Thursday, July 29, 2010

Accountability for Thee....

Another round of "accountability for teachers but not for administrators"?
According to the DCPS IMPACT Guidebook, the actual growth is a student’s scaled score at the end of a given year minus his or her scaled score at the end of the prior year. If a fifth-grader received a scaled score of 535 in math and a score of 448 on the fourth-grade test the previous year, his actual gain would be calculated as 87 points.

Subtracting one score from another only makes sense if the two scores are on the same scale. We wouldn’t, for example, subtract 448 apples from 535 oranges and expect an interpretable result. But that’s exactly what the DC value-added approach is doing: Subtracting values from scales that aren’t comparable.

By assuming that the difference between a student’s score in one year and his or her score in the following year is a definite (and precise) quantity, the DCPS value-added scheme assumes that the scaled scores are measured on an interval-level scale, in which the difference between a score of 498 and a score of 499 represents the same difference in performance as the difference between 499 and 500.

But this simply cannot be. The difference between 498 and 499 is a tiny difference among very high achievers in the fourth grade. But the difference between 499 and 500 is the difference between the highest performing fourth-grader and the lowest performing fifth-grader; and there are many fourth-graders who outperform low-scoring fifth-graders.

And heaven help the poor teacher who is teaching a class filled with students who’ve been retained in grade.

A fifth-grade student who got every question wrong on the reading test at the end of fourth grade and every question wrong at the end of fifth grade would show an actual gain of 500–400=100 points.

A fifth-grader repeating fifth grade who had a scaled score of 510 the first time through, and a scaled score of 530 during his or her second year in fifth grade, would show an actual gain of just 20 points. DC’s value-added methods may, of course, simply exclude students who are retained in grade from the calculations, but that sends an unpleasant message about whose scores count when teachers are evaluated.
I'll leave open the possibility that the D.C. Schools' calculation of value-added scores was not as incompetent as it seems from the data they've released so far, but....

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

John Hancock's Signature Seems So... Small

I can't quite put my finger on why....

(If you want your own laser-engraved, Glenn Beck-signed copy of the Constitution, bid here.)

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Professional Hack Marc Thiessen Strikes Again

It seems like only yesterday we had a President whose speechwriters had him declaring that key terrorists were "wanted, dead or alive", and (even if it meant distorting their statements) ridiculing those who suggested that we might approach international terrorism "as a law enforcement matter" instead of as a full-scale military conflict. One might recall how U.S. forces attacked the hiding place of Saddam Hussein's sons, and how the Bush Administration proudly shared with the world post-mortem photographs of Uday and Qusay. How, in 2003, Bush bragged, "nearly one-half of al-Qaida's senior operatives have been captured or killed", and how he described the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi following the bombing of his safehouse as "a severe blow to Al Qaeda and ... a significant victory in the war on terror" - a line that may have been penned by Marc Thiessen, then a member of his speechwriting team.

Oh, but that was then, this is now. Marc Thiessen would have us believe that he has his knickers in a twist over the Obama Administration's decision to bomb the hideout of "Saleh Ali Nabhan, al-Qaeda's leader in East Africa and also a senior leader in al-Shabab", when he at least theoretically could have send forces in on the ground to try to capture him for later interrogation. Crocodile tears pour down his face that, "thanks to a decision by Obama, all that intelligence was vaporized. Why did the president choose to kill, rather than capture, Nabhan?" Why, oh why....

Basically, President Obama followed the same approach as Bush, determining that there was undue risk to U.S. soldiers in trying to capture a suspected terrorist leader, and followed the same approach as Bush in bombing that person's hideout instead of attempting to capture him alive. Were Thiessen on Obama's speechwriting team, no doubt he would (perhaps again) be penning speeches in which Obama bragged about the death as "a severe blow to Al Qaeda and a significant victory in the war on terror". But he's an unprincipled hack so, instead, he's arguing that Obama erred in not treating a known international terrorist in the manner of a criminal suspect, somebody to be arrested and interrogated, but certainly not killed.

Don't fool yourself, though - had Obama followed Thiessen's after-the-fact advice and launched a raid on Nabhan's hideout, and had that raid either failed to capture Nabhan or resulted in the death of a soldier, Thiessen would be among the first to (once again) deplore the President for confusing the war on terror with a "law enforcement matter".

I can almost hear the sneer, "I wonder if Obama read Nabhan his Miranda rights."

Thanks to Michael Gerson, It's All So Obvious....

All we have to do in Afghanistan is "win then negotiate". (Um... but wouldn't that be appeasement?)

Gerson's editorial, as you might expect, is useless. It tells us why we should "win" - because if we don't there is no question but that the girls and women of Afghanistan will suffer horribly in at least parts, and more realistically in most or all of the country. But he ignores both the present reality, that girls and women continue to suffer horribly in parts of Afghanistan despite a massive military presence, the cultural factors that have created and will perpetuate that reality, and a history in which the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and gave girls and women many rights that they enjoyed right up to the end of Soviet occupation, and the fact that desire for victory is not a strategy.

I'm not sure whether Gerson is simply sharing the Kool-Aid served up by his former boss - that the war is about the rights of women, with the implication that its success be measured by the progress of women in Afghan society - or if he's also drinking. Certainly, the more you learn about the plight of women under the Taliban, the more horrifying the conception of allowing that type of oppression to recur. But the sad reality is that Bush's strategy for Afghanistan appears to have in fact been to keep enough troops present to avoid overtly losing that war before the end of his presidency. His administration recognized that the best way to keep the public engaged and supportive of that war, and the one in Iraq, was to contend that a principal goal of the wars was to advance civil rights for women and for marginalized ethnic groups and, as Gerson continues to argue, that negotiation or withdrawal would lead to horrors for those groups. It's hard to argue with that. The problem is, as they say, it's easier said than done.

The position advanced by Gerson - we must "win" - tells us nothing either about how we might win or what a victory might look like. It did provide Bush with convenient cover for his strategy of perpetuating a war that he seemed to have lost interest in demonstrably winning - but there's a world of difference between advancing and solidifying the rights of women and minorities, and giving them lip service when your only real goal is to avoid revealing your war strategy as an abject failure.

Gerson also parrots the inevitable argument of proponents of indefinite occupation - that the groups that are resisting occupation are simply waiting us out, and even if they give lip service to our goals as part of a negotiation aimed at getting us out of their country they'll revert to their actual policies the moment we're gone. But that doesn't distinguish this occupation from any other. Unless you're going to follow the model of an occupying power that is going to dig in, force cultural change, and remain in occupation for the decades - perhaps generations - it takes for the occupied people to incorporate your culture, you can expect that the occupied people will return to many, most, and perhaps all of their own cultural traditions once allowed to do so. When we talk about the Russian Jews or Chinese Catholics, we talk about the indomitable human spirit. Just because you don't like the Taliban's religious or cultural beliefs doesn't mean that they're any less sincere or deeply held. For that matter, Gerson apparently believes that it's only the Taliban that oppresses women, while many non-Talibani warlords have historically done exactly the same thing and continued those practices even after the Taliban was deposed.

Similarly, we can look at our own nation's history. Gerson is probably aware of the U.S. civil war and its nominal end of slavery. He is probably aware that it took more than a century for overtly racist laws and policies to be ended in many southern states. He may be aware that racism lives on in this country and that there remains a population of people who argue that African Americans are socially or genetically inferior, sometimes both. Perhaps he's forgotten that women didn't have the right to vote in this country until 1920. Even in the western world, effecting cultural change can be painfully slow.

Perhaps Gerson's not aware of the fact that even long-term occupation doesn't guarantee that a group opposed to the occupation won't rise in power after the occupation ends, either to rebel against the government or to form a secessionist movement. Perhaps he missed how several European nations reverted to ethnic conflict, even dividing into separate nations, after the fall of the Soviet Empire. Perhaps he missed the ugly ethnic rivalries present in many nations of the post-colonial world, including Iraq. Closer to Afghanistan... no, make that in Afghanistan... perhaps he missed the collapse of the government left behind by the USSR when it ended its occupation. Perhaps he's never heard an Afghan speak with pride about how his nation has never been successfully conquered. Perhaps he is also unfamiliar with the concept of blowback. Perhaps he missed how Israel's efforts to defeat the PLO led to its ill-fated occupation of Southern Lebanon, and turned Hezbollah into its enemy, or how its efforts to marginalize and defeat the secular PLO in the occupied territories led to the rise of Hamas.

Whether or not he tried, even as he provided a link to the actual story, Gerson couldn't quite bring himself to be honest. He argues that, when asked about the possibility of settlement with the Taliban, CIA Director Leon Panetta responded that they're not truly interested in reconciliation. In fact, Panetta was speaking broadly of "insurgent groups". Gerson's notion that this means the U.S. should double down, committing even more troops and money to defeat insurgent groups who show no interest in sincere negotiation after being on the receiving end of the longest war in U.S. history might, perhaps, make a more thoughtful person wonder if a military victory can be achieved. Such a person might question whether massive military actions, injuries and deaths to civilians, the overwhelming presence of foreign occupying forces, and the effort by those forces to redefine local culture might not be an effective mechanism to force a monumental shift of Afghan culture. Or whether it's reasonable or feasible to wipe out an enemy that has sufficient support within the community that its fighters can fade into the civilian population when they want to hide from occupying forces. (Has Gerson read nothing about the Vietnam War?)

With due respect to Gerson's emphasis on human rights, that apparently commenced with the U.S. occupation, perhaps he should spend some time explaining the policy positions of the pre-9/11 Bush Administration. Does Gerson agree that women's rights should take a back seat to the war on drugs? That they don't merit mention when we're talking about eradication of opium poppies, but for some reason must be front and center in any discussions that are intended to end a bona fide, shooting war? It's easy to endorse the human rights conception of the war in Afghanistan, which is why the Bush Administration pushed that conception of the war, but if you look at the Bush Administration's actions it's difficult to view its professed interest in the plight of Afghan women as anything more than spin. Gerson started penning speeches for Bush in 1999 - he must know that history. For that matter, he must be aware of how hard Bush pushed (or should I say didn't push) Saudi Arabia to improve its treatment of women.

Some fair questions for Gerson:
  • How, exactly, is he defining victory in Afghanistan?

  • How long will it take to achieve that victory?

  • What will be the cost in both dollars and lives?

  • Are there any U.S. strategic interests that he deems more important than human rights for the Afghan people and, if so, what are they?

  • What should the United States do if it finds a way to achieve all of its military and security objectives in Afghanistan, but with the trade-off being that it does nothing to alleviate the plight of women?

  • What level of human rights would Gerson find sufficient - for example, does he envision a U.S. military occupation that lasts until Afghanistan treats women in the manner of the United States? In the manner of Saudi Arabia?

  • What if the generals to whom Gerson insists we must defer find that, to defeat the Taliban, the U.S. must ally itself with warlords who don't share the Taliban's religious zeal but treat women in the same manner as does the Taliban?

As Gerson also contends that we're now "winning" in Iraq, it's also fair to ask - if we apply the measure of his former boss, how are we actually doing? Or is he changing the measure of what victory is supposed to look like as a matter of convenience to his present argument? If I may be concrete, if we were to assume a full withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, should we expect the post-victory Iraqi government to support or oppose Iran's nuclear program, and on what evidence?

Monday, July 26, 2010

Judicial Creativity

A post at the Official Google Blog, highlighting the case law available through Google Scholar, highlights a trial court opinion written to the meter of a song by one of the litigants, LeAnn Rimes, and apparently intended as a tribute. I was reminded of a Michigan appellate case, Fisher v Lowe, also written as a poem with the substance of the opinion similarly placed in the footnotes.

I have mixed feelings about this type of opinion. Yes, they can give some amount of amusement to legal scholars and law students, even if the facts and legal principles they present are more difficult to extract. But I wonder how the litigants perceive them. If a case is important enough to litigate, particularly to the appellate level, does it send the wrong message if the judges get creative with their form, or attempt to be witty with what, to you, is the very important culmination of your litigation? That is, would a litigant on the losing side of a case like Fisher v Lowe be thinking, "That was clever," or, "They didn't take my case seriously."

Whistleblowing vs. Leaks

There appears to be a great deal of confusion about the concept of "whistleblowing", not much helped by media coverage.

Under U.S. law, in simple terms, a "whistleblower" is somebody who reports an employer's bad conduct to an agency with oversight over the employer. You're working for a mining company, the mining company is committing safety violations, so you report the violations to the MSHA; or they're committing environmental violations, so you report the violations to the EPA; or they're committing wage and hour violations so you complain to the state or federal department of labor. Whistleblower protections come into play, as your employer is not supposed to retaliate against you for reporting their conduct.

Leaking is when you take your employer's confidential information and you provide it to somebody outside of your organization, usually the media, for the purpose of exposing your employer's conduct. Leaking is not the same as whistleblowing. Unlike whistleblowing, a statutorily protected activity, leaking is usually going to be tortious and often criminal in nature.

Circumstances arise when the oversight system breaks down or is corrupted, and a frustrated employee leaks information in order to end abuses that won't otherwise be stopped. There are also times when an employer's activities are lawful, but the employee is sufficiently offended by those activities or their implications that he chooses to leak them to the media. In political circles, strategic leaks are pretty common - giving the media confidential information with the goal of helping your own party, damaging the other, or both.

I have heard complaints about the Obama Administration having pledged to protect whistleblowers, yet having chosen to prosecute people who have leaked classified information to the media. The thing is, that's not a contradiction. While it may be commonplace to speak of somebody who leaks information to the media as a "whistleblower, for reasons previously discussed the act of leaking classified information to the media is not whistleblowing and is a crime.

I personally believe that the government overclassifies matters, and that classification is often used not to advance national security but to cover up embarrassing facts or mistakes. The Supreme Court case that legitimized the State Secrets Privilege, United States v. Reynolds, is now widely regarded as an abuse by the government, with the government claiming "state secrets" in an accident report that, in fact, contained nothing of the sort. Cover-ups and fake stories such as occurred in the Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman cases would not be possible but for the suppression of the factual record. I can understand the frustration of somebody who is in a bureaucracy that is committing bad acts, but where there is either no effective oversight or the agencies with oversight have no interest in correcting their conduct.

But even when it serves the public good, leaking is at best a form of civil disobedience - intentionally breaking the law to serve that greater good. And yes, you can be prosecuted for civil disobedience, no matter how good your motives.

Don't get confused when a head of state offers to protect whistleblowers, by thinking they won't prosecute those responsible for leaks. Even when its leaders are acting in good faith, no government likes leaks.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

White Anxiety - Everything Old is New Again?

Ross Douthat's concern about "white anxiety" has been thoroughly addressed by others, both for its analytical and factual errors. But there are a couple of aspects to the editorial I have not yet seen addressed.

But first, an andecdote. When I was in law school - a law school at which, strangely enough, law students did discuss controversial issues - one of my classmates lamented, "If it weren't for affirmative action I would be at a better school." Another classmate shot back, "You're at the University of Michigan Law School. Exactly how much better can you do?"

One of the themes of people sympathetic to Douthat's apparent position that affirmative action programs are unfair to white students is that it's in many ways a favor to minorities to keep them out of top law school programs. If they go to less elite schools, it is argued, they will do better, be more likely to graduate, have better job prospects, and incur less debt. Should I be puzzled that I never hear those arguments raised by people who speak of "white anxiety" and the unfairness of affirmative action to white students? Programs that favor alumni over better qualified students? Again, it seems that there's no mention unless it's horror at the idea of their ending.

So, which is it? Is it a favor to keep incoming students in schools and programs that aren't above their on-paper GPA's and test scores? Or is it a horror that will lead to race resentment? Surely I'm not to accept that it's the former when we're speaking of minorities and the latter when we're speaking of white students. Further, as the anecdote above illustrates, if you're talking about somebody who is qualified for a top school they're likely to get into a top school, even if one of those schools utilizes non-academic criteria to favor the child of an alumnus, or racial or geographic diversity.

Also, Douthat notes,
In March of 2000, Pat Buchanan came to speak at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics. Harvard being Harvard, the audience hissed and sneered and made wisecracks. Buchanan being Buchanan, he gave as good as he got. While the assembled Ivy Leaguers accused him of homophobia and racism and anti-Semitism, he accused Harvard — and by extension, the entire American elite — of discriminating against white Christians.
Buchanan's been playing the "white anxiety" card for as long as I can remember. So why is it that when Buchanan writes about the issue today, he writes as if it's a new, post-election issue that's somehow attributable to President Obama, and not an issue he's been hammering since his time in the Nixon White House?

And why, if the issue is to shed light as opposed to heat, are we focusing on a situation that is alien to most Americans - getting into, say, Harvard or Yale - as opposed to something within their own probable experience?

There's Nothing Wrong With a Good Rant....

And Applebaum offers up a good entry in the "Americans are stupid" category, the type of rant that Americans love to hate, or hate to love, or... maybe it's a little bit of both. But I think that it's reasonable to expect that a rant that is published in a major newspaper be factually accurate.

Applebaum's argument could easily be paraphrased as, "If like me, you spend a lot of time living in Europe, you'll come to see Americans as selfish and stupid." With due respect to Applebaum's attempt to suggest that Europeans are less selfish and more enlightened, or expect less from their government, she does a poor job making her case. I think it's more reasonable to say that Americans are people, and thus are subject to being selfish, misled by demagoguery, and at times irrational. Look at one culture, look at 'em all - people are people.

Beyond that, Applebaum seems eager to shift the responsibility for a mass response to demagoguery onto the people. Not onto the "Mama Grizzlies" who actively and dishonestly attempt to whip up a frenzy of self-contradictory anti-government sentiment - "Keep your government hands off my Medicare." Paul Krugman addressed the issue in a manner that, although not original, recognizes where the responsibility belongs:
There’s no point berating voters for their ignorance: people have bills to pay and children to raise, and most don’t spend their free time studying fact sheets. Instead, they react to what they see in their own lives and the lives of people they know.
Applebaum faults the American people for listening to the nation's political opinion leaders and acting as if the analysis that's presented to them is accurate. It doesn't seem to occur to her that she and her peers have a role in the equation, and that when seeking out the roots of the problem she would benefit from consulting a mirror.

But the biggest problem is that her editorial is replete with errors of fact and logic....
  • "Americans -- with their lawsuit culture, their safety obsession and, above all, their addiction to government spending programs -- demand more from their government than just about anybody else in the world" - Applebaum should take note that while the U.S. relies heavily on litigation to resolve its disputes, Europe relies much more heavily on regulation. Yes, in the U.S. you might get a class action suit over a product that fails five minutes out of warranty (not that it would be a very strong suit), but in Europe you're more apt to have the government tell the company that produced the product that, despite the duration of its warranty, consumers had a right to expect greater durability so they must fix or replace the item. We could argue about which approach is better, but it's dishonest to pretend that Europeans merely accept the status quo while Americans go off to court.

    It's also fair to ask, if we're accused of having a "lawsuit culture", how many Americans actually file a tort lawsuit during their lifetimes? Most people seem to get through life without suing somebody else - so, other than media spin, what makes that a "lawsuit culture"?

    It's also reasonable to ask, if the U.S. is deemed to be "addicted" to government spending, what spending programs that directly benefit individuals do we have in the United States that are absent from typical European nations, and for those with counterparts how do benefits and expenditures compare? I'm having a difficult time thinking of government sponsored social programs where, on the whole, Europe lags behind the U.S.

  • "They don't simply want the government to keep the peace and create a level playing field. They want the government to ensure that every accident and every piece of bad luck is prevented, or that they are fully compensated in the event something goes wrong." - Would people respond to this differently if Applebaum said "you" instead of "they"? And if we are talking about the society and not individuals, how is this actually different from Europe? What risks do Americans deem unacceptable that Europeans shrug off as part of life?

  • "And if the price of their house drops, they will hold the government responsible for that, too." - The only people who got serious financial help due to the collapse of the housing market were bankers. Other than the failed HAMP program, ordinary homeowners were told to suck it up. So what is Applebaum talking about?

  • "When, through a series of flukes, a crazy person smuggled explosives onto a plane last Christmas, the public bayed for blood and held the White House responsible" - I remember things a bit differently. It seemed to me that it was the right-wing media that howled for blood, and whined that President Obama didn't respond quickly enough, or (like Bush did with the shoe bomber) dared to allow the suspect to be Mirandized and treated like a criminal rather than being whisked away to a black hole where he could be held indefinitely as an "enemy combatant". Sure, a lot of people responded to that demagoguery. But why is Applebaum faulting the people and not the demagogues?

  • "When, because of bad luck and planning mistakes, an oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, the public bayed for blood and held the White House responsible again." - Actually, wasn't it the same story over again? President Obama responded as if the matter were appropriately delegated to BP and a variety of government agencies, the media howled that he wasn't taking things seriously enough until he finally spoke on the subject, the media then howled that he didn't show enough emotion, and when he devoted more time to the matter after-the-fact the media howled that he was being distracted from his other duties? Again, even if people bought into the media's spin and right-wing demagoguery, how is that their fault?

    For that matter, where can I find Applebaum's sane voice, debunking the rhetoric and challenging her peers to report the actual story rather than trying to transform it into yet another hypervenitlation about Obama.

  • "Nevertheless, these kinds of events set off a chain reaction: A government program is created, experts are hired, new machines are ordered for the airports or new monitors sent beneath the ocean. This is how we got the Kafkaesque security network that an extraordinary Post investigation this week calls, quite conservatively, 'A hidden world, growing beyond control.'" - Yes, it's good of the media to occasionally point out to us that the consequence of having an irresponsible media is that some people gain unrealistic expectations of what the government can and should do. But it's fair to observe that there's no shortage of fancy, new bomb detection equipment in European airports, and that European countries have their fair share of "hidden world" surveillance programs. Has Applebaum been to London lately? Without ending up on police-operated CCTV?

  • "It's true that the French want to retire early, and that the British think health care should be free, but when things -- any old things -- go wrong, Americans also write to their congressional representatives and their commander in chief, demanding action. And precisely because this is a democracy, Congress and the president respond, pass a law, build a building." - I'm not sure that there's a country in the world in which people don't want to retire early, including this one. (And on that subject, is Applebaum imagining that the French want to retire early based upon private savings?) It's also not my impression that the British want healthcare to be "free" - they have the notion that they pay for the National Health Service (NHS) through their taxes, if you can imagine, not that it's "free".

    But the notion that Americans need only write to a Member of Congress and, poof, instant legislation results? Beyond silly. First, last I checked, Europeans at times will write to their elected representatives. No difference there. Second, if it's that easy, why are we waiting for legislation on so many issues that the people deem important? Why wasn't a "public option", favored by a majority of Americans, part of healthcare reform? Why did we launch a war in Iraq after public opinion had shifted, and a small majority opposed the invasion? Where can I find an actual manifestation of the fealty Applebaum imagines?

  • "To put it bluntly, middle-class Americans of the right, left and center have come to expect a level of personal financial security that -- despite the stereotypes -- most people around the world would never demand from their governments." - So, pray tell, what are the benefits demanded and received by Americans that aren't either wanted or needed by "most people around the world"? Universal healthcare? Some form of government-sponsored retirement benefit? Seriously.

  • "The majority of Americans are wary of global trade, don't trust free markets and also think that "the benefits from . . . Social Security or Medicare are worth the costs of those programs." And when the sample is restricted to people who support the Tea Party movement? The share is still 62 percent." - So Americans are wary of free trade... as opposed to, say, France, in which the typical citizen fully embraces free trade, and calls for the abolition of all tariffs and other barriers to international trade? Americans trust "free markets" less than Europeans?

    As for Social Security and Medicare, how is it incorrect to believe that those programs are worth what they cost? And in what European nation can I find the opposite - the majority of the people saying that their national health insurance programs and retirement benefits aren't worth what they cost?

    Applebaum seems to be confusing the views of the aristocratic circles of Europe, in which she socializes, with the views of the masses - but that, also, is no different here. You'll find the greatest opposition to national health insurance and Social Security among the people who need it the least.

  • "Yet it is Social Security, Medicare and the ever-expanding list of earmarks -- federal grants -- that are going to sink the American budget in the next few decades, not President Obama's health-care reform (though that won't help)." - "Can we afford to pay for this", of course, is a different question than "Is this worth what it costs". For all I know, a Lamborghini is worth every penny its owners pay for it, and it's probably a lot of fun to have one; it's still not in my budget.

    Yes, over the long-haul, we need to find ways to improve the financial viability of Medicare and Social Security, although it's dishonest or at best sloppy of Applebaum to suggest that they threaten imminent bankruptcy. In relation to the healthcare reform bill it's flat-out wrong to suggest that "it won't help", because it is both projected to lower government spending and introduces tools and measures that are intended to help the government identify and act upon areas of potential savings. Could it do more? Sure. no small part to demagogues and a lazy media, screeching about "death panels" caused legislators to back away from anything that might be construed or misconstrued as rationing or limiting access to health care.

    Earmarks, of course, have minimal impact on the deficit - they direct how money, already allocated, is to be spent.

  • "Yet in Washington, these expenditures are known as 'third rails': If you touch them, you're dead." - As I recall, John McCain gained significant public support for his war on earmarks. Third rail? Try finding a politician willing to defend earmarks, particularly as they've been used over the past decade.

    As for Social Security and Medicare, they're not "third rail" issues because you can't get a majority of Americans to agree with the need for reform, or the need to establish long-term viability. They aren't touched because politicians fear that cuts will incur the wrath of a small but consistent voting bloc - the elderly - and get voted out of office, and that a fix via a tax increase will bring about anger from groups that are wealthy and influential. Both programs have been tweaked and modified over the years without the sky falling. If the Republican Party would back away from its demagoguery, I think that a similar fix could be implemented within months.

  • "President George W. Bush talked a little about making individuals more responsible for their retirement, and then he gave up. The 'privatization' of Social Security, as it was sneeringly described, was too unpopular, particularly among his supporters." - And again the real problem appears to be that Applebaum is channeling the concerns of her aristocratic peers. The reason that President Bush's plan to privatize Social Security was called "privatization" was... because it was privatization - taking money from Social Security and putting it into private accounts. At first, G.W. and his fellow "reformers" had no apparent problem describing his plan as privatization. When they couldn't sell their idea under that honest label they did attempt to sell the same thing under a different brand. Given how the stock market has performed since G.W.'s plan tanked, even before considering the fees that private money managers would have taken to manage those private accounts, it's difficult to see how opponents of G.W'.s proposals were wrong.

  • "Look around the world, and we don't look as exceptional as we think. Chileans are willing to save for their own retirement." - Yes, look around the world - but not at Europe. No, don't look around the word - look only at Chile. And while you're at it, pretend that U.S. citizens don't save for their retirement through 401k, 403b, IRA, 457b, and similar private accounts. As for Chile, Applebaum's talking point has passed it's expiration date.

  • "Most Europeans are reconciled to the idea that not everybody, at any age and in any condition, is entitled to the most expensive medical technology." - The same, of course, is tru of most Americans. The issue is that when it's you or your loved one who needs that treatment, you want them to get it. I somehow doubt that's any less true in Europe than it is here.

  • "A secretary of state or defense traveling with dozens of cars and armed security guards would seem absurd in many countries" - Well, yes, but their Secretaries of State aren't the credible targets of kidnapping and assassination attempts. Ours is.

  • " would the notion that the government provides a tax break if you buy a house" - Different nations offer different subsidies, depending upon what they value. The U.S. emphasizes home ownership, and thus subsidizes home ownership. But you know what home ownership does? It ties people to a location and a mortgage, making them less able to move to change jobs and more dependent upon a steady flow of income - and is associated with lower levels of labor organization and strikes. So, Anne, is the problem that the U.S. too heavily subsidizes housing, or is the problem that too many Europeans rent?

  • "...or that schools should close if there is ice on the roads." - Pray tell, what nations don't have "snow days" when they have reason to be concerned that the roads will be dangerous? What nations in which the state offers school busing don't have snow days? I suspect that the correct answers are "none" and "none".

  • "Yet we not only demand ludicrous levels of personal and political safety, we also rant and rave against the vast bureaucracies we have created -- democratically, constitutionally, openly -- to deliver it." - Ah, if only we lived in Europe, where everybody loves the government, nobody complains of government waste or inefficiency, nobody expects the government to address society problems, nobody strikes, and nobody protests.

Applebaum's editorial doesn't really say anything of note, and thus appears to have passed with little critical attention. But given that most people who read a newspaper aren't aware that op/ed writers aren't fact-checked, it perhaps highlights a need to better educate the public that what they read in the paper may be something the author just made up. After all, a lot of Applebaum's concerns are based upon exactly that - the people believing stuff that politicians and pundits made up.

Update: E.J. Dionne gets it right:
Yet [in jumping the gun in the Sherrod case] the Obama team was reacting to a reality: the bludgeoning of mainstream journalism into looking timorously over its right shoulder and believing that "balance" demands taking seriously whatever sludge the far right is pumping into the political waters.

This goes way back. Al Gore never actually said he "invented the Internet," but you could be forgiven for not knowing this because the mainstream media kept reporting he had.

There were no "death panels" in the Democratic health-care bills. But this false charge got so much coverage that an NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll last August found that 45 percent of Americans thought the reform proposals would likely allow "the government to make decisions about when to stop providing medical care to the elderly." That was the summer when support for reform was dropping precipitously. A straight-out lie influenced the course of one of our most important debates.

The traditional media are so petrified of being called "liberal" that they are prepared to allow the Breitbarts of the world to become their assignment editors. Mainstream journalists regularly criticize themselves for not jumping fast enough or high enough when the Fox crowd demands coverage of one of their attack lines.

Joseph Farah.... Ya Gotta Love It.

Shorter version:
Back when I was resting my posterior in my office chair, but in full support of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, I ridiculed those who protested against the wars. Now I'm convinced that "mistakes were made" and wonder, as my posterior remains ensconsed in my desk chair, where are those protesters I used to ridicule "now that we really need them", and why aren't they trying to stop these wars?
What Farah misses, of course, is that the anti-war movement was there when, in his present conception, we really needed it. If he thinks protests will help now, nothing is stopping him from organizing them.

His attempt to recast the wars he full-throatedly supported as "Obama's Wars" doesn't alter historic fact, but if others buy his distortion it should be pretty easy for him to round up some protesters. Perhaps he can start with his good friends, the Birthers.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Frum on the Right-Wing Noise Machine

David Frum has published a blog post that rebukes the conservative media for its shameful conduct, focusing on the Shirley Sherrod case.

Whether it's a change of heart or an end to self-censorship, it would have been nice had Frum been writing stuff like this before he was fired from AEI.

Is Andrew Breitbart a Blind Mouse

He doesn't look like one, but based on his actions it seems like a real possibility.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Secret to Improving Inner City Education....

Is not much of a secret? Seriously, if the answer to educational deficits is a longer school day, what can be achieved by charter schools that cannot be accomplished simply by extending the school day in troubled public schools? Assuming taxpayers are willing to pay the price.

I personally don't think the answer is that simple, but in a world in which school innovation often seems to translate into "more of the same", I can't profess surprise that the most significant factor affecting the performance of inner city schools boils down to classroom hours.

Romney, Palin and Huckabee

It's difficult to believe that those three are taken seriously as presidential contenders.

If I were running against them for the nomination, with their track records of challenging President Obama's qualifications for the job, I would be inclined to ask the rhetorical question, "How long has it been since any of my opponents ran anything but their mouths?"

Give Politicians and Pundits the Benefit of the Doubt?

You must be joking.

Seriously, I hear from time to time that our nation's opinion leaders are sincere. That they aren't being deceptive, disingenuous, dishonest, but are merely stating valid opinions that, if you took a step back and thought about them, are a perfectly reasonably approach to an important problem or issue. And no, I don't want to overstate my case - there are some politicians and commentators who attempt exactly that. You may disagree with them some, most, or even all of the time yet still recognize that they're making a sincere contribution to the public discourse.

But most of the time, their voices are drowned out by the cacophony of voices that are more interested in gaining or solidifying their grip on money, power, or access to those with money and power than with making anything approaching an honest contribution to the debate. Sure, with some of them you have to wonder, "is it malice or stupidity", but in most cases it's... well, malice is (usually) too strong a word - malice may be present and directed at their political adversaries or those who dare question their bloviations, but even if their actions and policy proposals could have that effect their goal is not actually to harm the nation. The better word is probably "avarice".

Looking to the political world, we've historically been assured that a lot of the rancor between politicians is a fiction - that behind the scenes they're reasonable, public political foes may be close friends (e.g., Orrin Hatch and Ted Kennedy), and that what we see in public is largely a dog and pony show for the benefit of the folks back home. Of course there are issues where there are true, deep disputes, but even then we were to believe that politicians were working to bridge divides.

I suspect that was more true in the past, but there is a price to that sort of deception. When you ally yourself with and make public statements pandering to causes you don't believe, use angry, dishonest rhetoric to attack your political opponents, and spend more time thinking about how to ensure yourself a gilded life once your 'service' as an elected official ends than you do thinking about how to do what's best for the nation, the behind-the-scenes comity is going to diminish. We end up with people like Evan Bayh who spend years being part of the problem - then look at the mess they helped to create, declare that their job isn't fun any more, and quit. It sure is easier to quit than it is to grab a broom and clean up, but for some reason the media now loves quitters.

Bayh is correct that we should not glorify the Senate of the past, and this is far from the first time Congress has been dysfunctional. Politicians have been lying to gain votes, influence, wealth and power from the moment somebody dreamed up the election process. The media has at times been even worse in its eagerness to pander to political leaders. But what seems to have largely broken down is the sense that there is an institution that is responsible for its members - the media as an institution, the Senate, the House of Representatives, political parties.... Sure, it's possible to cross one of the few bright lines that can cause you to suffer a career setback or to lose your job, but for the most part a Member of Congress can shoot off her mouth in the most irresponsible of manners while suffering no disadvantage - or, I hate to say it, in order to gain power, publicity, and fame.

We're at a point where a Republican candidate for office can openly admit that his campaign is based upon fear-mongering and irresponsible, inflammatory, and obviously false rhetoric, and not only have the argument be treated as reasonable, but be given column space in a national newspaper to make his case. A rebuke from his party? Don't make me laugh. Acting like a petulant child can make you the toast of your party.

The media loves itself a loose cannon. It's time to get a quote, or have somebody appear on TV to take a position on an issue. Do they want a politician who is going to be nice, respect the opposing position, politely reject false arguments from both sides, and lay out the facts and issues as she truly sees them? Or do they call a politician they know will eagerly dissemble, or one who will reliably make claims about the other side that are ridiculous, inflammatory, often obviously false, but definitely attention-getting and quotable? They'll do the latter and, when challenged as to why they show such disregard for the truth, will hem and haw about not taking stances, "letting the public decide", or about how they're actually providing "news entertainment" or are merely sharing opinions, and that their productions should not be confused with actual news.

And then check out those talking heads on TV - how the various "experts" and politicians dispatched to TV shows, and often the hosts of those shows themselves, start regurgitating a set of talking points or repeating a specific word or phrase to negatively brand an issue or individual. Occasionally you'll see somebody call out the proponents of such a phrase - something that unfortunately is most likely to happen on The Daily Show than on an actual news show - but for the most part even if the host isn't joining in he's reluctant to offend his guest by pointing out to the audience that they're being fed propaganda. (Who would have dared say, for example, "Emperor Kingston, you're wearing no flag pin" - Figuratively or literally?)

Then you have the op/ed contributors from the nation's most prominent newspapers. Again, yes, some write sincere columns about important issues, doing their best to illuminate a problem and to inspire people to move to correct it. And the rest of the media world cries out, "Boring". The columnist who can be counted on to dogmatically advance the position of a political party or special interest group? Even if his only qualification is that he was once among the speechwriting team for Socks the Cat or Barney the Dog? That's interesting - that will get you on TV. And if you put on a good show, whatever the truth happens to be, you'll get invited back.

Yes, sometimes the politician or commentator has a set of preconceived notions that make him a good fit with the special interest group that is willing to pay his exorbitant speaking fees or underwrite an "educational" junket, but the goal is to clap on a set of golden handcuffs. To keep the politician or opinion leader fat and happy so that he never even considers focusing on the 10% of the issues where he differs in opinion from his sponsor, let alone takes a step back to examine his preconceived notions. The system rewards greed and laziness.

How do you even get one of those rare, highly coveted positions? Some national newspapers will claim that they are looking for balance, political left vs. political right, and to a small degree they offer that. But take a specific look at the Washington Post. You'll find that whatever the columnist's claimed political belief, no recent hire for the op-ed page has challenged the core beliefs of Fred Hiatt or his editorial board. War is good, especially in the Middle East, deficits are bad except to pay for war, we need to privatize education and kick unions in the teeth.... Predictable as clockwork. If you are somehow hired but consistently disagree with his board's stances, you can expect to be sent packing.

Over at the Times, let's just say that there's a reason Ross Douthat was hired instead of his Grand New Party co-author Reihan Salam, despite the fact that Salam is a much more interesting thinker. Meanwhile, the columnists who play ball with special interest groups can parlay their positions into lucrative book contracts, speaking engagements, etc., subject to loosey-goosey disclosure rules that are much more about preventing their editors from being embarrassed than they are about ensuring integrity.

Among the pundits who are less interested (for whatever reason) in achieving fame and building up their personal fortunes, there's an unfortunate tendency to avoid stirring the pot - on rare occasion it happens, but for the most part columnists pretend that the errors and misrepresentations of their peers don't exist. When referenced it's usually in as innocuous a manner as possible - "a recent column suggested", rather than directly addressing the errant columnist. Some columnists seem desperate for ideas - coming up with new subjects for biweekly columns can, no doubt, at times be difficult - and become part of the echo chamber, repeating a theme or story that is already in circulation. Some appear to do little more than to paraphrase the latest memo issued by a particular trade group or partisan think tank.

But digging into the issues, analyzing competing arguments and presenting cogent conclusions? For many, if not most, that's too much work. Besides, "their readers are more interested in the horse race", right? What does it matter if one side has superior policy positions, or one side is arguing contrary to established fact - the real story is in which narrative is winning. Besides, it's hard to learn stuff, and even harder to explain it in a succinct, clear manner. So why try? Isn't that somebody else's job?

So yeah - I'll give you the benefit of the doubt, but only if I first get the sense that you're doing your job. If you prefer to be a hack, to lazily play "he said, she said" games rather than study and analyze the facts, cover the horse race instead of the issues, act as a stenographer for a special interest group, or pretend that everybody is honest and acting in good faith (because it's easier than taking on the peers and institutions that provide you with that six to seven figure income) on the other hand....

If Only Richard Cohen Would Pay Attention

Richard Cohen rarely writes anything of interest, and today's phoned-in column is not actually a departure from the norm. Cohen asks the rhetorical question, "Who is Barack Obama", and pretends that he has no way of knowing. And perhaps that's true - of him. But for goodness sake,
He went for health-care reform, not jobs. He supported the public option, then he didn't. He's been cold to Israel's Binyamin Netanyahu and then all over him like a cheap suit.
Those three "observations" tell us a lot more about Cohen than they do about President Obama. First, although he can reasonably be faulted (particularly in retrospect) for not pursuing a larger stimulus bill, it somehow zipped right above Cohen's head that the Obama Administration did pay attention to jobs - but for a variety of reasons, mostly practical, settled on a stimulus bill that was "merely" enormous instead of gargantuan. The Wall Street Journal was quick to whine,
The House bill is one of the largest single stimulus packages in history, almost equal to the entire cost of annual federal spending under Congress's discretion. A parallel Senate measure, which is expected to come to a vote next week, is now valued at nearly $900 billion.

Either bill, if enacted, would push the federal debt toward levels not seen since the second World War.
How did Cohen manage to miss that?

Second, those who were paying attention never had much cause to believe that President Obama was going to throw his weight behind a public option. Sure, in his hundreds of statements on healthcare reform, he suggested that he supported it... once or twice. But the rest of the time his support seemed at best anemic. Moreover, if Cohen believes that Obama's approval rating is where it is due to the absence of a public option in the healthcare reform bill, he's... not paying attention.

I doubt that there are many Americans who much care whether President Obama likes Netanyahu, or think's he's pond scum. As I recall, Clinton pretty much detested Netanyahu, but at times played smiley-face with him in public and remained popular.

Cohen's a personification of the Peter Principle. If he could escape his bubble long enough to read, for example, Dan Larison, he would find that the dots that elude him were long ago identified and connected by others. It may be disappointing when Obama follows conventional thinking, but there's nothing surprising about it.

Beyond that, Cohen's is the sort of column that Paul Krugman just called out.
The latest hot political topic is the “Obama paradox” — the supposedly mysterious disconnect between the president’s achievements and his numbers. The line goes like this: The administration has had multiple big victories in Congress, most notably on health reform, yet President Obama’s approval rating is weak. What follows is speculation about what’s holding his numbers down: He’s too liberal for a center-right nation. No, he’s too intellectual, too Mr. Spock, for voters who want more passion. And so on.

But the only real puzzle here is the persistence of the pundit delusion, the belief that the stuff of daily political reporting — who won the news cycle, who had the snappiest comeback — actually matters.

This delusion is, of course, most prevalent among pundits themselves, but it’s also widespread among political operatives. And I’d argue that susceptibility to the pundit delusion is part of the Obama administration’s problem.

What political scientists, as opposed to pundits, tell us is that it really is the economy, stupid.
You would have to be pretty darn stupid not to recognize that, even if more people found Ronald Reagan to be likable than say the same about President Obama, his approval ratings followed the economy. Or you would have to be Richard Cohen. One or the other....

Update: It occurs to me that in past columns Cohen has inadvertently highlighted the reasons for his disdain for President Obama. "He didn't pay me sufficient homage during the campaign," and "He doesn't understand how important I am."

Saturday, July 17, 2010

False Controversy, False Equivalence from the MSM

The Christian Science Monitor offers up an example of drawing false parallels, and of pretending that there's a controversy where none can reasonably be said to exist:
On one side are largely-white "tea party" members depicting President Obama as an African witch doctor, sparking a condemnation from the NAACP last week. On the other is the charge that the Obama Justice Department is "openly hostile" to enforcing civil rights laws against black racists, including members of the New Black Panther Party.

Both charges of racialism, if not outright racism, are incendiary and more powerful because there could be some truth behind each.
First, the historic record is clear that the bulk of decision making on the New Black Panthers case preceded the Obama Administration. Second, there's no actual evidence that the Obama Administration's resolution of the case was racially motivated. Yes, it can be said that "there could be some truth" behind some of the allegations, but rampant speculation that seems to boil down to, "The President is African American and so is the Attorney General, so it must be racial bias" is rank, irresponsible speculation. Was the Bush Administration demonstrating racial bias when it chose not to pursue criminal charges? The difference between "then" and "now" would be what? If you look at the historic context and ignore the President's race, this appears to be a "par for the course" disposition:
[T]he decision not to further pursue the civil case reflected long-standing practice regarding Section 11(b), which prior to the Bush administration had last been used to stop a statewide voter-caging effort. The allegation that would have supported pursuing a broader case was the idea that there was a nationwide effort to place New Black Panthers at polling stations for the purpose of suppressing white votes -- the original complaint read that the NBPP "made statements and posted notice that over 300 members of the New Black Panther Party for Self-Defense would be deployed at polling locations during voting on November 4, 2008, throughout the United States." The career attorneys recommended dismissing the case on the basis that there wasn't enough evidence to support that claim.

Not only did no voters come forward to say they had been intimidated by the NBPP that day, there were no further incidents on Election Day 2008 that would have suggested a large-scale effort to intimidate white voters. According to a letter sent to Rep. Lamar Smith by Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich, the NBPP "suspended" its Philadelphia political chapter over the incident and subsequently disavowed their actions, which seems like an odd thing to do for an organization that is supposedly disclosing its attempt to intimidate white voters in its publicly available materials.
Second, there is no reasonable case that some of the imagery used by Tea Party members is racist, despite the protestation that the racial elements are "accidental". (Where have we heard that before.) I cannot imagine any reasonable person looking at the "Obama the Witch Doctor" poster and not seeing elements of racism.

I recognize that some people find it fun to race bait, then whine, "I didn't do anything racist - my message was completely different. So you must be a racist for thinking I did something racist." But really, if that wasn't the game and the proponent of the image isn't claiming to be exceptionally stupid, what's the defense? To the credit of the Tea Party movement, save for a handful of people who really don't seem very bright, I have not seen anything to suggest that the larger membership defends the use of the image, let alone endorses it.

With both of these controversies, the author paints with a very broad brush - maybe an obscure, isolated case means that somebody in the Justice Department is making decisions based upon race, and that stands as an indictment of the entire Obama Administration; and because a handful of idiots at Tea Party rallies proudly wave around "Obama as a Communist Witch Doctor" posters it somehow means that the tea party movement as a whole endorses the image. A better column would identify the actual parallel - using the actions of an individual or select few to attempt character assassination against a much larger group. (The logical fallacy of "Guilt by Association".)

Also, is it just me or does the entire article read like something you would find in a high school newspaper, or a mediocre college paper? Back in its print days, it's difficult to imagine the Christian Science Monitor running an article this poor.

Reckless Irresponsibility by Republican Political and Opinion Leaders

See Dana Milbank, "The tea party makes trouble with a capital T".

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

"The Antithesis of Fine Living"

What would be an appropriate background song for this home listing...
Perched on a hilltop gracing spectacular views of the Long Island Sound and New York skyline, this extraordinary Mediterranean home on 3.6 acres is the antithesis of fine living.
I would have to agree with that, although I suspect that the real estate agent doesn't know what the word actually means.

I wonder if they used Nicholas Cage's interior designer....

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Maybe Your Toyota's Accelerating Because....

You're pressing down on the accelerator instead of the brake?
The U.S. Department of Transportation has analyzed dozens of data recorders from Toyota Motor Corp. vehicles involved in accidents blamed on sudden acceleration and found that at the time of the crashes, throttles were wide open and the brakes were not engaged, people familiar with the findings said.

The results suggest that some drivers who said their Toyota and Lexus vehicles surged out of control were mistakenly flooring the accelerator when they intended to jam on the brakes. But the findings don't exonerate Toyota from two known issues blamed for sudden acceleration in its vehicles: sticky accelerator pedals and floor mats that can trap accelerator pedals to the floor.
Well, no, it would not exonerate Toyota in relation to physical problems that could cause a gas pedal to stick or become entrapped. But so far it appears that there's only one documented accident that has been attributed to gas pedal entrapment, and that case involved the dealer's use of the incorrect floor mats for the vehicle, unsecured by retaining clips.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Douthat's Call for a Class War

In a largely sensible editorial about the need to cut subsidies to people and entities that don't need them, Ross Douthat can't stop himself from injecting some silliness:
... Americans with million-dollar mortgages are defaulting at almost twice the rate of the typical homeowner.... The left-wing instinct, when faced with high-rolling irresponsibility, is usually to call for tax increases on the rich.
A classic invocation of the "hollow man" fallacy. You would think that if something was a "left wing instinct", you would see evidence of it. When was the last time we had a serious political effort by a left-wing political party to increase taxes on the rich at all, let alone on the basis of "high-rolling irresponsibility"? (The closest tax I can think of is the short-lived luxury tax, from almost 20 years ago, and even that's a poor fit.) Where can I find a single person who is arguing that because people who have $million+ mortgages are defaulting, we should raise taxes on them or anyone else?

Douthat may be alluding to the call for taxes on the financiers who broke the back of the world financial system, got bailed out, and rewarded themselves with lavish pay and bonuses and taxpayer expense. But it's better described as a human instinct to want to hold those people responsible for the devastation they caused. My guess is that I could get significant support for such a tax from Tea Party supporters. Douthat complains in relation to that very class, "that we subsidize their irresponsibility too heavily — underwriting their bad bets and bailing out their follies," so how does he distinguish himself from those in the "left-wing" who want to impose at least a small price on those very follies. Further, if Douthat is conflating the type of irresponsibility that leads to foreclosure with lemon socialism, he's not even trying to form an honest or cohesive argument.

Douthat also employs the biased sample fallacy to argue,
The same pattern is at work in our entitlement system, which is lurching toward bankruptcy in part because of how much Medicare and Social Security pay to seniors who could get along without assistance. Instead of a safety net that protects the elderly from poverty, we have a system in which the American taxpayer is effectively underwriting cruises and tee times.
How many seniors use Social Security to make ends meet? Why shouldn't a senior citizen who enjoys golf play golf or take vacations, even if he's a recipient of Social Security? What percentage of Social Security recipients can afford to take cruises even with the benefit of that payment? From all appearances, Douthat doesn't know, doesn't care.
House Minority Leader John Boehner, to his great credit, recently floated the possibility of means-testing Social Security.
It's to Boehner's "great credit" that he is adhering to his party's sixty-five year strategy to diminish and, ideally, eliminate Social Security? Yeah, right.
Many Republican senators have been staunch critics of corporate welfare.
Just not enough to make a difference against their party's overwhelming support for corporate welfare. Hence Douthat's lecture:
But conservatives need to recognize that the most pernicious sort of redistribution isn’t from the successful to the poor. It’s from savers to speculators, from outsiders to insiders, and from the industrious middle class to the reckless, unproductive rich.
As Douthat knows, the very form of wealth redistribution he's describing is a core element of the Republican Party's political strategy. Which isn't to say that the Democratic Party is much better; it's not. Why should it be? Sure, there are significant differences in the parties' approach to policy issues, but both parties cringe at the thought of biting a hand that feeds them.

Update: Although the political argument presented is over-the-top, this information throws some cold water on Douthat's notion of wealthy, privileged seniors who blow their Social Security money on golf outings and cruises:
"One out of three working Americans does not have retirement savings beyond Social Security, and about 35% of those over 65 rely almost totally on Social Security alone," Dallas Salisbury, president of the Alliance for Investor Education and the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) , explained to AlterNet. "Of the remaining two-thirds of working Americans that have some retirement savings, 27 percent report less than $1,000, 16 percent between $1,000 and $9,999, 11 percent between $10,000 and $24,999, 12 percent between $25,000-$49,999, and 36 percent $50,000 or more." Perhaps the most shocking number is that half of Americans have $2,000 or less saved for retirement.

It's More Than a Feeling

Robert Samuelson appears to believe that the biggest economic problem that our nation faces is that we're being too economically cautious, feeding a negative psychology that extends the recession. I think he's misinterpreting the data.
Not surprisingly, [a Pew survey and evaluation of economic data] confirms that Americans have become more frugal; 71 percent say they're buying less expensive brands, 57 percent say they've trimmed or eliminated vacations. Life plans have changed; 11 percent say they've postponed marriage or children, while 9 percent have moved back with parents.
Frugality is about avoiding unnecessary expenditure - it's volitional. The phenomenon at issue is better described as economic distress. People are delaying purchases and canceling vacations because they can't afford them. Adult children are moving in with their parents because they either can't find jobs or the jobs they find don't pay sufficient salaries to allow them to support independent households. People are postponing marriage and children for the same reason - economic stress. Samuelson writes:
Almost one-fifth of workers 16 to 24 were unemployed at the end of 2009, a near doubling since late 2007. Among those without a high school diploma, joblessness was 50 percent higher than the average....

First, the huge job loss: By most measures (length of unemployment, permanent firings vs. temporary layoffs), joblessness is the worst since World War II. Unemployment among college graduates roughly doubled, to about 5 percent....

Second, pay cuts: These have affected almost a quarter of workers, including nearly a fifth of those with family incomes exceeding $75,000. Some workers also have had to take unpaid leave or part-time work.
So he has data right in front of him indicating that economic choices are driven largely by circumstance. Nonetheless he suggests that "it's all in your head" - stating that as a result of reductions in house values and stock market wealth:
A reverse wealth effect has gripped the upper middle class. Feeling poorer, people have saved more and spent less.
It doesn't occur to him that the people who can't find jobs, who've taken involuntary leave, been reduced to part time hours, have taken pay cuts, who are borrowing money from friends and family just to get by, actually are poorer?

Samuelson should also take note that the one group he singles out as isolated from all of this pessimism is the group that is best protected by the social safety net:
One interesting finding is that the elderly have been relatively sheltered. Adults 65 and older, according to Pew, "are much less likely than younger age groups to have cut back on spending, loaned or borrowed money, had trouble paying for medical bills or housing, or had to increase their credit card debt." For example, 28 percent of Americans under 65 borrowed money from family or friends; only 5 percent of those 65 and older did. Confidence in retirement savings dropped most sharply for younger Americans (including those 50 to 64), not those 65 and over.
Somebody who is paying attention might infer that Social Security and Medicare are doing what they were designed to do - helping their beneficiaries weather tough economic times. Robert "How Fast Can We Cut Social Security and Medicare to Pay for Wars I Favor" Samuelson? He's surprised.

The Pew survey shows that the effects of the recession get smaller as income rises - no surprise there. Unfortunately the highest annual family income they examine is "$75,000+", but for people who self-describe as "upper class" the impact of the recession seems pretty modest with a third reporting an improvement in their financial circumstances and almost a third reporting no change.

My guess is that when you move into the rarified atmosphere of Samuelson's Bethesda neighborhood, for the well-established doctors, lawyers, bankers and media figures living there, the worst is over. Sure, a few people suffered serious setbacks and had to move - and apparently for somebody like Samuelson, "out of sight, out of mind". Life's pretty much back to normal, save perhaps for "losses on paper" resulting from the weakened housing market or reduced retirement savings.

There's nothing wrong with doing well in difficult financial times but, even if you don't have data that proves otherwise, there is a serious logical problem in assuming that everybody else is similarly situated. It seems that Samuelson believes that if he and his neighbors can go back to their prior affluent lifestyles, assuming their spending even slowed down, it's impossible that the "Great Recession" is more than a psychological phenomenon. But the optimism Samuelson sees as its cure is more likely to return not when "the Great Recession releases its stranglehold on the American psyche" but when it releases its stranglehold on the American pocketbook.

Oh, Like I'm Going To Fall For This

An unsolicited email:
Dear Counsel,My name is MRS AKEMI KOBAYASHI . I was married to my ex husband Mr Newberg KOBAYASHI (who lives in your jurisdiction) for 7yrs and in July 2009.I need you to assist me collect the funds he owe me.I will give you more details as soon as you contact me.Please contact me via my E-mail:
Like I'm going to try to collect money from anybody who works for Keyser Söze.1, 2
1. If you don't get the reference, here you go - rent the movie, it's worth your time. And you should stop reading here, because the next footnote includes a potential spoiler.

2. Yes, obviously it's a spam, scam email. I'm adding this second footnote because I don't need you to tell me that - the post is even tagged as 'humor'. Besides, if you've seen the movie you know that Kobayashi doesn't exist - well, he does, but it's reasonable to infer that he's not actually named after a coffee cup.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Ah, Kids....

It's a fair observation,
Having kids does not make you happy. That’s the newsflash from All Joy And No Fun, an article in New York magazine that is creating a buzz. Author Jennifer Senior, interweaving anecdotes from harried and disappointed parents with multiple studies that conclude that raising a family, if anything, will make you less happy than your childless peers, has written a damning but thoughtful portrait of modern middle-class parenting. . . .

Despite its occasional whiff of baffled entitlement (wondering why, say, that parenting isn’t as much fun as going out to dinner with friends), that New York piece eventually comes to the same conclusion that most of us have: raising kids is always hard work and yet at times it’s tremendously rewarding.

But don’t look to it to make you happy. There are only, Ms. Senior writes, “moments of transcendence, not an overall improvement in well-being.”
But here's the thing: Nothing actually makes you happy, not even the geegaws and doodads that our consumer-oriented society says are supposed to make you happy, except the thoughts that are passing through your own head. The happiness you feel over a new car, new house, whatever? Fleeting. Your brain will adjust back to the status quo. (That's not altogether a bad thing as your brain also adjusts back to the status quo from losses and setbacks.)

You want to be happier at work? As a spouse? As a parent? Change the way you think about your situation. Sure, that can be hard to do, but the alternative is to have human nature, perhaps the entire world, change to accommodate you - and that's not going to happen.

(Note, there are things that can make you miserable - toxic people and situations - and it can be very healthy and appropriate to extricate yourself. Yes, you can grow accustomed to being mistreated but that's anything but a path to a healthy mental state, let alone happiness.)

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Obama's "Inner Machiavelli"

David Ignatius complains that he doesn't see evidence of President Obama's Machiavelli - that is, he believes Obama needs a Kissinger or Brzezinski to craft secret plans and engage in behind-the-scenes, off-the-record negotiations with groups that range from being nominally to explicitly enemies of the state. He admits that such an approach can result in blowback....
When an emboldened Soviet Union marched into Afghanistan, Brzezinski crafted a secret intelligence alliance with China and Pakistan to check the Soviets. Here, too, we are still living with some of the negatives. But it must be said, the Soviet Union is no more.
Even if we assume that the secret operations in Afghanistan and "Charlie Wilson's war" were the sole causes of the collapse of the Soviet Union, by stating that we're "living with some of the negatives" - a radicalized Pakistan, our nation's longest war ever in Afghanistan - Ignatius displays a gift for the understatement. He also mentions how Kissinger accepted Syrian intervention in Lebanon's civil war as something "that arguably still causes trouble". Yeah. Arguably. No mention, for some reason, of the secret war in Cambodia. Or the coup in Chile.

But his poor choice of examples aside, let's give Ignatius the benefit of the doubt - because he's correct that secret negotiations of one sort or another have helped and can help the U.S. in its conflicts around the world. (I suspect that he wanted to illustrate his point big, splashy, well-known examples; they were just poorly chosen.) To one degree or another, every U.S. administration has engaged in that type of behind-the-scenes operation. If a President announced his secret, "Machiavellian" operations, they would no longer be secret.

Where was Ignatius when the political right was savaging Obama for being an appeaser and being willing to "talk to our nation's enemies"? He was and remains in a powerful position to speak against that type of rhetoric, which he plainly believes can be damaging to the nation if it in fact deters secret contacts. I don't recall that Ignatius said a word.
Perhaps all of these diplomatic corkscrews are already at work. It's in the nature of successful secret diplomacy that you don't know about it until it's over -- and maybe not even then.
Right. So let's lament that Obama may not be doing something that he may in fact be doing, and which must be kept secret in order to be effective, but not the fact that political operatives have made it harder for him to reach out to hostile players and much more politically dangerous if he's "caught".

Update: Tim Fernholz has commented on the editorial at Tapped. He suggests that, "More often than not, the secretive aspects of our foreign policy are the most damaging", perhaps true but difficult to debate given that we're dealing with secrets and examining the known failures with the benefit of hindsight. That said, it is reasonable to admit that there are plenty of examples that support Fernholz's point.
If the solution to a foreign-policy problem involves Kissinger-level secrecy, it's probably the result of a previous blunder or fear of facing political consequences, not because secrecy is necessary. If conservatives in the United States, for instance, hadn't spent years baselessly demonizing the liberal foreign-policy establishment for "losing" China to the evil Communists, there would have been no need for a secret mission to open the country's relations to the U.S. Secrecy can be useful as a tactical tool, but when you make it a strategic objective, it's often a sign that you've already failed.
That's largely true. Contacts and negotiations that would be politically difficult may be kept secret for just that reason - but I think it's an overstatement to suggest that an administration's response to political realities is often a sign of failure. First, public backlash could end negotiations before they get off the ground. Second, many administrations will choose the politically safe approach, whatever the need for outreach, such that negotiations never occur. In Fernholz's specific example, yes, rhetoric about how the political left "lost" China made it politically difficult and dangerous for a Democratic President to reach out to China. But as a sign of failure, it seems to better illustrate why that type of rhetoric is dangerous - the same type of rhetoric I highlighted above, being used against Obama - as opposed to why secret negotiations weren't helpful or appropriate.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Masculinity and Temper Tantrums

There's a concept known as sang-froid, the maintenance of composure, level-headedness, and coolness under stressful or difficult circumstances, that is often depicted in movies as the height of masculinity. Think Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now - sure, he may be under live fire in a war zone, but that's not going to stop him from surfing. Think of pretty much any action movie - the hero faces adversity and gets mad, but keeps his cool - there's no point in a tantrum. It doesn't look good on camera and does nothing to even the score. This is anything but a novel or rare interpretation of masculinity.
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too; ...

Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man my son!
When most people are responding emotionally to a situation, a commonly invoked idiom is, "Let cooler heads prevail."

President Obama has sang-froid. In spades. His coolness has resulted in any number of right-wing attacks on him for "not showing enough emotion". As if he would seem more Presidential if he were displaying barely-controlled rage. Me? I got enough of play-acting under G.W. Bush, and I'm perfectly content to have a President who both acts like a grown-up and treats the electorate as if it's comprised of adults.

Parker apparently sees herself less as an analyst, taking facts, creating novel arguments and presenting them to the public in her bi-weekly column, and more as part of an echo chamber:
Many people seemed to have a hankering for one particular emotion: Not the Bill Clinton "I feel your pain" kind but the "Take-BP-Behind-the-Woodshed-and-Make-Them-Pay" kind. They wanted an action figure in the hyper-masculine mode, not George W. Bush but the Terminator.

In fits and starts, Obama had given it to them. He wanted to know "whose ass to kick," he told us. He wanted them to "plug the damn hole." Press secretary Robert Gibbs assured us that in discussions with Obama he, indeed, had "seen rage from him."

Then the president gave his Oval Office speech. And the collective reaction was, "That's it?! Where's the outrage?!?!"
Arnold Schwarzenegger was well-cast as The Terminator because he was big, intimidating, and had not yet learned to convey on-screen emotional range. Earth to Kathleen Sullivan - The Terminator is an android. The Terminator has no emotions. In Terminator II, the android was frozen by liquid nitrogen - you don't get much colder than that - and yet he managed to (dare I say) keep his emotional cool (because he didn't have emotions). You could hardly ask for a better illustration of sang-froid as evidence of masculinity, yet Parker's not sufficiently self-aware to recognize the contradiction. Meanwhile, back in the real world where the real Arnold Schwarzenegger is actually in politics, how often does he engage in public blow-ups or tantrums when things aren't going his way?

With due respect to Kathleen Sullivan's yearning for the "boil" of George W. Bush, it seems that President Obama's ability to keep his cool is more consistent with Presidential tradition. Sure, we have stories of past Presidents who would explode into anger at their aides - behind the scenes - but that wasn't the face they put forth to the public. Which presidents in recent history didn't present a calm public face in response to crisis? Bill Clinton? George H.W. Bush? Ronald Reagan? Gerald Ford? Jimmy Carter? I'm not sure that Parker's either presenting the vindication of G.W. or the condemnation of Obama that she imagines when she, in effect, holds G.W. and Richard Nixon out as paragons of the appropriate display of anger.

If we're honest about perceptions of public displays of anger, as a society we tend to recognize a male form - the inner beast escapes and wants to "break something" - and a female form - "hysteria", "histrionics", the "hissy fit" - etymology, L. hystericus "of the womb". It's sexist, and truth be told the biggest difference often appears to be that men are for the most part more capable of outwardly directed violence. But in the context of Presidential behavior it's all spin.

Had Obama been reacting to things more angrily, you can fully expect that the very same voices that have been demanding "more anger" would be denouncing him as excessively emotional, unbalanced, out-of-control. And you can expect that columnists like Kathleen Parker would pick up on those themes to argue that the conduct she presently contends evidences a "testosterone deficit" would in fact make him more masculine than his "inability to control his anger". Sang-froid would once again be a masculine attribute, while the "boil" of G.W. would be pushed into the background as somehow different or irrelevant to similar behavior by Obama - but I would not be surprised by comparisons to Nixon.

Remember Everything Bad That Happened In The Last Decade?

It actually happened in the last year That's right, folks, in a standard regurgitation of Republican talking points, Mark Thiessen is back with a new entry for the contest.

Now, those of you with memories may recall that George W. Bush inherited a budget surplus, and immediately launched a plan to turn that into a deficit avoid paying down the deficit too quickly by granting massive tax cuts to the wealthy. No, really, I'm being too fair to Bush. As you have a memory you recall that he had a one-size-fits-all tax policy - the economy is strong so we can improve it with a tax cut; the economy is weakening so we need a tax cut to restore it; we're in a recession and nothing improves a weak economy like a tax cut.... The only economic plan he had was to cut taxes for the rich, damn the consequences. (At least so far, Thiessen's distortions are at least on par with Gerson's.)

A quick dose of reality:

That is to say, virtually all of the red ink in the budget is attributable to an economic downturn that started under George "tax cuts will make the economy perfect" Bush, two wars started by President Bush, and those tax cuts that were supposed to fix every imaginable economic problem. TARP and the bailout, started under Bush, and recovery spending represent a very small part of the picture. When Thiessen argues, "Polls show that Americans want candidates for Congress who support spending cuts and consider the national debt the greatest threat to our country, on par with the threat of terrorism", he had best take heed that he is arguing that the public views the devastation caused by his former boss as on par with the 9/11 attacks.

Needless to say, facts be damned, Thiessen wants to put the responsibility for the Bush debacle (each and every one of them, but in this specific context the budget deficit) on President Obama's shoulders:
Last week in Wisconsin, he declared "We've got to get this debt and our deficit under control." This from the man who rammed an $877 billion stimulus bill and a $1 trillion government health-care bill through Congress. In just 17 months, Obama and the Democrats have increased the national debt by 23 percent, and have put the country on track for another decade of red ink.
Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain....

There's also a legitimate question about whether this is the time for austerity or for stimulus spending. Yes, we can grant that Bush's economic incompetence placed the Obama administration in the position of having to deficit spend in order to fund the stimulus bill, and that it will again have to deficit spend to finance a new stimulus bill. But there's no sign that the economy is bouncing back without stimulus spending and, Thiessen's distortions aside, when the economy falters and housing prices are depressed, and unemployment is high, tax revenues go down. Perhaps Thiessen didn't notice that virtually every state is in the midst of a financial crisis, despite the austerity measures they've taken to date, because of the impact of the recession. Certainly, an argument can be made for austerity, but so far the facts suggest that additional stimulus spending is the far wiser choice.

I was agnostic on stimulus spending, and am fiscally conservative by nature - I completely disagreed with the Bush Administration's massive tax cuts backed up with their "deficits don't matter" prattle. (Where was Thiessen at that time? Oh yeah... writing speeches in defense of those policies.) I came to view the financial industry bailout as a necessary evil, albeit one that as implemented showered money on the undeserving and represents some of the worst lemon socialism in our nation's history. If the federal government is going to do something about unemployment, it seems obvious that its two principal tools are direct employment (hiring more federal employees) or stimulus spending.

One might suspect that hacks like Thiessen are arguing for cuts and against stimulus because they know as much - but feel that hurting the economy, the states, and the people of the nation will help the Republicans in the November elections. In fact, Dean Baker is presently making that argument:
While it may be bad taste to accuse a major national political party of deliberately wanting to throw people out of jobs, there is no other plausible explanation for the Republicans' behaviour. They have balked at supporting nearly every bill that had any serious hope of creating or keeping jobs, most recently filibustering on bills that provided aid to state and local governments and extending unemployment benefits. The result of the Republicans' actions, unless they are reversed quickly, is that hundreds of thousands more workers will be thrown out of work by the mid-terms.

* * *

The other argument the Republicans give is that these bills would add to the national debt. For example, the latest extension of unemployment benefits would have added $22bn to the debt by the end of 2011. This means that the debt would be $9,807,000,000 instead of $9,785,000,000 at the end of fiscal 2011, an increase of the debt-to-GDP ratio from 65.3% to 65.4%.

It is possible that Congressional Republicans, who were willing to vote for hundreds of billions of dollars of war expenditures without paying for them, or trillions of dollars of tax cuts without paying for them, are actually concerned about this sort of increase in the national debt. It is possible that this is true, but not very plausible.

The more likely explanation is that the Republicans want to block anything that can boost the economy and create jobs.
So Republican operatives like Thiessen create what can reasonably be described as a pessimism bubble (yes, I'm alluding to Douthat), in which the United States is on the verge of falling into the same trap as the weakest economy in the developed world, a line of nonsense that Douthat is unwilling to swallow:
But even now, there isn’t a major power in the world that wouldn’t happily change places with the United States. Our weaknesses are real, but so is our potential for resilience. While our rivals (in Asia as well as the West) face a slow demographic decline, our population is steadily increasing. The European Union’s recent follies make our creaking 200-year-old institutions look flexible by comparison. And China can throw up all the high-speed rails and solar panels it wants, but it won’t change the fact that most of the country is still sunk in rural poverty.
Republican fear mongering is red meat for the Tea Party Movement, a largely Republican force that the party wants to keep inside its tent. And yes, Douthat has a point that our nation does face problems that are different, and perhaps more difficult, than in the past (I would argue definitely more difficult), but that's not a justification for lies and misrepresentations designed to gin up fear about and opposition to legislation and spending initiatives that could both help the economy and position the U.S. for long-term growth.

Thiessen compares the outcome of the British election to a "Tea Party government". The election result in the U.K. is a bit odd - imagine a very close election that resulted in a Republican majority by virtue of people like Bernie Sanders choosing to caucus with the Republicans. The British government is taking the approach of austerity, in Thiessen's words, "necessitated by years of Labor profligacy, which produced the second-largest budget deficit in Europe" - recall that Labor came into power under Clinton and only lost power this year. So most of those years of what Thiessen sees as fiscal irresponsibility overlap with Bush's Presidency - yet somehow the Republican Congress that Bush inherited, and the massive tax cuts, war spending, and unfunded entitlements of the Bush era are flushed down Thiessen's memory hole.

Incredibly, in relation to a country that has a much higher tax rate than ours - and in which part of the austerity measure is to further raise taxes. Recall, Thiessen is arguing that the British budget would please the Tea Party movement. Where can I find the portion of the Tea Party platform (not that one actually exists, but let's go with the commercial ventures that are trying to profit from their organization of the Tea Party movement) or the Republican Party who is willing to admit that the people of this nation are not under-taxed? Thiessen defends the British budget as offering a "balance of spending cuts to tax increases is 77 to 23 percent" - okay, let's hear the Republican Party offer up a budget with a similar balance of tax increases and spending cuts, and see how it goes over with the Tea Party Movement. (I expect the Republican Party's silence to be deafening.)

Over the next couple of years we'll find out if Europe's new devotion to austerity delivers the robust economic growth predicted by its advocates. I'm not optimistic. I'm not going to speculate as to whether the nation's of Europe are in a position to attempt more stimulus spending, and I don't have the numbers in front of me, but (fear-mongering aside) we are - and Thiessen's propaganda having been duly considered, another major stimulus bill won't bankrupt us and, if it works, should at least party pay for itself through increased tax revenue resulting from economic growth. With a stimulus bill we would have a clear exercise in contrasts - who pulls out of the economic slump first, the budget slashers or the stimulus spenders. I suspect that people like Thiessen believe it's the latter, which is why they (and similarly positioned newly fledged deficit hawks) advocate the former.