Thursday, September 30, 2010

James O'Keefe's Misunderstood Lyrics

CNN reporter Abbie Boudreau summarizes the bizarre scheme under which James O'Keefe would pretend to seduce her in order to... somehow... discredit her.
For months, I had been working on a documentary about the young conservative movement. James had called me about concerns he had regarding an upcoming shoot. He asked me to meet him to talk about the shoot. I agreed to fly to Maryland and then drive to his "office" for a face-to-face conversation with him.

When I showed up, there was no office, as promised. Instead, he wanted to get me on a boat, which we later learned, was staged as a "pleasure palace." One of his colleagues, Izzy Santa, who was in Maryland that day, told me about the plan and stopped the punk before it happened.

Izzy told me he had "strawberries and champagne" waiting for me on the boat, and that he planned to "hit on me" the entire time. She said it would all be captured on hidden cameras that had been set up on the boat and in the back yard. She said the sole purpose of the "punk" was to embarrass me, and to make CNN look bad.

I would soon learn the details of the plan, in a 13-page document titled, "CNN Caper."
Part of the script for this scheme envisioned O'Keefe reading into the camera,
My name is James, I work in video activism and journalism. I've been approached by CNN for an interview where I know what their angle is: they want to portray me and my friends as crazies, as non-journalists, as unprofessional and likely as homophobes, racists or bigots of some sort…

Instead, I've decided to have a little fun. Instead of giving her a serious interview, I'm going to punk CNN. Abbie has been trying to seduce me to use me, in order to spin a lie about me. So, I'm going to seduce her, on camera, to use her for a video. This bubble-headed-bleach-blonde who comes on at five will get a taste of her own medicine, she'll get seduced on camera and you'll get to see the awkwardness and the aftermath.
That description of the reporter is a reference to Don Henley's "Dirty Laundry", although the song is old enough that a lot of people seem to be missing the reference. Boudreau comments, "They just saw my blonde hair. And the ironic thing is that I'm really a brunette", which isn't the best response given that it's inherent in the term "bleach blonde" that the target of your comment isn't a natural blonde; also there's nothing ironic in the statement. There's a better response, which is to turn to the lyrics of the song itself:
Dirty little secrets, dirty little lies,
We got our dirty little fingers in everybody's pie,
Love to cut you down to size, we love dirty laundry.

We can do the innuendo, we can dance and sing,
When it's said and done, we haven't told you a thing.
We all know that crap is king, give us dirty laundry.
Isn't that a pretty accurate summary of O'Keefe's plots, past and present, and not far off as a description of his boss's modus operandi? Kick 'em when they're up, kick 'em when they're down.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A Simple Quiz For Richard Cohen

Who said the following, when, and in what context?
  • Settling Israelis in administered territory, as is known, contravenes international conventions, but there is nothing essentially new about that.

  • Everybody has to move; run and grab as many hilltops as they can to enlarge the settlements, because everything we take now will stay ours. Everything we don't grab will go to them.

The first quote is Moshe Dayan, in a 1968 memo proposing massive settlement in the occupied territories. The Second is Ariel Sharon in 1998, displaying concern that a peace deal with the Palestinians might result in the loss of Gaza, before he woke up to the demographic consequences of Israel's territorial claim to that region. For people like Sharon, from the start the purpose of the settlements was to frustrate the peace process and to create "facts on the ground" that would prevent the return of most or all of the occupied territories to a Palestinian state. Richard Cohen appears to understand this, flatly asserting,
[Israel's settlements] are all, under international law, illegal.
So let's move to part two of the quiz. What U.S. Administrations were responsible for each of the following statements, and when were the statements made:
  1. The [Government of Israel] is aware of our continuing concern that nothing be done in the occupied areas which might prejudice the search for a peace settlement. By setting up civilian or quasi-civilian outposts in the occupied areas the GOI adds serious complications to the eventual task of drawing up a peace settlement. Further, the transfer of civilians to occupied areas, whether or not in settlements which are under military control, is contrary to Article 49 of the Geneva Convention, which states "The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies."

  2. The expropriation or confiscation of land, the construction of housing on such land, the demolition or confiscation of buildings, including those having historic or religious significance, and the application of Israeli law to occupied portions of the city are detrimental to our common interests in [Jerusalem]. The United States considers that the part of Jerusalem that came under the control of Israel in the June war, like other areas occupied by Israel, is governing the rights and obligations of an occupying Power. Among the provisions of international law which bind Israel, as they would bind any occupier, are the provisions that the occupier has no right to make changes in laws or in administration other than those which are temporarily necessitated by his security interests, and that an occupier may not confiscate or destroy private property. The pattern of behavior authorized under the Geneva Convention and international law is clear: the occupier must maintain the occupied area as intact and unaltered as possible, without interfering with the customary life of the area, and any changes must be necessitated by the immediate needs of the occupation.

  3. Substantial resettlement of the Israeli civilian population in occupied territories, including East Jerusalem, is illegal under the convention and cannot be considered to have prejudged the outcome of future negotiations between the parties on the locations of the borders of states by the Middle East. Indeed, the presence of these settlements is seen by my government as an obstacle to the success of the negotiations for a just and final peace between Israel and its neighbors.

  4. U.S. Policy toward the establishment of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories is unequivocal and has long been a matter of public record. We consider it to be contrary to international law and an impediment to the successful conclusion of the Middle East peace process.

  5. The Reagan Plan states that ‘the United States will not support the use of any additional land for the purpose of settlements during the transition period (5 years after Palestinian election for a self-governing authority). Indeed, the immediate adoption of a settlements freeze by Israel, more than any other action, could create the confidence needed for wider participation in these talks. Further settlement activity is in no way necessary for the security of Israel and only diminishes the confidence of the Arabs that a final outcome can be fee and fairly negotiated.

  6. The United States believes that no party should take unilateral actions that seek to predetermine issues that can only be reached through negotiations. In this regard the United States has opposed, and will continue to oppose, settlement activity in territories occupied in 1967 which remain an obstacle to peace.

  7. [T]he settlement enterprise and building bypass roads in the heart of what they already know will one day be part of a Palestinian state is inconsistent with the Oslo commitment that both sides negotiate a compromise.

  8. Our position on settlements, I think, has been very consistent, very clear. The secretary expressed it not too long ago. He said settlement activity has severely undermined Palestinian trust and hope, preempts and prejudges the outcome of negotiations, and in doing so, cripples chances for real peace and prosperity. The U.S. has long opposed settlement activity and, consistent with the report of the Mitchell Committee, settlement activity must stop.

The answers? 1. The Johnson Administration, 1968; 2. The Nixon Administration, 1969; 3. The Ford Administration, 1976; 4. The Carter Administration, 1980; 5. The Reagan Administration, 1982; 6. The George H.W. Bush Administration, 1991; 7. The Clinton Administration, 2001; 8. The George W. Bush Administration, 2002. Again, while he appears ignorant of the details, Cohen appears to grasp the gist of things, admitting,Cohen argues that, from a Palestinian perspective,
As for the average Palestinian, settlements are a poke in the eye. The construction of each one means yet another piece of his land has gone over to the enemy and cannot be a part of a Palestinian state. It is an in-your-face reminder of impotency, of the inability to control life or fate -- and of a baleful history that has seen nothing but defeat.
Although I doubt he has a sufficient grasp of the history of the conflict to have passed either quiz, Richard Cohen has expressly admitted that Israel's settlements are illegal and an impediment to peace, a position superficially consistent with the position taken by every U.S. Administration throughout the entire history of the occupation. The settlements have resulted in vast areas of the occupied West Bank being declared off-limits to Palestinians (the blue and red areas are exclusive to Israelis; the Green area represents an occupied portion of Hebron, with about 20,000 Palestinians under martial law for the benefit of about 400 radical settlers), with their lands criss-crossed with "settler only" roads, roadblocks and checkpoints:

Map of Israeli Settlements

But it's Richard Cohen, so you can't expect that anything logical will flow from his pen. Although he admits the settlements are illegal, an impediment to peace and a deliberate thumb in the eye of the Palestinians, Cohen argues that the religious and ideological importance of the settlements justifies dictating to the Palestinians, up front, that "some, regardless of legality, are going to stay". He makes no call for any sort of reciprocal land swap. For Netanyahu, whose government he has already described as perpetuating an illegal enterprise, Cohen complains that the settlements have "enormous symbolic value" and that for a minority of Israelis "settlements have enormous religious and ideological importance". It was thus "a major concession" for Netanyahu to (sort of, but not really) freeze the expansion of the settlements for ten months as a prerequisite for peace talks.

So you have a clear legal picture: Cohen sees the settlements as illegal. You have a clear consequence of continued settlement activity, with Cohen recognizing that each brick laid makes the possibility of achieving peace more remote. You have the consistent position of every U.S. Administration that the settlements are an impediment to peace and cannot be allowed to interfere with the peaceful resolution of the crisis. And you have an Israeli Prime Minister who says, "Screw you, even if the peace talks crash and burn we're going to go right back to expanding the settlements."

So, in Richard Cohen's mind, who is to blame? The party he describes as committing an offense against peace? Of course not. The party that is losing its prospect of statehood as a result of that intransigence? Not unless it results in the end of peace talks. What about the mediator who is trying to bring the two sides together to reach a peace deal? Yes, obviously the mediator is at fault, even though his position is 100% consistent with that of his predecessors and even though he has done nothing to create the problem:
Obama, too, has to husband his credibility. He foolishly demanded something Israel could not yet give. It was bad diplomacy, recalling neither Metternich nor Kissinger but the ol' professor and his question about the inept Mets ["Can't anybody here play this game?"].
Cohen apparently doesn't understand the difference between "can't" and "won't", and doesn't actually care about the consequences to peace of taking "no" for an answer. It is tragic that imbeciles like Cohen are given prominent positions where they can advance counter-factual arguments that undermine the peace process and perpetuate the crisis. But, as they say, welcome to America.

Structural Unemployment vs. Structural Underemployment

A few days ago Paul Krugman made a good point on his blog, and more recently in his column, that even if you believe that structural changes have arisen that will affect the employment market, there's no basis for believing "that structural unemployment is our main problem right now".
Is it possible that there has been some rise in structural unemployment that’s swamped by a much larger rise in cyclical unemployment? Yes, conceivably. And let’s talk about that when unemployment gets below, say, 7 percent — which at current rates of progress will happen, well, never.
He draws on some depression-era analysis to support his position,
I’ve been looking at what self-proclaimed experts were saying about unemployment during the Great Depression; it was almost identical to what Very Serious People are saying now. Unemployment cannot be brought down rapidly, declared one 1935 analysis, because the work force is “unadaptable and untrained. It cannot respond to the opportunities which industry may offer.” A few years later, a large defense buildup finally provided a fiscal stimulus adequate to the economy’s needs — and suddenly industry was eager to employ those “unadaptable and untrained” workers.
In a big picture sense, I believe Krugman is correct. The economy will recover and unemployment will drop to a more acceptable level. The government may be able to accelerate that process through additional stimulus spending. But that said, let's not disregard the differences in the job market between the U.S. as it entered WWII and the post-war boom years and the job market of today.

Kruguman refers to a couple of studies that suggest that the collapse of the housing market did not create structural unemployment, despite the loss of jobs in the construction trades representing 25% of private sector job losses. That is, construction workers for the most part were able to find work in other fields or have left the country. But the picture is more complicated than "employed vs. unemployed". Are workers who have been displaced from relatively well-paid jobs able to find similarly paid employment? For those who have found work, the trend appears to be toward significantly lower pay and fewer benefits. Atrios has pointed out that many employers have unrealistic expectations, wanting fully-trained, experienced workers to apply in droves for jobs offering rather pathetic compensation. But let's be honest about this - the era of a blue collar middle class appears to be ending. Whenever possible, manufacturers will relocate to the nation with the lowest cost of production - and that's not ours.

Even when times are relatively good, the issue of retraining displaced older workers is problematic. The idea of transitioning from a job in which you had a decent salary to one in which you're an entry level worker is difficult enough. Add to that the fact that younger workers, new or recent entrants to the job market, may have superior skills, are on the whole healthier, and may be perceived as more flexible and less likely to resist or question management, and... it's no surprise that retraining produces weak results. Add to that the fact that retraining is often hit-or-miss - if you project future need based on present need you can quickly create a glut of workers, and if you try to guess the future needs of the job market you'll probably guess wrong.

So no, let's not throw up our hands and pretend that nothing can be done about the unemployment rate. Let's hold accountable those who prefer to do nothing, whether it's because of institutional bias, because developing solutions is hard, or because they see personal or political benefit in perpetuating the economic crisis. But at the same time, let's take a hard look at the structural issues that are eroding the middle class, and appear to be creating a population of older workers who are chronically unemployed or underemployed. To the extent that structural problems exist, Krugman's point still holds - we shouldn't shrug and say, "It's structural, so we can't change it." We should instead take a serious look at how we might create new opportunities.

Consumer Spending, the Faltering Engine of the Economy

I've expressed skepticism at the idea that, faced with serious financial stress, American consumers suddenly became frugal, grasshoppers transformed into ants, diligently saving for a rainy day. The New York Times suggests that my skepticism is appropriate:
The substantial drop in credit card debt in the United States since early 2009 has been widely attributed to newly frugal consumers. But analysts say that a significant portion of the decline is actually the result of financial institutions writing off billions of dollars in credit card debt as losses.
Nonetheless, the idea persists that all it will take to get the economy going again is for people to start spending and, among those who most ardently advance that theory, that it's something close to a sin for people to be saving money instead of spending it. (Yes, we want to eliminate pensions and slash Social Security, but stop saving.) Via Calculated Risk, this is not unique to the United States - to the extent that part of Britain's rationale for depressing interest rates has been to try to encourage consumer spending, and that retirees "should 'not expect' to live off interest" and should "eat into their capital a bit". The article notes that, despite their responsibility, savers took a big hit from the financial crisis. Now they're expected to spend down their savings to, in essence, bail out the people and institutions who drove the crisis. At the same time, it's not in dispute that in Britain the savings rate is falling.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Why Do Wealthy People Advocate for the Less Fortunate

And when your income is seven figures or more, pretty much everybody is less fortunate.

Paul Krugman takes note of an implied criticism in a profile penned by Howard Kurtz, which pairs discussion of his political views with commentary on his personal assets. He argues that the mark of authenticity is working for your cause without regard to your personal interests.
So: I support tax increases that will reduce my own after-tax income; I worry greatly about unemployment, even though my own living is secure; I warn about growing inequality, even though I’m of the class that has gained from rising disparities; I’m upset about the direction this country is going, even though my own life is comfortable. And this is supposed to cast doubt on my motives?
Why does that argument resonate - why, for example, is it acceptable and even proper for a wealthy person to care about nothing but expanding his own wealth, but raises an eyebrow when he's working toward a better and more stable standard of living for the middle class?

Perhaps there's an element of perceived elitism, along the lines of "What's the Matter With Kansas" - "How dare that wealthy person suggest that I might not know what's in my own best interest?" When approaching a nation facing war or a recession, what would a silver-spooned "fortunate son" man of the people say, instead? Perhaps,
As we work with Congress in the coming year to chart a new course in Iraq and strengthen our military to meet the challenges of the 21st century, we must also work together to achieve important goals for the American people here at home. This work begins with keeping our economy growing. … And I encourage you all to go shopping more.
Americans must get back to work, to go shopping, going to the theatre, to help get the country back on a sounder financial footing.
Tax cuts for the rich, everybody else should go shopping. Nothing patronizing, out-of-touch or elitist in that, and it's so much more fun to go shopping than it is to listen to a rich guy tell you that you need to prepare for a rainy day and live within your means.

Perhaps we have both an inherent understanding of human nature and a resulting suspicion of anybody who claims to be acting selflessly. "I may not know what's 'in it for him', but there has to be something." You can avoid that by sticking within people's preconceptions or telling them what they want to hear, which is why a good half of weight loss ads you see suggest that you can take a supplement of some sort and shed weight without either reducing caloric intake or exercising [disclaimer: results atypical; people using this supplement should engage in a sensible eating and exercise program]. You may be earning barely more than minimum wage, but the rich guy who is arguing for a progressive tax regime is going to take your money when you finally do get rich - which is inevitable, right. Because all you have to do is think about money and it magically comes to you. (Shut up, rich guy - what do you know about getting rich.)

I suspect there's a very real element of not wanting to put yourself in the class of people who need rich people to look out for you. It's perfectly cool for a rich guy to focus on starvation in Africa, AIDS in Africa... something to help those poor, unfortunate souls. It's not so cool when you're the person who "needs" their loving attention. "How completely outrageous that the residents of D.C. didn't like having corporate-sponsored education reforms pushed on them, despite a lack of evidence that the ideas were working and that middle and upper class schools would reject the bulk of the reforms - clearly they're ingrates who are nothing like us. After all, if they were they would already have schools as good as ours and wouldn't need the intervention."

But really, if you're not willing to throw up your hands and give up, there's a point at which you have to recognize that we humans have a tendency toward irrationality on a wide variety of subjects. When you try to tackle the issue head-on you'll get incredible resistance. Your better approach is to try to find a way to steer people in the right direction while making them believe they're making their own decision. (Unfortunately, this is much easier to do when you're exploiting the weakness against your target. "It's a recession! Everybody needs to spend more, so we'll cut taxes for the rich and everybody else should go shopping!")

Update: Michael Tomasky, who no doubt is worth considerably less than Paul Krugman, on why he's not going to give up the fight.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Are the Democrats Trying to Lose?

From what they're doing, it would certainly appear so. Michael Tomasky comments on the party's idiotic decision not to vote on a middle class tax cut in advance of the election. He quotes a "senior Senate Democratic Aide" as arguing that it's a winning argument for the Democrats, "why muddy it up with a failed vote" based upon an expected Republican filibuster?
I suppose that aide could be right. But what he or she doesn't understand is that not having a vote just looks like surrender. It's not fighting for anything. Because everyone watching this debate understands that a vote after the elections is guaranteed to extend all the cuts and really embarrass Obama, because he's going to be put in a position of vetoing cuts for the middle class or signing a bill including all cuts, and he's obviously going to have to do the latter. It's short-sighted. It's selfish. It's weak. It's pathetic. And it's all too typical. Shall I go on?
All of that applies - selfish, weak, pathetic, typical. But I'm more cynical about this than Mr. Tomasky. I suspect that the real reason the Senate doesn't want the vote is because they fear that they actually might get one or two Republicans to vote for tax relief - and that they will be countered by having Senators like Joe Lieberman join the remaining Republicans in a filibuster. Yes, I know that when put on the spot Joe backed off of his prior suggestion that he would join a filibuster, but I can see him helping Republicans block or delay the vote, and I can see him breaking his word. And he's not the only unfaithful member of the Senate Democratic Caucus.

It sounds a lot better to offer excuses that make you seem selfish, weak, and pathetic, than to have to explain on the eve of an election why members of your own caucus blocked a tax bill that would otherwise have passed.

Seriously, Bill Clinton had to remind the Democratic Party that it should offer some ideas - a plan for what it might do in the upcoming term that will benefit the voting public. What are the party's ideas for improving the economy? Generating jobs? Anything? It's not enough to respond, "But the Republicans have no ideas". When people aren't happy with the status quo you don't need ideas as the opposition, because you'll naturally get the protest vote.

But there's not one single idea the Democrats can advance in anything but the cloudiest of terms without at least one of its Senators declaring, "No, I can't support that." This is more than a "big tent" problem - it's a problem of being beholden to special interests. The same thing is true in the House, but there it matters less because bills pass on a majority vote. In the Senate, a promised agenda can by stymied by a single Senator. Maybe the dissenters can be convinced to keep their mouths shut until after the election, although I doubt it. But what happens in the next election if every single item on the offered plan has been stymied with the active complicity of Democrats?

Tomasky appropriately comments,
It's just so incredibly lame. I'm close to thinking let 'em lose, serves 'em right. Then I see the Bedlam inmates running on the other side and I remember the stakes. But honestly.
Frankly, for the past two years we've seen the Democrats act like a party that wants to lose. (The problem extends beyond two years, but it's been manifest since President Obama took office and various Democrats have engaged in the systematic undermining of his agenda.) They're not acting like a party that's fit to govern. Tomasky motivates himself by contemplating what the Republicans might do with a legislative majority, but the enthusiasm gap can be explained in no small part by the fact that most voters are neither as attuned to the issues or as partisan as Tomasky. They see an ineffective Congress that is not willing to commit to anything, and... who wants to vote for that?

Update: Can I find a voice anywhere, excluding Democratic politicians and their employees, who believes this is a good idea for the Democratic Party? The operative word among the party's supporters seems to be "idiocy".

Update II: All this and the continued taxpayer financing of worthless degrees from crappy for-profit colleges?

Who Will Stand Up For the HENRYs

At Harvard Business Review, Justin Fox offers an interesting insight into HENRYs - people who are "high earners, not yet rich".
Very successful households (two-income couples, mostly), on the young side, who are making $250,000-$500,000 a year but don't have a whole lot in the way of assets — and may have big housing and/or education debts — don't feel particularly rich, and bear just about the heaviest tax burden of any income group.
As the post notes, Matt Miller has also commented on this group, what he calls the "lower uppers". I've also heard them described as the "aspirational rich" - people who may well become rich by virtue of their income, but have yet to acquire the base of assets and wealth that is traditionally associated with being "rich".

Update: Financial advice for HENRYs from the WSJ, closing, "Never, ever, ever again blog about how hard it is to live on $300,000 or $350,000 a year at a time when one middle-aged man in four can't find a full-time job, and one in five can't find any job at all." The biggest takeaways are probably to watch your discretionary expenditures and not to waste money on fancy cars.

Government and Disruptive Innovation

The concept of disruptive innovation is interesting, and it certainly can shake things up in the marketplace - the idea of offering unexpected innovations in pricing and service, typically to offer something for a lower price (or free) or reaching out to a new group of consumers. There are a few points to consider, though: something offered as a disruptive innovation is likely to be inferior to the existing range of competing products or services on the market. The lower price point demanded by the new market will almost always require compromise, and that market has already established by "voting with its pocketbook" that it's not willing to pay the previously established market price. Disruptive innovation also usually involves a serious trade-off - such as worse service in exchange for convenience. You can carry a cell phone with you, but at the cost of sometimes getting bad reception, sometimes having calls dropped, sometimes not being able to get a signal due to network congestion.... Over time the technology may improve, but at the outset (and perhaps indefinitely) the consumer typically gives up a lot. The "innovation" part of "disruptive innovation" is not about finding ways to improve products or services, but is about finding ways to reach new markets.

Matt Miller suggests that the Obama Administration "has a chance for an economic policy reboot" and should try something different. He credits the administration for taking steps to arrest the nation's economic problems and for preventing a worse outcome, but believes that the administration needs to do more to overcome the inertial of powerful factions that resist change. He identifies the medical industry, traditional colleges, public schools. But He steers his argument in the wrong direction, suggesting that the Obama Administration should embrace "disruptive innovation" as a way to "deliver more for less" - perhaps he means "creative destruction". Because, as previously noted, "disruptive innovation" is about finding ways to deliver less to more people. The two concepts often go hand-in-hand, but they represent very different things.

Miller specifically refers to Netflix as an example of "disruptive innovation", but it's more of an example of creative destruction. I didn't save money by signing up for Netflix, but I did gain convenience - I don't have to go to to the video store to rent a movie, nor do I have to hurry back by a specific deadline in order to avoid late fees.1 Offering a sufficient number of simultaneous rentals to satisfy a typical consumer along with that convenience certainly has impacted the traditional "brick and mortar" video rental industry. But Netflix did not create a new market of consumers - it provided an alternative means of delivery to an existing market. (And at present it's ramping up its streaming video business in anticipation of a future in which video rental will not involve physical media - again, creative destruction but not disruptive innovation).

Miller provides a better example with cheap, online, non-accredited degree programs. (He could also point to for-profit colleges such as The University of Phoenix and DeVry.) Yes, they're cheaper than traditional colleges, and in the case of the online program Miller highlights much cheaper. But few would dispute that there's a serious trade-off in terms of quality. More people can afford them, but the quality and experience is lesser, and the degree you get at the end of the program is less valuable (or in some cases, worthless as a credential). Miller suggests that if we stopped accrediting colleges (or is it, if we stopped requiring that colleges meet minimum quality standards before accrediting them) the model of the "freshman year of college via online courses for $999" could cause "the cost of a degree" to "plummet". But that's highly misleading, as colleges use the profits from lecture hall sized required courses to subsidize their other operations. Also, cheaper though it may be, why should we assume that "credits" from a $999 "first year of college" program will convey a sufficient education to substitute for those that would be obtained through a traditional college course, or even the online course offered by a traditional college?

The accreditation process is out-of-date, and does not reflect the realities of the information age. Yes, it would make sense for the Obama Administration to urge national accrediting organizations to reconsider their criteria for accreditation of graduate and undergraduate schools and programs, and to encourage state leaders to take a hard look at what's going on in state universities. Yes, there would be a push-back against reform from some of the vested interests. But I suspect the resistance from colleges would be less than Miller believes. Traditional colleges are growing at the rate of about 3% per year and are struggling to make ends meet. For-profits are growing at about ten times that rate, and are making money. But it may turn out that the quality of a "$999 first year of college" program cannot raised to the point that it's deserving of accreditation.

Miller also points to concierge medicine, in which patients pay a fixed monthly fee for primary care, as an example of "disruptive innovation". But it's again a poor example. If you're uninsured and have high medical needs, it may well save you money to pay "$44 to $84 a month" for your primary care... assuming you're obtaining primary care. But you probably can't afford it. If you have decent insurance your share of your primary care cost is likely considerably less. Either way you still need insurance for your more serious medical needs - emergency room visits, hospitalizations, etc. - and medication. How does a business like that scale? By pitching itself to employers as an alternative to traditional health insurance plans - "Offer our program for primary care, backed up by inexpensive catastrophic insurance programs for your employee's more serious health issues, and maybe a prescription discount program."

Miller explains that concierge medicine saves money by "cut[ting] insurers, and the estimated 40 cents they take out of every dollar spent on primary care, out of the equation," noting that as compared to other nations, U.S. "health costs [represent] 17 percent of the gross domestic product when every other advanced nation is at 10 or 11 percent, with similar health outcomes." It's worth noting that domestically, the government has been the leading innovator for billing and reimbursement models meant to improve quality and reduce medical cost. But it's also worth noting that the rest of the developed world isn't spending far less than the U.S. because of free market solutions - they're enjoying that savings primarily because they either strictly regulate private health insurance both in terms of covered services and pricing, or because the government itself is the primary provider of health insurance.

Concierge medicine has parallels in other nations, in which salaried doctors working in medical clinics have a defined patient load and receive their base salary for treating that population of patients. It's only more complicated here - only an "innovation" here - because of the effort it takes to scale that type of medical practice to compete against traditional private health insurance. The concept was also harmed by the abuses that occurred after the introduction of HMO's, which did save money but were quite fairly accused of doing so by denying care. The model Miller describes would cream off the provision of the most predictable services to the relatively healthy, pre-Medicare, non-Medicaid population, but would make the most unpredictable, most costly aspects of medical care somebody else's problem. Even if adopted nationwide, there's no reason to believe that concierge medicine for primary care would do a thing to reduce healthcare inflation or the high cost of inpatient care, long-term care, specialized services or pharmaceuticals. Also, if the most profitable patients are pulled out of comprehensive health insurance plans, guess what happens to the cost of comprehensive health insurance?

Miller also overstates his case. For example,
Then there's the K-12 Industrial Complex, which leaves us spending more than other wealthy nations, even as we're stuck in the middle (or worse) on international tests.
Except we don't have a "K-12 Industrial Complex". We have private schools that serve the elite, and no small number of private and parochial schools that principally serve the middle class. We have public schools that, for the most part, provide a solid education to the nation's children. And we have a subset of public schools, primarily in low-SES communities, that have not historically been able to keep their student bodies at or even near grade level. Exclude that last group from "international tests" and our scores become competitive. If it needs to be explained, that's why the focus of "education reform" is on the inner cities.

Moreover, the "best" charter schools are not hotbeds of innovation or cost control - they typically rely on infusions of grant money to make ends meet, and typically also involve many more hours per day or week in class and on school grounds.1 It's not actually an innovation to offer more of the same at a higher cost, let alone when most charters show little to no improvement in performance as compared to their public school counterparts. Miller sneers that the D.C. parents who recently voted Mayor Fenty out of office were "fretting more about ineffective teachers who lose their jobs than poor children who lose their shot at an education" - No, Matt, they were concerned about their own kids as pawns in a political struggle that they did not see as bearing the promised fruit. As a teacher from a successful charter school states,
There’s a lot that many in the public system can learn from how [the SEED Public Charter School] operates — but that doesn’t mean that SEED or other charters ought to supplant the entire system serving 50 million students.

Public schools badly need improvement. But to me, that doesn’t mean damning them to oblivion or running for the hills of privatization, away from the possibility of improving the existing infrastructure. Some charter schools — not all, many are disasters — can offer useful practices to share.
The most glaring flaw of his thesis is Miller's overestimation of the power of the President. Yes, it's possible for the President to meet with people who can advise him how we might replace ancient, costly approaches to certain issues with sleeker, more modern approaches. But any reinvention of the system must pass through Congress.

If there's a takeaway, it would be that the President should be resisting calls from failing industries to protect, preserve and subsidize the status quo, if doing so would block innovation. That's not new - the joke has been around for longer than I've been alive that if Congress took its present approach to subsidizing failing industries we would still have village blacksmiths. But it's a balancing act. Let's not lose sight of the fact that dropping subsidies and trade protections might not result in disruptive innovation - it very well could result in the loss of domestic jobs in favor of imported produce, products and services.
1. It would be interesting to hear Mr. Miller explain why a seventeen-year-old in public school requires a rigid, structured schedule of classes with strong oversight and testing, but the very next year the student will be able to get the benefit of a full first year of college by taking a $999 series of online courses. Or, for that matter, why the "solution" to the problems of public schools wouldn't be to replace $10,000+/year/student schools by giving each student a $1,000 computer and a $999 set of online classes to take in lieu of attending a traditional school.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Thomas Friedman on Competition with China

Sometimes you have to wonder where Thomas Friedman's head is....
To visit China today as an American is to compare and to be compared. And from the very opening session of this year’s World Economic Forum here in Tianjin, our Chinese hosts did not hesitate to do some comparing. China’s CCTV aired a skit showing four children — one wearing the Chinese flag, another the American, another the Indian, and another the Brazilian — getting ready to run a race. Before they take off, the American child, “Anthony,” boasts that he will win “because I always win,” and he jumps out to a big lead. But soon Anthony doubles over with cramps. “Now is our chance to overtake him for the first time!” shouts the Chinese child. “What’s wrong with Anthony?” asks another. “He is overweight and flabby,” says another child. “He ate too many hamburgers.”

That is how they see us.
Here's the thing, Tom: When a state-run organizaton presents a state-approved, state-sponsored caricature of how its own citizens compare to those of other nations, even before you take notice that it's a communist, totalitarian state, the idea is not to convey "Here's what you already think." It's to convey, "Here's what you should think." In the context of the film at issue, if a chubby American whose idea of exercise appears to be putting on his Rolex in the morning or getting in and out of his Lexus SUV happens to be in the audience, nodding in vigorous agreement, all's the better.

You know what else? You don't have to go to China to hear that story. More than two thousand years ago Aesop wrote a version, the Tortoise and the Hare, which (believe it or not) was not intended as a wake-up call to us. (Granted, Ancient Greece did fall.) In terms of "Wow, look at those really big buildings," China's not the first totalitarian state to want to show off its prowess through massive building projects and it won't be the last.

That's not to discount China's role as a global economic competitor, or the problems we face at home. Friedman highlights problems faced by both nations,
The Chinese system is autocratic, rife with corruption and at odds with a knowledge economy, which requires liberty.
There is absolutely no reason our democracy should not be able to generate the kind of focus, legitimacy, unity and stick-to-it-iveness to do big things — democratically — that China does autocratically. We’ve done it before. But we’re not doing it now because too many of our poll-driven, toxically partisan, cable-TV-addicted, money-corrupted political class are more interested in what keeps them in power than what would again make America powerful, more interested in defeating each other than saving the country.
Friedman brings out his inner G.W. Bush ("If this were a dictatorship, it'd be a heck of a lot easier, just so long as I'm the dictator"), suggesting that China's system of government has resulted in the "average senior official [being] quite competent". His thesis, however, is internally inconsistent - in his own words there is a reason we can't "do it now" - our flawed and corrupted political system.

Friedman also quotes an Indian entrepreneur. Although it's not clear, I believe he's referring to an entrepreneur who is developing businesses in India, as opposed to the United States. And that entrepreneur sees democracy as part of the problem,
For democracy to be effective and deliver the policies and infrastructure our societies need requires the political center to be focused, united and energized. That means electing candidates who will do what is right for the country not just for their ideological wing or whoever comes with the biggest bag of money. For democracies to address big problems — and that’s all we have these days — requires a lot of people pulling in the same direction, and that is precisely what we’re lacking.
But that's not really, true, is it. India had a business boom based neither on those aspects of democracy nor upon a broad sharing of its new wealth with the public at large. As compared to the United States it has a serious problem with corruption and success in business can mean bribing a lot of people. Not so long ago, Friedman was lecturing us that we needed to prepare for our flat-Earth race against India, now it's apparently the U.S. and India against China. When you're in a race to the bottom for who can hand out the best business environment for sweatshops - no worries about labor laws, western-style environmental regulation, or paying taxes sufficient to help support a fully developed city or state - democracies will always lose to totalitarian states.

There are a couple of points worth making about what Friedman sees as our corrupt political culture. First, as bad as things are right now, they've been worse at various points in our nation's history. Second, if everybody pulled together and decided, "The government must have sufficient revenue to build quality infrastructure that will carry us through to the 22nd century, must reinvent higher education, must make large, bold investments in research and innovation," we would be left with a big question: How do we pay for all of that? It's easy if you're China - as long as the money keeps rolling in, the government can skim what it wants right off the top. Here it would require tax increases - and let's be blunt, the hyper-wealthy elites of our nation, people like Thomas Friedman, simply won't get on board with that.1

Sure, Tom's willing to pay an extra 50 cents per gallon to fuel up his hybrid SUV, but only if everybody in the nation also has to pay the new tax. He's not shown any inclination to offer up any of his extended family's wealth, or to scale back his own lavish lifestyle. Not that Friedman's hypocrisy makes him any less correct than, say, carbon-burning, mansion-dwelling Al Gore; but I would be more enthusiastic when he made this type of argument if it didn't smack of, "Now everybody pull together - pick me up and carry me across the finish line before the burgers get cold."

I would suggest that for his next column Friedman approach this issue from a different angle. Rather than telling us what we need to do - things that, frankly, would likely get massive voter approval if funded, he should do us the favor of telling us exactly where the money will come from.

Update: Harold Meyerson makes some observations about China, and the role of large U.S. companies in both its growth and its status as a competitor, that Friedman appears to consistently overlook:
Consider the debate in Congress about whether to impose tariffs on Chinese imports if China continues to depress the value of its currency. Roughly 150 House members, including 45 Republicans, have authored a bill to do just that, and the Ways and Means Committee will take up the bill on Friday. Unions and some domestic manufacturers support the bill. But a large number of American businesses, in a campaign coordinated by the U.S.-China Business Council, oppose it.

Now, there's nothing un-American in opposing the legislation as such -- far from it. Support for and opposition to tariffs are both as American as apple pie. The question here is whether the 220 corporations that belong to the council -- household names such as Coca-Cola, Bank of America, Ford, GM, Wal-Mart, Intel, Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, J.P. Morgan Chase, Chevron, Exxon Mobil and Boeing -- are already so deeply invested in China as manufacturers, marketers or retailers that buy goods there to sell them here that their interests are more closely aligned with China's than with America's. Revaluing China's currency would be helpful to domestic U.S. manufacturers, their employees and the communities where those employees live and work, but America's largest companies have long since ceased to be domestic.

Given the explosive growth of the Chinese economy, it's a safe bet that every major U.S. corporation will devote greater resources to building, buying and selling there. But China, unlike the Obama administration, truly is guided by an ideology alien to most Americans -- Leninism -- and wields far greater control over what U.S. corporations can and can't do there than the U.S. government does over what corporations can and can't do here. Our leading companies' economic interests, and those of their Chinese hosts, whom they cross at their peril, are increasing likely to pit them against proposals that diminish China's edge, however obtained, in global competition.
1. As a member of the Pulitzer Committee, did Friedman vote in favor of Kathleen Parker's award? Because, it should be noted, she's presently endorsing propaganda of a different sort, applauding the notion that we can have "smaller, more caring government, one that remembers us". Why am I instead reminded of the television edit, "Forget you."

Monday, September 20, 2010

Pat Buchanan, Concern Troll

Pat Buchanan plays the "racial politics" game, accusing President Obama of "abandon[ing] blacks". How does Obama do that, you ask? By getting behind an immigration reform that Pat Buchanan opposes, and by not making appointments that Pat Buchanan would decry as "affirmative action" - that is, "discrimination against white folks — with affirmative action, contract set-asides and quotas — to advance black applicants over white applicants".

With friends like Pat....

The Tea Party Purity Test

As I see it, the context of Michael Gerson's lament on the Tea Party is that he represents the faction of the Republican Party that is taking the long view - that an embrace of the Tea Party is likely to bring long-term political pain even if it results in short-term gain. But if Michelle Malkin is his "Exhibit A" of "childish political thought", perhaps he should take ownership of and responsibility for his own past actions and opinions.
In Tea Party theory, inexperience is itself seen as a kind of qualification. People like O'Donnell are actually preferable to people like Rove, because they haven't been tainted by public trust or actual achievement. This is the attitude of the adolescent -- the belief that the world began on their thirteenth birthday. It is also a sign of childish political thought.
So let's flash back to 1999, when the nation at large was introduced to G.W. Bush, with that introduction engineered in no small part by Karl Rove. His inexperience was of no concern, we were assured, because he would surround himself by experts. He was a different breed of Republican - an outsider; a uniter, not a divider; a compassionate conservative; an advocate for immigration reform. Don't ask about his "lost years" - he had become a sober, Christian conservative, and that should be enough for anybody.

From what I've read, a lot of Tea Party members haven't been politically active during their lives. They may have voted, but they didn't spend a lot of time reading about or thinking about the issues. That, frankly, is far from a surprise. You can read the paper before work (or, at least, you could have back in the day of most Tea Party members), work all day, watch the TV news before bed and think you're informed, and that would likely set you above and beyond most Americans in terms of your effort. But let's face it - at the end of the day that's likely to leave you with only a superficial understanding of the issues. Hence partisans like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and, yes, Karl Rove are able to identify opportunities to sink their hooks and reel people in, the goal not being to illuminate but to create a following. Had Karl Rove created the Tea Party movement in his own image, Gerson would be praising his genius.

I find it interesting that Gerson blasts Michelle Malkin, for her criticism of Karl Rove, as part of the problem - she's "childish". Why not go after Rush Limbaugh for saying what amounts to the same thing. Why not go after the big dog? Oh, that's right - because for doing that even Karl Rove can be called to heel, and Gerson's no Karl Rove. Malkin's prominent enough to be recognized, but not so prominent that Gerson is likely to face blowback.

Gerson's first complaint about the Tea Party approach is that it sends the message,
The facts do not matter. Politics is war carried on by other means. Anyone who doesn't consistently take one side is a traitor.
Would any of that bother Gerson if the warfere weren't internecine? Michelle Malkin has been using the same tactics ever since she gained prominence. What about Ann Coulter and her eager use of the word "Treason"? The facts don't matter now? When did they matter under Bush?
In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn't like about Bush's former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House's displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn't fully comprehend -- but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.

The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
What about Ari Fleischer's infamous warning1 (his very late explanation taken for what it's worth)?

Gerson continues with his explanation of what makes the Tea Party's political thought "childish":
Some conservatives have adopted the Bolshevik approach to information and the media: Every personal feeling, every independent thought, every inconvenient fact, must be subordinated to the party line -- the Tea Party line.
This reminds me of something....
When I was a speechwriter for the Bush Administration, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a columnist for the Washington Post, I put away childish things.
Gerson's accusation is something of a hollow man - he doesn't name a conservative who fits his accusation, although by implication he's including Malkin. I doubt he can name a conservative commentator who truly fits that description, who has abandoned past opinions and principle and now subordinates his every opinion to the Tea Party. Were he to find such an individual he would do us all a very great favor, because we would finally know what the Tea Party stands for.

Gerson offers up a second criticism of "Tea Party purists", again without identifying a single such purist, as believing that "their ascendance makes other elements of the conservative movement unnecessary":
If Tea Party activists believe they can win in a political coalition so pure that it doesn't include strong, mainstream conservatives such as Karl Rove, they are delusional. And they are hurting their own cause.
Is this to be read with an eye toward history, with G.W. and Karl Rove deciding that they could rule the country based upon the support of 51% of the electorate, rejecting the qualms of the "paleocons", the "reality-based community", fiscal conservatives, foreign policy conservatives, and any other faction whose believes and agenda didn't match their own? If so, yes, he has a point - if you represent a minority of Americans you will not be able to sustain victory at the ballot box without expanding your base. If not, his complaint reduces to the question of whose elephant ox is being gored.

Gerson's third complaint is a magnification of his second,
Third, some conservatives seem to display special venom for those who are "compromised" by the experience of actually winning and governing. Rove, according to Malkin, is an "establishment Beltway strategist."
How much of the last few decades of political history, including campaigns involving Karl Rove, are we to ignore? Because in case Gerson missed it, everybody wants to be an outsider. One of G.W.'s remarkable feats in constructing his brush-cutting cowboy image was convincing the nation that he, grandson of a U.S. Senator, son of a former President, beneficiary of his family's vast wealth and generations of political connections, was a Washington outsider. When you work as hard as Rove has done to turn words like "insider" into slurs, you don't have much ground to stand on when your work is turned against you.
[Karl Rove's résumé] does not make him always right. But it means he has had responsibilities bigger than running a Web site. This is an advantage for a commentator, not a drawback.
I joked a while back that the most prominent people held up as possible Republican Presidential nominees - Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, and Mitt Romney - quit the jobs that supposedly qualify them for the White House. In their recent experience, the only thing they've been running is their mouths. I recognize that Gerson has no love for Sarah Palin, but what do his words say about the rest of his party?

But seriously, the number of prominent right-wing pundits whose most significant "real world" experience came from writing speeches for politicians is high. Can Gerson truly be surprised that many of them fail to 'put away' their 'childish things'?
1. While I have some sympathy for the idea that Fleischer, in warning Americans to "watch what they say, watch what they do", meant something other than what he said, he had ample opportunity on the very same stage to correct himself and the Bush Administration could easily have issued a clarification. The fact that they did not suggests that, whatever Fleischer's intent, the Bush Administration was content to let the public perception of the remarks stand.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Did You Miss The Word "Anonymous"

I realize that the words "ethics" and "paparazzi" have very little in common with each other, but for goodness sake - don't stalk people at 12-step meetings, even if they're celebrities.

Elizabeth Warren, "Simplistic and Hyperbolic"?

Sins Fred Hiatt and his crew, of course, would never commit. Seriously,
We have qualms about Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard law professor President Obama has put in charge of setting up the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection. The new body, which will have a half-billion-dollar budget and wide regulatory power over mortgages, credit cards and the like, was her brainchild. It emerged from Warren's zealous campaign against what she called the "tricks and traps" of the banking industry, which has made her a hero to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Like many such activists, however, Ms. Warren can be simplistic and hyperbolic.
It seems like a cheap shot, and the fact that no member of Fred's editorial board had the guts to sign the column reinforces that impression. I have not followed everything Professor Warren has said, and pretty much anybody can be simplistic and hyperbolic at times. Even Washington Post columnists.1 But seriously, not even one "for instance"?

For that matter, if "simplistic and hyperbolic" is a big problem for you, no qualms over running this? Those problems are balanced out by its surfeit of platitudes and partisanship?
1. Arguably, "simplistic and hyperbolic" is Charles Krauthammer's preferred style of writing.

Friday, September 17, 2010

In Fairness to the Tea Party

Daniel Larison makes a point worth noting,
It’s also a fairly low blow to claim that Dinesh D’Souza’s atrocious “anti-colonialist” nonsense has something to do with “the Tea Party style.” As Weigel has pointed out, D’Souza’s horrible arguments about Obama are part of an entire career of horrible D’Souza arguments about a variety of things. Gingrich’s embrace of this nonsense is a function of Gingrich’s enthusiasm for all manner of ignorant demagoguery. Obviously, Beck loves this nonsense and has been pushing it on his show. That’s the only real connection with Tea Partiers, it’s one Brooks doesn’t make, and it would be a case of guilt by association if he did.
Some have a tendency to point to every crazy idea on the right and declare "Tea Party!" Perhaps when Brooks wrote,
I asked the election guru Charlie Cook if there were signs that the Tea Party was scaring away the independents. “I haven’t seen any,” he replied. I asked another Hall of Fame pollster, Peter Hart, if there were Republican or independent voters so alarmed by the Tea Party that they might alter their votes. He ran the numbers and found very few potential defectors.
he should have considered that the Tea Partiers and those who know them are aware of the distinction between what they believe and what Dinesh D'Souza believes, or for that matter between what they believe and what a (some faction of the) Tea Party-endorsed candidate believes.

Perhaps it's fun to think of the Tea Party as "crazy", or to want to attribute D'Souza's bad scholarship or Gingrich's nasty, shallow opportunism (or, as Larison puts it, his "enthusiasm for all manner of ignorant demagoguery") to something other than their own, personal failings. But that doesn't make it true.

No Newt is Good Newt

David Brooks laments how the Tea Party movement has corrupted poor Newt Gingrich,
The Tea Party style is beginning to replicate itself in parts of the conservative world. Dinesh D’Souza’s Forbes cover article, “How Obama Thinks,” contained the sort of untethered assertions that have become the lingua franca of this movement. Obama got his subversive radicalism from his father’s grave, D’Souza postulated: “He adopted his father’s position that capitalism and freedom are code words for economic plunder.” The fact that Newt Gingrich embraced this offensive theory is a sign of how severely the normal intellectual standards have been weakened.
Another version of this, from Jim Lindgren at the Volokh Conspiracy.
While the Democratic attack on Boehner may or may not work this year, contrary to some Republican commentary, such attacks CAN work. I remember 1995–96, when Dick Morris’s campaign on behalf of Bill Clinton against Newt Gingrich destroyed Gingrich’s credibility, an attack from which Gingrich has still not fully recovered.
Oh, right, poor little Newt - the "intellectual" star of the Republican Party who for some completely unexplainable reason can't stop himself from saying and doing anything that he believes will advance his political aspirations or line his pockets. (No small wonder Lindgren turned comments off for that post.)

Nobody has done a better job of damaging Newt's undeserved reputation as an "intellectual leader" than Newt.

The Democrats Are Doomed....

That's a pretty consistent theme among left-leaning pundits. Here's Eugene Robinson,
If the Democrats can't generate some real enthusiasm among the base, and fast, [for Republican candidates] the word "unelectable" may cease to have meaning.
You know what's a bit demoralizing to "the base"? Being consistently told over eighteen months that they're demoralized, have the right to be demoralized, and should remain demoralized unless something changes.

No, of course people should feel free to criticize legislation, to advocate for improvements. People like Glenn Greenwald should be free to launch scathing attacks on issues of privacy and national security, where the Administration is pretty much following the Bush model. And to the extent that the White House and its spokespeople resent the criticism, they should suck it up. It goes with the job. Or... wow... they can acknowledge it, explain why their actions fell short of the expectations of some, and discuss future plans and initiatives that might smooth some ruffled feathers.

The Democratic base has never seemed as easy to excite or ignite as the Republican base. There's less consistency on core issues, and it seems more of a tendency to get grumpy and gloomy and announce, "I'm not going to vote for anybody", as if the solution to being dissatisfied with a Democratic administration or Congress is to passively allow a Republican takeover. It's possible to recognize that both parties are pretty crappy, and that they're both far more focused on serving corporate interests than in serving the welfare of the non-fictitious people of the nation, while also recognizing that there are serious policy differences between the parties.

If the Democrats served up a nice set of reasons why people should vote for them, and be excited to do so, I fully expect that the critical pundits would respond either that "It's not enough" or that "It's too little, too late," and their reaction would become the story as opposed to the issues or substantive policy that's at stake.

You know what might be a better message than, "Voters won't show up unless they're excited about something"? The message that part of being a member of a functioning democracy is to take the time to vote in major elections, even if you think all of the candidates suck.

Update: An international, um... perspective.

I'm Starting To Like Christine O'Donnell

Not to say I would vote for her, but with every nutty thing she's ever said being pulled out of her past, I admit it. She has a certain charm. Seriously, check out her 'notorious' video:
Look at the smile she serves up in this "mice with human brains" article.

For the most part, her brand of "crazy" seems to be well-meaning, borne of limited experience and intellectual curiosity, not mean-spirited or truly insane.

At one time or another, and at one level or another, haven't we all had a friend like this? A person who has a strong opinion on everything and substantive knowledge about... next to nothing? But they're amusing. If O'Donnell smoked pot, odds are she would be what we call a "granola hippie". "Hey dude, did you know that the man... the man has developed mice with human brains? Really, dude. And all we have to do to eliminate poverty is raise minimum wage to $40 grand a year! Think about it...." All those visits to "Politically Incorrect" and Bill Maher never got her to take even a single toke? (No offense, Bill, even though she's not a blonde it's hard to believe you wouldn't have tried.)


Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Difficulty of Education Reform

I missed this editorial from a few days ago, in which Robert Samuelson takes on the current conceptions of school reform. His statistical arguments are a bit misleading, but I'll cut him a break and skip to his substantive criticism of reforms:1
"Reforms" have disappointed for two reasons. First, no one has yet discovered transformative changes in curriculum or pedagogy, especially for inner-city schools, that are (in business lingo) "scalable" -- easily transferable to other schools, where they would predictably produce achievement gains. Efforts in New York and the District to raise educational standards involve contentious and precarious school-by-school campaigns to purge "ineffective" teachers and principals. Charter schools might break this pattern, though there are grounds for skepticism. In 2009, the 4,700 charter schools enrolled about 3 percent of students and did not uniformly show achievement gains.
I've mentioned before that what Samuelson describes is one of my biggest disappointments from the charter school movement. With few exceptions, the schools follow the same educational model as traditional public schools, perhaps modified by "more is better" - longer school days and more hours of instruction. That latter idea has some common sense promise, but comes at a price - you either overwork your teachers for the same pay they can get elsewhere, overwork your teachers for more pay to try to reduce attrition, or hire more teachers. That is, it's more expensive while offering nothing by way of innovation. It's not just that nobody has yet discovered transformative changes - it's that few are even looking.
The larger cause of failure is almost unmentionable: shrunken student motivation. Students, after all, have to do the work. If they aren't motivated, even capable teachers may fail.
There is some discussion of student motivation, and the role of parents and community, in this recent thread and its comments. I don't want to get into the conceit of "We had it tough in my childhood; kids these days are soft, spoiled and selfish", as that has been pretty much a constant criticism of "kids these days" from the dawn of civilization. But I have heard the lament from many educators that parental expectations have shifted (it's the school's problem, not theirs, if their kids misbehave or don't perform well), and that the culture of "It's cool to be stupid" has crept from high school into college classrooms. To the extent that problems arise outside of the classroom, the current generation of reformers make things more difficult for the classroom teacher by in essence saying "So what? It is your problem, and yours alone, if your students don't flourish." Samuelson's impressions aren't much different from mine in that regard:
Motivation comes from many sources: curiosity and ambition; parental expectations; the desire to get into a "good" college; inspiring or intimidating teachers; peer pressure. The unstated assumption of much school "reform" is that if students aren't motivated, it's mainly the fault of schools and teachers. The reality is that, as high schools have become more inclusive (in 1950, 40 percent of 17-year-olds had dropped out, compared with about 25 percent today) and adolescent culture has strengthened,2 the authority of teachers and schools has eroded. That applies more to high schools than to elementary schools, helping explain why early achievement gains evaporate.
Samuelson also reports that students "don't like school, don't work hard and [consequently] don't do well", which, it's fair to say, is simply a reflection of human nature. If you don't see value or reward in your work, it's an unpleasant chore to be avoided. How can a teacher, alone, overcome a community's general indifference to education?

Proponents of school reform are aware that there are kids and parents in failing school districts who desperately want a better educational environment for their children. There's some validity to the concept that better order in the halls and classrooms, and better maintenance of school buildings, will help to a degree. But if your goal is to markedly improve educational performance within a school, that degree is small.

Although to read the New York Times and Washington Post, school reform is a tiny footnote in relation to D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty's recent loss - that the real problem was his style of management. I'm more convinced by those who perceive his loss as a referendum on his school reform initiatives. That is, parents most affected by those initiatives turned up in large numbers to declare, "We're tired of having you rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic and call it 'reform'. Where are the results? Why does my child still have to play the lottery to get a chance to be in a decent school?" It might not be unreasonable for him to respond that reforms take time, that his actions (including his mistakes) are well-intentioned. But how long are parents supposed to wait?

I'm not the only one who sees the centrality of school reform in Fenty's loss. Consider, for exmaple, Tim Pawlenty's whine,
“Mayor Fenty lost after the teachers' unions led a campaign against him and Michelle Rhee. Fenty's loss is further evidence that despite all their rhetoric about 'the children,' what the teachers’ unions really care about is getting more money for jobs they can't lose at schools that produce students who are not prepared to compete,” Pawlenty said in a statement.
D.C. parents didn't turn out to vote because the teacher's union told them that D.C. school reform wasn't living up to its promise - Pawlenty is offering them a version of, "Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes". Is Pawlenty as contemptuous of the voters of his own state as he is of those in D.C.? (Perhaps so.)

Update: Worth mentioning, the possibility that Rhee and Fenty "hurt their cause by overstating their success" and by "pushing forward some reforms that make no sense". I suspect that Rhee's venom, directed toward those who voted against Fenty, is a microcosm of why she's unpopular with parents who want reform - whatever her intentions, they want results, not complaints about how hard her work is or by implication that they're too lazy to support reform.

Update II: Eugene Robinson comments on Rhee's self-absorbed reaction to Fenty's loss. And some similar thoughts from Valerie Strauss,
[Rhee's comment was] the equivalent of saying that there is no use for anybody to hope that she and presumptive mayor Vincent Gray can come to some compromise to keep her here. The only question is when she’ll leave.

The problem is that she said it to an audience who watched a one-sided film that adores public charter schools and demonizes traditional public schools, (which still and always will educate the vast majority of the country’s kids).

The audience was packed with people who affect millions of kids and teachers and parents by passing laws, advising the president, shaping public opinion. And those people gave her an ovation.

Ignored was the fact that there is no scientific basis for her reforms, and some evidence to suggest that some of her key initiatives, such as tying teacher pay to standardized test scores, is counterproductive.

Forget the fact that the film’s assault on teachers unions is unfair; even Education Secretary Arne Duncan, a true believer in Rhee, has noted that it is silly to blame unions, pointing out that the problems exist in states without teachers unions
(I'll note, however, that union job protections likely do make it harder to address the issue of underperforming teachers, as compared to whatever job protections are offered in non-union states and districts.)
1. I do want to mention that a reasonable measure of student-teacher ratios should focus on the ratio of students and classroom teachers; when you include staff members who have no classroom role you distort the figure. And that suggesting that two teacher households are wealthy because they would be a six figure household doesn't address the issue of attracting and retaining teachers who have other professional job prospects.

2. I'm not sure what Samuelson is trying to get at with this bare claim.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Wash Your Hands After You Do That

Last year at a truck stop restroom a burly trucker type opened the restroom door with a paper towel and, almost apologetically, explained to me that it's necessary because so many people don't wash their hands. (Another little hygiene tip, the faucet handles on non-automatic restroom sinks, are even worse.) No need to apologize. (With about 2/3 of men washing their hands at the low end, frankly, I'm surprised the numbers of hand-washers was so high.)

On a related note, news from a few months back about "please wash your hands" signs in restroms:
"Female hand rinsing went down once the sign was placed, and their hand washing went up," Johnson said in an interview with Reuters Health.

But men, he added, "relatively stayed the same, regardless of the situation."
A small sample size, but still....

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Where Can I Find Employers Offering Pensions?

In a rather silly tribute to what she sees as a British love of austerity, Anne Applebaum lectures,
Hardly anyone in America is talking about cuts in Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security, for example, the biggest budgetary items (even though "private" pensions now look a lot safer, even when taking stock market fluctuations into account, than those who will depend entirely on a bankrupt federal budget 20 years hence).
Where exactly can I find a job that offers me a private pension? A secure one, that is. (Given her faith in private pensions, would Applebaum eliminate the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation as unnecessary?) Seriously, what country does she live in because... oh yeah, that's right, it isn't this one.

If Applebaum lived in this country, perhaps she would have noticed that Social Security cuts are very much on the table, and that the discussion recently made headlines in rather colorful terms. Medicaid benefits have been slashed across the country. Sure, Medicare reform is difficult, although the Obama Administration should get credit for going after Medicare Advantage subsidies; but when Applebaum comments, "In Britain, by contrast, everything is on the table: pensions, housing benefits, disability payments, tax breaks" it's interesting to note that her list of "everything" does not include cuts for the NHS - the budget has been "ring fenced" with some shifts in spending and plans to limit future growth. Sound familiar?

What is interesting about Applebaum's list is that she's principally rattling off benefits for the poor. She should recall from the 1990's that "welfare reform" is both popular and easy. She should be aware that Britain offer significantly more generous social support than the U.S., and that's unlikely to change even after the cuts are made.

Yes, wartime rationing had an effect on the nation, and I remember my grandmother's cupboard overflowing with boxes of sugar cubes - she was not going to go through another war without having sugar for her tea. But really, no, other than the handwriting on the wall being much more obvious, I don't sense that the British are slashing the budget because they want to show of their stiff upper lips and whatnot. If they loved austerity as much as Applebaum suggests, how does she imagine they got into their present financial crisis?

Monday, September 13, 2010

Competing Visions for Schools

Via Schools Matter, a documentary that looks at a public school that rejects the rote memory and structured behavioral rules that the many in the charter schools movement appear to see as the solution to inner city school performance:
We seem to be operating under the concept that this type of education is a luxury that inner city schools cannot afford. But as I've previously noted, among schools outside of the inner cities there is a wholesale rejection of the "solutions" that are being pushed on inner city schools - uncertified teachers, rote memorization, lengthened school days, gender segregation, teaching to the test, etc., and the rejection is magnified among elite private schools.

Via AVC, an upcoming movie that champions charter schools and demonizes teachers unions.
It fascinates me that school administrators take no responsibility for their role in negotiating and agreeing to teacher contracts, hiring bad teachers, or in failing to act before they get tenure, but teachers unions are faulted for expecting that the union contracts they have negotiated will in fact govern their employment. It is worth noting that among the leading beneficiaries of generous contracts are the managers who negotiate them, as the contract becomes a convenient excuse to grant themselves even more favorable compensation and benefits packages than they agreed to extend to the union. I have considerable respect for Geoffrey Canada and his work in Harlem, but to the extent that he would have preferred public schools to starting charters and while recognizing why he didn't want to have his project impaired by many years of mismanagement of the public school system, it's a bit stunning to me that he expected that he would be able to employ teachers within specially created public schools on an at-will basis.

Finally, via An Urban Teacher's Education, a short film presenting the views of Professor Yong Zhao, in which he expresses gratitude that he received a "bad" education in rural China rather than being processed through the system more typical of that nation, and expresses concern that recent education reforms are pushing this nation's schools in the direction of China's instead of focusing on an approach to teaching children that is consistent with our nation's future needs, including "giving kids room to innovate by following their passions, not subscribing to a set of rules and interests dictated to them from the outside".
The point is not that inner city schools don't need reform, or that schools cannot be improved by offering better teachers and instruction. The point is that our nation consistently wants to approach the problem "on the cheap", repeatedly embraces as new versions of reforms that aren't much different from those used in past, failed efforts, and fails to look at why schools that contain the same basic elements (right down to evil, unionized teachers) manage to successfully educate kids outside of the inner city.

I am reminded of some discussion, a few years ago, about how certain school districts were responding to college early admission by turning the senior year of high school into a joke. At one end you had such measures as not having final examinations for the last semester of school - study for the midterm and coast. At the other you had teachers and school administrators offering classes that involved little to no academic effort, describing how the kids had worked hard for eleven years and deserved a break before college. The conceit was that the kids were college material such that it didn't much matter what happened in school - they would go to college and succeed. I disapprove of that extreme, but I similarly disapprove of the opposite - that the only thing that matters is what happens in school, as measured by standardized tests. With middle and upper class schools the presumption behind letting seniors slack off is that home life and parental expectation will drive success no matter what schools do. Yet for inner city schools we've entered an era of blaming the teacher - the quality of home life, the community and parental expectations are excluded from the equation.

One partially successful model to look at are the British grammar schools of the post-WWII era. They were far from perfect, often being rigid, authoritarian, and even oppressive, and can reasonably be accused of being too fast and too rapid in their sorting of students into academic versus vocational categories. Sure, some of the teachers and administrators fit the caricature presented in The Wall, but no small number of working class kids with uneducated parents emerged from that system amply prepared for college. But let's face it, to the extent that we can identify and replicate the best elements of that system, incorporating them into a more egalitarian educational model, we're not prepared to make the infrastructure investment or pay the teacher salaries it would require, and perhaps not even the extend to which parental expectations drove the phenomenon.

We could also look at our nation's affluent schools, which do "just fine, thank you very much" as compared to their international peers, and ask "Why can't we do something similar in the inner cities", or "Why are we doing pretty much the opposite?"

Jackson Diehl Misquotes Abbas

I am cynical when I read an editorial that claims to be supported by a source that could be easily linked and discover, upon checking, that the source cited says something different. I am amazed when the author of the editorial provides a link and is contradicted by his source.

Jackson Diehl proposed something in his column on Israel-Palestinian peace talks that simply didn't ring true:
Netanyahu wants the implementation of Palestinian statehood to be phased, even if its final terms are agreed upon in advance. Initially at least, Israeli forces would patrol Palestine's eastern border with Jordan, and perhaps some settlements on Palestinian territory would remain in place.

But it's worth noting that Abbas, following his first extended private conversation with Netanyahu in Washington, spent the subsequent days giving interviews to Arab media in which he publicly rejected each of those terms. Palestinians, he said, will never recognize Israel as a Jewish state; they will not allow Israeli forces to remain in the West Bank. In fact, if he's pressured to make any concessions, he told the al-Quds newspaper, "I'll grab my briefcase and leave."
It's easy enough to click the link, right? So what does Diehl's source actually say?
[Abbas] told the daily that he would halt negotiations if construction in West Bank Jewish settlements is resumed. He also said he has no intention of discussing recognition of Israel as a Jewish state with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"Israel can call itself what it wishes," he said.1

Egyptian foreign minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit joined in the criticism of Israel's demand for recognition as the state of the Jewish people, explaining that the issue raised concern regarding the status of Israel's Arab population, even asking whether they would remain in the country or be expelled.
So what Abbas ruled out was having Netanyahu condition a peace deal on the recognition of Israel as a Jewish State, to the potential detriment of Israel's Palestinian population. Nothing in that position retreats from the P.A.'s recognition of Israel as a state. For that matter, why is the question of how Israel defines itself vis-à-vis its ethnic and religious minorities a matter for these talks, as opposed to a matter of internal Israeli politics?

Polls do suggest that
...after reaching a permanent agreement on all issues of the conflict, [60% of Palestinians believe that] there should be recognition of Israel as the state for the Jewish people.
The issue here turns in no small part on semantics - a "Jewish state" versus "a state for the Jewish people". Given the presence of extremists like Avigdor Lieberman in the Netanyahu cabinet, though, I can understand getting hung up on semantics. Support for Israel as a state for the Jewish people is not inconsistent with an expectation that it will treat its minority populations as equal citizens, not try to find ways to diminish their rights, pressure them to emigrate, or carve their population centers out of the country, but even if you assume Netanyahu's intentions are good the words "Jewish State" implicate a long history of distrust and mistreatment of Israel's Palestinian population and amplify the rhetoric of people like Lieberman.

As for the presence of Israeli forces, it can hardly be a surprise that after four decades of occupation the Palestinians would want a peace deal to actually end the occupation. The Palestinians have for decades proposed that Israeli occupation forces be replaced by peacekeepers from another nation, even the United States. There's no indication that Abbas is suggesting that foreign forces cannot be present on Palestinian land to help ensure stability and to protect and preserve the peace - just that he wants those forces to be from nations other than Israel, as is the case in Lebanon. To the extent that Diehl believes that Palestinian public opinion favors the continued presence of Israeli troops on Palestinian land once a peace deal has been struck, I would very much appreciate his identifying the poll. I very much doubt it exists.

So contrary to Diehl's suggestion, Abbas has not ruled out recognizing Israel as a Jewish State - just that such a demand is not an appropriate part of the present negotiations. Opinion polls do suggest that Palestinians would support softer language, and there's little reason to expect that language along the lines of what is reflected in those polls cannot be negotiated as part of any peace deal that is reached.

Further, there is no reason to believe that Abbas would be opposed to the presence of peacekeeping forces in a future Palestinian state. There is no reason to believe that there is any appreciable support among Palestinians for the presence of Israeli troops, past, present or future. And if the demand from Netanyahu is "Peacekeeping forces must be Israeli or we cannot negotiate," it is not Abbas who is being unreasonable.

The biggest threat to peace talks, of course, is a resumption of construction in Israel's West Bank settlements, something Netanyahu has promised will soon occur. Diehl somehow forgot to even mention the issue.
1. This choice of words reminds me of Netanyahu and his spokespersons in relation to a Palestinian rump state:
[T]he first Israeli government to talk about a Palestinian state, to even mention the words, was the ultra right-wing Netanyahu government that came in 1996. They were asked, “Could Palestinians have a state?” Peres, who had preceded them, said, “No, never.” And Netanyahu’s spokesman said, “Yeah, the fragments of territory that we leave to them, they can call it a state if they want. Or they can call it fried chicken.”