Friday, December 31, 2010

A "Whoosh" for David Brooks

David Brooks ends the year by telling us what he's been reading lately. C'mon, David - phoning it in on New Year's Eve?
For the past hundred years or so, we have lived in a secular age. That does not mean that people aren’t religious. It means there is no shared set of values we all absorb as preconscious assumptions. In our world, individuals have to find or create their own meaning.

This, Dreyfus and Kelly argue, has led to a pervasive sadness. Individuals are usually not capable of creating their own lives from the ground up. So modern life is marked by frequent feelings of indecision and anxiety. People often lack the foundations upon which to make the most important choices.
Given that most organized religions take for granted that life is a miserable experience, and assure you that if you keep you head down, go to church regularly, and live by the rules you'll find your reward in the afterlife, I can't say that I'm convinced by this argument. Unless it boils down to "People are happier and more fulfilled, even if they are impoverished serfs, if they believe that they will one day go to heaven." But if that's the argument, I'll stick with the "comparatively unsatisfying" present world, thank you very much.

Brooks is somewhat taken with the argument that people get "whooshed up", and that even the "spiritually unmoored" can "experience intense elevation during the magical moments that sport often affords". (Brooks believes that religious people don't like sports? Seriously - what's the distinction.)
The most real things in life, they write, well up and take us over. They call this experience “whooshing up.” We get whooshed up at a sports arena, at a political rally or even at magical moments while woodworking or walking through nature....

We should not expect these experiences to cohere into a single “meaning of life.” Transcendent experiences are plural and incompatible. We should instead cultivate a spirit of gratitude and wonder for the many excellent things the world supplies.
Brooks wants more than periodic whooshes:
I’m not sure this way of living will ever prove satisfying to most readers. Most people have a powerful sense that there is a Supreme Being over us, attached to eternal truths. Though they try, Dreyfus and Kelly don’t give us a satisfying basis upon which to distinguish the whooshing some people felt at civil rights rallies from the whooshing others felt at Nazi rallies.
Brooks has never heard the phrase, "bread and circuses"? Seriously, the reason he can't find a meaningful distiction between the "whooshing up" somebody might feel at a civil rights rally and that somebody else might experience at a Nazi or KKK rally is that... there is no meaningful distinction. Back in the original days of "bread and circuses", the crowd would get "whooshed up" by seeing Christians battle lions in the arena. Now a crowd might get "whooshed up" watching the Saints battle the Lions. (The distinction being perhaps that, these days, a lesser percentage of observers are rooting for the lions?)

For all of Brooks' commentary about human nature, he seems to give the subject remarkably little thought.

Brooks criticises the "whooshing up" theory by suggesting that "whooshes" often come from institutional activities. That, however, is peripheral to the idea that people now create their own meaning in life (of sorts) by seeking out their own set of "whooshes". Nothing in his summary of the "whooshing up" theory suggests that the autonomy comes from the ability to "whoosh up" in the privacy of your own home (sex, drugs and rock & roll?) as opposed to having the liberty to choose those activities and events that most get you "whooshed up" and to center your recreational life (and, if you choose, religious life) around those activities and events.

I have to disagree with Brooks that "Real life is more about serial whooshes than coherent meaning". If you truly can find a reliable source for whooshes, that source is likely to become a consistent part of your life. But "real life" is what comes between the whooshes.

When is an Unlicensed, Inexperienced, Untested Rookie "Highly Qualified"?

When the organization behind that rookie's placement has immense lobbying power.
Last week, an "anomaly amendment" was inserted into Congress's Continuing Resolution (a stop-gap that allows the government to continue functioning in the absence of an official budget.) The amendment in question allows teachers who are in an alternative certification program, regardless of the amount of time they've been teaching or whether or not they've obtained licensure in their respective states, to be considered "highly qualified" under No Child Left Behind (NCLB) regulations. It comes as no surprise that the amendment received a major push from Teach for America, a program whose mission is to place inexperienced teachers, most of whom are fresh out of college, in high needs schools across the country.
Is the goal here actually to staff troubled schools with highly qualified teachers? Or is it to maximize the size and budget of organizations like Teach For America, even if it diminishes overall teacher quality? (Via Schools Matter.)

Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Feel Good Story About Teachers....

... That's isn't properly supported by the data. Yes, it's nice to think that a kindergarten teacher can have a profound effect on the future incomes and success of her students, and yes there probably is some truth to it - it makes sense that your future education will build upon the foundation laid in kindergarten. It also makes sense that a more positive kindergarten experience, even if it's simply at an emotional level, will make it more likely that a child will come into future years of schooling with the expectation of further positive experiences. But...
The crucial problem the study had to solve was the old causation-correlation problem. Are children who do well on kindergarten tests destined to do better in life, based on who they are? Or are their teacher and classmates changing them?

The Tennessee experiment, known as Project Star, offered a chance to answer these questions because it randomly assigned students to a kindergarten class. As a result, the classes had fairly similar socioeconomic mixes of students and could be expected to perform similarly on the tests given at the end of kindergarten.

Yet they didn’t. Some classes did far better than others. The differences were too big to be explained by randomness. (Similarly, when the researchers looked at entering and exiting test scores in first, second and third grades, they found that some classes made much more progress than others.)

Class size — which was the impetus of Project Star — evidently played some role. Classes with 13 to 17 students did better than classes with 22 to 25. Peers also seem to matter. In classes with a somewhat higher average socioeconomic status, all the students tended to do a little better.

But neither of these factors came close to explaining the variation in class performance. So another cause seemed to be the explanation: teachers.
There are two issues here. The first is that the mere fact that the statistical significance of a finding is supposedly "too big to be explained by randomness" doesn't mean that it isn't, in fact, the result of chance. A very interesting New Yorker article recently discussed a number of studies in which statistically significant results, sometimes well beyond what researchers believed could be explained by chance, were followed in subsequent studies by a regression to the mean. That is, the initial findings were outliers or were otherwise flawed. The article doesn't mention this, but sometimes data sets are analyzed by computer for hundreds or thousands of factors - and when you do that, odds are you're going to find some outliers at the p < .01 or even p < ..001 level.

Also, with due respect to Sherlock Holmes, ruling out the obvious does not necessarily mean that you are correct that only one explanation remains, or that the one explanation you identify is the solution to your puzzle. If you come up with a hypothesis that lies outside of your data, you should attempt to replicate your experiment while collecting a more complete set of data.

Even if the answer does lie with the quality of the kindergarten teacher, the questions are raised, what qualities made the difference and were they consistent between teachers? If some teachers were introducing basic math and reading concepts, while others were focusing on play and socialization, that could explain why one group performed better than the other, but that's really a question of priority as opposed to teacher quality.

When it comes to schools we're better off erring on the side of quality, top to bottom, so to the extent that "great kindergarten teachers cause significant increases in lifetime earnings" means that as a society we'll emphasize finding and retaining great kindergarten teachers, I'm all for it. But, perhaps thanks to my kindergarten teacher (although when I started school in the U.K. I didn't attend a kindergarten, as such) I don't accept "We can't figure out what else caused the difference so it must be the teachers" with sound science.

Eliminating High School Exit Exams

A suggestion I recently read was that California could improve school funding by eliminating high school exit exams. The exams cost an astounding $500 million per year to administer, and "do not lead to more college attendance, increased student learning or higher employment".

As somebody who used to be in the business of hiring high school graduates for low level work, that makes perfect sense to me. When you have a stack of applicants for a job, you can't realistically interview everybody. So how do you narrow down the pile? A fast way is to separate high school graduates from high school drop-outs and focus on the second category. And you know what? It's not an unreasonable distinction to draw. You're much less likely to end up with an employee who can't do basic math or fractions (and if they're weighing out food at a deli counter or working a cash register, you want them to know basic fractions, decimals, and addition and subtraction), and you have evidence that they will stick to something to the point of finishing it. I had some good workers who hadn't completed high school, but virtually all of them had higher aspirations than the job I could offer them, and often they were trying to build additional credentials (or at least get a GED) or were actively seeking out employment that would lead to better opportunities.

What difference would it have made to me that the pile of high school graduates was "certified" by some test? None. No difference at all. Similarly, if I were a college admissions officer looking at students grades and classes completed, what difference would the final standardized test of their high school career make to me? For that matter, what are the odds that a college-bound student would have taken a high school completion exam before applying for and quite possibly being admitted to college? And if I were a high school teacher I would either be at a school in which it was necessary to spend time "teaching to the test" to keep the school's rate of passage at an acceptable level, or I would be at a school where I could take for granted that the students would pass and focus on teaching my subject.

That money, it seems to me, would be much better spent by having high schools add additional requirements for graduation - more math, science and English classes - and hiring qualified teachers to teach those courses.

How to Get People to Eat Better

The modern poster boy for healthier eating, Jamie Oliver, seems to be under attack from all sides. First, he's saying you can cook healthy, good tasting meals in thirty minutes? "Real cooks know better." Second, he's lecturing Americans on their diet when there are still fat people in England? The nerve!

The response to the first argument seems obvious. Sure, if you have the time, money, knowledge and resources you can create a better meal experience with a few hours of work than you're likely to get from one of Jamie's recipes. But let's be honest here: Oliver's not trying to compete with you or with a quality restaurant experience. He's trying to compete with packaged foods like Hamburger Helper and Rice-a-Roni, and take-out from places like McDonalds and KFC. By all means, take the whole day to prepare a healthy feast for your family, but let's not pretend that the majority of people have that luxury or that, even if they had the time, kitchen gadgets, ingredients and knowledge, that it would be their priority.

The second criticism represents a failure of logic, and I'll admit that I picked the low-hanging fruit from the linked article. Oliver is trying to guide British people toward healthier food choices, but even if he weren't his comments as directed toward the U.S. market wouldn't be any less valid. Besides, he's getting very rich in the process - so let's embrace his criticism as part of the American way. ;-)

The more serious argument raised in the "who's a Brit to tell us how to eat" article is that the primary cause for the change in our waistlines comes not from diet but from inactivity. I think it's fair to say that's part of the cause - even as we eliminate recess from elementary school days and open charter schools that have no athletic or exercise facilities, we complain that kids don't spend enough time playing outside. Heck - it wasn't so long ago that you had to walk your type document over to the copier, and distribute copies into co-workers' mail boxes - not a lot of exercise, but at least you had to get up and move a little bit. In most workplaces you can achieve those same tasks more quickly and efficiently without leaving your desk chair. Yes, society is a lot more sedentary than was historically possible.

But it oversimplifies things to argue that "If you're working twelve-hour shifts at the car plant, you can eat whatever you want." It's not just blue collar workers who are heavier than their historic peers. Nor were all blue collar workers historically recognized for their slim waistlines. The reality is, we've moved as a society toward packaged and prepared foods. Thanks to corn subsidies we have food that's full of corn, corn syrup, and fatty beef - and it's cheap. Restaurant portions, including fast food portions, have grown substantially in size over the years. Yes, when McDonalds introduced its fries in 1955 they weighed 68 grams, the same as a modern "small fries" - but the "small" size is what we now feed to our kids. An 1955 soda was 207 mL. A child's soda is now 354 mL. Last time I went to a movie, the large popcorn bucket was approximately the size of a battleship. (I exaggerate only slightly.) It's pretty easy to get a large soda that's a liter or more in volume - five or more times the amount offered in 1955.

There's also profit in upselling. How much money do you suppose McDonalds has taken in over the decades with its simple question, "Would you like fries with that?" How many times have you been asked a similar question - "Would you like a large? It's only 25 cents more." Meanwhile, behind the scenes, "test kitchens" that are really sophisticated laboratories attempt to determine what flavors, odors and colors are most likely to make you crave more, buy more, eat more, and your packaged, prepared and fast food purchases are engineered accordingly. We eat more than we used to eat, and it's in no small part by design. (Another example of capitalism at work.)

You want to lose weight? Eat less, exercise more. Or 'simply' eat less. But our food culture isn't going to make it easy for you.

A First Sentence for Julian Assange

And no, I'm not talking about his criminal prosecution. Apparently he's suffering from writer's block:
Julian started working on his book today. Anyone have any good suggestions for the first sentence?
Why am I reminded of a Peanuts cartoon (and thus, indirectly, of Edward George Bulwer-Lytton)... "It was a dark and stormy night".

Still, I would like to help out. The first idea that comes to mind,
When it comes to protecting sensitive areas, in both cases more obvious in retrospect, the governments of the world and I have something in common: A need for better prophylactic measures.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Looking for Political Solutions in All the Wrong Places

David Ignatius offers his latest musings on the war in Afghanistan, "willpower" and the magic man who comes in the form of General David Petraeus, and pretends that he has a number of insightful questions for General Petraeus. His questions, though, center on how General Petraeus will implement political solutions to Afghanistan's problems. Um... David? Not his job. It may well be that the questions are the right ones to ask, but it doesn't help to ask them to the wrong person.

For Doing All of the... Light Lifting on Entitlement Reform

Robert Samuelson pats himself on the back for turning 65 and still proposing to roll back Medicare and Social Security:
I've written columns like this for years. Little has changed. Medicare premiums for wealthier recipients (income thresholds: $85,000 for individuals, $170,000 for couples) have increased modestly, affecting about 5 percent of beneficiaries. But politicians fear making major changes. They dread an assault from AARP, the main senior lobby, and the rage of millions of retirees and near-retirees. Public opinion is hostile. It's high on reducing deficits and low on changing the programs that create the deficits.
Let me say this: I'm fine with having those who can afford to do so contribute a greater amount to their health care in the form of premiums, copays and deductibles. The problem, though, is that's not enough - and Samuelson's not willing to tackle the tough issues or to press the tough choices. He's content to pretend that the problem of Medicare can be somehow fixed through increasing the age of eligibility or through increased premiums alone. Let's examine, for example, how hard Samuelson pushed back against the lie of "death panels:
These critics charge that Obama would curtail Medicare benefits or create "death panels" to deprive ill seniors of desirable care. Not only are these charges mainly false (as Obama says), but they wrongly suggest that we put some important subjects off-limits. Medicare represents one-fifth of personal health spending. Why shouldn't we debate what should be covered and who should pay? Similarly, doctors, patients and families should discuss end-of-life care. It's not just that 25 to 30 percent of Medicare spending occurs in patients' last year. Expensive, heroic care often compounds suffering.
From a search of his columns in the Post, that's it. That column reflects that Samuelson understands that end-of-life care and its very high cost is a huge part of the problem with Medicare, but he's unwilling to articulate a solution that would reduce those costs. At sixty-five perhaps he doesn't want to hear it, but everybody dies. Delaying the age of eligibility for Medicare won't change that.

Samuelson also doesn't want to address the fundamental issues that led to Medicare's creation and perpetuation: Seniors (and other people who are at heightened risk of serious or fatal illness) are costly to insure, period. Making people wait longer to become eligible for Medicare won't of itself make alternatives affordable. People who need medical care will still have to obtain medical care. If the idea is that seniors who can afford to pay should shoulder a greater percentage of the cost of their care, so that the burden isn't shifted onto younger taxpayers, great - let's work on that. But Samuelson's reforms seem to be predicated on the notion that it's better to have an increased overall expenditure on health insurance and medical care for the elderly through private payments and private insurance than it is to perpetuate a less costly, more efficient government-run program. That also appeared to be his position on the Affordable Care Act - it's better to preserve massive private profits at the expense of universality and cost containment than it is to look at - and even less consider - the efficiencies created through the national health insurance programs of any other nation.

Samuelson has to be aware of the consistent, highly valid criticism of his notion that you can fix Medicare pretty much by raising the age of eligibility: Not everybody has a cosy sinecure like his, in which you can earn a six figure income for cycling through the same tired series of editorials year after year after year, producing a whopping two columns per week. Most people aren't doctors or lawyers, accountants or bankers. The people who are going to be the most costly to Medicare during their sixties are those least likely to be able to continue to work into their seventies, least likely to be able to afford increased premiums or other contributions, and least likely to be able to afford private insurance. If they cannot get onto Medicare by virtue of age, they will get onto Medicare by virtue of qualifying for Social Security Disability - at an even higher cost to the taxpayer. (And no, that program's not sustainable either.)

Samuelson happily glosses over the primary reason that he and his peers get Social Security, Medicare, and other benefits that they don't necessarily need. They hold disproportionate income, wealth, business and political power. They vote. The "dread assault of the AARP" is really the "dread assault of people like Samuelson." That's not a problem unique to the United States. Senior care, long-term care, and end-of-life care play a major role in healthcare inflation in every developed nation. The developed world does not deal well with issues of sickness and mortality. If you want to "engage and change" public opinion, you have to be courageous enough start with such measures as counseling on end-of-life issues - and you have to be honest enough to call a lie a lie.

It will do nothing to whine about how the world won't change "unless political leaders discard their self-serving hypocrisies" - you might as well wait for the law of gravity to be suspended. You either have to get the overwhelming weight of public opinion behind change, or you have to wait for the crisis. If you want to see the problem in action you need look no further than Samuelson himself - when a massive tax cut for the wealthy adds close to a trillion dollars to the deficit over the next ten years, it's not even worth a passing mention. When massive deficit spending is required to pay for something he supports, it's "pocket change" - and even if he later admits that he underestimated the cost he offers no solution and no retreat.
But I am certain -- now as then -- that budget consequences should occupy a minor spot in our debates. It's not that the costs are unimportant; it's simply that they're overshadowed by other considerations that are so much more important. We can pay for whatever's necessary.
How's that for self-serving hypocrisy?

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Whose Beliefs Matter Most

I read Ross Douthat's column on how Christmas is a "tough season for believers", but wasn't inspired to revisit it until I saw Atrios's snark, that the "shorter" version of the column is "I am the one true Christian". I didn't personally infer quite that level of sanctimony. Instead, what caught my attention was that Douthat's distress comes from worrying about how other people perceive and approach Christmas.
Their great feast is compromised by Christmukkwanzaa multiculturalism. And the once-a-year churchgoers crowding the pews beside them are a reminder of how many Americans regard religion as just another form of midwinter entertainment, wedged in between “The Nutcracker” and “Miracle on 34th Street.”
Sure, if you want to fret that the person next to you in church doesn't believe strongly enough to attend services on a weekly basis, or that there are too many secular traditions associated with the Christmas season, you can probably create a great deal of anxiety for yourself. Douthat admits that these issues, for him, are "anxieties", and suggests that for others they can be "overdrawn" - "Think of the annual 'war on Christmas' drumbeat, or last week’s complaints from Republican senators about the supposed 'sacrilege' of keeping Congress in session through the holiday."

Douthat worries about a slide away from "the idea of a single religious truth" and toward a culture in which Christianity is "competing not only with rival faiths but with a host of pseudo-Christian spiritualities". Yet our nation was founded upon the principle that there was no "single religious truth", and even as Douthat gives longing, backward looks to a historic America that he perceives as "an overwhelming majority in a self-consciously Christian nation", that Christianity was not unitary. Some Christian faiths disagree on big issues - not just issues of social justice and equality, but also questions about the nature of God. Would Ross Douthat, a Catholic raised with the doctrine of the Trinity, accept a Nontrinitarian view of God as part of a "single religious truth" or even as "close enough"? How would he come to terms with those who question whether Catholics are really Christian because they haven't been "born again" or practice idolatry through the veneration of saints? Are there not non-Christian churches that Douthat would view as more in synch with America and its history than any number of Christian sects that dot our nation's landscape?

I think Douthat would be a lot happier if he stopped worrying about other people - whether others appreciate the "true meaning" of Christmas, whether the nation is sufficiently Christian, whether the guy next to him in the pew at Christmas Mass is going to be there next week, whether other people are celebrating Hannukkah or Kwanza, or the odd hybrid he calls "Christmukkwanzaa" - and focused on his own spirituality. In saying that, I'm not suggesting that he needs to form a personal relationship with God outside of the Church. He can work on his personal connection with spirituality and religion within the context of his Church and its teachings. But dare I say, if he can approach Christmas by focusing on the good, and focusing on his own relationship with God his anxiety should go away. And if he's worried about the future of Christianity, he'll probably do more for that cause by sincerely welcoming those church members who attend only for Christmas and Easter than he will by viewing them with a jaundiced, anxious eye while fretting about their connection to their faith.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Another Moment of "Duh" from Kathleen Parker

How does she come up with stuff like this:
Democrats are equally guilty of obfuscation through language distortion. How many times throughout the tax bill debate have you heard some variation of the following? Giving tax breaks to the rich will add to the deficit.

Pardon? How does money in someone's own pocket add to another's debt? This sort of logic is possible, of course, only under confiscatory rules of wealth redistribution.
Actually, Kathleen, it's called "math". You see, if you have a deficit and you cut taxes without offsetting spending cuts, your deficit gets larger. And unless your spending cuts are sufficient to erase the current deficit and produce enough of a surplus to offset the impact of the tax cut it's still fair to say that the tax cut adds to the deficit - because that's how the math works.

Let's try it like this. Jimmy, Kathy and Bobby have committed to giving Granny Smith ten applies to make a pie for the bake sale. Jimmy doesn't have many applies, so he's contributing one. Bobby has more applies, and he's contributing two. Kathy has lots and lots of apples, and she's contributing three. That means that they have six apples, but need four more in order to give Granny ten.

Kathy whines, "It's not fair that I have to share three apples - that's wealth redistribution." But Granny Smith explains that she can't make a pie with less than ten apples and even after spending dozens of seconds thinking about it the best solution Kathy can come up with would take a tiny slice or two of apple out of the pie - so they still need all ten apples. If Kathy's contribution is reduced to two apples, the apple deficit rises from four to five - that is, in order to keep their commitment to Granny Smith, Kathy, Bobby and Jimmy must borrow five apples instead of four.

Let's say, instead, that Granny Smith says, "You know what? You only have six apples. I can make a smaller, dryer, less satisfying pie, but it will be a pie nonetheless," wiping out the apple deficit. Kathy nonetheless whines, "This is still wealth redistribution" and refuses to contribute her third apple. The apple deficit goes from zero to one. Yes, Kathy, the number one is bigger than the number zero - that's because the deficit went up.

So how does Kathleen Parker avoid basic math facts? By... using an irrelevant analogy:
Let's say Joe is $100 in the hole and yet continues to spend money like a drunken fool. Mary has five bucks, which she declines to share because she has to buy food. Joe is insistent. His debt will get worse if Mary doesn't help out. This may be true, but Mary isn't convinced that helping Joe pay down his debt will do any good as long as he continues to spend. She's betting that Joe will just dig a deeper hole, and she will have less security of her own.
So we're going to pretend that the nation's budget and debt are analogous to Kathy's drunk uncle Joe trying to bum a five spot that Kathy... er, sorry, Mary, whose AGI in this analogy is over $250K/year, desperately needs to feed her family? Come on.

The analogy works better if Joe and Mary are married, Joe's a drunken spendthrift and Mary's trying to hold the household budget together. Joe says, "Can you give me $5?" Mary says, "No, I need it for groceries." Joe says, "Fine," and uses the family's credit card to spend the $5. Mary may have kept the $5 bill in her pocket, but as a result the family debt rose by $5.

Maybe we could imagine Joe, sober and more responsible, complaining to Mary about her grocery bill. "You're spending too much money - what can we cut?" "If you want three meals a day for yourself and the kids, we can't cut anything. At least not unless we cut out the extra money you insist we spend for corn, sugar, beef, and those fancy preparation tools you insist we need in order to have the best prepared food in the world." "Oh, I don't want to cut any of that. What else can you cut?" "Breakfast?" "No, I like eating breakfast. But maybe you could remove three oat grains from each serving." "That wouldn't affect the spending by even a penny." "It wouldn't? Well, I see on your shopping list you've 'earmarked' romaine lettuce instead of head lettuce." "They cost the same at our grocery store - that doesn't change the total budget." "Well, I'm not willing to earn more money in order to contribute more to the family budget, and I'm not willing to give up any of my personal luxuries, so I think the solution is that I personally contribute less to the family food budget." "But that will mean we have to borrow money to buy food." "Not my problem, I'm not into wealth redistribution. Just make sure I have three hot meals each day, the way I like them."
Yet, the effect of this oft-repeated trope has been to demonize "the wealthy," as if they somehow have wronged their fellow citizens by working hard and achieving what everyone else wants.
Merely by referring to wealthy people as wealthy, it seems they're being "demonized." Mind you, if you're not wealthy it's not "demonizing" you to call you "poor" or analogize you to a "drunken fool." Also, without diminishing the fact that the majority of wealthy people "worked hard", for roughly a third is it not reasonable to say that the "hardest" thing they did in life was to be born to a wealthy family?
You see the problem. It isn't the money. It's the dishonesty of the argument.
As I see it the problem is both one of money - we are talking, after all, about a budget deficit - and the dishonesty of arguments like the one presented by Ms. Parker to mask her unwillingness to address the issue or to contribute toward a solution that might involve her giving up... pretty much nothing she would notice.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Charter Schools Aren't a Magic Bullet

You would think from Arnold Schwarzenegger's editorial in the Washington Post that all you need to do to fix a failing school is have a charter school organization take it over. Job done, wipe your hands and go home. Schwarzenegger speaks of a troubled elementary school in Compton, California that is being converted to a charter school based upon a law that provides for reorganization "if 51 percent of parents sign a petition."

The thing is, as of right now nothing has changed. The charter school organization has not taken over. The students... well, they have shown improvement over the past couple of years, albeit not to a level that's going to satisfy concerned parents, but obviously the charter that hasn't yet taken over can't claim any credit for that. Saying, "The school was failing so a charter is taking over" isn't a success story - it's a preamble. The story starts next year (assuming the petition drive is determined to have been properly conducted).

And although I wish it were otherwise, there is nothing magical about charter schools or the formula applied by the modest percentage (about 17%) that outperform matched public schools (as compared to the 37% of public schools that outperform matched charters - but we're not supposed to mention that in polite company). The charter schools being offered to the inner city seem either to follow a model of rigid discipline crossed with rote learning and an extended school day, or they perform no better or worse than their matched public counterparts. And unfortunately, even when we speak of improvement we're not speaking of bringing the kids up to the level you would find in a typical middle class public school.

Maybe Celerity Educational Group, the charter school organization selected to take over the elementary school, is exceptional. Maybe they have a superior model to the much ballyhooed "long school days with lots of group chanting" model that is usually held up as the solution to inner city schools - they say that their "curriculum progressively deepens students' understanding of core concepts while avoiding needless repetition", so I'll give them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they can achieve parity with schools that perform at a level acceptable to middle class Americans. I'm happy to give them a chance.

But despite Schwarzenegger's bravado, I'm not prepared to declare this a victory for the children until I actually see the school improve.

Because teaching is really easy, I'll close with this example of the pedagogical style demonstrated by the governor in his past life as the star of Kindergarten Cop:

"It's So Sacrilegious, I Have to Add to the Problem"

Jim DeMint's self-parody.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Downside of Building Codes

The question, "Are we really better off with building codes", has spawned an interesting discussion. "Yes, but...."

The best built house on my street sold last year for considerably less than it cost to build. (I'm not sure when the last house on this street sold for more than its replacement cost, but that's another issue.) The second-best constructed house sold more recently, also for less than it cost to build. They did both sell for more than the house my wife and I purchased last year, but they're selling on par with what you would expect on a "per square foot with finished basement" basis. If you choose to build a house above and beyond code, you can't expect to get much (if any) of that investment back when you sell.

Building codes represent the minimum standard of construction, and in many ways are to home construction what domestic cars in the 1970's were to advanced automotive engineering. Yes, code improvements have increased amounts of insulation typically used and, despite it being true that there are some astonishing homes built over a century ago that put most modern homes to shame, for the most part homes are actually more solid and comfortable than they were a century ago. (It's like music - you focus on the works of art of past generation, but forget how much ended up as noise in history's scrap heap. A lot of older homes exist only due to significant renovation or have been replaced, and it's pretty easy to find older homes that are barely standing.) But if you build to code you're getting a house that's substantially less solid, less energy efficient, and less likely to last than a house that could be built based upon readily available knowledge, materials and building technologies.

I do agree that part of the problem is that it's easy to become a builder, and up until the housing crash was pretty easy to make money building and selling homes on a "maximum square feet for the money" basis using semi-skilled labor. I personally would like to see a concerted effort in developing and implementing new construction technologies that can help make housing better, longer-lasting, more energy efficient and less expensive. But I see little sign that the residential construction industry will collaborate to make that a reality, or that the government will impose something analogous to CAFE on home builders, requiring them to build better homes and thus creating an economic incentive to use, develop and implement better techniques and technologies.

Remember - It's All the Teachers' Fault

A window into the life of an urban educator.

If You're Going to Echo False Statements

At least have the courage to sign your name, a'la Thomas Friedman. Too much to expect from Fred Hiatt and his crew?

Another craven element of the editorial is suggesting that President Obama has engaged in an "embarrassing retreat in Middle East diplomacy". There is no evidence whatsoever that President Obama has retreated from his efforts to achieve a resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The evidence, actually, suggests the opposite.

As for who came out of this looking less than impressive, that would be Binyamin "I was offered the world and I asked for a pony - and I got it, so I asked for a gazillion dollars and some new jets - and I got it, so I asked for even more, and I got it, so I walked away" Netanyahu. Had Netanyahu accepted President Obama's exceptionally generous package of incentives, he would have had to come to the bargaining table with a map in hand, so he instead said "no" and resumed construction of settlements on Palestinian land. As it stands, Obama looks like an adult, Abbas looks like an adult (which, perhaps, explains the smear campaign), and Netanyahu looks like... himself. And he's placed Israel in the position of looking like the obstructionist party that won't engage in good faith negotiations for peace. Some leadership....

Frankly, I was never impressed by assurances that Netanayahu had changed his spots. His recent actions simply confirm that he has not. Now, should President Obama desire, he is free to come up with a package acceptable to the U.S., Europe and the rest of the Middle East, present it to Netanyahu (or his successor) and again put the onus on Netanyahu to demonstrate that he's interested in resolving the conflict.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

As With Deficits, Child Poverty is Now Important

Michael Gerson always seems to be late to the game. When his lord and master, G.W. Bush, was posting record deficits, all was well. When President Obama took office Gerson reinvented himself as a deficit hawk. Gerson is now suddenly concerned about child poverty and its effect on our society, but nary a mention of G.W. Let's see, how well did G.W. do on the issue of child poverty?
The number of U.S. children living in poverty increased in 2007 — continuing an upward trend dating back to 2000: In 2007, 13.3 million children were living in poverty, up from 11.6 million children in 2000. The percentage of children living in families with incomes below the poverty line has increased from 16.2 per- cent in 2000 to 18.0 percent in 2007. Thus, a large number of children — nearly one in five — are poor.
Taking a look at child poverty rates over time, going back to 1959, you see a rapid decline of child poverty until 1969, a leveling off at about 15% through 1976, a modest increase until 1980 (the recession under Jimmy Carter), and then... "Morning in America" was associated with a massive increase in the child poverty rate. The rate dropped slightly below 20% toward the end of Reagan's tenure, then went back up to the mid-20's under George H.W. Bush. The rate gradually declined under Clinton and, as the quote above suggests, consistently rose under G.W. Bush. The current, severe recession has increased the child poverty rate, from about 19% at the end of G.W.'s tenure to about 21% today, below the peaks that occurred under Reagan and at the end of George H.W. Bush's tenure, but well above what I expect most people would deem acceptable or healthy for our nation's future.

What is Gerson's simplistic take on this? He resorts to a "correlation is causation" argument, arguing,
If America had the same fraction of single-parent families as it had in 1970, the child poverty rate would be about 30 percent lower.
It's difficult to believe that Gerson was unaware that he was cherry-picking 1970 out of the five-year stretch between 1969 and 1974 when child poverty in this nation was atypically low. As you might expect, the decade of "free love" wasn't a high point for marriage: the number of children living in single parent families was 24% in 1960 and 46% in 1970 - so why was there a significant decline in child poverty over that period?

Please note, I don't want to diminish the importance of a stable family unit to child-rearing and poverty avoidance. But we shouldn't confuse a cause and effect, nor should we disregard the cyclical nature of poverty. When a girl becomes a mother with a partner who is unsuitable for marriage, uninterested in marriage, or both, she is set up for single parenthood, dropping out of high school or going no further in school, a work history (if any) that reflects her status as a parent of a preschooler, and in all likelihood subsequent relationships that similarly don't ripen into marriage. That may also be what was modeled for her by her extended family and within her peer group and community.

Gerson argues that it is "simplistic" to focus on "economic redistribution" as an answer to poverty. I'll concede the point he is trying to make, but at the same time point out that at least by definition if your society has enough wealth to go around you actually can eliminate poverty through income redistribution. The point he presumably is trying to make is that income redistribution won't actually solve poverty - you can mask or reduce it over the short-term, but if you withdraw the subsidies it will reappear. To argue otherwise would be simplistic, but arguably no more so than Gerson's suggestion that we could erase 30% of poverty by marrying off single mothers to unwilling suitors. Gerson quotes Brookings Institution researcers,
"Our research ... shows that if you want to avoid poverty and join the middle class in the United States, you need to complete high school (at a minimum), work full time and marry before you have children. If you do all three, your chances of being poor fall from 12 percent to 2 percent."
Gerson focuses on marriage, not completion of high school, perhaps because he understands that a teen mother who has not finished high school is significantly less likely to do so even if she's married and is exceptionally unlikely to have a full-time job. I wonder what issue he's trying to avoid mentioning.

Gerson's argument on "simplistic" approaches to poverty is itself simplistic.
Passing the tax compromise between President Obama and congressional Republicans would be a notable achievement - but mainly a negative one. It would avoid a contraction of the economy in January, when tax rates are scheduled to broadly rise. Deficit hawks are unhappy with another round of borrowed stimulus. But the first step in the recovery of economic health is the avoidance of self-inflicted wounds. On this commitment, at least, bipartisanship has returned.

Yet the deal also sparked an ideological argument on the nature of economic fairness. To some on the left, the refusal to raise taxes on the wealthy was a moral failure - a surrender to inequality. Conservatives generally countered that economic inequality is a matter of indifference, as long as the economy is growing. Both arguments are notable for their shallowness.
Gerson's concept of the "deficit hawk" seems to align with that of other "conservative" commentators - deficits only count if they're created by spending, not by tax cuts. No true deficit hawk would have looked at the idea of extending tax cuts for the rich at a cost of $70 billion per year and shrugged that off as irrelevant to the deficit. Nor would they shrug off the other tax cuts or the higher-than-expected estate tax cutoff and its lower-than expected rate. A deficit hawk would look at the Republican proposals to "balance the budget" and laugh. "How can anybody think you can balance the budget without painful budget cuts and significant tax increases? And the Republicans haven't proposed even one meaningful budget cut." But then, both students of history and serious deficit hawks know that the Republican Party is not even slightly concerned about deficits - they're something to complain about when a Democrat is in office, but should never interfere with a tax cut or the out-of-control spending of a Republican administration.

I'm not sure who, if anybody, is making the argument that Gerson attributes to the left, that "We need to raise taxes on the rich so that we can redistribute wealth," as the arguments I've seen have focused primarily upon the fact that the Republican approach will increase the budget deficit by almost a trillion dollars over the next decade. Sure, I've heard arguments that continued tax cuts for the wealthy aren't likely to stimulate the economy and thus that, if we take the Republican position that the $trillion doesn't matter, the money could be better directed at other priorities. But nobody of consequence is making the argument Gerson presents. (Gerson also leaps from the mythic "to some on the left" to "Progressives... seem[] happy to accept ideological leadership from a self-described democratic socialist[, Bernie Sanders]." Logic isn't his forté.)

Gerson proposes an approach to poverty that he claims is a "should be common ground for the center-left and center-right".
A mobility agenda might include measures to discourage teen pregnancy; increase the rewards for work; encourage wealth-building and entrepreneurship; reform preschool programs; improve infant and child health; increase teacher quality; and increase high school graduation rates and college attendance among the poor.
Here's something interesting, though - and although I've teased him for it I'm going to refer back to David Brooks and his magic marshmallows - the study Gerson uses as a basis for his article doesn't speak of quality high schools or college attendance - it speaks of completing high school, deferring childbirth, and holding a full-time job. That is, the underlying message is that a reduction in poverty is associated with learning how to complete things, learning responsibility, and deferring gratification. Improving schools and raising the rate of college attendance among qualified high school graduates is good for society, but for poverty reduction it's icing on the cake.

The largest fault with Gerson's list, of course, is that it's not a list of "center-left and center-right" ideas. It's principally a list of ideas from the political left that have largely been dismissed, ignored or subverted by the political right, including Gerson's former boss, George W. Bush. Yes, I understand that Gerson stuck that "school improvement" stuff in there as a monument to "No Child Left Behind" and the present push for improved inner city schools. But what was G.W.'s solution to teen pregnancy? Abstinence-only education and the undermining of family planning, both domestically and internationally. (Whoops.) What is the Republican response to initiatives to expand access to healthcare for struggling families? (Whoops.) What position typifies the Republican party on early childhood education in poor communities? (Cough.) While the criticism that Republicans only care about children until they're born is unfair, it's not without a kernel of truth. Even within the context of school reform, while G.W. seemed sincere in his desire to improve public education, the larger right-wing push seems animated by the opportunity to bash teachers unions.

Gerson's proposal to "increase the rewards for work" - how do you do that without redistributing wealth? The disincentive to work, after all, is that your public assistance will be reduced or eliminated based upon your income, so how do you increase rewards without creating a new subsidy? As for "encourag[ing] wealth-building and entrepreneurship", it would be nice if Gerson presented more than a sound bite. Maybe he pictures teen mothers making crocheted booties and selling them on Etsy?

All in all, if you want to put together and fund a comprehensive anti-poverty program, focused not on handouts but on improving poor communities with better support for family planning, families, access to health care, support for working parents, affordable, high-quality preschools, and support for helping kids - perhaps especially teen mothers - complete high school, you would be looking at programs and initiatives associated with the political left. The political right sounds more like Gerson - "All of that would be nice, but not if it means paying higher taxes. And spending on the poor? That's the one area where I'm serious about being a deficit hawk."

Gerson attempts to dabble in British politics, alluding to "the British Labor Party" as being socialist in the manner of Bernie Sanders, and suggesting that the true model for the Democratic Party is Nick Clegg and the (do you know this already) Social Democrats. Gerson's millimeter thick knowledge of British politics has apparently made him aware that Nick Clegg joined his party with the Conservatives in order to become part of the ruling coalition, and has backed severe budget cuts that are cutting back on the very types of programs Gerson just got through telling us were necessary to elevate families out of poverty. The standing of his party under its supporters is so low that it presently looks to be all-but wiped out in the next election.
Labour has risen about 10% in the last seven months by not being the Liberal Democrats. Converted into a House of Commons, these figures are sufficient to give Ed Miliband a majority of 18 whilst reducing the Liberal Democrats [from 57 seats] to just over 20 seats.
As a satirical "agony aunt" recently put it:
Dear Dr Mander

Earlier this year I decided to take a little break from front line politics and concentrate on writing. I have just published a brilliant and penetrating analysis of the crisis at the heart of globalised neo-liberal capitalism, including a visionary call for the recalibration of post-Keynsian orthodoxies to balance the efficiency gains of liberalised labour markets against the social consequences of asymmetric cross-border capital movements. It is, as I'm sure you can imagine, a real page-turner. Anyway, with this project out of the way, I'm ready to return to public life. I feel I have so much more to offer. But there don't seem to be as many opportunities around these days. How do you think my unique skills could best be deployed for the benefit of mankind?

G Brown

Dear Mr Brown

As I recall, when you were chancellor, agitating to become prime minister, you hinted that your leadership would mark a departure from the old politics of spin and that you would be guided by high principle. Once in office you stuck to the usual methods of shabby tactical manoeuvring, no one knew what you really stood for. Feint to the left, govern on the right; widely seen as unprincipled, failed leadership… Have you ever thought of becoming a Lib Dem?
As usual, whether by ignorance or by design, Gerson's advice to Democrats seems to amount to, "Load gun, aim at foot, pull trigger."

I'm Not Expecting a Retraction, But....

Thomas Friedman has been given the most gentle of rebukes in Ha'aretz for making what he really had to know was an inaccurate claim,
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, what are you thinking? Ehud Olmert, the former Israeli prime minister, offered you a great two-state deal, including East Jerusalem — and you let it fritter away.
Contrary to the claim made by a New York Times commentator that Abbas rejected Ehud Olmert's generous proposal, the woman who was the foreign minister in his government has said on a number of occasions that the Palestinians did not reject this proposal and that it is sitting on the shelf waiting for an Israeli partner.
Also, should I be less skeptical than I am that Olmert could have pushed his plan through the Knesset, even if he weren't beset by corruption scandals and the military assault on Gaza had not occurred?

Sunday, December 12, 2010

As if it Weren't Already Obvious.....

MSNBC today shares the startling story, "Bloomberg rules out 2012 presidential bid". Now, I recognize that Bloomberg has been coy while the nation's media has flattered his ego with the notion that he could run a viable campaign, but the fact that he's not planning to run should go without saying given his investment to date of $0 in building a national name or machine that would get him on state ballots and give him any chance of being elected. Yes, Giuliani's narcissism left him believing that he could ride his service as mayor and the happenstance of his serving in that role on 9/11 into the White House, and I'm not sure that Bloomberg thinks any less of himself. But Bloomberg seems smart enough with his money and ego that he's not going to run a disastrous and doomed presidential campaign that is more likely to result in his being compared to Nader or Perot than even to Giuliani.

Meanwhile, having finally admitted the obvious, Bloomberg reveals a level of tact that simply serves to highlight why he would not be the dream candidate that... a handful of people in the mainstream media imagine. If Bloomberg weren't a billionaire, and if he were instead supporting himself on a mayor's salary, lecturing ordinary folks to "suck it up" in relation to a tax cut that could save him tens of millions of dollars would perhaps not be entirely out of place. But he is a billionaire. (I expect that Bloomberg's income is primarily in the form of capital gains, and that between the lower capital gains tax rate and his bevy of tax lawyers and accountants he already pays a much smaller percentage of his income in taxes than the typical critic of the tax deal.)

Disability Insurance - Making a Cure That's Worse Than The Disease

I've seen a few critical comments on Peter Orszag's New York Times column, in which he argues for the privatization of SSDI (at least over the first two years). But it nonetheless astounds me how many half-baked ideas Orszag can cram into a few paragraphs of text.

Apparently somebody told Orszag that The Netherlands has implemented a program of private insurance for disabled workers and he has decided from anecdote that a similar solution in the United States would vastly reduce the number of workers who are determined to be disabled. Except he falters even as he tries to get out of the starting blocks:
Unfortunately, at this point more than six million people have been unemployed for six months or longer. More than one million have already given up looking for work because they believe no job is available. And a drastic rise in applications for disability insurance suggests we may be headed for more long-lasting trouble....

The spike in disability insurance applications (and awards) does not reflect a less healthy population. The fraction of working-age adults who report a disability, about one in 10, has remained roughly constant for the past 20 years. (Indeed, it would be surprising if the number of workers with disabilities had risen by 50 percent over the past four years.) Rather, the weak labor market has driven more people to apply for disability benefits that they qualify for but wouldn’t need if they could find work.
Orszag's proposed solution is that
that employers should be required to offer their workers private disability insurance. Such coverage would provide people who have a work-limiting disability with vocational assistance, workplace accommodation and limited wage replacement.
Let's stop and think about this for a moment: The problem is that chronically unemployed people, seeing their unemployment benefits about to run out, apply for Social Security disability benefits. They don't necessarily get Social Security - there's no reason to believe that the SSA has lowered its threshold for reviewing and approving (or should I say rejecting) applications. But they're applying. So already there are two glaring defects to Orszag's approach. First, unless we're also going to assume that an ex-employer will be compelled to provide disability insurance for two years after the employee is fired or laid off, and that the employer will continue to exist throughout that period and won't discharge its obligations in bankruptcy such that it can pay premiums, the workers Orszag identifies as being responsible for the spike in disability applications still won't have private disability insurance. Second, there is no reason to believe that these very same people in the exact same circumstance wouldn't apply for private disability insurance.

How does Orszag imagine that his system would save money?
Private employers would have an incentive to prevent their workers from having to file disability applications, because their insurance premiums would rise in response to higher disability rates.
As Walmart demonstrated, there's more than one way to skin that cat - you change job duties and descriptions such that people whose physical health is at all impaired aren't likely to apply or, if problems develop later, are likely to quit. Without diminishing how mental illness can result in disability, his proposal seems most likely to burden employers that depend upon physical labor - the heightened risk of physical injury will drive up their insurance cost.

Last I checked, a lot of public and private entities that largely hire white collar workers for desk jobs already offer disability insurance as a supplement to SSDI - that is, it's easier to quality for benefits which are often more generous than Social Security's payments. The burden of this type of law isn't likely to be a burden on those employers. But it is likely to be a burden on the employers who would otherwise be hiring the very body of workers Orszag accuses of gaming the disability system. In short, he would be creating a huge disincentive for employers to hire older and displaced workers for jobs with a physical component, or to find ways to terminate their employment before they're able to claim disability against the company's insurance policy.

Orszag argues that the average "human resource" cost of his proposal would be "roughly $250 per worker per year". That appears to be the administration cost, as it's difficult to believe that any sort of viable long-term disability insurance coverage could be purchased for that price (let alone the cost of a policy and the cost of administration). From what I've read, workers can expect long-term disability insurance to cost between 1% and 3% of their salaries to cover about 60% of wages during a period of disability, with the cost increasing with age. Orszag's number appears inadequate to cover the cost of a low-end policy for somebody making $30,000 per year. But then, perhaps an undisclosed element of his plan is that he intends only the barest of coverage.

Another cost of long-term disability insurance, of course, is evaluating claims and determining which have merit. Orszag notes that his plan shifts this responsibility from the government to insurance companies, and is concerned that they'll wrongfully deny claims:
Another concern is that private insurance firms would need to be given substantially expanded responsibility for evaluating workers’ disabilities. Mr. Autor and Mr. Duggan propose to mitigate this potential problem by suggesting that workers be allowed to appeal any such evaluations to state government agencies.
It's interesting to me that Orszag simply assumes that insurance companies will be dishonest in their dealings with disabled workers, but perhaps he has some experience with how the insurance companies work (when they're not paying out claims or bonuses with government money). But let's think about this for a minute: The injured worker comes to the insurance company with documentation from a medical professional that supports a disability claim. The insurance company reviews the information, often referring the injured worker to its own doctor for an "Independent Medical Examination" (IME). If the worker doesn't like that outcome the worker can appeal to... would it be the Social Security Administration? And the SSA would evaluate whether the denial was appropriate, with the associated cost of having somebody review the medical records and perhaps after ordering a medical exam of its own? Then either the worker or employee could appeal the decision? It's beginning to sound a lot like worker's comp - and it's beginning to sound likely that injured workers will need representation through this process to stand up to the insurance industry's lawyers. So in order to avoid having the SSA make a determination of who is or is not disabled, we're going to have the insurance industry make the easy calls, still have the SSA make the more difficult calls, and add significant transactional costs? Sheer genius.

But again, that's only for workers covered by an employment-based disability policy and, again, that's not the body of workers Orszag believes are responsible for the rise in dubious claims. So we're vastly increasing cost, probably not creating any efficiency for the approval of disability claims (despite Orszag's pretense that private disability benefits "would kick in within 90 days of the onset of disability" - because even if insurance companies work that fast in the easy cases, the rest are likely to end up in government reviews that take months or even years to resolve through administrative hearings and litigation), and are likely making the rest of the system far less efficient. All the while adding to the cost of hiring workers, with no reason to believe that FICA taxes will go down.

Orszag's most frequently criticized conceit is this:
Today, however, many people with disabilities are able to engage in some form of work — even if they can’t admit that and still keep their insurance benefits. Cutting off access to the workplace in this way is both unfortunate and unnecessary — and reinforces the threat that the current downturn could cause a long-term reduction in the share of people who work.
Perhaps it's that he's never worked a blue collar job, or spent any appreciable amount of time with people who work blue collar jobs. Not everybody is cut out for a desk job. Further, even assuming we can retrain an injured worker to transition from a job that centered on physical tasks to one that centers on a desk and computer, when job seeking that worker will be up against younger workers with superior skills and experience. And, as previously noted, Orszag's proposal will increase the incentive of employers to not look past those issues and hire a worker who is disabled from more physically intensive work, because that employee will already cost more to insure and will be a higher risk for a disability claim.

Further, Orszag assumes that the population he describes - people who spend at present up to 99 weeks fruitlessly searching for jobs before desperately applying for disability benefits - don't want to work. The facts would appear to belie his assumption. I don't question that some desperate individuals who could work are seeking disability benefits, but I see no basis for Orszag's implicit assumption that they have the option of returning to work. They can't find jobs.

The elephant in the room is that the Social Security Disability system is not sustainable based upon its present 1.8% payroll tax. But it's not clear why Orszag believes that it would be better to create a massive private bureaucracy to cover (for some workers, and apparently not those at the root of the problem) the first two years of disability. As previously noted, his assumption appears to be that cost savings can be achieved through an increase rate of denials or possibly by bare bones retraining programs associated with bare bones benefits (assuming his dollar figure is to be believed), but his proposed system of appeals would seem to evaporate any such "efficiency". Is the word "tax" so toxic that he is proposing a cumbursome, expensive pseudo-privatization, a backdoor payroll tax the costs of which will be passed to workers, as opposed to a modest direct increase in payroll taxes?

Although Orszag's tenure with the CBO was short, one would think he would review its relevant findings in relation to his arguments. While Orszag offers the truism, "the weak labor market has driven more people to apply for disability benefits that they qualify for but wouldn’t need if they could find work", the CBO acknowledges the underlying reality,
When opportunities for employment are plentiful, some people who could qualify for DI benefits find working more attractive. Conversely, when employment opportunities are scarce, some of those people participate in the DI program instead.
Orszag may not like it, but under the law it's quite possible to qualify for SSDI yet be physically able to hold a regular job. I've known quite a few lawyers over the years who had significant physical maladies but were able to continue to work. None of them could have performed a job requiring a significant amount of physical labor, but they were able to make handsome livings from behind a desk. But we should recognize their position as exceptional, not pretend that it can be generalized to populations of similarly disabled workers who don't have the same academic and professional training or income opportunities. Even if he were disabled, Orszag would likely be able to perform the tasks required in his @$3 million/year Citibank sinecure. His biggest mistake is believing the rest of us our as lucky - sort of an "If Stephen Hawking can make a nice living writing bestselling books on theoretical physics, why can't anybody" approach to the problem.

But just as a salary vastly higher than could be achieved from SSDI benefits can serve as an inspiration for white collar workers to stay on the job despite disabilities, the same is true even with much more modest salaries for the largely blue collar workers who are at the center of Orszag's proposed reform. All they need are jobs. Meanwhile, it would make sense for government to focus on reducing barriers to the disabled for entering and reentering the workplace, rather than proposing reforms that increase costs to employers and thus make them less likely to hire older and disabled workers.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Severability Clauses and Healthcare Reform

Randy Barnett notes that the Obama Administration has conceded that if the individual mandate is held unconstitutional, "provisions preventing health insurance companies from discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions would also be invalidated by the court because the two are inseparably linked".

To me that doesn't seem like a big concession. First, it's obvious that those regulations would not be economically viable in the absence of an individual mandate. Second, were the Obama Administration to argue otherwise, the health insurance industry would launch a full-bore assault on the bill both in the courts and in Congress, and they would (for once) have a valid argument to make.

Frankly, given how many concessions the Obama Administration had to negotiate to get a bill that the various health industry players wouldn't torpedo, it seems less reasonable to assume that the Dems "forgot" to include a severability clause as opposed to having deliberately omitted one in order to prevent an outcome where a court upheld the regulations while striking the individual mandate. The "need" for a severability clause is largely overstated by opponents of the legislation and, to put it mildly, the inclusion of a clause that would have stated "If the individual mandate goes, so do provisions like 'no discrimination based on pre-existing conditions'" would not have been politically popular.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Don't You Go Peeking At My Dirty Underwear....

This cartoon by Clay Bennett of the Chattanooga Times Free Press hits on something - how our government will happily ignore the rights and privacy of ordinary citizens, despite having a complete absence of evidence that its new privacy-invasive policies will do anything to improve security, but pretty much blows a gasket when it's our political leaders who might be embarrassed.

I find it interesting that, despite the furor over the Wikileaks disclosures relating to the military's activity in Iraq, the U.S. government did not come down on him full bore, nor did they assign a team of government lawyers to scour the statute books looking for a way to criminally charge Assange, until it was the State Department and, by extension, the political leadership of the nation that was being embarrassed. From a legal perspective, why are leaks of low-level State Department memoranda worse than leaks of military documents and video?

The people making these choices on our behalf are the same individuals who, of course, don't have to go through regular airport security - and whose wealthy supporters don't go through anything approaching a frisk or body scan even when they go to events where the President is present.

How does it feel to be one of the little people?

Thursday, December 09, 2010

... And It Will Happen Again

We can talk all we want about how new regulations or oversight will prevent another collapse of the major banking institutions or prevent the need for another taxpayer bailout. We can pretend that the taxpayers won't stand for another bailout. But when push comes to shove....

Paul Krugman writes,
I think this film [Inside Job] will stay with us; when you ask how the even worse crisis of, say, 2015 happened, the fact that these people got away with it will loom large.
I don't want to seem pessimistic, but "2015" feels all too possible.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

The Weakness of the "Charter School" Industry

An editorial by Mike Feinberg, superintendent of KIPP Houston, admits that charter schools "are not the 'magic bullet' for education", but argues for additional subsidies to help "high-performing" charter schools expand. To his credit, Feinberg also calls for holding charters accountable and closing "low-performing charter schools". But while I understand his zeal for expanding the charters offered by organizations whose schools typically offer better performance, his argument is not compelling either as to why those organizations need to be subsidized or why the same (or better) results could not be achieved by redirecting the funding that would go toward subsidies back into the public system. As he notes, even with the existing level of subsidization, abuse is rampant:
The charter school movement was based on a simple premise: freedom to innovate, in exchange for accountability around results. Unfortunately, not all charter schools are living up to this promise. Even more upsetting, loopholes in the current charter law are allowing low-performing and fiscally irresponsible schools to stay open, which casts a pall on the majority of charter schools in Houston and across Texas that are keeping their promises to their students and families.
Creating massive new subsidies seems likely to either exaggerate that problem, resulting in even more public money being siphoned off by opportunists and scam artists, or to insure to the benefit of a handful of privileged charter school organizations, giving their schools significant subsidies that new, innovative charters won't enjoy. Further, beyond their desire to rapidly expand, it isn't clear why organizations like KIPP require additional public funding. Between funds paid on a per-pupil basis and the large donations their parent organization has amassed from various corporations and foundations, Houston's KIPP schools reportedly already spend more per pupil than their public school counterparts.

So when the proposal is made,
The government needs to [give] districts incentives to open up unused spaces for charters to use.... The government should also back bond offerings for public charter schools, as it does for their traditional counterparts, so that the competition for buildings is fair.
In relation to KIPP it seems to be more about budget priorities - it doesn't have to choose between spending more per pupil and having a brand, spanking new, state-of-the-art school facility - than it is about budgetary fairness. And, as I previously noted, when it comes to schools and organizations that are less established or less philanthropic than KIPP, particularly in the for-profit sector where abuses already seem rampant, it sounds like a recipe for disaster. I will grant, if school districts have unused space that's suitable for charter schools, making those facilities available for charters to rent or purchase does seem fair. But let's not pretend that granting new subsidies so that charters can construct new facilities, even as public schools in the same districts continue to crumble, is about leveling the playing field.

Also, when we start talking about closing underperforming charters, we need to recognize that there's already push-back against that idea particularly in the for-profit sector. Testing and standards? They're for public schools. It's difficult to see where this proposal leads, except to exceptional taxpayer subsidy and lemon capitalism that will largely benefits for-profit charter school organizations who will happily leave the taxpayer holding the bag in the event of default, and will actively lobby for exemptions from any standards applicable to public schools or for their receipt of subsidies even though they don't meet those standards based upon their professed "innovations".

Feinberg also suggests that the one big "innovation" offered by charters serving the inner city is the extended school day - something borne out by research - and that it can easily be replicated within the public schools.
HISD has taken some promising steps in this direction, including its Apollo 20 initiative, which is working with 20 historically underperforming Houston schools to pilot innovations adapted from successful charters, including the extended day and year.
But Feinberg can't resist suggesting that teacher job protections should be undermined, and suggests that public schools need "freedom to innovate", whatever that means. (What "freedom to innovate" do public schools current lack and which freedoms, if any, are not imposed by administrators?)

Here's something that puzzles me: Whatever wars public school administrators want to wage with public school teachers, why does Feinberg care if public school teachers can be easily fired by a principal? If I were cynical, I would wonder if he felt that it would make it easier for charter schools to poach quality teachers out of the public school system - after all, if they no longer enjoy tenure and are expected to work longer hours without additional compensation, why not switch over to a better funded charter school - particularly one in a brand spanking new, taxpayer subsidized facility? I don't recall ever hearing the administrator of a quality, fully private school complaining about public school teachers, save perhaps to note the importance of offering competitive pay packages. Is Feinberg's complaint really about competition? Burned out KIPP teachers move to public schools, and quality teachers in the public school system aren't interested in KIPP?1

The Wall Street Journal offers, through SmartMoney, a remarkably candid take on charter schools.2 Charters aren't significantly outperforming public schools - to the contrary, only 17% outperform their public counterparts, whereas 37% produce worse results. They rely upon non-certified teachers and have high teacher turnover. They find ways to exclude students with learning and behavioral disabilities, particularly those with severe disabilities, shifting the higher cost of their education back onto the public system. In relation to KIPP,
The Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) schools have been criticized for high rates of student attrition, in part because it’s the struggling students who are more likely to leave schools mid-year – so if more students leave charters, that churn could boost a school’s scores. A KIPP study released in June found students leaving at rates comparable to the rate at which students leave traditional public schools – but, according to Miron, that study ignored the fact that KIPP schools don’t then fill empty slots with other weak, transient students the way traditional public schools do. “Traditional public schools have to take everybody,” Miron explains. “Charter schools can determine the number they want to take and when they want to take them, and then they can close the door.”

Miron found there was a 19% drop in enrollment in KIPP schools from grades 6 to 7, and a 24% drop from grades 7 to 8. Some charter schools lose 50% of a cohort each year, Miron says. And in some cases, students can be explicitly pushed out of a charter school for failing to meet the school’s academic or behavioral standards – an option that’s not available to a traditional public school.
And the biggest (non-)secret of all? “The single biggest predictor of student performance is family income". I've stated before that it's perfectly reasonable for a school to regard teachers as the most significant in-school factor in a child's education, and that it makes sense to recruit the best teachers you can and to provide them with the support they need to succeed in the classroom. But you cannot disregard the effects of poverty. Part of KIPP's success can reasonably be inferred to come from the fact that its students are more removed, both by virtue of additional school hours and by virtue of the fact that children with behavioral issues won't last long in a KIPP school, from the chaos that otherwise prevails in many of their lives.

1. With no disrespect intended to KIPP's accomplishments or to the teachers who work long hours teaching KIPP's students, I'm certainly not interested their pedagogical model, either as a parent or a former public school student, and find it difficult to believe I would enjoy working in one of their schools. I'm also not personally sold on the idea that the "cure" for inner city schools should be a model of instruction that would be rejected, out-of-hand, if proposed for a middle class school. I hope that KIPP's graduates achieve long-term success.

2. They have a counterpart for public schools which raises some valid issues, but it seems like they scrambled to come up with the same number of points.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Paradox? What Paradox?

Ross Douthat finds a paradox where none exists:
We’ve known for a while that America has a marriage gap: college graduates divorce infrequently and bear few children out of wedlock, while in the rest of the country unwed parenthood and family breakdown are becoming a new normal. This gap has been one of the paradoxes of the culture war: highly educated Americans live like Ozzie and Harriet despite being cultural liberals, while middle America hews to traditional values but has trouble living up to them.
The explanation is pretty obvious, isn't it? People who do a good job managing their lives and relationships want the government to trust individual choices and keep out of their relationships. People who don't, or who by virtue of culture believe that to be the role of others, are more apt to see a need for state imposed controls on relationships, who you may have them with, when and under what circumstances they may end, etc.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Republicans Are Serious About the Deficit

Hey, Republicans, how about we extend unemployment benefits to help people out in this horrible job economy?1
Not unless you cut spending elsewhere - we can't increase the deficit.
Well, we could more than pay for extended unemployment by allowing the Bush tax increases to come into effect for the nation's highest wage earners.
Out of the question.
But won't the extension of tax cuts run up the deficit to the tune of about $70 billion per year? Are you going to propose spending cuts to make up the difference?
Spending cuts, wha...? No. This is completely different.
It just is.
Well, perhaps we can reach a reasonable compromise?
How about we extend tax cuts for everybody, and extend unemployment benefits as well?
You mean, blow an even bigger hole in the budget?
No, it is simply the avoidance of raising taxes in a difficult time, and by cutting taxes and increasing the deficit we're actually demonstrating fiscal responsibility. Hm. I'll come up with a euphemism if you give me a moment, then you'll see how it all makes sense.
You have to love (real) statements like this:
"I think it's pretty clear now that taxes are not going up on anybody in the middle of this recession," McConnell said in an interview on NBC's "Meet the Press" program. "We're discussing how long we should maintain current tax rates."
One would think that Sen. McConnell would be aware that the recession officially ended in June, 2009. That the current problem is a jobless recovery. That the wealthy are doing better than ever, but aren't "creating jobs".

In fairness, my guess is that he knows all of that - but will happily blow smoke up the skirts of our credulous mainstream media - after all, odds are nobody will call him on his mendacity.
1. I single out the Republicans not because I believe the Democrats are markedly better on these issues - I believe the reason the Dems painted themselves into this corner is because between 1/3 and 2/3 of them would just as soon join hands with the Republicans and implement policies that work overwhelmingly to the favor of the wealthy, and they thus couldn't get their act together before the election to pass a tax bill that would have caused pain, even at the level of a pinprick, to the nation's top business executives, bankers and hedge fund managers. I single them out because their hypocrisy is so over-the-top, and yet seems to elude mainstream media analysis. (But then, same paymasters.)

The Happy (Influence) Peddler

David Broder reminds us how much the world he loves has changed. Oh, sure, Charlie Rangel deserved to be censured but, just s when Dan Rostenkowski fell to corruption charges, it's a sad day nonetheless.
I think I can tell you why. The pursuit of power is what brings people into politics, and some of them pursue it with a grim determination never to be outmaneuvered. You can stand back and watch them work, but there seems to be no joy in them - or in the spectacle they provide. It's a deadly serious business, this fundraising, vote-counting, always manipulating treadmill, for the Tom DeLays and the Nancy Pelosis of this world.
Perhaps it's worthy of note that Tom DeLay was recently convicted of money laundering? You would think that would merit mention under the circumstances, although that might say a bit too much about Broder, "It's not the corruption that bothers me, or even the conviction - it's that he was so grim." Influence peddling, it seems, should make you happy.
What was different about Rangel and Rostenkowski was the sheer joy with which they played the game and the way they would let you know that, whatever the policy stakes, a game is what it was to them.

How did they let you know? They would analyze their own motives with the same disarming candor they brought to their calculations of their colleagues' maneuvers.
Somehow I think Broder means something different than, "They openly admitted that pretty much everybody in Congress is, at some level, for sale," but that's nonetheless a reasonable interpretation.

Broder tells us,
I remember conversations with [Rangel] when he was engaged in what may have been his greatest coup: helping free Hillary Clinton from the confines of the East Wing and converting her into a successful Senate candidate in New York.

The number of people who were determined to keep that from happening were legion, both in Washington and New York. But Rangel knew them all, and he knew how to get around them - by co-opting or by mowing them down, whatever was required. And he loved every minute of this game - which he played for unselfish purposes, not to expand his own influence.
Let me get this straight - the evidence David Broder offers of Rangel's selflessness is that he helped one of the most politically connected people in the world become a United States Senator, happily pulling in chits, trading favors and bulldozing obstacles along the way? And Broder knows that Rangel had no expectation that he would benefit from his ongoing relationship with President Clinton and his political supporters, let alone any future benefit from his relationship with Senator Clinton? And we know all of this simply because... that's the way Broder spins the story? Why am I left less than completely satisfied....

Meanwhile, Broder assures us, people like Rostenkowski and Charlie Rangel aren't greedy (don't be deceived by your lying eyes). Broder's explanation?
Often, they were just sloppy about the demands of the new era of politics.
Which apparently involves the unrealistic expectation that you'll be reasonably honest in your financial dealings and disclosures, and not commit any felonies on the job? The horror.

Broder informs us,
And [Rostenkowski] always hugely enjoyed the game he was part of - never burdened by whether it was negotiating with the Treasury secretary or regaling his pals late at night at his favorite steak and bourbon joint.
How often, I wonder, was Broder among those pals? And who picked up the tab?

Dana Milbank shares a different perspective, that we have "A House full of Rangels".
The rules governing members' behavior were proven so lax as to be irrelevant. The vast majority of transgressors are never punished - Rangel was penalized only because he himself asked the ethics committee to investigate some of the allegations against him.

To be sure, Rangel deserved punishment for his wrongdoing, which included failing to pay taxes on his beach house in the Dominican Republic and improperly using his office for charitable fundraising. But in the 30 minutes allotted to him for his defense on the House floor Thursday evening, Rangel and his friends made a compelling case that he was being punished for doing things that lawmakers do routinely.

"The only examples of anybody sanctioned for tax matters in this House in the history of the United States have been those who didn't pay taxes on bribes they received," Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) argued in Rangel's defense. Several members had a chuckle over their laxity.
The most telling Congressional whining came from Rep. Peter King:
And Rep. Peter King (N.Y.), one of the few Republicans to oppose censure for Rangel, implored his colleagues to "step back" and reconsider. "Let us apply the same standard of justice to Charlie Rangel that has been applied to everyone else, and that all of us would want applied to ourselves."
It's really difficult to read that as something other than, "I'm in huge trouble if somebody pokes around for the skeletons in my closet - and many of you are, as well." But buck up, Members of Congress - if you can learn to revel in the sheer joy of influence peddling, no matter what that involves, even if you're caught and convicted you can count on David Broder to write a glowing obituary for your Congressional career.