Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Continuing Problem of Airport Security Theater

Jeffrey Goldberg chose to be frisked over going through a backscatter "strip search" machine principally as fodder for his column, but he makes valid points about this latest step in the multi-billion dollar security theater industry:
At BWI, I told the officer who directed me to the back-scatter that I preferred a pat-down. I did this in order to see how effective the manual search would be. When I made this request, a number of TSA officers, to my surprise, began laughing. I asked why. One of them -- the one who would eventually conduct my pat-down -- said that the rules were changing shortly, and that I would soon understand why the back-scatter was preferable to the manual search. I asked him if the new guidelines included a cavity search. "No way. You think Congress would allow that?"

I answered, "If you're a terrorist, you're going to hide your weapons in your anus or your vagina." He blushed when I said "vagina."

"Yes, but starting tomorrow, we're going to start searching your crotchal area" -- this is the word he used, "crotchal" -- and you're not going to like it."...

I asked him if he was looking forward to conducting the full-on pat-downs. "Nobody's going to do it," he said, "once they find out that we're going to do."

In other words, people, when faced with a choice, will inevitably choose the Dick-Measuring Device over molestation? "That's what we're hoping for. We're trying to get everyone into the machine." He called over a colleague. "Tell him what you call the back-scatter," he said. "The Dick-Measuring Device," I said. "That's the truth," the other officer responded.
Goldberg argues (in part for the reasons suggested above) that embarrassing frisks and backscatter machines aren't going to work.
By the time terrorist plotters make it to the airport, it is, generally speaking, too late to stop them. Plots must be broken up long before the plotters reach the target. If they are smart enough to make it to the airport without arrest, it is almost axiomatically true that they will be smart enough to figure out a way to bring weapons aboard a plane.
His colleague, James Fallows, is similarly skeptical of airport security theater.

Meanwhile, the latest and greatest threat to air travel isn't coming from passengers - it's coming from unscreened and poorly screened air cargo. There has been some progress and, as of a cpuole of months ago,
Asked about the cargo shipped on passenger jets, Nicholas Kimball, a spokesman for the Transportation Security Administration, drew our attention to the fact that 100 percent of the cargo loaded into the holds of passenger jets alongside luggage in the United States is now screened at some stage. In January that figure was said to be “at least 50 percent.”

But in a statement earlier this month announcing that accomplishment, the agency acknowledged that one part of the loophole had yet to be closed: cargo loaded onto jets flying passengers into the country from abroad does not have to be screened.
But let's not pretend there was no advance notice of this issue or that nobody saw this coming.

Why do we invest billions to inconvenience and embarrass travelers, the vast majority of whom could easily be ruled out as terrorist suspects by far less intrusive measures, while procrastinating on closing serious security holes? (Focus on passenger security left ‘door open’ for cargo attacks: pilots’ union.)

Demagoguery: David Broder's New Bipartisanship

Perhaps David Broder has Halloween confused with April Fool's Day? Because....
[Given the President's limited ability to affect the business cycle] What else might affect the economy? The answer is obvious, but its implications are frightening. War and peace influence the economy.

Look back at FDR and the Great Depression. What finally resolved that economic crisis? World War II.

Here is where Obama is likely to prevail. With strong Republican support in Congress for challenging Iran's ambition to become a nuclear power, he can spend much of 2011 and 2012 orchestrating a showdown with the mullahs. This will help him politically because the opposition party will be urging him on. And as tensions rise and we accelerate preparations for war, the economy will improve.

I am not suggesting, of course, that the president incite a war to get reelected. But the nation will rally around Obama because Iran is the greatest threat to the world in the young century. If he can confront this threat and contain Iran's nuclear ambitions, he will have made the world safer and may be regarded as one of the most successful presidents in history.
First, as David Broder would know if he paid even the slightest attention to the military, the issue with invading Iran has nothing to do with the need for a multi-year, trillion dollar investment in munitions. It may be necessary to restock some weapons due to present military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, but that would not take long nor would it approach a level of military spending that might stimulate the economy. The problem is the same one we faced in Iraq, but on a much larger scale: We can knock out the government, but the problem is what comes afterward. Why, after Bush's catastrophic performance in Afghanistan and the continuing desperate efforts to stabilize that nation and continuing struggle to transform Iraq into a somewhat stable, somewhat democratic nation, would Broder not recognize the primary cost and burden of the war is not kicking down the door, but comes from the occupation that follows.

If Broder imagines a trillion dollar build-up to the war, though, perhaps he's imagining a reinstitution of the draft, and the training of hundreds of thousands of troops to occupy post-war Iran. But it's difficult to imagine the nation supporting such an endeavor. Given a sufficiently rousing duet of "Bomb Iran" from the President and John McCain, the public might be willing to support a short, easy war, but it's difficult to imagine anything but popular horror at spending additional trillions on another 10+ year war and occupation in the Middle East.

It's also fair to ask, what is the threat posed to the United States by Iran? How does it compare to the danger posed by other nations? As with Iraq, it's fair to ask why we should prioritize a difficult, costly war and occupation against a nation that poses us no direct danger and, all rhetoric to the contrary duly considered, doesn't actually pose a threat to our allies, including Israel. The whole "existential threat" thing is hyperbolic nonsense.

Then, of course, there's the economic aspect. If the government is going to spend a trillion dollars, it could spend that money on infrastructure development in the United States, and should see an economic return from that investment for decades. If the issue is good public policy, isn't it better to do exactly that as opposed to wasting that money on what Broder proposes - a bluff against Iran that could actually turn into a bona fide shooting war (at the cost of additional $trillions)? Is Broder admitting by implication that his calls for bipartisanship have nothing to do with which side has the better ideas, what's better for the country, or which party's approach is better for the nation? Broder could have devoted his column to arguing for honest governance and good public policy, but instead he pushes a giant bluff based upon bad public policy because he imagines the Republicans would get on board. Some kinds of bipartisanship we can do without....

Fixing the Mortgage Mess

An opinion column in the Times is skeptical that the mortgage documentation mess can be fixed with legislation:
The banks and other players in the securitization industry now seem to be looking to Congress to snap its fingers to make the whole problem go away, preferably with a law that relieves them of liability for their bad behavior. But any such legislative fiat would bulldoze regions of state laws on real estate and trusts, not to mention the Uniform Commercial Code. A challenge on constitutional grounds would be inevitable.

Asking for Congress’s help would also require the banks to tacitly admit that they routinely broke their own contracts and made misrepresentations to investors in their Securities and Exchange Commission filings. Would Congress dare shield them from well-deserved litigation when the banks themselves use every minor customer deviation from incomprehensible contracts as an excuse to charge a fee?
It may well be inevitable that some lawyers would attempt to challenge a federal law, but is there a reason to believe that the litigation would be successful? Federal law can bulldoze state laws - it's called preemption. For the most part, even now, homeowners don't seem particularly inclined to fight the foreclosure process. Legislation would further narrow the pool of people willing to litigate, and banks could redouble their efforts to document those transactions so as to moot their cases.

Perhaps the author is speaking of the potential litigation between the various financial institutions involved - attempts to force buy-backs of mortgages or securities, fraud actions, breach of contract actions.... But the players seem to know the risks associated with that game, which is why they're presently working through their lobbyists as opposed to their law firms.
There are alternatives. One measure that both homeowners and investors in mortgage-backed securities would probably support is a process for major principal modifications for viable borrowers; that is, to forgive a portion of their debt and lower their monthly payments. This could come about through either coordinated state action or a state-federal effort.

The large banks, no doubt, would resist; they would be forced to write down the mortgage exposures they carry on their books, which some banking experts contend would force them back into the Troubled Asset Relief Program. However, allowing significant principal modifications would stem the flood of foreclosures and reduce uncertainty about the housing market and mortgage securities, giving the authorities time to devise approaches to the messy problems of clouded titles and faulty loan conveyance.
Unless the documentation is in order, how do you know you're dealing with the correct party? Or is the author's assumption that, despite the irregularities and fraud in banks' attempt to document mortgages, they banks have it right in the vast majority of cases and eventually the paperwork will catch up?

Also, which is more likely to come out of the next Congress - a law making it easier for financial institutions to overcome deficiencies in their documentation of mortgages, or another bailout of the financial industry? It may be easy to forget now that the astroturfers have redefined the movement, but the Tea Party Movement grew out of popular disgust at the first bailout.

Update: Who could have seen this coming.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Sanctity of Contracts, Revisited

Recall back in the days when we were being asked to hand out hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars as bonuses to the incompetents at AIG who helped engineer the economic disaster? How many lectures we received about "the sanctity of contracts", even from an industry notorious for avoiding its contractual obligations?

Every time I hear bankers and financial industry insiders assure us that the current mortgage mess is "no big deal" - that we should shrug off forged documents, the failure to have properly conveyed mortgages, even the inability of a party asking for foreclosure to prove it has any legal right to do so - I am reminded of those earlier assertions. Contracts are sacred when scrupulous adherence will line the pockets of financial and insurance industry insiders. When they might work to the benefit of the little guy, they're "red tape" to be ignored.

Healthcare Reform in... Year Three?

Michael Tomasky writes,
[President Obama went too far to the left by] Doing healthcare reform before the economy was improving. I've written this before. It signaled to middle-of-the-road voters that he was more interested in fulfilling some historical liberal wish list than in addressing their most immediate concern. May or may not be fair, but it's what happened. I said at a talk I gave in Charleston, WV in December 2008 that healthcare should wait until the economy was better, like year three.
Well, the economy may be limping but it has improved since Obama took office. It's neither clear that the Obama Administration could have obtained a larger stimulus package or, had it done so, that the economy would be markedly improved over its present state.

I've said this before, but I guess it bears repeating: What are the odds that even the watered down, corporate friendly healthcare reform bill that the Dems passed would have passed, had Obama waited until year three? What are the odds that it would even get out of committee in the House of Representatives?

I've made this point before, also: Politicians should spend more time governing and less time worrying about reelection (or how much money they'll be able to make as lobbyists should they lose or retire), and more time governing. Had the Dems set aside their worries about whether corporations and their lobbyists were happy with the healthcare bill, or were opposed to a climate bill, or about right-wing fear mongering over immigration reform, we would have a better healthcare reform bill, and should have significantly better energy and immigration policy. You can argue that things still might not be better for the Dems coming into this election, but it's difficult to imagine that things would be worse. And in the longer term, things could have been better for the country.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Increasingly Credible Anita Hill

Kathleen Parker shared a reproachable take on the controversy - a "Clarence Thomas may have lied - but what's the big deal?" Ruth Marcus sets her straight.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Partisanship and Political Satire

Anne Applebaum, apparently desperate to meet a deadline, has tossed out a word salad of conflicting thoughts about politics and parody. She is depressed that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are staging a giant party in Washington D.C., and is even more depressed that people are planning to attend:
I don't know about you, but my heart sank when I read about Jon Stewart's Million Moderate March, planned for the Mall next weekend. My heart sank further when I learned that liberal groups, lacking any better ideas, have decided to take this endeavor seriously. It's bad enough that the only way to drum up enthusiasm for a "Rally to Restore Sanity" is to make it into a television comedian's joke. But it's far worse that the "moderates" in attendance will have been bused in by Arianna Huffington and organized by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
No, wait a minute, Anne. When a rally starts as a "television comedian's joke" it may be possible to turn it into something more serious, but it's a bit late to profess concern that it might "turn into" the very thing it has been since its inception. As for the attention-hound Arianna Huffington busing people in, or... PETA? (That's really her best, and only, second example of people "turning" the comedy event into a comedy event?) So what?
This is how words, and then ideas, vanish from our political lexicon: Whatever connotations it once had, the word "moderate" has now come to mean "liberal" or even "left-wing" in American politics. It has been a long time since "moderate" Republicans were regarded as important, centrist assets by their party: Nowadays, they are far more likely to be regarded as closet lefties and potential traitors.
Seriously, by throwing what is pitched as a bipartisan comedic event, named to parody various marches that preceded it, Applebaum is concerned that Stewart is going to forever ruin the word "moderate", the way Reagan and his successors marginalized the term "liberal"? Is it that she imagines a world in which the only political descriptor remaining in use is "conservative"? She believes that the Republican Party's marginalization of its "moderates" - something that long preceded the planned comedic event, is the consequence of the event? Has it even occurred to her that Stewart's use of the term "moderates" is a reaction to the marginalization of moderates that she so deplores? The moderates "taking back America"? The joke seems pretty obvious to me.
"Moderate" Democrats, meanwhile, no longer exist: In their place, we have "conservative Democrats." Nobody pays attention to them either -- unless, suddenly, one of them threatens to vote against health-care reform. And then he is vilified.
More stuff and nonsense. There are plenty of moderate Democrats. In fact the majority of Democrats are moderate Democrats. (Does Applebaum believe Russ Feingold is the norm?) A great many "conservative Democrats" are aptly named, because they were fielded as part of an effort to bring into the party seats that were traditionally Republican, and the people holding those seats hold many or most of the political views associated with the Republican Party.

It's similar to the long-extinct species, the Southern Democrat. "Blue dogs" are an endangered species not because the party hasn't been accommodating, but because the present sentiment of the moderate Republicans who voted them into office is to vote for (drum roll, please) Republican candidates. We speak of "conservative Democrats" as "conservative Democrats because (as surprising as this may be) they're considerably more conservative than the centrists. That's what happens when you massively expand your party - you bring in people who lean toward the other end of the political spectrum.

As for the "vilification" of "conservative Democrats" who "threaten[] to vote against health-care reform", who did she have in mind? Ben Nelson and Mary Landrieu, who wanted to extort huge financial concessions to their states? Bart Stupak, whose concerns had nothing to do with the bill itself and everything to do with limiting women's access to abortion. Joe Lieberman, who after endorsing the expansion of Medicare suddenly changed his mind and threatened to withdraw support if a Medicare expansion were included in the final bill? Seriously, if you want vilification, look at the real and implied threats directed at Republicans who suggested that they might be convinced to sign on to a reform bill.
There is no lack of interesting people in the political center. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg -- one of the few popular incumbents in the country -- has not only declared himself a centrist but has also launched a campaign of support for other centrists. He flies around the country endorsing both Democrats and Republicans who he thinks show the ability to compromise and have the courage to depart from party orthodoxy on issues such as gun control (he is in favor) or more stringent financial regulation (he is against).
Okay, so we have lots of interesting people in the political center, such as Michael Bloomberg and... and... anybody? Bloomberg being a billionaire Democrat who changed party affiliations to run for Mayor of New York and demonstrates "centrism" by opposing financial industry reform and advocating for gun control laws? Sorry, but picking two issues, one of which is more associated with the political right (financial industry deregulation) and the other of which as been all-but-abandoned by the Democratic party even if popular with some on the fringe (gun control) does not demonstrate "centrism" - but it does reflect what you might expect from a Mayor of New York City who, even overlooking his personal ties to the financial industry, is looking out for the future of his city.
He nearly lost me when he inexplicably endorsed Harry Reid, but never mind.
Wait, why "never mind"? Harry Reid is a Nevada politician who has close ties to the financial industry, who has gone to the wall for the state's hotel and casino industry. Did Bloomberg "almost lose" Applebaum because Reid's support of "gun control" appears to be pretty much limited to wanting background checks for firearms sales at gun shows? Seriously, Anne, tell us what your gripe is.
Others are trying, usually behind the scenes, to find solutions to problems that divide liberals and conservatives bitterly.
For her example of this, Applebaum doesn't draw examples from the center, but speaks of people who hold strong political views coming together under the auspices of their "think tanks" to create joint reports. As with Bloomberg, her evidence for this "trend" is a single example, the joint production of "a report called 'Post-Partisan Power'",
which calls for the removal of wasteful subsidies and advocates investments designed to make "new clean energy sources" commercially viable. Just as important, though, is the point this group made by working together. In their introduction, they note that bipartisanship has helped create economic growth. And not only the distant past: Welfare reform was passed thanks to both Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich.
Ah yes, the good old "bipartisan days" when Newt Gingrich stewed over having to use the back entrance to Air Force One, shut down government and whined that Clinton's welfare reform proposals represented his stealing Republican ideas. Ah, the bipartisan harmony....

As I see it, to be meaningful bipartisanship has to tackle a large, difficult issue. Welfare reform represents an easy issue because, for the most part, Americans don't care for welfare programs, are easily led to believe that they're too generous, and will support cuts even when times are good. Clinton defused an issue that the Republican Party had been pushing hard for years (think Ronald Reagan and his Cadillac-driving "Welfare Queen") at no real risk to his own electoral future. That's Applebaum's vision of bipartisanship at its best? It seems more like "politics as usual."
Bipartisanship is, of course, the source of plenty of disastrous ideas itself. Sometimes it produces worst-of-all-possible-worlds types of legislation, like those energy bills that subsidize gas, oil, wind, nuclear, coal, biofuels, hydrogen and anything else that might keep a swing state happy.
Are we truly reducing the concept of "bipartisanship" to its most basic definition - anything that is supported by at least one member of the opposition party is "bipartisan"? I had thought Applebaum was trying to advance a more sophisticated notion of "bipartisanship", involving the two parties working together to solve difficult problems. Passing around enough money to gather enough votes on both sides of the aisle to pass a bill may, in a nominal sense, represent "bipartisanship", but it really seems that we're again talking about "politics as usual".
Sometimes it produces agreements that are so centrist that one or the other party eventually rejects them. That's what happened to the McCain-Kennedy immigration reform, a bill I'm sure John McCain wishes he'd never laid eyes on.
Bipartisanship can produce legislation so centrist that it becomes unacceptable to one of the sides that negotiated the bill? Does that even make sense? As Applebaum has to know, the problem with the bill that she identified is not that it is "too centrist", whatever that would mean. It's that it made any concessions at all - that was too much for the Republican base to swallow, particularly in this era of anti-immigrant rhetoric and popular fear (fanned and exploited by Republican politicians and pundits) resulting from a severe recession and ongoing economic malaise.

Applebaum lectures that without "cross-party compromise... our system doesn't work." She purports,
That's what "checks and balances" means. In American politics, if you don't want to cooperate with your political opponents -- if you prefer to scorn them, shun them or call them names -- that means that you don't, in fact, want to get anything done. Moderates often achieve less than they could. But extremists achieve nothing at all.
First, no, that's not what "checks and balances" means. "Checks and balances" refers to separation of powers - the division of government into three co-equal branches, structured in such a way to keep any one branch from becoming too powerful. The House and Senate can be viewed as institutions within Congress that serve to check and balance each other, but nothing in the concept of "checks and balances" requires that there even be political parties, much less that they cooperate.

Second, although it may be true that extremism is rarely a short-term approach to legislative victory, over the longer term ideas that started out as unambiguously "extreme" have become accepted by a majority and incorporated into our system of laws and jurisprudence. Abolish slavery? Grant women the right to vote? Prohibit alcohol? Forbid state-sponsored racial discrimination? Gender discrimination? Decriminalize homosexuality? Mainstream those with physical and developmental disorders? Permit the organization of labor? It's easy to look at today's society and see "nothing extreme", but you don't have to go back very far to find strong and often violent resistance to what we now take for granted.

And no, there was never an era in which the political parties held hands and sang songs of unity. Dirty politics, name-calling, and everything else Applebaum deplores existed before our nation was founded, and is often more obvious in parliamentary systems where you are more likely encounter opposition heckling on the floor of parliament. Does Applebaum believe more has been accomplished when politicians have been outwardly meek, focused on calming their supporters, emphasized the importance of working with the opposition, and pressed for compromise on everything? (I thought she didn't like Harry Reid.)

This, Applebaum lectures us "is why this Jon Stewart rally is such a gloomy development" - I mean the very idea that people might get together in a public square and engage in a lighthearted celebration of their centrism. What could be more destructive to Applebaum's brand of centrism - the approach to politics in which there are no absolutes, no lines that can't be crossed, and in which the best measure of legislation is not its quality but whether it earned "Ayes" from both sides of the aisle?

One of the many things Applebaum misses, and she seems to be trying to break a record for "most whiffs in a single column", is that to the extent that there are people who fit her narrowly constrained concept of "centrist" - people who scorn strong political ideology, will compromise on everything, and will celebrate that compromise above all else... Applebaum, Broder, and... I'm sure there's a third somewhere... they don't organize. Nobody organizes them - what's the point of holding rally for people who don't have an ideology? And they don't organize themselves because they have no issues around which they might coalesce. Yes, as right-wing critics of the Stewart/Colbert rallies point out, the primary appeal of these rallies is likely to be to politically active people whose politics are from the center (not Applebaum's bland center - one that is comprised of people whose political beliefs don't fit neatly under a party's tent and who, for example, may lean toward the Republicans on business issues but toward the Dems on social issues) and left-of-center - but so what? How, in Applebaum's sea of non sequiturs, does that become "blackly humorous" verging on "tragic"? And for somebody so devoted to "centrism", why is Applebaum's concern limited to entertainment-oriented rallies that are nominally centrist, when she doesn't appear to care about the rabid rallies led by demagogues like Glenn Beck?

Were Applebaum a more thoughtful person she might recognize that this nation does face serious issues, that there are serious ideological differences in how those issues might be approached, and that partisanship is not a bad word. What is in many ways a bad word is "bipartisanship" as used in the manner of David Broder, in which the term is reduced to "politicians setting aside their differences and agreeing with my agenda." Applebaum's notion of solutions to problems as being "too centrist" only serves to highlight the sloppiness of her thinking - again, it is the partisans who keep such legislation from passing, not the centrists. And "centrist" solutions to non-pressing, non-controversial issues does not illustrate how "centrism" is effective - it highlights how much easier it is to address the little things that don't excite the voters than it is to address the big, difficult issues that raise hackles on both sides of the aisle.

Throwing Money at Internet Freedom

Jackson Diehl is concerned that, although money has been earmarked for use to subsidize sites that allow the residents of foreign nations to avoid state censorship, both the Bush and Obama Administrations have been slow to spend it. I can think of three reasons why that would be the case:
  1. Just because I claim to have a good system for helping people avoid state censorship doesn't mean I'm necessarily a good target for $millions in taxpayer dollars. A company offered those $millions is likely to take the money, sure, but it may not use the money wisely - or its backers may pocket the money and run.

  2. Just because a system is up and running doesn't mean that it's actually secure. Funding the wrong program could helptyrannical regimes identify dissidents.

  3. The U.S. Government is concerned that it would be subsidizing tools used by criminals and terrorists to operate in ways that avoid detection and impede tracing by U.S. authorities.

My, How The World of Politics Has Changed

While conceding that there has never been "a golden age when Americans basked in bipartisan harmony", Robert Samuelson is convinced that things are different now than in the good old days:
First, politicians depend increasingly on their activist "bases" for votes, money and job security (read: no primary challenger).
As opposed to "the good old days" when politicians obtained their money and votes from people who opposed their platforms and supported their rivals? It might be possible to interpret Samuelson's statement as suggesting that in "the good old days" politicians didn't face primary challenges from their "base" if they catered to other interest groups. But he continues,
But activist agendas are well to the left or right of center. So when politicians pander to their bases, they often offend the center. In one poll, 70 percent of registered voters said Republicans' positions were too conservative at least some of the time; 76 percent likewise thought Democratic positions often "too liberal."
Which recent primary challenges does Samuelson believe came about because politicians pandered to their bases and offended the center? When in U.S. political history has a candidate been free from concern about a primary challenge when he spurned his base?
Second, politics has become more moralistic from both left and right. Idealistic ideologues campaign to "save the planet," "protect the unborn," "reclaim the Constitution." When goals become moral imperatives, there's no room for compromise. Opponents are not just mistaken; they're immoral. They're cast as evil, ignorant, dangerous, or all three.
Seriously... we have more ideological partisanship than we did during the period of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798? The Civil War era? Reconstruction? The Civil Rights era? The Red Scare and McCarthyism? The post-Watergate era? The Clinton impeachment?

Also, I recognize that Samuelson has thrown in "Save the Planet" to implicate the political left in his concern about "idealistic ideologues", but where can I find a Democratic candidate who is using that or something similar as a campaign slogan? I'll grant him that there are candidates who speak of "protecting the unborn" and some who speak along the lines of "reclaiming the Constitution", but the abortion issue appears to be on the back burner, and the concept of reclaiming the Constitution isn't necessarily a bad thing or presented as a "moral imperative". While some of the arguments offered are overstated or premised in a misapprehension of the Constitution, politicians should want our government to follow its foundational document. Also, some of the huge issues our nation has had to confront, including slavery, civil rights, and prohibition and its repeal, have involved no small amount of self-righteous moralizing.

I suspect that what Samuelson is really concerned about is not so much that we're working with moral imperatives - some issues are genuine moral imperatives - but that he senses that we're obsessing over trivialities and lending those trivial issues import far beyond what they deserve. (This may be more credit than Samuelson deserves, given that to the extent that the concerns are premised on fact and science there are few issues more important than "saving the planet", but again I think Samuelson was pulling that one out, and implying overstatement of threats, to avoid making it look like he was criticizing the political right.) That's not so much "something new" as it is a consequence of living a comfortable, affluent lifestyle - obsessing over trivial issues is a luxury we've been unable to afford throughout most of our nation's history. You can see how quickly priorities change when scary things happen - wars, economic recessions, etc. - it's no big surprise that trade and immigration are presently hot topics, as they were during the recession of the early 1980's.
Third, cable television and the Internet impose entertainment values on politics. Constant chatter reigns. Conflict and shock language prevail; analysis is boring.
This is, in some ways, a difference. Yes, there are many new channels through which people can gain information about the issues of the day. Yes, on television and on the radio there's an incredible amount of mindless chatter, and a lot of what passes for analysis is at best shallow and at worst a cacaphony of talking heads trying to see who can yell the loudest. But I'm not sure that's worse than a more "genteel" era during which a single newspaper owner could control much or all of the news accessible to the average person, skewing political coverage, analysis and endorsements in accord with his own political views.
Finally, politicians overpromise. The federal budget has run deficits in all but five years since 1961. The main reason: Both Democrats and Republicans want to raise spending and cut taxes. To obscure their own expediency, both parties blame the other.
Wait a minute - parties are pandering to their bases and polarizing the nation while simultaneously engaging in bipartisan compromise on budget and tax issues? Samuelson tells us that "The center feels frustrated that the bases' disproportionate power impedes action on long-standing problems (budgets, immigration, energy)" - so the bases of both the Republican and Democratic parties want lower taxes and higher deficits, while the poor, long-suffering "center" yearns for balanced budgets? I'm sorry, but there's something wrong with that picture.

Samuelson also argues that "Liberal and conservative bases feel abused because their agendas are rarely entirely enacted." The more accurate word would be "never" and that, also, is nothing new. So I guess the argument is that politicians pander to their bases in order to avoid primary challenges by failing to keep their promises to their bases, and simultaneously alienate "the center" which has no greater concern than a balanced budget, but somehow they keep getting voted back into office.... Peculiar, indeed.

Monday, October 25, 2010

So Sayeth the Winklevii

Skip this post if you haven't yet seen The Social Network.

The Social Network, with a rather unsympathetic depiction of Mark Zuckerberg, helps carry itself by presenting a series of characters who are even less sympethetic. In the early part of the film that role was filled by Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss. In the later part of the film, by Sean Parker. Which isn't to say there aren't elements of humanity to those characters, or by the same token somebody whose arrogant disdain helps humanize the Winklevoss brothers (enter Larry Summers), but the elements of caricature and exaggeration (along with Jesse Eisenberg's impressive portrayal of 'Zuckerberg') help carry the film forward.

The film doesn't quite answer the question of why Zuckerberg played the Winklevoss brothers for suckers. One interpretation is that they treated him with arrogant disdain, as somebody who was capable of scripting their vision of a social website but not worthy of getting past the bike room of their social club. The other is more mercenary: that Zuckerberg didn't believe in the brothers or their vision of a social network, but he recognized the importance of primacy. He strung them along because had he done otherwise they might have sought out a different programmer and become the first to market. One way or another, it was Zuckerberg's failure to simply tell them, "No, I'm not going to work with you," (along with, if accurately depicted, his behavior during depositions) that breathed life into a lawsuit that would otherwise have had no legs.

David Brooks recently lectured us that the Harvard that is depicted in the movie doesn't actually exist. That there is no longer an elite Harvard with "the old WASP Harvard of Mayflower families, regatta blazers and Anglo-Saxon cheekbones" squared off against "the largely Jewish and Asian Harvard of brilliant but geeky young strivers". The Winklevoss brothers, celluloid personifications of the "old WASP Harvard" who were depicted in the film as wearing regatta blazers at the time of their decision to sue Zuckerberg, appear to disagree:
The 29-year-old identical twins, who are suing the Internet site on claims they came up with the idea for Facebook while students at Harvard University, said on Saturday they were pleased with the way they were portrayed in the Hollywood film.

“It does a great job of capturing the factual events of the 18 months of the founding of Facebook. It is a true story,” Cameron said in an interview.
Whatever reticence the brothers once had about suing has apparently evaporated, as "the twins have taken up legal action again, saying they were given misinformation about Facebook’s value and that relevant documents were withheld." A few 'Zuckerberg' quotes, then, from the "true story":
If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you'd have invented Facebook.
The "Winklevii" aren't suing me for intellectual property theft. They're suing me because for the first time in their lives, things didn't go exactly the way they were supposed to for them.
A guy who makes a nice chair doesn't owe money to everyone who has ever built a chair.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Broder's Bizarre Budgetary Bipartisanship

David Broder, commenting on the U.K. government's emphasis on balancing its budget, shares this gem:
Britain's budget deficit, now 11.4 percent of the size of its overall economy, is not that much larger than the United States' -- 8.9 percent -- but the debate has been similar in both countries.
Seriously, Broder believes that there's no significant difference between a budget deficit that's 11.4% of GDP and one that's 8.9% of GDP? In terms of the U.S. economy that difference translates into almost $170 billion dollars. Pocket change?

It is also important to look at the current U.S. budget deficit in the context of the recession. As Paul Krugman has pointed out, the issue is not so much that government spending is rising beyond the norm, but that government revenues have plummeted. That has exaggerated the size of the deficit, but in a much less alarming manner than if tax revenues had been sustained:
Government spending has continued to rise more or less on its pre-crisis trend. Revenue has plunged, because the economy is deeply depressed.
Broder would apparently have us believe that he has no appreciable understanding of the difference in the social safety net between the U.K. and the U.S., that he has no understanding of the nature and extent of the economic crisis in the U.K. and how dependent the U.K. had become on its bloated financial sector, and that he has no understanding of the difference between the U.K.'s parliamentary system of government and our own system. I suspect that he has more knowledge than his arguments suggest.
My British friends tell me that it is only because of the two-party coalition that Cameron can take these risks. If he were dependent only on a minority Conservative Party, the risk of a public meltdown -- similar to what is happening in France -- would be too great.
It works like this: If you have a parliamentary majority you can pass your legislation on a majority vote. If you do not, certain key votes such as a budget can trigger a "no confidence" vote initiated by the opposition parties, and if you lose that vote your government falls. Thus a minority government is weak, and must work with opposition parties to avoid losing no confidence votes. The parties prefer majority governments, where they can often ignore the opposition parties' complaints and demands. But a strong coalition can put them into a similar position. As long as the coalition holds, the government cannot fall to a no confidence vote.

Broder is thus correct that the coalition government between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats allows P.M. David Cameron to push legislation and budget cuts that would be "risky" were he leading a minority government. But he ignores the fact that this is far from Cameron's ideal. What he would much prefer is to have a majority government, not a coalition government, and thereby to be able to do what he wants without cutting deals with or making concessions to the Liberal Democrats.

To the extent that we would look for a "similar breakthrough" in the U.S. system, it would not be the two parties joining hands and acting as a massive coalition. It would be... politicians "crossing the aisle" or the Independents in the Senate choosing to caucus with the Democrats such that they obtain or maintain a majority. Funny, Broder doesn't recognize that as a "similar breakthrough". Another thing that would bring us closer to the parliamentary system Broder seems to idealize would be the elimination of the filibuster.

So what does Broder pretend would be similar to a parliamentary coalition government? Um... no surprise.
If Republicans emerge next month with sufficient leverage in the House and Senate to approach Obama with a proposition, they could insist that he "do a Cameron" when it comes to federal spending: a radical rollback now in the welfare state in return for a two-year truce on such policy questions as repeal of the health-care law.
Did you catch that? If the Republicans win the House and gain votes in the Senate, Broder wants the President to accept from them the promise that they won't do something that they cannot do - pass a repeal of health care reform that would fail in the Senate or, if by some miracle it did not, be vetoed - in return for having the Democrats agree to "a radical rollback... in the welfare state", meaning "slash Medicare and Social Security". It's not entirely clear to me how you would simultaneously preserve healthcare reform while slashing Medicare, but I don't think Broder's primary concern here is consistency.

Even better, there's good reason to believe that the talk of repealing healthcare reform is nothing more than that - talk. The Republicans won't want to repeal the popular elements of the reform bill, but they're tied inexorably to the components that are unpopular.

You want to kill the individual mandate? Then you have to return to having people denied health insurance over their pre-existing conditions. You want to defund Medicaid expansion? You'll not only remove coverage from millions of working class Americans, you'll put a serious financial burden on the states, "red states" included. You want to reverse the Medicare cuts? Not only will you make David Broder cry (what good is bipartisanship, after all, if you increase Medicare spending) but you'll deprive other reforms of necessary funding. You want to restore the Medicare prescription benefit "donut hole"? It might make Broder happy but it will cost you at the polls. You want to repeal the entire bill despite the sacrifice of reforms that are at least in part necessary, popular or both? You'll increase the projected budget deficit.

So not only is Broder asking for massive concessions from the Democrats based upon their promise not to do something that they cannot do, the hollowness of the proposed gesture runs much deeper. And all the Democrats have to give up in return for the usual nothing are the party's biggest achievements over the past century. What a deal.

At the same time there's no reason to doubt that the Republicans could join with the Democrats to effect some tweaks and modifications of Social Security to improve its long-term fiscal health. Broder has been around more than long enough to know that's happened in the past - tweak the tax rate, tweak the age of eligibility, and voila. So really, if the idea is to balance the budget and preserve the long-term viability of Social Security, it's a no-brainer.

Medicare is much more complicated, and as previously alluded the reform bill includes provisions that are meant to help make Medicare more cost-effective, reduce waste and improve care. Yes, it's possible and necessary to continue in that direction, but do you have any sense that the Republican Party is going to emerge from this election and tell the "Keep Your Government Hands Off My Medicare" faction, ginned up by Republican lies about "death panels", that they're cutting Medicare? Seriously - which party was responsible for the last massive, unfunded expansion of Medicare? Surely Broder knows.

Broder is probably right, that freed of the obligation to take responsibility for the cuts - "It's what the President asked of us" - the Republicans might go along with slashing Medicare. But there would not be even the slightest hint of "bipartisanship" involved. It would be a colossally stupid, self-desctructive act by the Democrats. This is one of the reasons we're trying to balance the budget with "commissions" instead of legislation - neither party wants to be responsible for Medicare cuts and, Broder's wishes having been duly noted, as they cannot find a way to vote for significant cuts without serious ramifications at the polls, they're looking for an approach that let's them pretend that "no one is to blame" - that the cuts sort of, somehow happened on their own.

What about the items on the President's agenda that he couldn't get past Republican filibusters and self-serving Blue Dogs and a certain independent? A carbon tax? Immigration reform? Why doesn't Broder imagine President Obama requesting Republican cooperation on those issues, where their support would make a genuine and necessary difference, as opposed to having them provide a meaningless concession? (Yes, that's a rhetorical question. Here's another: Would Broder be on board with a plan that rolled the programs included in his conception of the U.S. welfare state "back" to the level that will exist in the U.K. after the current round of reforms?)

Update: More on the British budget cuts:
In a bid to streamline its armed forces and help reduce its daunting levels of national debt, the British government on Tuesday announced plans to cut its military personnel by 10 percent, scrap 40 percent of the army’s artillery and tanks, withdraw all of its troops from Germany within 10 years, and cut 25,000 civilian jobs in its Defense Ministry.
Can we expect Broder to push for similar budget cuts here, or doesn't that fit his notions of "bipartisanship"?

Friday, October 22, 2010

Thomas Friedman's No-Win Approach to Israel-Palestine

It's not just the Israelis and Palestinians who can't win by listening to Thomas Friedman, the response to his pontifications seems to be that advocates on both sides - those who cheer and jeer from the sidelines - are scornful. Before 9/11, Friedman was frequently criticized by anti-peace zealots because he was pretty consistent in suggesting that both sides in the Israel-Palestine conflict played a role in its perpetuation. It was never enough that his sympathies were unambiguously with Israel, or that his principal motive in arguing for the two state solution that "everybody knows" is the inevitable outcome of the conflict was that it would be in Israel's best interest. If I recall correctly, he even made the villains list on the reproachable "Masada 2000" website.

Following 9/11 Friedman appeared happy to take a break from advocating for a negotiated end to the conflict, perhaps as a part of an embrace of "suck on this", "impose democracy at gunpoint" approach to Middle Eastern politics. But after a decade of seeing how well that has turned out, Friedman has increasingly returned his focus to the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Within that context, Friedman frequently makes observations that are astonishingly naive, divorced from reality. It is difficult to imagine how somebody with even a passing knowledge of the region and conflict would make a statement like,
The trust deficit is exacerbated by the fact that after Israel quit the Gaza Strip in 2005, Palestinians, instead of building Singapore there, built Somalia and focused not on how to make microchips, but on how to make rockets to hit Israel.
The statement is foolish on a number of levels. First, Israel did not "quit" Gaza, but continued to impose a full blockade on its borders and ports, control its airspace, control travel in and out, block trade, and limit its access to its own tax revenues, as well as much of its power and already-inadequate water supply. Beyond that, even in the best of times it would be absurdly difficult to turn one of the most densely populated, poor, uneducated territories in the world into a "Singapore". It's not even remotely possible in a territory that has had its infrastructure repeatedly bombed into oblivion and is blocked from even obtaining the materials necessary to effect repairs, even if we pretend that outside investors would pour billions into a territory that could again be militarily razed at any time. There's the practical reality that even if it were possible to create a Singapore out of abject poverty in the space of a few years, the world seems to have all of the Singapores it needs - for example, why isn't New Dehli a "Singapore"? Why isn't Detroit? Why isn't Tel Aviv? (And how's Dubai doing these days?) I suspect, though, that in making this type of statement Friedman has no intention of addressing the realities, but simply wants to send his readers the message that "Any misery suffered by the Palestinians is their own fault." (But it earns him no love from those who most strongly endorse that sentiment.)

In his most recent effort to present a (not-so-balanced) "balanced take", Friedman opens by invoking one of my pet peeves - treating Israel as a child. His attitude is far from new - he's long argued the U.S. must intervene and do... something to make the parties reach a peace deal. But he's much more explicit this time around:
And here’s another stubborn fact: Israel today really is behaving like a spoiled child.
Needless to say, that comment has raised the hackles of any number of pro-Israel partisans. But if you believe as I do, that Israel is not a child and is fully capable of taking ownership of its own interests and future, it moves the conflict away from that reality and back into Friedman's narrative of "only the United States can fix this". Worse, at a time when the Obama Administration is working very hard to convince the Palestinians that it is approaching peace negotiations in good faith, Friedman is implicitly depicting the U.S. as Israel's doting parent, unable to ever say "no". Even if you believe that to be true, there are less inflammatory ways to raise the question of partisanship. Moreover, as appears to be the case with Thomas Friedman, if you want the United States to continue to favor Israel it's a poor way to characterize the relationship.
First — I know this is a crazy, radical idea — when America asks Israel to do something that in no way touches on its vital security but would actually enhance it, there is only one right answer: “Yes.” It is a measure of how spoiled Israel has become that after billions and billions of dollars in U.S. aid and 300,000 settlers already ensconced in the West Bank, Israel feels no compunction about spurning an American request for a longer settlement freeze — the only purpose of which is to help the United States help Israel reach a secure peace with the Palestinians.
Sure, a parent who supported a child generously through high school, paid his tuition, room and board for college, bought him a car, and gives him a generous allowance should be able to say, "You're a grown-up now, please move out of our basement." But if that's how Friedman perceives the existing dynamic, he should already know that telling a "spoiled child" in that position how much he "owes" his parents will do nothing to resolve the situation. Perhaps Friedman should have found a bit of space in his column to lecture Congress for its refusal to even consider limiting "Junior's" allowance.

But again, I think Friedman is missing the boat. The periodic peace negotiations that occur between the sides suggest that a peace deal could be reached, and that its foundation could be reached quickly. It appears that Netanyahu agreed to a settlement freeze with the goal not of working toward peace, but of getting to engage in unrestricted expansion in every single Israeli settlement. You don't have to spend much time struggling over the details of Netanyahu's biography to recognize that he has no appreciable interest in achieving a peace deal. The biggest difference between the leaders who have been willing to work for peace and those who have not has been their party affiliation.

Friedman offers an unhelpful comment about Mahmoud Abbas, a man generally credited with making incredible strides toward establishing a peace-oriented, functional government for the West Bank,
Second, I have no idea whether the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, has the will and the guts to make peace with Israel.
Dare I ask, who cares what Friedman thinks? If Abbas signs onto a peace deal and is unable to deliver, the region will deal with that unfortunate outcome. But really, how many international conflicts are resolved due to the deep, abiding trust between the leaders who broker the peace deal?

Friedman then turns to something pretty close to fiction:
In fact, when you go back and look at what Ehud Olmert, Netanyahu’s predecessor, offered Abbas — a real two-state compromise, including a deal on Jerusalem — and you think that Abbas spurned that offer, and you think that Netanyahu already gave Abbas a 10-month settlement freeze and Abbas only entered serious talks in the ninth month, you have to wonder how committed he is.
As Friedman should know, the settlement freeze offered by Netanyahu was pretty much in name only, as construction projects that had already been approved were permitted to continue, and there was a mad rush to approve new projects before the "freeze" took effect. Second, the largest impediment to the commencement of negotiations was Netanyahu's refusal to agree to some of the terms previously offered by Olmert. It doesn't seem particularly bizarre to me that a Palestinian leader would opt not to restart talks from scratch each time negotiations end, and it seems to me to be a reasonable test of Netanyahu's sincerity to ask that he agree to terms that are essential to any negotiated outcome.

But stepping back a bit further, it probably came as a surprise to Friedman's readers that Olmert offered Abbas a wonderful deal, guaranteed to pass in the Knesset, and couldn't even get a return phone call. Particularly if you read Ha'aretz, in which you'll find a different story. The initial offer was rejected - no ambiguity there. Further negotiations occurred and showed promise, with Abbas stating, "I negotiated with [Olmert] and felt we could have reached an agreement", but "the start of Israel's offensive in Gaza effectively ended negotiations".

It may be true that Abbas didn't pick up the phone, call Olmert and say, "I recognize that you're engaging in war on Gaza, that your government is likely to fall due to corruption scandals, and there's no way under these circumstances you can get a peace deal through the Knesset, but do you want to try to reach a final agreement anyway?" By the same token, Olmert didn't phone Abbas and ask, "You haven't talked to me about the peace deal since I started military actions against Gaza, what's up with that?" To some degree both men benefited from failing to pick up the phone - they can put onus for the failure of talks on the other, on circumstances, or both. But it's not unreasonable to believe that the unspoken assumptions that led both sides to end negotiations would have prevented the negotiations from amounting to anything.

But this brings us back to a fundamental requirement for effective negotiations: A final deal, or something approaching a final deal, on settlements and borders. I believe that is what President Obama wants to achieve in the next round of talks, and it's in no way unreasonable to believe that an agreement could be reached. Once reached, the issue of a settlement freeze would become moot - Israel would have agreed to phase out settlements on the Palestinian side of the agreed border, but would be free to expand those settlements that both sides agreed would remain part of the Israeli state.

Seriously, although official maps aren't available, we have a history of unofficial maps we can look at - and those maps have been around for a long time without serious challenge. We have the offer made by Ehud Barak toward the end of the Clinton Administration, and the much better offer he reportedly made during subsequent negotiations at Taba, aborted due to Ariel Sharon's election to office. Compare the Taba map to the offer reportedly made by Olmert a couple of years ago. The differences are pretty modest. The tendril-like intrusions of Israeli territory into the West Bank, and the odd pockets to be transferred to Gaza as part of a land swap, cast a significant shadow over the claim that Olmert had serious security concerns; but then the notion of a Palestinian state as an existential threat to Israel is absurd on its face.

If we are to assume that the weak Ehud Olmert could have convinced the Knesset to approve his plan, why can't we similarly assume that Binyamin Netanyahu could agree to a similar plan and obtain Knesset approval? If he cannot, there's not much point to engaging in peace talks until there's a change of government. If he can, his refusal to agree to a short-term settlement freeze would appear to be out of fear of that outcome. It must have occurred to Thomas Friedman that Ariel Sharon could have picked up negotiations where they ended in Taba. It must have occurred to him that, with a minimum of intrusion from Washington, Olmert was doing pretty well negotiating a solution and, like Sharon, Netanyahu could easily have resumed negotiations after taking office. But he has yet to ask, "Why didn't they resume peace talks?" Doesn't he believe that the answer to that question is important, and might shed some light on the perpetuation of this conflict?

Update: Roger Cohen shares some observations about the peace process that largely ring true. He's cynical about its chances but, given that Netanyahu won't agree to a settlement freeze despite overwhelming concessions from the U.S., perhaps he's right to be cynical. I think he overstates the case against success, and the amount of courage involved in agreeing to a peace deal - that is, if we're going to define "courage" as something more than "running a chance of losing the next election". I don't think Abbas would be in danger if the essence of the Olmert proposal were preserved, and I suspect that Netanyahu's security detail is significantly more diligent and much more attuned to domestic dangers than that of Yitzhak Rabin.

You Can Have Your Spending Cuts and Eat Them Too

Following the recent election in the U.K., the governing coalition has set about trying to address the U.K.'s structural deficit. In association with that, they've proposed massive cuts in government spending and massive reductions in the government payroll. Cynics suggest that the government is grabbing onto the current economic crisis as an excuse to continue the policies of the Thatcher Administration and to undermine public programs that the Conservative Party has long hoped to scale back or privatize. But you don't have to be cynical to recognize that a structural deficit is not a good thing - even when granting that a government's budget deficits are not the same thing as a household's spending more money than it earns, year after year, a government should strive for a budget that can be balanced.

The fact that the government is able to create a relatively short-term, albeit painful, path out of its "structural" deficits suggests that the problem is not as "structural" as they would have the public believe. Fundamentally, the issue is whether it would be better public policy on the whole to raise taxes or to cut spending, and to recognize that the two aren't mutually exclusive. By claiming a structural problem and a necessity of action, the ruling coalition avoids having to engage in debate over public policy.

But there's another question, specifically whether the timing is right for budget austerity. Paul Krugman argues that it's not:
There have been widespread claims that deficit-cutting actually reduces unemployment because it reassures consumers and businesses; but multiple studies of historical record, including one by the International Monetary Fund, have shown that this claim has no basis in reality.

No widespread fad ever passes, however, without leaving some fashion victims in its wake. In this case, the victims are the people of Britain, who have the misfortune to be ruled by a government that took office at the height of the austerity fad and won’t admit that it was wrong.
If the cynics are correct, the government won't admit that it was wrong because they're exploiting the crisis as a reason to implement unpopular policies, perhaps while silently accepting that the cuts could make things worse. But at the same time, as Krugman acknowledges, "there’s no question that Britain will eventually need to balance its books with spending cuts and tax increases."

So here's the thing: It is possible to debate public policy and engage in long-term planning, even when the economy is weak. It is possible to start to implement a restructuring or budget cutting process in certain areas of the economy, even when the economy is weak. And it's possible to do all of that while continuing a deficit and engaging in stimulus spending out of recognition that it could help the nation emerge from its economic difficulties. If you do all three, the public will understand your budget cuts and priorities, you should eliminate some inefficiencies and make it easier to balance the budget when the crisis passes, but you can still use government spending to help stimulate the economy.

As Krugman notes, the actual economic picture in the U.K. along with the government's rhetoric lends considerable support to the views of the cynics. If that interpretation is correct, I doubt that the government will embrace a program of spending that suggests that the U.K. can continue to afford significant short-term deficits, even if that's what's best for the country, because then they would have to engage in a public policy debate about the budget items they're cutting, explain their priorities, and explain why cuts can't be smaller or can't be deferred. But a responsible government can simultaneously tackle a structural deficit and make cuts in a variety of public spending programs while running larger-than-usual deficits and engaging in stimulus spending.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Giving Michelle Rhee Credit Where It's Due (And Only Where It's Due)

I've been thinking about some of the post-mortems on Michelle Rhee's tenure at the D.C. Schools, now that she has decided to quit instead of trying to find a way to work with the incoming mayor. At Tapped, Monica Potts wonders if Michelle Rhee's abrasive style would have been tolerated had she been a man. I don't think the problem was her abrasiveness; I think the problem was that she had a tin ear for politics and didn't know when to soften her approach or bite her tongue. Given that Mayor Adrian Fenty, not Rhee, was the one voted out of office, and that he shared some of the same problematic personality traits, I don't think it's a gender thing. Politicians can have their tempers and their abrasive moments, but they must nonetheless smile for the cameras and kiss the (figurative) babies.

Potts endorses the view that was Rhee's disdain of collaborating with teachers and getting the community on board with school reforms that helped contribute to her abrasive reputation. But on the merits, Rhee's probably right. There's something odd about the idea that parents who aren't trained in education should have equal input in how their children's schools are run. And that's where the divide between Rhee and everyone else really lies. Rhee viewed her job as a technician would, as a CEO might, someone who is charged with getting results, even if doing so is hard.
Yet Rhee's abrasiveness was not contextual. Potts links to an article that recounts an example,
Yet one of her less-famous moments sticks with me. It was tucked inside an Atlantic profile by writer Clay Risen. In the piece, Risen was trying to make the point that Rhee does "not suffer fools, gladly or otherwise." Here's how he supported that contention: "When I asked her how she would characterize her ideal relationship with parents, she replied, 'That’s a great question. So often reporters ask me stupid questions. I had one interview yesterday, and I was like, ‘Okay, you are not smart.’"
Her general attitude appeared Manichean. If you didn't understand what she was doing, you were stupid. Disagreement, no matter how well-placed, seemed to be interpreted as malice.

Further, it's the height of arrogance to suggest that parents are not positioned to question, let alone have a say in, how their schools are run. We're supposed to simultaneously praise parents for being concerned about their children, wanting better schools, involving themselves with their children's schools, etc., but they are to be dismissed as know-nothings the second they question the goals of the system's top bureaucrat? In a sense, that's an extension of the "sit down, shut up, do as your told" model that school administrators often seem to view as perfect classroom management, but it's presumptuous and rude when directed at concerned parents.

Further, parents had valid cause to question some of Rhee's methods and priorities. She carelessly fired hundreds of teachers then claimed, "I got rid of teachers who had hit children, who had sex with children, who had missed 78 days of school." How would you feel if your child's teacher was fired, a teacher you liked, and you knew none of that was true about the teacher? How would you feel about the disappearing, reappearing money trick that was used to justify the firings? How would you feel if your school continued to crumble, but huge amounts of money appeard to be directed at schools that you perceived to be Rhee's pet projects? How would you feel if your school district's funding were so dependent upon corporate contributions, with an associated threat to withdraw money if they didn't approve of the district's management or performance, that you had to ask, "How 'public' is it when Wal-Mart can blackmail D.C. voters?"

Potts argues that it wasn't Rhee's job to "nurture":
It was Rhee's job to hire and fire teachers, to ensure the curriculum would teach students, and to revive D.C.'s beleaguered school system.
If Rhee found being respectful and accountable to parents and others inconsistent with managing D.C.'s schools, perhaps she belongs in the charter movement in which school administrators can insulate themselves from accountability to parents, let alone voters. Or perhaps she can move back to an advocacy group. Because last I checked, public schools are supposed to be accountable to parents and voters.

The aforementioned article lists what it describes as Rhee's accomplishments, and some of them are very real. She made the first day of school (and no doubt, many of the days that followed) much less dramatic and much more efficient. She negotiated a contract with the teacher's union that allows for greater teacher accountability. She took a modest stand on nutrition by banning flavored milk from schools.

The article also praises her for raising "standards, expectations, and test scores", but I think she can be better praised for her effort than for her accomplishment. As the article linked to document a rise in test scores indicates, this past year test scores went down.
Researchers in the field say that it is the nature of standardized tests that they rise from year to year when the same design of a test is given in the same schools. And they go down when a new design is given, or when a different demographic of students takes the test, or a bunch of kids in a class had a cold, or... well, you get the idea.

There are too many variables that can affect the scores of a single test to make the result completely reliable, which is why scores should never be used as a sole measure for any high-stakes decision.
By quitting now, Rhee puts herself in the position of claiming credit for a return to rising scores and blaming her successors if the scores continue to drop, although I would hope she would show more grace than to try to do either.

It's also reasonable to note that at their peak, the test scores remain deeply troubling.
Rhee said she and her team would “dig into the data” to find out why the elementary reading proficiency rate, which had risen 11 percentage points from 2007 to 2009, fell 4.4 points, to 44.4 percent, and why, after rising 20 percentage points from 2007 to 2009, the elementary math proficiency rate dipped 4.6 points this year, to 43.4.

The proficiency rate is essentially a measure of the portion of students who pass the tests.
Those scores indicate how much work remains to be done. They also highlight a problem I have with Rhee's "blame the teachers" approach to school reform. A more mature perspective would be, "Homes and communities make a huge difference in student performance, but we can't control those. All we can control are the schools and classrooms, so we have to proceed as if homes and communities don't matter." Instead she attempted to write children's lives outside of school out of the equation.

When done correctly, raising standards and expectations can be a very good thing. If you can convince a student that she needs to take ownership of her education, that her home life may make it difficult to study and succeed but she can succeed and even excel despite those obstacles, you've taken a strong first step toward making it happen. You then have to provide the necessary resources and support within the school environment (and outside, when possible) to make it happen. In an inner city environment's easy for teachers to become jaded or cynical - it's probably hard not to - and to let kids slide through the system without challenging them to reconsider their expectations for themselves and their understanding of their own capacity. When all you do is blame teachers, you shift the onus away from the students and effectively depict learning as a passive activity.

The article also argues that "Rhee stopped the skid in enrollment", pointing to a 1.6% rise in enrollment following two years of decline. That would be more compelling if the rise weren't associated with a severe recession that appears to have brought about similar rises in many other communities. This argument also seems inconsistent with the conception that it was parents' anger at Rhee that caused them to vote Mayor Fenty out of office.

Finally, the article credits Rhee for her new teacher rating system,
Rhee piloted IMPACT, a new method for evaluating teachers. Some say it's unfair and impossible to implement. But who's going to stand up and applaud the old system, whatever it was? Let's call this a start.
Fair enough, it's a start. But recall, if we're going to be judging teachers by a single year's test scores, why can't we judge Rhee's performance last year by the same measure?

But school administrators aren't to be judged by the same standards as teachers, are they. They negotiate the terms of a contract with the teacher's union, sign on the dotted line, then blame the union for seeking to enforce the terms they agreed to. They fail to monitor newly hired teachers such that issues of performance and classroom management aren't noticed before the teacher gets tenure, and then blame the teachers and their union for it's being difficult to fire teachers for their poor performance. Typically when they contractually agree to give teachers a raise, they happily give themselves the same or a larger raise. When they contractually provide teachers with generous benefits, insurance, sick time, personal days, etc., they typically reward themselves with the same or greater benefits. But how often are they willing to look into the mirror? The problems of our nation's inner city schools did not arise in a vacuum.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Refinishing Kitchen Cabinetry - An Unusual Idea....

You can literally lick the problem of a dated appearance?
If it’s good quality, change the finish, applying either a high-gloss lacquer or stripping it down and finishing it with tongue oil for a nice dull sheen.
May I make an alternate suggestion?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

You Really Need to Ask Why Narcissists Act in a Narcissistic Manner?

If you're David Brooks, that question apparently requires deep thought. After presenting a hagiographic biography of Mark Kirk, Brooks is puzzled. The problem, it seems, is not with the man, but is with the system.
If this were a fairy tale, it would be a simple story of a good man committing himself to public service and doing extraordinarily well at it. But this is reality. Nobody who walks into the valley of our political system emerges unscathed.

Today’s political environment encourages narcissism and inflames insecurity. Pols must continually brag about themselves, and Kirk has succumbed. Even with his record, he’s embellished his achievements. He claimed a military award went to him when it really went to the unit he led. He claimed his plane was shot at over Iraq when it wasn’t. He claimed he was a teacher when he was an assistant at the school.
Brooks offers no evidence that Kirk felt pressured to fabricate achievements out of this imagined "need" to continually brag. Brooks identifies nothing about the "political system" that would make Kirk's wounds anything other than unnecessarily self-inflicted. Brooks also offers nothing to distinguish the résumé-embellishing politicians of the present era from those of the past.

To the extent that "people who run for public office put themselves in a position in which everybody is inclined to believe the worst about them", isn't that because politicians like Kirk choose to lie about themselves instead of being honest? If Brooks things Kirk is among the best Congress has to offer, why shouldn't the public be jaded about the rest of 'em? Brooks sneers that if you run for office, people "write you off as a sleazeball because it feels so good and superior to do so" - but didn't he just tell us that, at least in this case, people have a good reason to contemplate whether Kirk is a sleazeball and to doubt the other entries on his résumé?
So this is not a fairy tale about a good man going into public service. It is a reality tale about why most serious people don’t want to go into politics at all.

The system will inflame your weaknesses (Kirk’s mistakes were serious and he has apologized for them). Then the bad will come to define you, and the good you’ve achieved will be forgotten.
If your weakness is that you're a narcissist who lies about his accomplishments, whatever good you may have otherwise accomplished, isn't that a valid reason for voters to reject you for public office? Sure, as Paul Waldman has observed, the lies that get you in trouble can be less serious and less relevant to your job performance than the lies that the public seems inclined to excuse, and we know little about what type of lies offer a "meaningful prediction about the candidate's performance should the candidate win office". But there isn't a politician in the country who doesn't know that character matters, or that getting caught lying will affect how voters perceive his character. In this particular case there's an easy way for a candidate to get around Kirk's problem - simply tell the truth. It's not hard.

Brooks lectures,
Few people try to weigh the good against the bad and reach some measured judgment. Instead, as David Frum once observed, they regard candidates the way adolescents regard parents: if they are not perfect then they must be irredeemable.
Except neither Kirk nor his flawed opponent have been pushed out of the race. People will vote for them, warts and all, and one of them will go to Congress. At present Kirk appears to have a slight edge. So where can I find any real-world evidence of Brooks' claim?
The reality is, Kirk has led a life that is extremely impressive in most respects. The oddest thing about him is that he’s willing to go through this process.
No, the oddest thing is that he thought it was a good idea to lie about his personal achievements rather than relying upon his actual achievements, which according to Brooks are quite impressive.
And the larger question is: In the years ahead, how many other talented people will be willing to do it, too?
Brooks again pretends that this is something new - as if throughout our nation's history races for Congress and the Senate involved a pure meritocracy, and only in the last few years has the nastiness of political campaigns made otherwise qualified people question whether they would want to run for office. I've been wondering about that for as long as I've been voting, and I was far from the first to raise the question. The answer seems to be that no matter how dim the public's view of politicians there are an ample number of narcissists, sociopaths and nut jobs in the world to make sure that the ballots remain full - and, if anything, it is their presence in the races and their campaign tactics that squeeze out the significant population of more balanced and equally or better qualified individuals who neither want to run against that brand of candidate nor serve in an institution that they dominate.
And he gave it for his opinion, that whoever could make two ears of corn, or two blades of grass, to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together.

- Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels, 1726

The world is wearied of statesmen whom democracy has degraded into politicians.

- Benjamin Disraeli, Lothair, 1870

Mark Thiessen's Warning to Democrats

Shorter version: "Watch out, because Republicans are much better at lying and distorting the facts than you are."

Update: And away we go.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Mortgage Crisis - What 'the Market' is Saying

According to Bloomberg, the "market" is saying that there is not a significant "foreclosure-document crisis".
The mortgage-bond market shows investors shrugging off speculation that the U.S. is in the throes of a foreclosure-document crisis.

Typical prices for bonds tied to home loans on which borrowers often failed to document their incomes or didn’t plan to live in their properties ended last week up 1 cent from a month earlier at 64 cents on the dollar, according to Barclays Capital. The most-senior securities backed by so-called Alt-A mortgages with a few years of fixed rates, which were unchanged last week, have climbed 31 cents from a record low last March.
Can we be honest for a minute? The market isn't "shrugging off" the problem for the reasons suggested by industry insiders, such as that "in almost all cases... homeowners have missed payments and the records aren’t that seriously flawed". The markets are shrugging off the problem because they expect a quick legislative fix - if not the one that already fell to a pocket veto, then a new legislative solution.

I don't personally object to fixing things legislatively even though, as evidenced by the opposition to a consumer financial protection agency, the mortgage industry would howl if the shoe were on the other foot. But let's not confuse the industry's entitlement mentality with a belief that this problem is otherwise minor. It's only "minor" to them because they own Congress.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Property Title Insanity

Something that I have not heard mentioned in the context of either the collapse of the housing market or the more recent, associated fiasco of lost and misplaced mortgage notes, is that our system of tracking ownership of property, liens, encumbrances, rights of way, etc., is archaic, anything but user-friendly, and exceptionally costly to consumers.

Why should the title to your house be any more difficult to obtain, review, update or transfer than the title to your car? It's not about relative values - there are cars that cost more than houses, and in some areas of the country the average price of a home is less than the average price of a new car. It's not about volume - more than 250 million cars are registered to people in the United States. Yet when you buy a house you can expect, at least, to pay companies to perform title searches and to insure your title. If you haven't guessed, those entities along with real estate agents have lobbied hard to maintain the status quo, as it's incredibly lucrative for them. But let's not pretend it's good for consumers. (Granted, a new system would likely take many years to phase in.)

I have nothing against real estate agents, and don't begrudge them the fees they've earned in my real estate transactions. I have nothing against paying real estate professionals for valuable services, such as preparing needed documents and facilitating closings. But I think it's well past time to consider how a modern title system could make the process of buying and selling real estate much more efficient, reduce surprises to buyers such as easements buried deep in the title history, and reduce transaction costs. And it should make it simple to figure out whether the entity you believe owns the mortgage note in fact owns it - whether they're trying to foreclose or sell you a mortgage-backed security.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Geithner's Five Myths

Tim Geithner describes five "myths" of the financial industry bailout. Here's the condensed version:
  1. The TARP cost taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars: Well, maybe, but not If we assume a best case scenario and ignore the cost of servicing the resulting debt, and if I divide up the amounts behind a cloud of words it doesn't sound like all that much, does it?

  2. The TARP was a gift for Wall Street that did nothing for Main Street: Haven't you ever heard of trickle-down economics?

  3. The TARP was a quick fix for the market meltdown but left our financial system weak: Our banks are bigger and more centralized than ever!

  4. The TARP worsened the concentration of the banking sector, leaving it more vulnerable to another crisis: Well, yes. But other nations have even more consolidation, for what that's worth. And if we pretend that recent legislation would actually prevent another taxpayer-funded bailout, we can all be happy.

  5. The TARP was the centerpiece of a strategy by President Obama to assert more government control over the economy: Nonsense. It was Bush's idea, and Obama simply ran with it.

Feel better now?

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Facebook's Value

Given that I've commented on the movie, The Social Network, and peripherally on Facebook, I may as well share my thoughts on the value of the company. (I'll concede up front, the company is worth vastly more than these thoughts.)

Facebook's present reported revenues and earnings easily justify a seven figure valuation. As Fred Wilson pointed out a couple of years ago, if Facebook were to significantly scale back its staff and operations it would likely be able to show both an impressive profit and continue to grow. Expenditure beyond the minimum has since helped Facebook continue to expand its subscriber base, come up with new ways to generate revenue and cement its status as the dominant social network. The others seem fairly categorized as niche players and has-beens. (No offense, MySpace; you're a respectable site but it's "innovate or die" time.)
The gargantuan infrastructure investment made by companies like Google and Facebook also help them secure their position against startups. By the time a startup is ready to ramp itself up to be a possible competitor, they can either come up with investors willing to pay tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to carry them to the next level, or they can put themselves on the market. If they sit and think about what to do next, somebody else will eat their lunch. Bloglines was a really cool service when it first came out; now it's toast, with Google's Blogsearch having offered a better interface and superior functionality, and Facebook and Twitter reducing the number of people who rely on rss feeds as opposed to their "Wall" or Twitter feed for the latest buzz. In an early scene in The Social Network, Zuckerberg posts to his LiveJournal blog... and I realized that it's been years since I even gave that once dominant site a second thought.

That said, there's a ceiling on how many active users Facebook can accumulate, and a lower ceiling on how many active users will actually return value for the company. That is to say, there are only so many people in the world and not all of them are viable targets for advertising. Back in the early days of the Internet a lot of attention was given to how many "eyeballs" a site generated, with the assumption that any given set of eyeballs was of approximately equal value. We now know better. And while it's true that Facebook has become for a huge number of people their doorway to the Internet, and many never leave its confines, the same was true of AOL. Surely, Facebook has examined and learned from AOL's collapse, but you can only learn so much. Recall also that AOL's fantastic market valuation was premised upon the potential of its huge subscriber base, but they had no actual or even theoretical business plan that would have justified their valuation if broken down to a per-subscriber figure.

Facebook also reminds me of YouTube, by all means a dominant video site and a great brand, but a site that even with Google behind it has difficulty demonstrating its value. When I look at the technology Google has developed around YouTube, and the lessons it learned when high demand for certain videos almost brought down its network, I can say that it wasn't as bad an investment as many suggest. It helped prepare Google for a high bandwidth future and for its inevitable entry into commercial streamed video, as well as providing an impetus to improve its voice recognition technologies (among others). But had YouTube not found Google as a suitor, or had it been purchased by a company with lesser resources, it likely would have collapsed under its own weight. Would AOL have been able to carry those losses had its bid prevailed - and would AOL still be around as an independent company had it tried? Would Microsoft have been willing to perpetuate YouTube, or would it have simply merged it into its own video service?

Google's CEO recently expressed that he wants Facebook to share its data - and that there are other ways of getting the data if Facebook won't share. The biggest advantage YouTube has is that pretty much "everybody" who is online has a Facebook account. Its competitors are eager to take that advantage away. I don't think Google is particularly concerned with building a Facebook killer or with the competition offered by Facebook in its present form, but perhaps that's another lesson of YouTube - keep FaceBook in its place, groom it as a partner, and operate from a policy of containment. Let them figure out how to improve their low returns per member and per pageview while you focus on operations that offer a significantly greater return - and partner with them so as to become both a needed revenue stream and to keep them from developing competing products within those areas of profit.

When I hear a ten figure valuation for Facebook I think, sure, that's realistic given its position, revenues, and barriers to entry. As the valuation creeps toward or into the eleven figure range, though, I admit skepticism. (Others are less skeptical, but they seem to assume that Facebook's business will grow in a vacuum. As Google demonstrated with Google Buzz, it can expect that its competitors will act aggressively to create competing social networks, and with its acquisition of SocialDeck, they will also act aggressively to both control and to be able to offer on their own sites some of Facebook's more compelling content.)