Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Paul Krugman's Optimism

Via eschaton, Why Paul Krugman Is Perhaps The Biggest Economic Optimist There Is.
If his premise is correct -- that basically we're suffering from a demand slump, but that there's no fundamental, structural economic flaw -- then, folks, we have a very solvable problem on our hands. The bond market certainly isn't an imminent impediment to our spending, and the Fed will scarf up whatever it needs to on the debt side.

Bottom line: Paul Krugman thinks the solution to the economic malaise is fairly simple, and thus he can't think the slump is fundamentally that bad. He's an optimist.
But that optimism raises a few questions:
  1. Is it desirable to go back to the status quo ante? Is our future really best served by relying upon the nation's wage earners spending every cent that they earn, and then some, in order to consume goods increasingly produced overseas? Shouldn't we consider laying a more reliable foundation for the nation's economic future?

  2. Is it sustainable to return to the status quo ante? Aren't we simply setting ourselves up for another crash, once the world's economic machine turns back to sating the American consumer, demand for oil spikes, oil futures skyrocket, and gas goes back to $4+/gallon? Even if we assume that we can go back to the way things were for a few years or decades, what then?

  3. Is it possible to go back to the status quo ante? With due respect to people like Robert Samuelson who seem to believe that the nation's only problem is a lack of consumer confidence ("What, me worry?"), and we can "fix" the world's problems by dropping the typical consumer's savings rate back to about 0%, where will consumers get the kind of money they were spending before the crash? Are lenders again going to be profligate? Are we going to reinflate the housing bubble? Will the significant population of displaced workers with marginal job skills to be absorbed back into the job market by a revitalized economy, or should their continued plight be viewed as irrelevant to recovery?

It may be that in the short term, going back to "the way things were" is the best way to get the economy moving, but we had better start developing and implementing a long-term strategy. (Yes, I expect to be saying that right up to the point something unpleasant hits the fan and we have to act.)

The Price of the Iraq War

I don't know whether to praise Anne Applebaum for acknowledging the huge price that the U.S. has paid (and continues to pay) for the Iraq War, or chide her for continuing to insist that it could turn out to be sunshine and lollipops. I do think it's fair to observe that nowhere among the prices she has listed will you actually find a dollar figure. The war has drained trillions from the treasury, and the bills keep coming. To quickly hit Applebaum's points, she believes that among the casualties of the war are,
  1. America's reputation for effectiveness;
  2. America's ability to organize a coalition;
  3. America's ability to influence the Middle East;
  4. America's ability to think like a global power; and
  5. America's ability to care for its wounded veterans.
As with the dollar cost of the war, the impact of the war on Iraqis goes unmentioned.

I find many of Applebaum's points to be unpersuasive. In terms of America's reputation for military effectiveness, the initial war was a success. The mistake was embracing the notion that it would be quick and easy (not to mention free) to occupy Iraq and reinvent it as a right-wing utopia and corporate grab-bag. Tyrants may not be trembling that the U.S. will attempt such a project in their nations after they are deposed, but they know that we can depose them.

In terms of the impact on coalition-building, the war can't be said to have had any appreciable effect. The war was unpopular with most of our allies, and coalition-building was difficult even before the war began. To the extent that the war "", that's his own fault, he managed to serve as Prime Minister for another four years (considerably beyond the term he negotiated with Gordon Brown when he became party leader), and if he's crying on the way to the bank his tears are so small as to be invisible to the naked eye.

In terms of Georgia, if the lesson to a nominal coalition member (and by that I mean no offense to Georgia, a nation that lacked the capacity to contribute more substantially to the war effort) is that their participation won't inspire the U.S. to militarily back them if they provoke a war with Russia, I would have to call that a good thing. Truly, if building a coalition is nothing more than promising a return greater than the investment - in Applebaum's words, "economic or diplomatic benefits" and "special American favors" in exchange for a small commitment of troops - we are going about it the wrong way. When Applebaum complains, "'Iraq' is part of the reason there is so little enthusiasm for Afghanistan", she displays amnesia - the Afghanistan war started first. To the extent that the effort to maintain a coalition in Afghanistan has suffered due to Iraq, it is much more because of the Bush Administration's change of priorities and diversion of resources from the Afghan war.

As for "why it is so difficult to put organized pressure on Iran", sure, having launched a war in Iraq on the basis of its possession of WMD's and coming up empty, it's harder to convince other nations to follow us into a potential war with Iran over WMD's we concede that it does not possess. At best that has to do with having demonstrated the limits of our nation's intelligence on the state of other countries' weapons programs, and at worst it's because the exaggeration of the threat of Iraq has damaged our credibility - but either way, the outcome was avoidable. If Applebaum is speaking not just of an initial war but of a prolonged occupation, even as the effort to democratize Iraq continues to wobble, few are eager at repeating the experiment in a nation with about twice the population and four times the land mass.

In terms of influencing the Middle East, the Bush Administration made no serious effort to end the Israel-Palestine conflict. It instead tightened the U.S. embrace of Israel. I'm not sure if Applebaum believes that to be good or bad, but it was foreseeable. She claims that the war increased the price of oil, and snipes at war opponents, "this was supposed to be a 'war for oil,' remember", but she misses the boat there as well. Even if we assume that she has never heard of the Carter Doctrine, and even if we view the war proponents who believed that the war would significantly reduce the price of oil and undermine the finances of the Arab oil states, she surely can't have missed that the war in Iraq did remove a potential threat to the world's oil supply. (Memories of the first Iraq war.) It would be naive to have imagined that launching a war in Iraq would flood the world with cheap oil, but it's no less naive to pretend that oil played no role in the decision to invade and occupy Iraq.

Applebaum refuses to reconsider her support of the war and, although she concedes a high price with no basis to yet declare victory, she offers a defense of her stance by way of anecdote,
Before speaking on Tuesday, Obama might ponder the words of former Chinese leader Zhou Enlai - who, when asked to assess the long-term impact of the French Revolution, allegedly told Richard Nixon that "it's too soon to tell."
If we were to assume that the anecdote occurred, our interpretation of the comment perhaps tells us more about us than about the speaker. Had, for example, G.W. made that comment during a debate, it would have been framed as a gaffe, a mistake, a reflection of ignorance. Had Al Gore done the same, it would have been equivocation, pointy-headedness, waffling. But when framed through the idea of a Chinese leader who is presumed to take an exceptionally long view of history, the statement is viewed as deep and meaningful.

Odds are if it actually occurred it was because of a translation error, Zhou Enlai's misunderstanding the question, or his providing a murky answer because he didn't know enough French history to know that the revolution had occurred almost two centuries before. But under any interpretation, it won't take two centuries for us to learn the impact of the Iraq war or, as Applebaum's own column reflects, its impact on the United States.

The End of the "Combat Mission" in Iraq

It is telling that, with the end of the combat "mission", the U.S. will continue to have about 50,000 troops in Iraq backed up by over 100,000 contractors. Sure, we're told, the "combat mission" is over but, should the need arise, it's pretty clear that the U.S. is maintaining the capacity to engage in fierce ground combat - at least for now, whatever's necessary to sustain the interim government and to prevent the resumption of civil war.

it's telling that while Republicans like John Boehner are crowing that "the surge succeeded", a claim that is true only to the extent that we ignore the fact that it failed to produce the results G.W. Bush described as the measure of its success. To the extent that the surge helped build a sustainable period of relative calm, assuming it actually proves to be sustainable, let's give its planners the credit their due. But back to Gates:
The uneasy peace of Baghdad, Mr. Gates said, had come at great cost, with 4,427 U.S. service members killed and another 34,265 wounded. And the mission, he said, was incomplete. Iraq is still without a coalition government months after its election and political compromise remains elusive.

"Sectarian tensions remain a fact of life, al Qaeda in Iraq is beaten, but not gone," Mr. Gates said. "This is not a time for premature victory parades or self-congratulations."
If the "project" in Iraq is to end with a bang or a whimper, both of the political parties are desperately hoping for a whimper. While attempting to avoid any "Mission Accomplished" moments, we're effectively declaring victory while maintaining huge numbers of combat forces in Iraq, ostensibly only until the end of 2012, such that we can quickly suppress any coup, civil war or popular uprising. It's telling that while Boehner wants to claim victory on behalf of his party, he's not willing to take the stance that the withdrawal is premature, a charade that leaves us ready to resume combat at a moment's notice, pulling the "you're letting enemies of the state know when we'll be gone" card (as Republicans are apt to do with Afghanistan) or (as might somebody at the extreme of his party) the treacherous act of a closet Muslim President. He's also not pointing out that the date set as the target for the withdrawal of all U.S. troops comes conveniently after the next Presidential election, convenient timing for any incumbent.

The President Was Assimilated

A few days ago Michael Tomasky pondered why President Obama ran what seemed to be a brilliant election campaign, but has been so ineffective at getting his message across since taking office. He provides a number of possible explanations, concluding that the most likely answer is that Obama's campaign wasn't that brilliant, and seemed so only in comparison to the inept campaigns of his opponents.

I have a different theory. Candidate Obama ran for office from the outside, and was effective in the use of the Internet to build a significant, personal following and a substantial flow of campaign donations. It was easy for him to get the word out to his followers - type out an email or instant message, press send, and... that was it.

When he was elected he turned his organization and email list over to the DNC.
The White House also faces legal limitations in terms of what it can do. Perhaps most notably, it cannot use a 13-million-person e-mail list that Mr. Obama’s team developed because it was compiled for political purposes. That is an important reason Mr. Obama has decided to build a new organization within the Democratic Party, which does not have similar restrictions.
I believe that, as compared to the campaign, the Administration has not been as successful in getting its message out for two reasons. First, the President and the DNC have different goals. He cannot count on that organization to help him pressure members of his own party to act against what they (and the DNC) believe to be their electoral best interests. Second, he understands the need to work from within the party. If he were to try to bypass the party structure by rebuilding his network from the White House, he would upset a lot of powerful Members of Congress who benefit from the status quo. The type of narcissistic twerps who would snipe at a President with a line like, "This is our town". Perhaps Obama could win such a fight, given enough time and energy, but I suspect that it would be at the cost of advancing his agenda.

I would like to see both the White House and DNC do more to get their narrative out to the public, using the Internet. But not by putting out a video of a talking head, even if it's the President's. Have you seen any of the videos produced by RSA? Heck, have you seen the Annoying Orange? I think the DNC, and (although with a bit more caution) the White House should be working on simple, entertaining presentations that have the potential to go viral, because the appeal of the talking head stuff is limited - it's little more than "preaching to the choir".

A final note: if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the manner in which Sarah Palin is now using the Internet to build her fame and celebrity pays a high compliment to President Obama, the man she once attempted to smear as a "celebrity".

L.A. Barbie Busted for Drugs in Mexico?

I thought they nabbed her in Vegas.

Oh, my bad.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Catering to the Dysfunctional Poltical Press

Michael Tomasky argues that the Obama team needs to take its show on the road, arguing that President Obama should have given his speech in support of aid to small businesses in North Carolina instead of from the Rose Garden:
You wouldn't know it from the media, but there's an incumbent GOP senator down there, Richard Burr, who is vulnerable and actually in danger of losing his seat to a Democrat. Not only a Democrat, a woman Democrat. The race is within the margin of error. I know nothing of Elaine Marshall, said Dem, but she seems to be running a decent race and has a nice smile.

So why not go down to North Carolina, help Ms. Marshall, round up a few small business owners who would be getting those checks just like Ms. Kaur of Oregon would, and say: "Elaine Marshall and I want to give Mr. Gibbons here his check. Richard Burr doesn't. I want everyone in North Carolina and America to know that: the Republicans are holding up this money, because they think humiliating me is more important than helping you. Now you may not love me, and that's your right, but by God I'm here arguing your case, and Richard Burr is playing games." And such like.
Is the problem really simply venue, or is Tomasky highlighting a weakness of the nation's media? Unless you believe that tens of thousands of entrepreneurs are going to crowd into a North Carolina venue to listen to the President, it's reasonable to assume that the vast majority of people will hear his message on TV.

I personally don't believe that "He was in my state when he said that" is particularly resonant. That is, I don't believe that any appreciable numbers of North Carolina business owners are going to become Obama converts because he makes a speech in their state as opposed to the Rose Garden.

The difference would seem to be that the media treats a President's road trip and statements differently - something that G.W. seemed to appreciate - and thus you can get more national coverage for a speech if you contrive a "local" event, ideally with a bunch of firefighters, men in hard hats, or soldiers strategically positioned as a backdrop.

You may be right that the Obama team should exploit that tendency, but I'm not sure that it says anything good about our nation's media or political culture.

I'm sure many people would regard Tomasky as "merely being realistic", but even as he acknowledges that our political system is "broken" his comments remind me of his preference to postpone healthcare reform:
But of course, as my regular readers know, I basically agreed with [Rahm] Emanuel [who opposed Obama's pursuit of healthcare reform]. Actually my position would have been different from his, too: fix the economy first, put healthcare off entirely until year three, after the economy was in good shape and some trust in the administration had been established.
I appreciate that Tomasky wasn't willing to put healthcare reform off forever, but we're about to enter year three - how much of a chance do you suppose healthcare reform would have had if introduced next year? Is there any reason to believe that we would have a better economy or would have had a larger stimulus bill in the absence of a healthcare reform bill? I would argue, absolutely not. The stimulus bill passed first. Had Emanuel and Tomasky had his way, we would likely be waiting another twenty years for another Democratic president to be positioned to try to introduce reform legislation - and their advice to that President would likely be exactly the same - "Do it later."

From my perspective, it would be nice if the political press did a better job calling out Republican obstructionism, identifying the role of money and favors in the positions of both political parties and their members, and analyzing policy instead of focusing on the horse race - the often ugly political process and worry about future elections. I would like to see a poltical party, particularly one as well-positioned to use its majority as the Dems were after the last election, set aside greed, avarice, and other self-interest in order to fashion and implement a serious set of solutions to the nation's most pressing issues. I have no reason to believe that either will happen.

The President has been criticized for cutting a variety of deals with industry groups that weakened healthcare reform at the outset. Yet industry groups almost killed reform anyway with the eager help of pliant Senators. President Obama was criticized by Harry Reid for not doing enough to support him as he supposedly tried to win majority support in the Senate for the reform bill. But if Harry Reid was serious about passing healthcare reform yet nonetheless permitted the repeated delays, incompetent bargaining with the Republicans, and an array of ugly compromises that weakened the bill and the party, it isn't apparent how Obama could have helped somebody so ineffectual. Seriously, it smacks of "Obama got rid of all of the major roadblocks for me, but he didn't change the grade so my job would merely involve coasting downhill."

It can't really be a surprise that, despite the passage of "historic" legislation, the focus on process has negatively affected public perceptions of Congress, the legislation, and many legislators. Perhaps that's fair. But what seems to get overlooked is that when parts of the media (even if it calls itself "news entertainment" instead of actual news) intentionally distorts the debate, and the rest prefers to advance horse race stories (even if some good, substantive analysis is available below the fold), we're going to end up with a weaker bill. That applies in pretty much any context, not just healthcare reform.

I have no problem with the President taking his show on the road from time to time. But I do have a problem with the idea that the media will treat the President's policy proposals differently, or give more complete coverage to how they affect local interests, if he happens to speak at a factory, VFW hall, military base, or other "local" venue.

Update: Tomasky writes,
In political terms, healthcare reform was for liberals only, basically. I think it will benefit the broader country and most people will come to see that - if it survives, which is now a fairly serious question. But I can see how your average middle-of-the-road person thought, why's he doing that when unemployment is going up like it is?
If you view healthcare reform as the President trying to 'pay off' his supporters, as opposed to trying to tackle a serious issue for the betterment of the nation, Obama and the Dems certainly fumbled the ball. Is it really "all about elections"? Should it be?

Frankly, at the time the Dems took on healthcare reform they had passed the stimulus bill, a measure intended to reduce unemployment (and that did so, albeit to an inadequat extent), and Tomasky believes there was no realistic chance of passing a larger bill, so other than waving his hands or making public expressions like, "I feel your pain," what is it that Tomasky imagines that President Obama could have done to reduce unemployment? And when can we expect to enter an era when our nation has no other pressing concerns that he, let alone opponents of reform, won't deem "more important" than healthcare reform?
I'll put in another pitch here for my trinity of education, broadband and innovation: three more-or-less non-ideological but still very important policy goals the administration could have pursued early on instead of healthcare.
But here's the thing: The President is tacking education, and the public at large doesn't care. I also disagree with Tomasky's premise that health insurance distracts from policies to advance innovation - I personally believe access to quality, affordable health insurance even if you're self-employed or a small employer, and stabilizing healthcare inflation, are extremely important to encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship.

Broadband? "A computer on every desk, a wireless router in every home"? Where have I heard something like that before. If this survey is accurate, about 60% of households, and about 86% of households with Internet access, already have broadband. So the nation invests money in broadband by, let's say, subsidizing telephone and cable companies, and that brings about what material improvement or change? Would it be like extending telephone access to rural areas, something we still subsidize through taxes but most people aren't aware of, or would it be characterized as a new form of welfare - "Why do they get free computers or cheap Internet when I had to work for mine?" Seriously, if the idea behind this initiative is to produce votes, where will they come from? If it's to reduce unemployment or boos the economy, how and when?

As for "innovation", the President can talk about the importance of innovation, small business, entrepreneurs... but it's just talk. How would such talk translate into action, and how would it bring about results sufficiently quickly to improve the economic situation? Yes, I support innovation, the development of educational models that help foster creativity and innovation, renewed investment in post-secondary education to both improve and ensure that potential innovators will have the quality of education and resources they need, etc. - but even if we start taking action, we're talking about a project that will span decades, aren't we?

Tomasky's policy priorities seem, to me, to translate into words over action. Punting on every difficult issue facing the nation. Perhaps, at least in normal times, that's a recipe for winning reelection. But, even considering the possibility of policy errors, I personally don't see that approach as being beneficial to the country.

Friday, August 27, 2010

David Brooks is No Size Queen

He happily situates himself among those who insist that it's not the size of your stimulus that counts. The column is an excellent example of bad, counter-factual reasoning. Steve Benen has addressed some of Brooks' factual errors in relation to Germany's response to the economic crisis. It is also fair to respond to Brooks' claim that "" by observing that Germany's primary exports to the United States are performance cars and passenger vehicles, along with some pharmaceutical products, manufactured in unionized factories by workers who receive generous job benefits, and who benefit from a national health insurance plan - and what Brooks and his friends would no doubt see as a "nanny state" solution to keeping workers employed. Brooks' colleague, Paul Krugman, has previously commented on additional differences between Germany and the United States,
Basically, here’s the German story: it’s an economy that didn’t have a housing bubble, so it wasn’t caught up directly in the bust. But it’s very export-oriented, with a focus on durable manufactured goods. Demand for these goods plunged in the early stages of the crisis — so that Germany, remarkably, had a bigger GDP decline than the bubble economies — but has bounced back since summer 2009. This has pulled Germany back up; exports to China have done especially well.
As well as, it would seem, the market for cars to the fortunate few in the United States who can still afford a Porsche or a Bimmer.

But as previously indicated, Brooks' also fails in logic. The best analyses to date suggest that the U.S. stimulus has had a significant, beneficial effect on the economy and unemployment rate. Granted, it has of itself been far from adequate, but many stimulus skeptics have been converted to believers by the data. The leading voices against the stimulus are political advocates, who combine scare tactics about debt and big government with misrepresentations that the stimulus did nothing for the economy. Brooks surely knows better, but he appears to be deliberately throwing chum to those bottom feeders.

Brooks' implication that Germany is somehow being rewarded for austerity, while the U.S. is somehow being punished for borrowing, is absurd. Referring again to Krugman, Brooks' theory presupposes the concerns of bond vigilantes, with surging bond prices due to concerns about domestic borrowing - but as it turns out those bond vigilantes don't exist. There is no reason to believe that a recovery led with private money would have occurred in the absence of a stimulus, but not in its presence. There is every reason to believe that the loss of household wealth associated with the collapse of the housing bubble, stagnant wages and high unemployment have resulted in a loss of demand that leaves a lot of private money sitting on the sidelines.

I will grant, Brooks' economic class is doing "just fine, thank you very much", and can still afford the imported luxury cars that Brooks characterizes as "German machinery". And perhaps Brooks hangs out with enough bankers to make credible his claim that their new imported luxury cars have been purchased with bailout funds, but that still wouldn't support his larger argument. If Brooks is seriously arguing that the German approach is better - setting up a fund during good times in order to subsidize employers such that they refrain from laying off workers in bad times, that may well be a better approach than the U.S. offers to financial downturns and what would otherwise be rising unemployment.

Willfully or otherwise, Brooks is blind to the facts and pretends that the entire story is "austerity". The economic differences between nations render problematic simplistic side-by-side comparisons of nations. But as Brooks appears to believe otherwise, where's his explanation of why other nations that have pursued rigid austerity programs are suffering at the hands of bond vigilantes, even as the U.S. is not?

Update: Paul Krugman makes a good point about the relative impacts of the German stimulus vs. the U.S. stimulus:
Via Mark Thoma, Dean Baker points out that real government consumption of goods and services — that’s government buying things, as opposed to cutting taxes or handing out checks — has risen more in “austerity” Germany than in the United States. Dean starts from 2008III, which is somewhat unorthodox; but his result is not, in fact, sensitive to the start date....

What’s going on here? It’s basically the Fifty Herbert Hoovers problem. Because state and local governments can’t run persistent deficits, and because aid to those government was shortchanged, cutbacks at lower levels of government have undermined expansion at the federal level. Overall government purchases have actually grown more slowly than the economy’s potential output.
That is, much of the U.S. stimulus was used to stabilize state budgets, masking the stimulative effect and also significantly diminishing what we could have expected from stimulus spending above the baseline.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Race and Educational Performance

When addressing issues of race, one hardly expects Pat Buchanan to represent the enlightened view, but he usually provides a better gloss over his views than is offered here. I'm among the first to admit, even to emphasize, that people are not equally talented. Some aspects of ability are vested in us by nature, some by nurture, most as a combination. To Buchanan, though, it all turns on race:
Teach all kids to the limit of their ability, while recognizing that all are not equal in their ability to read, write, learn, compute or debate, any more than they are equally able to play in a band or excel on a ball field. For an indeterminate future, Mexican kids are not going to match Asian kids in math.
The first part of that statement seems reasonable, although it's offered within the context of an argument to walk away from trying to improve student performance in impoverished school districts. The latter part of the argument strips away Buchanan's facade.

It is not unreasonable to look at academic performance by ethnic group and observe that there are differences in performance, nor is it unreasonable to look at a history of initiatives to equalize performance and observe that they have largely been failures. But it's something else entirely to say that the problem is because of race, and that we must wash our hands of the notion that, using Buchanan's example, Mexicans can excel at math.

It would not be particularly difficult to find representatives from any given ethnic group that can run circles around Buchanan in math. For that matter, it would not be difficult to find a Mexican student who was outperforming Asian students in math. Moreover, you can find significant differences in academic performance between Asian immigrant communities - and for that matter, Mexico is not homogeneous.

I personally believe that the current generation of reformers are doing their cause, and the students affected by their policies, no great favor by pretending that differences in student performance can be overcome simply by demanding more from teachers, while pretending that home and community environments can be made irrelevant. I have a real problem with the "teach to the test" model that has become so popular, with standardized tests used to measure both student and teacher performance. Never mind "critical thinking". Never mind whether students who have been raised "to grade level" through rote teaching methods over lengthened school days actually learn academic skills that will translate to better performance in the real world or prepare them for post-secondary education. It takes a lot more work (and money), but efforts to build a healthy community alongside quality schools are much more likely to bring about solid improvement.

It should be no surprise that children who grow up impoverished with uneducated parents in failed, violent communities have a difficult time adapting to the standard academic environment, let alone performing at the level of students who come to school prepared and socialized for the school environment. That shouldn't be difficult to understand. To put it mildly, ignoring that in favor of arguing simplistic racial determinism, "Asians are better at math, so why even pretend Mexicans can perform at that level," reflects weak thinking.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Nervousness About the Tea Party

Michael Gerson editorializes from the perspective of those GOP insiders who are nervous about how the Tea Party's candidates will affect their political future. Although his general attitude toward the Tea Party movement is one of condescension, Gerson's rhetorical questions are posed to candidates, not to members of the movement - the Republican Party appears to believe that it can coopt the Tea Party movement, but is worried that the political candidates associated with that movement will capture the movement's enthusiasm, and push (or pull) the movement in a direction that is not compatible with the Republican Party's long-term interests.

His column could be viewed as trying to identify wedge issues that would separate some of the Tea Party's candidates from the larger group. Do the candidates believe that Social Security and Medicare are unconstitutional, and that they should be abolished? Do they believe immigration diminishes the nation? Do they believe their rhetoric about armed resistance to the government's social programs?
Most Americans who identify with the Tea Party movement are understandably concerned about the size and reach of government. Their enthusiasm is a clear Republican advantage. But Tea Party populism is just as clearly incompatible with some conservative and Republican beliefs
At Tapped, Paul Waldman comments on Gerson's column,
Is the Tea Party the new religious right? By which I mean, the grassroots group the GOP uses to mobilize voters, then once in office, keeps serving up symbolic expressions of love without much to show in the way of actual policy goodies, while hoping to keep the crazies under wraps. The fact is that the Republican establishment has always been a bit uncomfortable with the religious right, as much as they need them to win elections. And that establishment may become increasingly unsettled with the Tea Party.
I sense that Gerson would like the Tea Party movement to become a new religious right. A reliable Republican voting bloc that can be kept inside the "tent" through a series of promises and mostly token gestures that don't interfere with the party's larger agenda. What he seems to fear is that the movement will not be coopted, and that its candidates will split the vote resulting in Democratic victories at the polls, or that it will not be content with tokenism and, to maintain a relationship, the GOP will have to adopt positions that are inconsistent with its long-term political viability.

As one would expect from Gerson, he takes no responsibility for the role of his former lord and master in creating the present economic debacle, what a more honest man might deem the cracked foundation upon which the Tea Party movement was built. He does not appear to be sufficiently reflective to consider his own role in the Bush Administration, although I grant that speechwriters are largely fungible. He snarks, "The Democratic political nightmare is now obvious and overwhelming", never mind that the nation continues to reel from an economic collapse and record deficits that started on G.W.'s watch, and that the policies that could have had the most impact on the recovery were broadly opposed by Republicans - he speaks for a party that appears to see benefit in perpetuating economic hardship and has no discernible ideas of its own for how to turn things around. (We're promised a set of ideas sometime in September, about three years late by my measure, timed for the election and not as part of a genuine policy initiative.)

In short, it's pretty typical stuff for Gerson, reflecting the worst aspects of the Republican Party's elite: How to save the Republican Party and ensure that it gains and holds power, even if it represents a policy void, a party with no ideas and no agenda to help or improve the nation.

If You Can't Be With the Superman You Love....

Love the magic man you're with.

At first blush, Friedman seems to be moving away from his historic hero worship and fantasy life... "If only the Palestinians were led by a Nelson Mandela they could turn an overpopulated, impoverished, battle-scarred, resource-poor wasteland into Singapore." But no, in addressing education reform he's sticking with his "magic man" approach to society's problems:
Because we know what works, and it’s not a miracle cure. It is the whatever-it-takes-tenacity of the Geoffrey Canadas; it is the no-excuses-seriousness of the KIPP school (Knowledge is Power Program) founders; it is the lead-follow-or-get-out-of-the-way ferocity of the Washington and New York City school chancellors, Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein.
In telling people to stop looking for Superman, Friedman instead lectures them that they should enthusiastically march behind his magic men:
And it is the quiet heroism of millions of public and charter school teachers and parents who do put kids first by implementing the best ideas, and in so doing make their schools just a little bit better and more accountable every day — so no Americans ever again have to play life bingo with their kids, or pray to be rescued by Superman.
Although he describes some of its community ventures, Friedman misses a very important distinction between Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children’s Zone and the initiatives led by Michelle Rhee. Canada, who appears to have a deep love for the Harlem community, has taken the position that you can't simply fix schools and expect the community to get better. His goal is to heal the community. Michelle Rhee rejects that idea, instead insisting that schools and students can succeed (at least as measured by standardized tests) even if they come from the worst homes in the worst neighborhoods in the nation, and have no parental or community support for academic success.

You could regard Rhee's blind eye toward the problems of D.C.'s impoverished communities as a necessity of her job - she has neither the opportunity or resources to address society's larger problems, so if she doesn't argue that schools can "do it alone" she would effectively admit that her programs cannot work. Unfortunately, her over-the-top rhetoric divorces school performance from the very type of community involvement that Friedman argues is necessary - the "quiet heroism" of parents pushing for better schools. There's an element of cowardice on the part of pundits and politicians who point to Rhee's rhetoric (because her experiments have not yet borne fruit) and chatter that it's all about schools and teachers - if Friedman were to pay a bit more attention to Canada, he should recognize that they have no excuse to turn a blind eye to the conditions of the community.

How to Build a Fake News Story

Original by Julian Sanchez, with some supplemental observations offered by CJR.
This is actually a bit truncated. The steps are:
  1. Faux Story

  2. Why is the Em-Ess-Em ignoring this huge Faux Story?

  3. After days or weeks of flood-the-zone coverage across multiple conservative media outlets, some significant portion of the base is convinced that the faux story is true and/or significant.

  4. Mainstream press takes note of (3) and speculates about the political and electoral consequences.

  5. Panicked Democrats react as though the faux story is true and/or significant.

  6. See, we told you it was a huge story!

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

For-Profit Colleges and Student Loans

As people reading this blog probably know, the Washington Post owns Kaplan, Inc., which returns profits well in excess of those earned by the newspaper. In editorializing for the continuation of subsidized loans to private colleges that have astronomical default rates, the Post discloses its ownership of Kaplan but neglects to inform readers that Kaplan is the jewel in its corporate crown.

I'm reminded of a comment by Adam Serwer that pretty much sums up how a lot of those colleges work - and why their default rate is so high.
Universities like this make money by promising easy routes to well-paying and doable careers that in the past really never required a formal degree: those in the culinary arts, massage therapy and support staff for medical and legal professionals. The growth in these programs just take advantage of students who don't have access to traditional non-profit college degrees.

Moreover, there's no evidence it helps them. It's hard to imagine that someone with a degree in retail management will never get higher than retail management, which for the most part is not a lucrative career.
The student graduates with significant student loan debt to compete for entry level, low-wage jobs. Consider, for example, the lack of return for most students who enroll in culinary arts schools, or the anecdote recounted in this forum post about a private college instructor's candid disclosure. If it takes you two years to complete the degree program, odds are you would have been better off spending those two years working in the field and earning experience.

I'm not saying you can't learn valuable skills in those programs, but those skills won't necessarily be valued by employers. You want to start your own catering business? Great. But even then you may be better off working in the field and selectively taking some classes to round out your food knowledge before starting your own enterprise.

Ordinary People Retreat From the Casino

The Times informs us,
Renewed economic uncertainty is testing Americans’ generation-long love affair with the stock market.

Investors withdrew a staggering $33.12 billion from domestic stock market mutual funds in the first seven months of this year, according to the Investment Company Institute, the mutual fund industry trade group. Now many are choosing investments they deem safer, like bonds.
But wait a minute. Aren't these the same people who were sold mutual funds because they're "professionally managed," and that by having their money pooled and used to buy a diverse portfolio of securities they could reduce their risk? That they could select from different funds that offered different levels of risk (and ostensibly return) so as to plan for the future with a reasonable level of financial security?

How many of them have seen their financial advisers and mutual fund managers profit even as their investments have tanked? Or have seen their investments decline while the executives of the companies in the (declining) portfolios of their mutual funds pay themselves like the hereditary heirs of a banana republic?

Maybe people aren't so much "pulling back from risk" as they are recoiling at being ripped off.
Investors pulled $19.1 billion from domestic equity funds in May, the largest outflow since the height of the financial crisis in October 2008.

Over all, investors pulled $151.4 billion out of stock market mutual funds in 2008. But at that time the market was tanking in shocking fashion. The surprise this time around is that Americans are withdrawing money even when share prices are rallying.
Surprising? Perhaps they're cashing out their retirement accounts, despite financial penalties, in order to pay bills.

Thomas Friedman's Search for Magic Men...

Continues unabated. It seems that there's no problem in the world of business or politics that cannot be cured by finding a new Nelson Mandela, Steve Jobs... has he evoked MLK?

Why think hard and work hard to solve problems, when it's so much easier to lament that if only the other side had a "magic man" who had the "courage" to act "against the popular will of his country or party" - with courage, of course, defined as the unstoppable will to do exactly what Thomas Friedman wants - the problems would go away all by themselves?

While Friedman hopes that his "suck on this" war will inspire a host of Nelson Mandelas who can lead their nations to happiness and unity, perhaps he should stop to think about the implications of his suggestion. This would be the Nelson Mandela who was imprisoned as a terrorist, and held for decades during which he adamantly refused to renounce violent resistance. It may well be that there is somebody who is roughly equivalent to Nelson Mandela in Iraq or the occupied territories, but perhaps he is presently preaching violent resistance against occupation and perhaps he's also presently in prison.

But perhaps it would also make sense for him to consider that the circumstances that give rise to a "magic man" are sui generis, which is why to date there is only one Gandhi, only one MLK, only one Nelson Mandela.... Even if you cloned them, you wouldn't duplicate them or their success. And perhaps he should consider that it was Gandhi's education in England that enabled him to become what he became, not so much the fact that his country was colonized. Does Friedman truly believe that bombing and occupying a country is the best way to produce the type of leader who only comes along once in a generation - in unprecedented numbers?

(Sadly, he probably does.)

Perhaps his column should be retitled from "Surprise, Surprise, Surprise" to "No Suprise, and condensed to, "I just saw a movie presenting fictionalized versions of real events and now I know how to solve the world's problems." Funny how when you fictionalize things, they become so much simpler and neater.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Border Defense and Military Spending

There's no dispute. Whether you're talking dollars or comparing U.S. expenditures to those of other nations, the U.S. spends a vast amount of money on its military. If you add in the cost of the nation's ongoing wars, the U.S. outspends every other nation in the world, combined. I'll credit Reihan Salam with being one of the few conservatives to directly address this issue, specifically for recognizing that the expenditure flows from our nation's expectations of the military and its role in the world, but that there is room for legitimate debate over that role.

Here are a couple of things that a President might not like to talk about, but has to think about. In many parts of the world, fresh water sources are being depleted. In many parts of the world, global warming threatens the food supply and will cause desertification. The drug war is destabilizing many nations, including Mexico. As things get worse in the rest of the world, it is likely that more people will attempt to illegally enter the United States. And while we can talk about measures that might be taken to reduce carbon emissions, how other countries might be assisted in developing their own economies and preparing strategies for potential food and water shortages, or how legalization of certain drugs would reduce the cash flow to drug cartels around the world, the fact is that Congress isn't prepared to take any serious action on any of those issues. Meanwhile, odds are that additional nations are going to join "the nuclear club," some of which are likely to be hit in the not-so-distant future by shortages of affordable food and fresh water.

Within that context, if you're the President, you might prefer to cut the military budget and redefine the role of the military, hoping that you can form military coalitions to address future problems. Or you might look at the future and perceive a need to maintain or even to expand the role of the military in order to be reasonably able to unilaterally defend U.S. interests as the global situation deteriorates. In that latter context, your Defense Secretary might sound a lot like Robert Gates, looking for ways to cut spending not in order to reduce military spending but to be able to maintain or expand the mission of the military without increasing the military budget. (By doing things such as reducing retirement benefits for military personnel.)

Yes, it's a fair retort, "But we could start taking steps, right now, to fix those problems or at least to mitigate their effects." But you know what? You can easily pass the military budget. You can easily pass supplemental war spending. You can easily pass a $600 billion border security bill, with the opposition party arguing "It's not enough". But when it comes to revisiting the nation's approach to drugs, carbon emissions, or whether there's an alternative to being a military hyperpower in a world that is likely to become less stable, you're likely to get Congressional consensus on only one thing: "We can't cut the military budget; if anything, we should spend more."

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Babble, Indeed

In a pretty typical demonstration of how to waste space, Maureen Dowd offers her latest attempts at witty put-downs, directed principally at the President and the political left. This one caught my eye:
W.’s reign of error so enraged Democrats that they that were bound by one desire: to get rid of him. Bush, Cheney and Rove inspired the Democrats to spawn a powerful lefty tower of babble led by Rachel Maddow, Michael Moore and the blogosphere.
Wow. Tower of babble. How... original. Okay, and the "tower" is built upon three mighty legs...
  1. Michael Moore, who isn't even a Democrat and doesn't appear to have a significant political following.

  2. The "blogosphere" which has proved to be pretty darn powerless, as you would expect, although I suspect Dowd is kvetching because the left-wing blogosphere holds a very low opinion of her columns. (Can that be said to distinguish them from any other faction of the blogosphere?); and

  3. Rachel Maddow? Why do I feel the presence of a green-eyed monster.

I don't watch Maddow's show, save for an occasional clip I find online, but it's patent from those clips that Maddow is bright, informed and engaged. If Dowd thinks it's clever to include Maddow in her "tower of babble" conceit, I would like to see her challenge Maddow to an interview on the substantive issues of the day. At the end of the interview they can poll the audience as to who spent more time babbling. I very much expect that Maddow would be game. Maybe Dowd can try to convince Maddow that she's incredibly powerful in her position, shaping the agenda of the Democratic Party's left wing - that should be good for a few chuckles. And perhaps she can explain how a faction can be "powerful" when everybody with power is intent upon ignoring it, marginalizing it, or both.

So, how about it?

Friday, August 13, 2010

Chris Dodd on the Filibuster

E.J. Dionne quotes Chris Dodd in his defense of the filibuster:
As for the filibuster, his solution is simple: "When you filibuster, you filibuster." Make the Senate stay in session, require senators to keep talking, and thereby raise the price of obstruction.
I would hope that Dodd understands that the current rules were implemented in part to eliminate the talking filibuster, and of the historical reasons why the talking filibuster was viewed as counterproductive to Senate business. But then, why would he make the argument - is he seriously proposing "fixing" the filibuster by returning to an approach that, at the time the current rule was created, both parties concluded was worse?

Birthright Citizenship and the Republican Party

If I were a leader of the Republican Party... and I weren't John Boehner... I would be concerned about the anti-birthright citizenship stance being adopted by so many members of my party. Not only is the position inconsistent with the language of the Fourteenth Amendment and its historic application, it's internally inconsistent. That is, while railing against birthright citizenship for illegal aliens, they present no logical distinction between this nation's jurisdiction over somebody who is unlawfully in the country, somebody who is here on a visa, or a U.S. citizen who has dual citizenship.

See, for example, George Will's uniformed editorial on the subject. He cribs and emphasizes the false argument that there had not been any laws restricting immigration at the time of the ratification of the 14th Amendment, and recognizes that the anti-birthright argument should logically extend to legal immigrants who are not citizens:
This reasoning -- divided allegiance -- applies equally to exclude the children of resident aliens, legal as well as illegal, from birthright citizenship. Indeed, today's regulations issued by the departments of Homeland Security and Justice stipulate...
The argument would also apply to a parent who possesses dual citizenship; surely Will is aware of how some raise the issue "dual loyalty" of joint citizens, even if they don't believe there's anything inherently wrong with being loyal to both nations in which you hold citizenship. For that matter, as we're taking the parent's presumed loyalty and projecting it onto the child, what if one parent is a citizen and the other is not, or has dual citizenship - does bloodline trump (parental) loyalty? On what basis?

Michael Gerson takes the opposite, historical, and in my opinion correct position on birthright citizenship, and does a pretty good job of summarizing the issues within the limited space of his column.1 His editorial reminds me of the better aspects of the Bush Administration, and the sincere elements of compassionate conservatism that for most of his party were naught but a fig leaf. Yes, as others have pointed out, Bush endorsed immigration reform and, even after 9/11, he made numerous public statements defending the practice of Islam. For all of my complaints about weak leadership, populism and demagoguery during his presidency, when you look at what is happening to his party in the absence of sane leadership how can you not be a little bit nostalgic.

Granted, no small part of Bush's moderation on immigration arose from his desire to expand the party's reach. And although he's overtly rejecting Boehner's lead, Gerson is taking a position consistent with the long-term health of the Republican Party. Boehner2 is content to agitate, to dissemble in order to keep alive fake issues that excite the party's base. Bush, and it would appear his former speechwriter Gerson, seem to be looking forward two, three, four or more elections and recognizing what will happen if they don't attract support from a growing bloc of voters, let alone if they actively alienate those present and future voters by taking the "They don't vote for us anyway" attitude infamously attributed to James Baker.
1. Gerson writes,
"The language was designed," says historian Garrett Epps, "to exclude two and only two groups: (1) children of diplomats accredited to the United States and (2) members of Indian tribes who maintained quasi-sovereign status under federal Indian law."
A third category would be the children of members of a foreign invading or occupying force.

2. If Boehner is going to try to revive the Know-Nothing movement, perhaps he should boldly embrace that label.

What It Takes To Become a Prison Reform Advocate

Conrad Black and Randall "Duke" Cunningham went to prison and, surprisingly, didn't like it very much. Cunningham:
“The USA has more prisoners than any other nation, including Russian & China,” he writes. “The US Attorneys win 98% of their cases and if you do not plead in which 80-90% is not true they threaten your wife children etc with prison time.”

Cunningham’s numbers are slightly off. The U.S. Department of Justice’s 2009 statistics show that federal prosecutors won 94.1 percent of cases. In 96 percent of those convictions, the defendant pleaded guilty before trial. The difference doesn’t affect Cunningham’s point.
Before I got into the maw of the U.S. legal system, I did not realize the country has 47 million people with a criminal record, (most for relatively trivial offenses,) or that prosecutors won more than 90% of their cases. There, at Coleman, I had seen the courage of self-help, the pathos of broken men, the drawn faces of the hopeless, the glazed expression of the heavily medicated, (90% of Americans judged to require confinement for psychiatric reasons are in the prison system), and the nonchalance of those who find prison a comfortable welfare system compared to the skid row that was their former milieu.
I can cut Black some slack, given that he's not from this country, although surely there was some coverage of the issues in some of the papers he controlled - and I venture that his editorial boards would have been pretty unanimous in opposing the reforms he now supports, if for no other reason than because it would require a tax increase.

On the other hand, Duke was surprised by the number of prisoners in this country, the high conviction rates achieved by U.S. Attorneys Offices, or the strong-arm tactics used by some of those offices to convince defendants to plead guilty? This is a guy who represents California, a state that's bankrupting itself in no small part through the cost of its prison system, infamous for its "three strikes" laws? While granting that it appears he's no rocket scientist, I suspect he had a pretty good idea what was up, but doesn't want to admit that he used to support the "tough on crime" rhetoric, legislation and policies that led to the outcome he describes.

Black also writes,
And I had heard the vehement allegations of many fellow residents of the fraudulence of the public defender system, where court-appointed lawyers, it is universally and plausibly alleged, are more often than not stooges of the prosecutors. They are paid for the number of clients they represent rather than for their level of success, and they do usually plead their clients to prison. They provide a thin veneer for the fable of the poor citizen’s day in court to receive impartial justice through due process.
It's recognized among defense lawyers that, when a client goes to prison, the defense lawyer gets the blame - the other people involved were just "doing their jobs". That said, compared to typical state systems, federal defender's offices are well-funded and court-appointed lawyers who accept federal cases are reasonably compensated. If by being "paid for the number of clients they represent", the issue is that court-appointed lawyers are paid by the hour, yes, that means the more you work the more you earn. But that doesn't mean you're underserving any given client. A flat fee system, in my experience, is worse for the client, and perhaps Black was hearing horror stories from those previously convicted in states such as Mississippi where court-appointed lawyers are paid a pittance of a fixed fee for any case they take, creating a strong financial incentive to take a lot of appointments and bargain the defendants out as quickly as possible. A horror story from Washington State:
On May 14, 2010, the Wenatchee World reported that a Chelan County public defender has agreed to pay a $2.9 million dollar settlement to a former client for admittedly providing ineffective assistance of counsel that led to the client’s wrongful imprisonment in a sex abuse scandal. The state of Washington requires its counties to shoulder the vast majority of funding and administration of the right to counsel. Chelan County (population 72,372) does not have access to significant resources and chose to employ flat-fee contracting in which a law firm was expected to provide representation in an unlimited number of cases for a single lump sum. Over two-thirds of Washington counties employ a similar model. Experts retained by the former client in the civil lawsuit noted that the public defender attorney was just out of law school, unqualified, carried too many cases, had no training, and was left unsupervised to learn as he goes.

Seventeen of the 27 people convicted in the sex-abuse investigation were represented by private attorneys and in every one of those cases the charges were thrown out or overturned on appeal -- only defendants represented by the flat-fee contract defenders were convicted.
If you pay lawyers only when a criminal defendant is acquitted, nobody is going to sign up. Let's be honest here: most criminal defendants are guilty of something, even if not the exact crime charged, and most are very interested in working out a plea bargain. There are innocent people in prison, and people who are convicted of crimes carrying sentences that are grossly disproportionate to their offenses (Black identifies the now partially corrected sentencing disparity for crack vs. powder cocaine) or to their role in an offense, but if you look past the sad tales told to credulous men who are used to extraordinary wealth and privilege, you'll find that they're a distinct minority.

That is not intended as a defense of the funding of indigent defense which, on the whole, is inadequate - and gets worse in complex cases in which a defendant must beg a court to provide money for expert witnesses or investigators, requests in state courts typically being denied or resulting in woefully insufficient allotments of money.

If Duke wants to admit that the criminal justice system he helped create as a Member of Congress is unduly harsh and unfair to innocent defendants, and to advocate for reform of the system, all the more power to him. Similarly, I'm all for Black calling for reforms, adequate funding of public defenders and court-appointed lawyers, and for supporting the mentally ill so that they don't end up in prison in lieu of getting treatment or because they find it preferable to life on the streets.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Gay Marriage Causes No Harm To Any Other Marriage

Adam Serwer and Glenn Greenwald offer substantive responses to Ross Douthat's lament against gay marriage. I'll leave it at this:
But if we just accept this shift [valuing lifelong commitment over serial relationships], we’re giving up on one of the great ideas of Western civilization: the celebration of lifelong heterosexual monogamy as a unique and indispensable estate. That ideal is still worth honoring, and still worth striving to preserve.
I can't think of a single thing that gay marriage would take away from my marriage. I can't even imagine a context in which gay marriage would lead me take a different or lesser view of my marriage than the one I presently hold. If anything, the "serial monogamy" Douthat decries diminish marriage by making divorce and remarriage seem easy and acceptable, as if changing a spouse is no different from updating your wardrobe.

When Douthat offers the conclusory statement that gay and heterosexual marriage are "similar in emotional commitment, but distinct both in their challenges and their potential fruit". I would like to see Douthat develop and explain that idea (or any idea, instead of his usual waffling), but I suspect that as soon as he tries to substantiate his argument it collapses. (To the extent that he speaks of "lifelong heterosexual monogamy at its best" as offering "a microcosm of civilization, and an organic connection between human generations", he's presenting far more of a mystical than a logical argument, and he's holding up the exception as the rule.) There are enough states and countries that now permit gay marriage that Douthat should be able to substantiate his opinions with real world examples. But the real world seems to reflect my side of the debate.

Government Generation of Jobs

The New York Times argues in favor of the government doing more to create jobs, implicitly arguing for a new stimulus bill. The Times should get credit for consistency on this point, having taken the position from the outset that the stimulus bill was too small and that more needed to be done. But the new editorial glosses over what would be involved in a new stimulus bill that could help boost the economy - on the low side we would be talking what? $500,000,000,000? It seems to me that the Times should be up-front about its demands, and should similarly be up front about why such a bill would not generate majority support in Congress. It's easy to observe:
Recovery, such as it is, appears to be a repeat of the lopsided growth of the Bush years, with corporate profits rebounding and jobs and incomes lagging.
Paul Krugman recently pointed to an interesting (albeit superficial) article about Japan that indicates how long-term high levels of unemployment for young adults can distort a society. That's something to avoid, if possible. Optimists argue that we must do more to reboot the economy and generate jobs before long-term unemployment becomes structural or, even more optimistically, before those opposed to stimulus spending can argue that there's no point because a @10% unemployment rate has become a structural issue that we must accept and live with.

But we are dealing with real world changes. We've exported our manufacturing base and expertise, such that formerly huge domestic industries are a shadow of their former selves. (Consider, for example, the domestic furniture and textile industries). We're dealing with an environment in which manufacturing jobs that once paid a middle class wage to young workers are now paying... not much better than running a cash register at Wal-Mart. Even if you believe the skill sets are similar, and that the only reason manufacturing jobs were better paid is the influence of "evil unions", you cannot revive the domestic consumer economy in an environment in which workers are being paid less and are working fewer hours. And yes, the concept of quickly reviving the economy through stimulus spending anticipates that the consumer economy will revive. (The mixed message: Save money, oh you spendthrift Americans, but simultaneously borrow and spend.)

Via Atrios comes a look at employer expectations in the new economy. In the eyes of the Wall Street Journal, it appears that skilled workers should be begging for scraps, not demanding decent wages. Workers should be eager to apply for jobs beneath their skill set, and should not expect job security, but employers should feel free to reject workers as overqualified.

Many of the longest-term unemployed may already be permanently displaced from the job market. Those who worked in industries that have collapsed, in which innovation has reduced or eliminated the demand for their skills, or in which employers find it advantageous to bring in younger, often lower-paid workers are not likely to find well-paying work in the new economy. Even with stimulus spending. I hate to be a pessimist, and I do not mean this as an argument against another significant stimulus bill, but these structural changes in the job market have been developing for decades and they're real.

It's been easy for other parts of the country to point to the rust belt, or similarly depressed regions, and argue that the residents of those regions are flawed, or that there's a magic trick that the government could pull off - cutting taxes, reducing regulations, offering subsidies - that would attract new jobs and industries to their states. But is it that difficult to see that the structural changes that occurred in the steel and auto industries, or the aforementioned furniture and textile industries, are not going to vanish? For the most part, factories aren't coming back. And the few that do will require far fewer workers than the factories of past generations and are likely to pay significantly lower wages. Nobody finds that surprising for the auto industry, so why do so many act like the past several governors of Michigan, plug their ears and hum when it's pointed out that the net effect of this recession has been to push a significant number of other industries in the same direction?

The entire world seems to be focused on the American consumer as the solution to the global financial crisis. When American consumers start spending again, the gears of international commerce will start to turn and, as they accelerate, everybody will once again be rolling in money. But perhaps it's time for other nations to recognize that it's not likely to happen, and certainly not likely to happen any time soon. And for our own political leaders to start paving the way for a future in which the economy rests on a more sound foundation than consumer spending.

Yes, change is scary. But change is not only coming, it has arrived.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Now Why Would Civil Rights Groups Have Reservations About Charter Schools....

If you read the Wall Street Journal's editorial page, you will read that the only possible explanation for civil rights groups' reservations in relation to charter schools is that they're in bed with the teacher's unions.
By casting their lot firmly with teachers unions, the leadership of the NAACP and the Urban League hope to preserve their power and safeguard their traditional sources of financial support.
That's presented by the authors of the editorial, Paul E. Peterson and Martin R. West, both of Harvard, as a conclusory statement. A non sequitur. As if the only possible reason in the world why civil rights groups might express
"reservations" about the Obama administration's "extensive reliance on charter schools." They specifically voiced concern about "the overrepresentation of charter schools in low-income and predominantly minority communities."
Is that taking a different position might alienate teacher's unions.

The editorial also presents an argument that's all-too-typical, these days - that public policy should follow opinion polls:
Someone should remind these leaders who they represent. The truth is that support for charters among ordinary African-Americans and Hispanics is strong and has only increased dramatically in the past two years. Opposition along the lines expressed by the NAACP and the Urban League is articulated by a small minority.

* * *

Support for charters among African Americans rose to 49% in 2009, up from 42% in 2008. This year it leapt upward to no less than 64%. Among Hispanics support jumped to 47% in 2010, from 37% in 2008.
So by the authors' logic, whatever the facts and whatever their concerns, civil rights groups should have adamantly opposed charter schools a mere three years ago but now, with shifts in the result of opinion polls, they are obligated to support them. For that matter, what if next year's survey shows a significant drop in popular support for charter schools?

Even if you accept that public policy should follow the polls, and further assuming that the author's methodology was sound, the authors' logic falls flat:
Each year we provided respondents the same, neutral description of charter schools, followed by the question: "Do you support or oppose the formation of charter schools?" Those interviewed were also given the choice of saying they "neither support or oppose" charters.
That survey result is not, on its face, inconsistent with the position of civil rights groups. Quite obviously it is possible to favor the formation of charter schools while simultaneously having reservations about those schools, both generally and as a solution to the problems of inner city schools. To see an example of why, the authors could have turned to the news section of the very paper in which they're published.
The Equity Project Charter School garnered headlines and accolades when it opened last September with an unusual plan: recruit top teachers and pay them $125,000—substantially more than the average teacher salary anywhere in the country.

Its test scores did not match the hoopla: Only 37.4% of the students were proficient in math and 24% were proficient in English. On average, the other public schools in Equity Project's Washington Heights district performed better, the test scores released last week showed.

"It's not unexpected" for a first-year school, said Zeke Vanderhoek, founder and principal of the middle school. "I'm very confident in the vision of the school and the teachers we have, but we're not there yet."
Two weeks ago, the New York State Department of Education renewed the charter of Opportunity Charter School, the city and state's worst-performing charter school. Eight percent of the students were proficient in English and 7% were proficient in math. In the district in which Opportunity competes, proficiency scores in both subjects were above 50%.
I do expect the performance of the Equality Project to improve, and there are charters that are achieving results on par with, and sometimes better than, their public school counterparts. But the questionable performance of some schools based upon assumptions of what will improve school performance, and the terrible performance of other schools based upon what very well could be opportunism and profiteering by the private interests behind those operations, should inspire political, civil rights and opinion leaders to exercise caution.

Further, when the lessons of the charter school movement seem to boil down to "student performance improves with a longer school day", the question is raised: why is it necessary to have charter schools to lengthen the school day? For that matter, it may be that the same results can be achieved with the same length and number of school days, but with a shorter summer vacation.
The results of four-year pilot study, obtained by The Globe and Mail, show that children who have only a one-month summer break do better in math, retain more of their lessons and need less time for review.

This study rides on the tail of a 20-year investigation in the U.S. by researchers at Johns Hopkins University that found children from low-income families fell nearly three grade levels behind their higher-income peers.

The culprit? Summer vacation. The learning advantages families can offer their children during non-school months – like lessons, camp and parents who can afford to stay home with their children – are often only available to an elite few from high-income homes.
I think that last sentence incorporates a great deal of assumption and overgeneralization, but the results of the studies are not surprising.

Beyond the question of quality and opportunism, and the question of what they actually bring to the table, there are additional reasons why civil rights leaders may be skeptical of charter schools. First, charter schools tend to be segregated. Second, they tend to adopt policies toward children and classroom instruction that would not be acceptable in middle or upper class public schools. Third, the major "franchise" charter schools, such as KIPP schools, are not on the whole self-sustaining, but instead rely upon outside grants to balance their books, raising questions both of their long-tern sustainability and of whether that money might be better directed at public schools. Fourth, when you put education in the hands of a private organization, even if it's a well-meaning nonprofit, you diminish the oversight of state and local government. It's a fair retort that a lot of inner city governments and school boards have failed to do their job, or became hopelessly corrupt, but abandoning reform in favor of charter schools leaves a lot of children behind. Fifth, charter schools often rely upon the public schools for a significant amount of educational support, as their facilities often lack the amenities of public schools - sports facilities, cafeterias, libraries, art rooms, etc.

So there are many valid reasons why a civil rights leader might have reservations about an emphasis on charter schools. But wait, there's more. Let's hear what some unabashed racists have to say about the editorial and charter schools:
Even though the teachers unions oppose “charter schools”, I wonder if a lot of black teachers secret love them so that they can teach the few students who have more than a room temperature IQ. While many may be scams, I personally don’t have a problem with smarter than average blacks being separated from the dim bulbs when it comes to school. Since black teachers can no longer keep baseball bats on their desks, this is the next best option.
A nice display of loving concern, right? So how about vouchers instead of charter schools?
The main reason Whites send their children to private or Catholic schools is so their children don’t get beat up, terrorized by Black students in the public schools. Give these same Black students “Vouchers” to go to White private schools and the same process happens there.
Nope, nothing that might concern a civil rights leader there....

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

The 1% Solution

With statistics like these, there should be no ticker tape parades for the U.K.'s drug warriors:
A success rate of 1%. In what area of public life would we accept that? Last year, Professor Neil McKeganey of the University of Glasgow, one of the most respected academics in Britain, established that the authorities seize just 1% of the heroin that enters Scotland in any one year. He sees no reason to think this would be any different for the nation as a whole.
Drug agencies like to brag about how they've intercepted record amounts of drugs, but if you look behind the statistic you typically find that the success rate hasn't changed - it's just that more drugs are finding they way into the country.