that performance could easily be tracked down to an individual level, that seems to be regarded as something to avoid.

Thus, TFA can announce on its website that a study "confirms... that corps members have a positive effect on student achievement relative to other teachers, including experienced teachers, traditionally prepared teachers, and those fully certified in their field", based on weak data from a single state, North Carolina. Skeptics can point to the amount of guesswork involved, trying to connect students to classroom teachers by who proctored an exam, trying to gauge what happened in a classroom based upon a year-end test with no start-of-year data, the exceptionally small sample size of TFA teachers, the omission of any schools below the high school level, the differences between North Carolina's demographics and those of the most vexing school districts, such as DC or New Orleans....

My point here is not to criticize TFA or corps members. With the résumé of a corps member, not a certified teacher, I've substitute taught in public schools. I've seen some terrific teachers, and others who (despite "years of experience") sleepwalk through their workday. I've seen how different a classroom experience can be between schools, and the role SES, parental involvement, and administrative competence can make. I've also seen how much easier it can be to teach high school than to teach middle school. With no wish to make this an excessively broad generalization, as some schools have severe order and discipline problems that continue through high school, I found teaching grades 10-12 to be a relative cakewalk as compared to teaching middle school, with ninth grade being something of a transition.

I found it to be at times quite difficult to explain what, to me, was an elementary math concept to a seventh grader. I didn't have a similar problem communicating with kids in tenth or eleventh grade. That is to say, when I was out of the context where teaching skills were most crucial, where I had lesser concerns about maintaining classroom order, where the kids understood their lessons at a more adult level, I could be highly effective. I didn't necessarily feel ineffective at other grade levels, but there were times when it was obvious that I lacked the skill set necessary to be more effective. Ideally, had I been a professional teacher, I would have learned some of those skills during my coursework and teacher training. (I say "ideally" because I've had certified teachers tell that, at least in the programs they attended, training in classroom management came almost as an afterthought.) Oh, sure, I would likely have also developed my own set of skills "on the job", had I continued to teach in a classroom for the next few years, but I have no illusions that, for me, it would have been a particularly easy or natural process. Given my druthers, I would have stuck with grades 10-12.

So again, here, I see TFA demonstrating a strong interest in claiming credit based upon weak data and analysis, but not trying to collect strong data or facilitate compelling analysis. I see school districts employing TFA corps members doing nothing to evaluate how the corps members compare to certified teachers. I see advocates of teacher certification and tenure suggesting that reliance upon TFA results a high level of churn among entry level teachers, causing harm to students who would benefit from having experienced teachers. But I don't see anybody advocating the type of study that would sort out and answer some of the persistent questions about TFA, teacher certification, and teacher effectiveness.

It really does amaze me sometimes that, with all of the money this nation pours into education (not to mention the combined spending of the world's other nations), there's so little apparent interest in determining which curricula, classroom management techniques, and approaches to teaching particular subjects (e.g., reading, foreign language, math) are the most effective. I once crazily hoped that having teacher colleges sponsor charter schools might provide a laboratory for education innovation and reform. Oh well.

A Teach for America Ambush Interview

At an Easter gathering, having read this exchange and seeing a Teach for America corps member across the room, somebody I know initiated a brief interrogation:
Q. Are you allowed to criticize Teach for America?

A. You mean, to you, here in this room? Sure.

Q. What about if you make critical blog posts about it, or similar public statements?

A. Somebody I know got kicked out of the program for doing that.

Q. A TFA spokesperson said that they want corps members to speak out about the program and talk about their experiences, and that they even support a blogging platform for that. She said that no organization encourages criticism of itself, but....

A. [Eyeroll]
I wasn't seeking out confirmation of my skeptical views; somebody else did that for me. I sympathize with Lysia's assertion that no company has a policy that "Public criticism of our company is encouraged and welcome", but I think a healthy organization should be able to deal with criticism in a constructive manner when it (inevitably) happens.

Friday, April 10, 2009

What If The Children See?

Apparently there's turmoil in Maryland over a plan to build some sort of slot machine "gambling parlor... next to a mall popular with families." Would this be acceptable if the mall were unpopular with families? I mean, really.

Are we going to ban billboards for gambling, "adult entertainment" and the like from highways that are "popular with families"? Ban lottery tickets from gas stations frequented by families? Ban school raffles and church bingo? Really - once you make the decision that gambling's cool and can raise lots of tax money, why fret over whether you can see a gambling establishment from... I guess parts of the parking lot of one of our nation's many giant, indoor temples of consumerism.

Is the concern that the few gamblers who actually turn a profit against a field of "one armed bandits" will skip over to the mall, where awe-struck children will immediately recognize that they're spending gambling winnings and yearn for the day when they, also, have that many quarters to spend?

Seriously, if legalized gambling is as horrible and corrupting as the editorial suggests, why limit it to racetracks - why should there even be racetracks or state lotteries? And if it's not, why so uptight about the kiddies figuring out that people gamble?

Thursday, April 09, 2009

"Direct Government Subsidies" as the "Conservative" Solution to Health Care

When it comes to health care reform, Ramesh Ponnuru is far from the first voice that comes to mind. Nonetheless, for reasons I can't quite fathom, he's in the Post today trotting out a series of tired lines about health care reform. He opens by confusing the means with the ends:
But the goal should not be universal coverage. Reform should simply aim to make health insurance more affordable and portable.
Universality is one of the means by which health insurance can be made affordable, and even insurance companies recognize its importance.To state the obvious, not every health care reform proposal embraces universality. Obama's does not. So I'm left wondering, is Ponnuru presenting that statement as a red herring, or is he trying to create a false dichotomy?

Ponnuru attempts a sleight of hand:
The practical case is that uninsured people raise premiums for everyone else. But such cost shifting raises premiums by 1.7 percent at most, according to a 2008 study published in the journal Health Affairs. Reforms that increase the number of people with health insurance, while stopping short of universal coverage, would presumably make that small percentage even smaller.
As the aforementioned insurance companies have made plain, the issue is not "how much uninsured directly raise the costs for everybody else" under the current system. The issue is, should they be allowed to free ride until they have serious medical needs, then "buy" health insurance at an affordable cost while burdening the entire system with the costs of their care? Further, when we're talking about national health policy, the issue goes well beyond the raising of premiums. Some of those people end up getting care that's not reimbursed - the provider eats the cost. Some of those people end up getting care through government-paid and government-subsidized insurance. While that doesn't raise the cost to private health insurers, it certainly imposes a cost on taxpayers. Some of those people put off care for a condition that becomes chronic or disabling (e.g., inadequate diagnosis and treatment of diabetes or high blood pressure) resulting in their receipt of disability benefits - yet another cost the taxpayer bears, but which is not reflected in health insurance rates. Etcetera.

And then comes the slippery slope:
To mandate that everyone purchase health insurance, as many have suggested, would require that the government specify what constitutes adequate coverage — in other words, what health conditions an insurance policy would need to cover. Every provider group with a lobbyist, from massage therapists to fertility specialists, would want in. The result would be expensive insurance policies and costly government subsidies to help people buy them. Young and healthy people, especially, would be forced to overpay. So we would end up with more cost-shifting, and no savings.
We have various national health care plans in pretty much every industrialized nation, as well as many that aren't so industrialized. We've had experiments meant to try to achieve universal care in a number of states, including an insurance mandate in Massachusetts. We have government insurance provided through Medicare, Medicaid and the V.A. Where, in any of that, can we find evidence supporting Ponnuru's fantastical slippery slope?

From there, Ponnuru gets even more absurd. After suggesting that a health insurance proposal from Ron Wyden "owes more to Rube Goldberg than Milton Friedman", Ponnuru contends:
The moral case for universal coverage is that we have an obligation to see to it that the poor and the near-poor have access to good health care. But universal coverage is only one way of realizing that goal, and not necessarily the best one.
I'm not sure why Ponnuru sees no "moral case" in avoiding a free rider problem. But whatever the "moral case", Ponnuru's response is not persuasive. Democracy is "not necessarily" the best form of government - somebody might even quip that it's the worst form of government "except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time". But if you're going to advocate against something, you should be prepared to make the case that other options are superior. Sure, you can argue that other options are equivalent, but unless you demonstrate the superiority of your idea you're not really contributing to the debate. In suggesting that universal coverage may not be the best alternative, Ponnuru should be explaining what's better - yet beyond speculation that some alternatives may be as effective, Ponnuri treats us only to the chirping of crickets.
For people with pre-existing health problems, for example, direct subsidies would probably be more efficient than rigging insurance markets to make sure they are covered.
Probably? So we're guessing, and aren't arguing superiority? And given the choice between a system where everybody is insured and gets treatment pursuant to the coverage obtained through their policy, and a system where free riders go without insurance until they are about to incur massive health care costs, then apply for government subsidies to pay for their care... Ponnuru believes that the latter approach would "probably" be more efficient? Which approach relies more heavily upon individual responsibility, and avoids free rider problems - issues that should concern conservatives? Which approach is more susceptible to imposing different outcomes in similar cases, requires the greater government bureaucracy to administer, and has the greater potential for fraud? Could it be... the one Ponnuru prefers? Sure could. But I guess, to him, that's an acceptable price given his speculation that it might be more "efficient" than the alternative that relies on moral markets and individual responsibility.
As Michael Cannon, a health policy analyst at the Cato Institute, has written, “There is no evidence that a dollar spent on universal coverage will save more lives than a dollar spent on clinics, or reducing medical errors, or nutrition, or fighting poverty, or even improving education.”
Again we're talking equivalency. That's not an argument that one approach or the other is superior - if both options are the same when it comes to every single desired outcome, and no other argument is made, there's no reason to change horses.
And if universal coverage generally reduces the quality of care or retards medical innovation, it could end up being bad for everyone, including the poor.
And if universal coverage generally increases the quality of care or inspires medical innovation, it could end up being a huge benefit to everyone, including the rich! Wow, this game is easy.
An alternative approach would be to make it easier for people to buy insurance that isn’t tied to their employment. The existing tax break for employer-provided insurance could be replaced with a tax credit that applies to insurance purchased either inside or outside the workplace. At the same time, state mandates that require insurers to cover certain conditions, which make it expensive to offer individual policies, could be removed.
Leaving the merits of this proposal (really the lack of merit) aside for the moment, did you catch that? A moment ago Ponnuru was telling us how horrible it would be if the government specified what health conditions an insurance policy would need to cover - with us riding down a slippery slope to the point that our massages, maybe even our pedicures, would be covered by insurance. Now that's just fine, as long as there's a theoretical future date when the mandate might no longer be needed. Ponnuru doesn't explain when or how the mandates could be removed, suggesting that he in fact cares much less about mandates than about avoiding universal comprehensive coverage.

But that much should be obvious from the fact that he's advocating a health insurance proposal that is unadulterated garbage. (Or maybe it's adulterated garbage? I probably should use fewer adjectives.) Anybody who knows anything about health insurance knows the cost advantages of group plans, including the fact that larger employers are often able to enroll employees in health care without regard to pre-existing conditions. Do some comparison shopping between group plans and individual plans, even from the same carrier. If you have good insurance, you'll likely find that the best available individual plan costs more and offers less.

If you look at a comparably priced plan, you'll likely find that for the same money you get a fraction of the coverage you obtained through your group plan. That, I suppose, is why Ponnuru sees the need for the government to step in and tell insurers "You must provide a reasonable amount of coverage" - otherwise you'll get a revolution the moment you try to force employees out of their satisfactory employer-sponsored plans into inferior individual plans. But he admits up front that it's a bait-and-switch - once we reach the point of no return, the mandate goes away and the bottom falls out, but there won't be any going back to employer-sponsored plans.

Really, that appears to be his "solution". Wow....
Insurance would be more affordable, especially for people who cannot get it through an employer, so the number of people with insurance would rise.
Why would insurance become cheaper? As we've previously discussed, you can get better coverage for less money through an employer-sponsored group plan than through an individual plan. Unless Ponnuru's proposing subsidies, individual plans will be less comprehensive and more costly. With his proposed mandatory minimum benefits package, it's hard to imagine why he doesn't think that costs of private policies will rise - he thinks insurance companies will offer more for less?

Sure, as Ponnuru suggests, if you offer tax credits exclusively for purchasing insurance, you may be able to get uninsured people - those whose jobs don't offer insurance or who are self-employed - to buy insurance using the tax credit. But that doesn't make the approach better than the alternatives, and in no way ensures that the coverage people will obtain under this plan will be adequate.
More important, people would own their insurance policies and thus be able to take them from job to job. They would no longer need to worry about losing their job and their insurance at the same time, or feel they need to stay with a job they dislike because they need the benefits.
That could be true in a system involving health care mandates. It could be true in any universal system. It certainly would be true in single payer. And if you think about it, if the goal is to keep coverage no matter what you do or where you live, Ponnuru's plan may actually be the weakest of the bunch while a single-payer government plan becomes the strongest. Private health insurance companies may not serve another state, so if you move you could have to swich carriers. Private health insurance companies may have limited networks of participating doctors and hospitals, so even an in-state move may necessitate a switch. But a "Medicare for all" plan would ensure coverage with every participating hospital, clinic and physician, nationwide. Which side of this debate is Ponnuru on, again?

As if to add an extra dose of comedy, Ponnuru provides his remedy for those who aren't able to continue coverage under their private plan, but aren't eligible for a new plan due to their pre-existing conditions: "Direct government subsidies". Isn't Ponnuru supposed to be pitching this as a plan that exploits the superiority of the markets?

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

False Claims of Partisanship

Looking at Obama's overall approval ratings, you would have the impression that the vast majority of Americans approve of what he's doing. But there's something hidden beneath that remarkable level of public support. Republicans strongly disapprove. Why, then, the disconnect between the overall ratings and the Republican ratings? This would appear to be the result of eight years of misrule under G.W. Bush - Obama has done a great job of uniting Democrats, independents, and moderate Republicans (many of whom no longer self-identify as Republican).

Needless to say, the Republican party memo wants to paint a different picture - of Obama as the divider of nations. As usual, reliable stenographers like Michael Gerson are happy to spin those memos into columns.

Gerson starts out by trying to explain the changes since the time of Nixon and Carter, that could help explain why support for Presidents breaks down along partisan lines. He somehow misses that the change was brought on by Nixon, who was a pioneer of divisive polities, embraced the southern strategy, and topped everything off by embarrassing the nation and degrading his office. Carter did well, initially, on what could be deemed the Nixon rebound. But the division of the nation is part of Nixon's legacy, and was taken to new heights by Gerson's lord and master, G.W. Bush., under whom there was supposed to emerge a permanent Republican majority and under whom any majority, no matter how slight, justified pushing through any Republican agenda, no matter how radical.

The Republican Party has chosen a path of obstructionism. As any reader of his columns would expect, Gerson has their back. Nothing's "bipartisan" unless it crosses party lines - even if 60 or 70% of Americans support Obama's agenda, as long as the Republicans in the House or Senate maintain party unity, Gerson is going to whine that Obama isn't sufficiently bipartisan. If Republicans oppose Obama's agenda or, worse, if the oppose it and can't stop it, Gerson stands ready to whine that the success of a bill is "a landmark of ineffective governance". Gerson also displays a form of dishonesty, typical of both him and much of the establishment media,
Democratic leaders talk of enacting controversial elements of the budget through the "reconciliation" process - which would require 51 Senate votes, not the normal 60, for passage.
Is Gerson truly not smart enough to know that legislation can pass in the Senate on the strength of a majority vote? Obviously he knows that. His complaint is that the budget reconciliation process makes it impossible for the Republicans to filibuster, and that they just have to win votes by persuading a handful of Democrats that their ideas are superior to Democratic proposals. Oh, the horror.

Gerson then attacks Obama's budget, opening with a statement that's almost comical:
I am not generally a deficit hawk.
No, a guy who was cheerleader in chief for a President who turned record budget surpluses into record deficits, refused any sensible tax policy, refused any sensible spending policy, and decided to deficit spend our way through an extraordinarily expensive war of choice (also supported by Gerson) is not a deficit hawk. (Meanwhile, that same President failed to notice or take action to prevent an alarming crisis in the nation's financial industry that has precipitated the need for massive stimulus spending and trillion dollar bailouts.) And what are the consequences of the failed policies of Gerson's lord and master?
It makes broad tax increases nearly inevitable. It expands our dependence on China, America's loan officer. And it creates pressure for the government to purchase or monetize debt, leading to inflation.
How good of Gerson to notice what has already happened - but how odd that he sees Bush's "accomplishments" as attributable to an Obama budget that has yet to pass.
No Republican, even of the moderate variety, could accept a budget that spends America into unsustainable debt by completely avoiding the setting of realistic priorities.
Maybe the term Gerson is looking for is "fiscal conservative", because you don't have to look back very far to remember when Congressional Republicans were giddily doing exactly that in support of Bush's agenda. But that was okay because Bush was a uniter, not a divider never promised to build consensus. Or something like that.
It would have been relatively easy for President Obama to divide the Republican coalition, peeling off less-partisan Republicans with genuine outreach.
And so far, despite Republican obstreperousness, he's done just that. (Gerson didn't notice, for example, that the stimulus bill passed?) Gerson seems to believe that Obama's bipartisanship must involve sufficient sacrifice of core ideals, and sufficient betrayal of policies the majority of our legislators and the majority of Americans believe will put the country back on the right track,1 in the name of winning over Republican votes not necessary to achieve passage of his legislative agenda. What was Obama's reward for offering elements of the Republican agenda in his stimulus bill? Oh yes... zero Republican votes in the house, and gloating from Michael Gerson.

If Gerson weren't such a coward, he would be telling his own party why their positions have been successfully marginalized. Because when you propose a stimulus plan that betrays a fundamental ignorance of what economic stimulus involves, or you propose an "if wishes were ponies" budget proposal,2 devoid of specifics and omitting any hard choices, in response to the budget proposed by the White House, you don't deserve to be taken seriously.

Were Gerson willing to be part of his party's solution, instead of part of its problem, he would be lambasting his party for its lack of ideas, lack of initiative, lack of seriousness. Unless the only ideas Gerson is capable of developing are those that come to him from party headquarters, he would probably find his time better spent by suggesting to his party how it might get back on track, rather than complaining that Obama is successfully presiding over the nation without catering to a sorry group of obstructionist dead-enders.

1. It doesn't necessarily make him wrong, but it's worth noting that the only economist Gerson cites is Michael Boskin, the guy who deems it irrelevant to our nation's future whether we manufacture computer chips or potato chips. In this time of crisis, in my opinion, that attitude toward technology and manufacturing jobs poses a much greater threat to our nation's future than does the budget deficit.

2. Take a look at the flowchart on page 17. Everything goes into a magic box and, voila, we have a low cost of living. Maybe that's honest - I don't think the cost of living was particularly high, for example, during the Great Depression - it's just that nobody had money. But is there another interpretation under which the document isn't cartoonish, inviting easy parody?

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Lazy, Stupid, Dishonest....

And enabled by "tort reformers". Via feministe, a story about a student who may be expelled for taking a birth control pill at school.
School officials say they can't take chances. They are concerned about liability and safety. Any pills, even nonprescription pills, could be shared with another student who has allergies. And it would be difficult to enforce rules if students were allowed to take some pills but not others.
School officials, of course, don't have to take chances. They can ban students from bringing prescription drugs to school, can require that students leave drugs with a school nurse, can require that students bring in their prescriptions, etc., and they can impose reasonable punishments for violation of school rules. But that's not what we're talking about here.
If she had been caught high on LSD, heroin or another illegal drug, she found, she would have been suspended for five days. Taking her prescribed birth-control pill on campus drew the same punishment as bringing a gun to school would have.
That outcome is not made necessary by a fear of "taking chances". It results from lazy administrators who don't want to defend their decisions when called upon to explain why one child got a five day suspension for bringing a single birth control pill to school for her own use, but another got expelled for passing out grandma's hydrocodone to her friends. By the same token, why is it dramatically worse for a student to take a birth control pill at school than to come to school intoxicated - or to take an illegal, intoxicating drug at school, but not be observed with the substance in hand?

The claim of fears of liability are to be expected. It's easy to trot out that excuse for thoughtless "zero tolerance" policies. But how would the school be liable? Clearly it is not at risk of being sued for this student's taking her own prescription medication. But what if she had been passing out birth control pills to her friends, unbeknownst to the school - how would that create any liability for the school? What if she were selling Valium to her friends, or marijuana or heroin, also unbeknownst to the school? How would the school be liable?

Kids sell drugs at school. Kids buy drugs at school. Kids take drugs at school. Where's the rash of lawsuits? Assuming you can find one, how would a "zero tolerance" policy have changed a thing?
"Most people would not know the difference between birth control or some Ritalin or Tylenol or codeine," said Clarence Jones, coordinator for the Fairfax school system's safe and drug-free youth program. "If they are just pulling something out of their pockets and sticking it in their mouths, we don't know what they are taking."
That doesn't mean you have to treat two incidents the same once you find out what they're taking. By way of example, would you also expel a student observed to be taking what turned out to be a tictac?

Perhaps Not The Most Convincing Defense

I saw a video of Anna Nicole Smith in a store with her daughter, shortly before her death, in which she was clearly extremely intoxicated. It was the type of scene that would have been tragic even if she were still alive. So I don't have much sympathy going in, for the argument that those close to her couldn't have or shouldn't have recognized the nature or extent of her drug habit. That doesn't necessarily make them guilty of crimes, but it does make me question their motives and sincerity.
Steve Sadow, one of three attorneys representing [Smith's lawyer and boyfriend, Howard K.] Stern, told reporters outside of court that state Attorney General Jerry Brown's allegations Stern was Smith's "principal enabler" in acquiring the toxic prescription drugs that led to her death two years ago are a "blatant attempt to advance his own political career."

"He is innocent of the baseless allegations made against him in the criminal complaint," Sadow said. "Both Anna and Howard believed in their doctors and relied in good faith on their medical judgment."
So did Elvis1.


1. According to this article,
In the first eight months of 1977 Presley's physician, Dr. George C. Nichopoulos, wrote 199 prescriptions totaling more than 10,000 doses of sedatives, amphetamines and narcotics - all in Elvis' name.
Sound familiar?

Monday, April 06, 2009

Looking For Five Star Treatment In All The Wrong Places

I'll admit it. I haven't done much five star travel. With a few fleeting exceptions, my travel tops out at four stars, maybe 4.5. When I was recently planning a second honeymoon, I saw some wonderful deals on five star resorts. For one, sure, I may have had a celebrity neighbor and enjoyed an expansive private beach... or, should I say, being bored to tears on an expansive private beach... but that's not for me. For the other, the photographs of the resort made it clear that they were targeting a clientele that has a weekly wardrobe budget approximating what I spend in a year, maybe two. So no, even at "bargain prices" I knew those destinations weren't right for me.

In reading about the economic downturn I read how luxury travelers, those who routinely go to five star hotels and resorts, fall into two categories - the phenomenally wealthy whose assets and income are such that nothing ever puts a dent in their travel budgets or plans,1 and those who are feeling the pinch of the decline in the economy. That latter set, it's said, would rather carve a few days off of a vacation than go downscale - or, as the article put it, once they've spent time in the Turks and Caicos, they would rather have a four day vacation there than take a week in the Dominican Republic. You know, facing the horror of 4.5 star treatment. (And I found myself thinking, "You're still talking about the type of vacation that would bore me to tears.")

So at this point, let me skip to the middle of this complaint about how the staff of luxury hotels hate their customers:
And I remembered that the happiest I have been on holidays in recent years is when I stayed in a five-quid-a-night hostel in Jerusalem with a big hole in the wall covered by a rug. Because I actually went out and I saw Jerusalem. When you stay in a luxury hotel, the luxury is the destination. You are essentially visiting a bathroom. You don't see anything except the luxury. And the luxury is the same wherever you go.
If you choose to think of the hotel as the destination, how can you expect to have a great vacation? If you spend thousands of dollars to travel to an exotic location and shutter yourself inside the local Ritz-Carlton, you may have a wonderful hotel experience (or not - we'll get to that part later), but the whole point of staying in that type of hotel is to be separated from the local culture. Once you get past the luxury, it's no different than staying in a good business traveler's chain hotel - the point is the consistency and predictability of your treatment and experience. If you're the type who won't leave your hotel room unless it's a literal flea trap, then stay in a flea trap or enjoy your luxury cocoon, but don't complain to me that you made the wrong choice.
The staff of these hotels are usually educated people from poor countries who spend all day waiting on people who are much stupider - and nastier - than them. As a result, they - entirely naturally - become bitter and are turned into status police. Their job is to assess if you belong there or not.
That will depend upon the location you pick and your choice of hotel. It's usually not too difficult to figure out from a hotel's literature or website whether it's the type of place where you're going to be expected to dress expensively, and it's easy enough to find another hotel where the other guests don't have quite the same sartorial expectations. Or if it's a smaller hotel staffed by people with long connections to the hotel and city, versus a huge commercial enterprise staffed by whomever will work for a salary as close as possible to minimum wage. But make no mistake, even if you feel that it's the staff that notices that you're underdressed, that expectation comes from your fellow five star travelers. When it comes to taking your money, most businesses aren't inclined to impose much of a dress code beyond "No shirt, no shoes, no service" - if that - but if doing otherwise makes other wealthy travelers unhappy they're going to start requiring jackets, ties, and the like. It's business.

I have also seen profound differences in the way my wife and I interact with hotel staff and the interactions of certain other people. We were recently at a small resort, being served our dinner, when another couple interrupted our server to demand his immediate attention - they wanted him to put more wood in the fireplaces near where they were sitting. Giving them the benefit of the doubt, perhaps they were concerned that they weren't supposed to add wood themselves - something that would have taken all of the time and effort of walking six steps, picking up boards sitting next to the fireplace, and putting them into the fire - but they left no doubt that, in their mind, they were the most important people at the resort, justifying their insistent interruption of our table service.

My guess is that if they were to open their eyes, they would see something similar to what the author of the complaint describes as a consistent attitude of five star hotel staff: "This hate has followed me around the luxury hotels of Europe". Honestly, you can see a change in the eyes of a staff member who is asked to smile and serve an obnoxious guest. But at the same time, it helps you differentiate what happens when you treat the staff with respect and consideration.2

Consider this anecdote about President Obama's recent visit to the U.K.:
As the president stepped up to 10 Downing Street, he leant over, made eye contact, said something courteous, and shook the hand of the police officer standing guard. There’s always a police officer there; he is a tourist logo in his ridiculous helmet. He tells you that this is London, and the late 19th century. No one has ever shaken the hand of the policeman before, and like everyone else who has his palm touched by Barack Obama, he was visibly transported and briefly forgot himself. He offered the hand to Gordon Brown, the prime minister, who was scuttling behind.

It was ignored. He was left empty-handed. It isn’t that Mr. Brown snubbed the police officer; he just didn’t see him. To a British politician, a police officer is as invisible as the railings.
Whatever the price range, you'll probably find a lot less "hate" in the eyes of a hotel staff member if you notice them and treat them like they're human beings. When the "hate" follows you wherever you go, you need to stop and ask yourself a question: If the hotels are different, the cities are different, and the staff members are different, can you perhaps identify one element that remains the same through each encounter? Dare I ask, could that be where the problem lies?

1. What a difference a year can make. The same author on a ludicrously expensive, star-studded resort:
I am in Paradise. I am lying by the sparkling Caribbean Sea in Barbados, in the shadow of a palm tree, drinking fruit punch and reading the Daily Mail.... Of the stars and Masters of the Universe who come here, all will pay at least £40,000 and others, with parents and children in tow, will pay up to £400,000, because a 14-night stay is mandatory over Christmas.
Tell us about the staff?
Entering is thrilling - you pass through bright white gates and a grassy fairyland, studded with gushing fountains and floodlit palm trees and lackeys well practised in appearing overjoyed to see you....

A flunkey brings me a menu to goggle at. A hamburger is $30. A pizza is £25. An olive is £2. But it's cheap at the price, to eat near Michael Winner, film director and restaurant critic, and Philip Green, who sold me the dress I'm wearing, although he doesn't know it.
Although I'm sure she would argue that her choice of words is technically correct, their connotation is something else. How long would it take a normal person to recognize that the people she describes as "lackeys" and "flunkeys" pick up on her attitude?

2. For an interesting glimpse into the human psyche - how quickly somebody can be drawn into a world where she doesn't recognize the existence of an "us" and "them" so as to even be aware of what others are doing to float her luxurious lifestyle, see the PBS series Manor House.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Google Is A... Big Fat Meanie?

Yes, it's another one of the expositions on how horrible, or at least how amoral Google is for providing its free YouTube platform. After commenting on how Scribd, a service unrelated to Google, facilitates copyright violation and even allows people to "advertise services for delivering pirated books by email",
Google presents a far greater threat to the livelihood of individuals and the future of commercial institutions important to the community. One case emerged last week when a letter from Billy Bragg, Robin Gibb and other songwriters was published in the Times explaining that Google was playing very rough with those who appeared on its subsidiary, YouTube. When the Performing Rights Society demanded more money for music videos streamed from the website, Google reacted by refusing to pay the requested 0.22p per play and took down the videos of the artists concerned.
So, basically, the artists asserted their copyrights - "You can't run our songs unless you pay us the money we're demanding," and Google said, "Well, I guess that means we won't be running your songs." And that represents amoral behavior? How so?
It does this with impunity because it is dominant worldwide and knows the songwriters have nowhere else to go. Google is the portal to a massive audience: you comply with its terms or feel the weight of its boot on your windpipe.
There are lots of other ways to get your music online, ranging from the proprietary to other free video hosting services. I'll grant, YouTube has the best known brand - that's why Google was willing to pay an astronomical amount of money to acquire YouTube. But it's far from the only game in town. So what we're back to is the question of, how much is all that free YouTube publicity worth? The author falls into a predictable pattern:
Despite its diversification, Google is in the final analysis a parasite that creates nothing, merely offering little aggregation, lists and the ordering of information generated by people who have invested their capital, skill and time. On the back of the labour of others it makes vast advertising revenues - in the final quarter of last year its revenues were $5.7bn, and it currently sits on a cash pile of $8.6bn.
Imagine a library, with a billion books, all bound in identical white covers, arranged randomly on the bookshelves. There's a man sitting at the help desk. You say, "I need a book on the anatomy of honeybees." He immediately produces a list of ten books that meet your need, or come pretty close, and says, "Need another ten?" No charge! but you then notice that there's a display next to him, presenting advertisements for a few brands of gourmet honey, and honey-based face cream. Indignant, you declare him a "parasite"? I hardly dare ask the author how he feels about cartographers.1

As with the musicians who didn't feel that Google was giving them enough return on their music, any website can demand exclusion from Google's search results. It's easy to do. And if you don't find enough value as a user, you can use a competing search engine. The author complains that newspapers have not adapted well to the emerging electronic world, and trots out Jefferson on the importance of newspapers to democracy, but what's happening is much more complicated.

We have a democratization of speech that Jefferson could not have imagined, and there's no reason to believe he would have found it unsatisfactory to have the news available to him more or less "as it happens" through a computer screen as opposed to a daily delivery, printed on paper. The author complains that the newspaper business has "to give its content free to the search engine in order to survive" - that's true to a degree, but only because Google delivers traffic to the newspaper's websites. Other than AP, which is hosted on Google because it wants to be, Google doesn't make the full text of newspaper articles available. It offers the headline and a snippet, and you have to click the link to read the rest.

The scary part about the declining newspaper industry is not that billionaires like Rupert Murdoch see their fortunes decline, and angrily spew about how Google is stealing, no make that taking, news articles for free. It's a bit like getting angry that people can read headlines and the lede to top stories through the window of a newspaper box. Or the fact that those boxes even exist. If your business is going electronic, you have to develop sources for your traffic - and right now, that means working with Google and Yahoo.

Finding ways to make money from that traffic - particularly in the amounts necessary to float a traditional (quality) newspaper's reporting and editing staff? Yes, that's difficult. That should concern everybody, but it's a development that's anything but Google's fault. (Rather than complaining, perhaps newspapers should take a look at what Josh Marshall has managed to put together in terms of a purely online, professional news service, and wonder what they could have done given that they have, oh, a billion times his resources.)

Here's something for the author to ponder. YouTube, the wonder site that musicians just can't live without, is not the source of Google's wealth and success. Quite the opposite:
A new report by Credit Suisse projects that video-sharing giant YouTube is on track to lose $470 million this year, writes Multichannel News.

Credit Suisse says YouTube will generate $240 million in revenue, but those revenues will be dwarfed by the $711 million in licensing, hardware, marketing and other expenses the site will incur.
You know what eventually happens to ideas that lose $500,000,000 or so per year? No matter how big the company subsidizing them? They get cut. You are free to argue that Google "can afford" to lose that much money, or even more, but if you truly believe that YouTube is crucial to success in the world of music, perhaps it's time to stop complaining and start coming up with ideas to monetize YouTube traffic.2

1. The author raises some issues about Google's privacy policies, information retention, and other similar issues that are worth thought and discussion, but makes them little more than a footnote.

2. I suspect that I'm asking too much. I would guess that, should YouTube fail, we'll be hearing yet another version of the same complaint from the same author. Newspapers cut their unprofitable print publications and go online, where they depend upon Google to provide them with free traffic? "Google takes without paying! Google bad!" Google pays artists a licensing fee for their music on YouTube? "Google is profitable, so it could pay more! Google Bad!" Google closes its unprofitable YouTube site? "That's invaluable to musicians! Google bad!"

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Don't Count On It....

In a lament for the lack of support for autistic adults, a parent writes,
Question: What coming social expenditure will cost more than a third of this year's budget for the Department of Health and Human Services and be larger than the entire current budget of the Energy Department?

Answer: The bill for the tide of autistic children entering adulthood over the next 15 years, an estimated $27 billion annually in current, non-inflation-adjusted dollars by the end of that period. The number of autistic children expected to need extensive adult services by 2023 - more than 380,000 people - is roughly equal to the population of Minneapolis.
It may, if the nation feels that it has the money and makes spending on disabled adults a priority. But I wouldn't count on that - I would be structuring a special needs trust and trying to provide for my own child, on the expectation that society will not.
I understand that no one wants to look at a child and imagine the clunky, in-your-face adult he or she will become or think about the stares he or she will induce. When I look at my pudgy 22-year-old son, Randy, still sweet-faced but so obviously disabled, I cannot locate the blond cherub he used to be, gripping his stuffed brown bear.
This perhaps explains in part the difference in the manner in which society treats developmental disability in childhood and adulthood. In childhood, there's lots of spending and support, individualized education plans, the sky's the limit. In adulthood there are... group homes, and perhaps a sheltered job. And arguably the former is an outgrowth of guilt, overcompensation for the early 20th century's approach of warehousing and writing off developmentally disabled kids (as well as many with physical disabilities).
At expected rates, we will need to find an additional million caregivers, people who must have the right personal qualities to work with autistic individuals but who are willing and able to work for low wages. This is no small challenge. We not only must train people but also show that we value this work by paying them better.
And it's not just autistic adults. The needs of other developmentally disabled people must also be addressed.

The status quo for adults has emerged within the context of a society that has the funding to do more, and has chosen to put that money elsewhere. I suspect that over time the focus may be on how to provide disabled minors with less, and possibly also applying means testing to benefits, as opposed to providing disabled adults with more. I say this not to be mean, or to begrudge the developmentally disabled of funding and support. But if the future turns out to be as I expect, parents will need to be more proactive in planning out their own kids' futures, as the state is likely to become an even less acceptable proxy.