Tuesday, April 24, 2012

You Won't Fix Colleges With Standardized Tests

David Brooks shares some observations about college:
Colleges are supposed to produce learning. But, in their landmark study, “Academically Adrift,” Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa found that, on average, students experienced a pathetic seven percentile point gain in skills during their first two years in college and a marginal gain in the two years after that....

This research followed the Wabash Study, which found that student motivation actually declines over the first year in college. Meanwhile, according to surveys of employers, only a quarter of college graduates have the writing and thinking skills necessary to do their jobs.
But perhaps the problem is not with colleges, per se, and is more the consequence of a culture shift: the notion that everybody can and should attend college. The more lazy, unmotivated, disinterested and/or untalented students you place a college class, the more you change the classroom experience.

As much as Brooks laments the good old days, which apparently means 1961,1 when "students spent an average of 24 hours a week studying", I'm skeptical both of self-reports of hours spent studying (particularly those cherry-picked from a half-century ago) and also of the implication that, prior to the entry of the unwashed masses courtesy of student loans and the G.I. Bill, colleges historically did a better job educating students than they do at present - at least if the student wants to learn. The "Gentleman's C" for children of the wealthy and well-connected is part of that same history.

Brooks also appears to hold the conceit that during the post-war boom employers were deeply concerned about how much their new hires had learned in college. The college graduates I know from that era describe how the subject matter of their degree didn't much matter to employers. Their bachelor's degrees were akin to a union card, something that qualified them for jobs that required bachelor's degrees. Something similar happened in the late 1980's and early 1990's, as computer technology expanded and people were welcomed into computer and IT jobs with little regard for their undergraduate major, or even if they had completed a college degree. Similarly, there was a period in the 2000's during which consulting firms could not hire enough MBA's and started to draw in graduates from law schools and other programs. If the pool of candidates with the preferred degree is too small, employers will expand the applicant pool. When the pool of degreed candidates is sufficient, the "union card" effect returns.

Meanwhile, contrary to Brooks' suggestion, students are more aware than ever of the market value of their degrees. For many years, a significant population of incoming students has been asking, "What sort of job can I get with this degree," not "How much will I learn along the way." Some of my relatives who easily obtained jobs after completing college in the 1960's and 1970's are testaments to the fact that, in a booming job market, weak critical thinking skills and majoring in partying are not significant impediments to getting a job.

Does Brooks believe that MBA graduates are in slight demand? As graduate programs go it's an easy degree, two years, no capstone or thesis. Business students are among those who study the least while in college. How does Brooks reconcile that with his notion that employers want colleges to produce hard-working students who study a lot?

In his analysis, Brooks makes a classic error: he believes that education can make you smarter. Education can help you learn to reason, can provide a structure for more efficient thinking, and can help you maximize your potential, but it cannot make you smarter.

Here's another dirty little secret: When Brooks talks about colleges that are interested in assessing how much and how well their students are learning, he speaks of "schools like Bowling Green and Portland State". Not schools like Harvard or Yale. Why? If you can be extremely selective in terms of who you admit, although you may not show a significantly higher improvement of your students' critical thinking skills over the course of their degree programs, they start and end at a higher point than their peers at less exclusive institutions. But more than that, we're back to the union card issue. Schools like Harvard and Yale have done a great job branding themselves and, by implication, their graduates. In a nationwide job market, even when there's a glut of job seeking graduates from schools like Bowling Green and Portland State, the numbers of Harvard and Yale graduates does not increase - and between their small number and the exclusivity of their brand, they have an advantage in the job market even if they're not as intellectually qualified as their state school peers. If you recruit at Harvard you're also apt to get somebody who "fits" with an organization that serves the needs of society's well-heeled. Will a graduate from Bowling Green have similar social experiences coming in the door? Why gamble, right? Let's also not forget how many jobs are obtained through connections as opposed to through job fairs and advertisement - roughly 60% - and Ivy league schools insert you into fantastic networks.

Brooks' notion that you can measure college learning in a manner that is "real and transparent to outsiders" is, to put it mildly, absurd. If employers want to know whether their applicants can perform certain tasks, it's easy enough for the employer to impose a testing requirement as part of the application process. Further, as with any test, a testing process focuses on matters that are often subjective or arbitrary, and a one-time test tells you little that is useful. How would Brooks imagine that tests could be made objective and transparent, but at the same time be objective, fair, minimize cheating, relevant to any given student's curriculum, revised annually, and updated2 regularly (in many cases it would have to be annually) so as to ensure continued relevance to employers?

Brooks has the notion that a college could come up with its own assessment method and "broadcast the results to prospective parents, saying, 'We may not be prestigious or as expensive as X, but here students actually learn.'" The problems with that? Multiple. First, once the assessment method is implemented, assuming it works, it will be years before employers will see any difference in the graduating class. If a school has a weak reputation it would involve a tremendous leap of faith by a student to enroll based upon the promise that a new "assessment method" will result in their being a hot commodity in the job market by the time they graduate. And even after the new improved graduates start graduating, it will be years before employers trust that the change is real, not just hype, and even then you won't be Harvard, Yale, or anything close to it. You may have better graduates, but you won't have the brand, the network, the endowment, the exclusivity....

The best way to improve the quality of your graduating class is to improve the quality of your incoming freshmen. But colleges are tripping over each other trying to bring in students in order to maintain tuition revenue, creating the opposite effect - students who really shouldn't be attending college are able to get admitted and are often able to graduate. Those students are not going to be helped by "assessment methods" at the college level, any more than they were made college-ready through standardized testing during their K-12 years. It is a glut of college graduates, not hours spent studying or attempts to measure improvement in critical thinking, is the most profound cause of the commoditization of the college diploma. And to the extent that employers no longer trust that colleges screen out undesirable employees, that's an inevitable consequence of removing any meaningful barriers to college enrollment.
1. Recall that Brooks appears to believe that U.S. culture peaked in 1963.

2. Here I speak of revision in terms of producing a different set of questions from year to year, as otherwise the answers get out, and of updates in terms of making sure that the subject matter of the test remains current and relevant, a significant and difficult task.

Republican Price Controls

It's easy to forget that the last President to impose wage and price controls on the country was the very Republican Richard Nixon. But for all their talk about the power of markets, there are contexts in which they remain happy to impose price controls:
The University of Florida, the state’s flagship school, has been hit particularly hard [by cuts in state funding]. In an opinion article in The Gainesville Sun, a former university administrator said this year would bring “$38 million in budget cuts, creating an accumulated reduction in state funding to U.F. of 30 percent, or $240 million, since 2006.”

The university has responded to these cuts with tuition increases, although the Legislature has set ceilings on tuition that keep schools from fully offsetting the cutback in state support. This is true in many other states, too.
Similarly, for all their talk about "free markets" in healthcare, you won't find any serious effort by Republican politicians at any level of government to do away with the mechanisms used by Medicare and Medicaid to limit their expenditures through various forms of price control. The pharmaceutical lobby was strong enough to prevent the government from negotiating over the cost of prescription medications, but doctors have a "take it or leave it" choice with Medicare and Medicaid, and the rest of the insurance market often follows Medicare's lead.

To the extent that you want to argue that state-paid or subsidized colleges and insurance are different from their market equivalents, you need to explain why the free market has not displaced them from the market. Or why it's not a good idea to end the subsidies and let the public programs and colleges compete with their private competitors. Public rhetoric aside, Medicare and Medicaid were introduced due to a failure of the markets, and public universities were founded and funded in order to provide higher education to a population that was underserved or excluded by private universities, at a reasonable cost. The principal competition between private colleges and their public counterparts occurs at the bottom of the market, with for-profit diploma mills attempting to peel away students who lack the necessary ability, desire, need and/or resources to attend an elite private university.

The Possibility of Parole

George Will is predictably too deferential to Antonin Scalia and his brand of self-serving originalism, but credit where credit is due, he takes a principled stand on a "law and order" issue:
Denying juveniles even a chance for parole defeats the penal objective of rehabilitation. It deprives prisoners of the incentive to reform themselves. Some prisons withhold education, counseling and other rehabilitation programs from prisoners ineligible for parole. Denying these to adolescents in a period of life crucial to social and psychological growth stunts what the court in 2005 called the prisoner’s “potential to attain a mature understanding of his own humanity.” Which seems, in a word — actually, three words — “cruel and unusual.”
I'm not going to argue that there are no juvenile offenders who, at the end of the day, should not spend their lives behind bars in the interest of protecting the rest of society. In some cases, serious juvenile offenses may reveal "the susceptibility of juveniles to immature and irresponsible behavior", but in others they reveal a depravity that will last a lifetime. But there's no reason to believe that, by the time a juvenile reaches or passes his thirties, a parole board will have great difficulty distinguishing one from the other.

Former Addict?

Ain't no such thing.
Comedian and former addict Russell Brand today gave evidence to the home affairs select committee on drugs.
The dragon may go to sleep, but it never dies.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Thomas Friedman's Can't-Win Strategy

Did I say "can't-win"? Friedman thinks the opposite - that if you're a presidential candidate and promise to govern the country exactly as he believes it should be governed, you'll win in a landslide. What does that entail? If you read Friedman, even occasionally, you already know: slashing Social Security and Medicare, and embracing budget gimmickry. Friedman first describes what he wants in a budget,
What do we need from a presidential candidate today? We need a credible plan to do three specific things: cut, tax and invest. As the economy improves, we need to cut spending, including all entitlement programs, to fix our long-term structural deficit. We also need to raise revenue through tax reform so we don’t just shred our safety nets and so we still have resources, not only for defense, but to invest in all the things that have made us great as a country: education, infrastructure, quality government institutions and government-funded research.
That is the same sort of thinking that landed us with an excessively complex, compromise-laden healthcare reform legislation: the idea that you shouldn't make a proposal that doesn't do everything that you want (or perhaps I should say, Friedman wants). In the context of the ACA, the law was supposed insure most Americans, limit abuses by the insurance industry, maintain or reduce present levels of healthcare expenditure and be revenue-neutral. We got that, at least in theory, but we would have been better off had we focused on tackling the elements separately - something that might be possible in a healthy political culture but was not even encouraged by pundits like Thomas Friedman. Commentators typically demanded that any bill meet all of those tests or opposed attempting reform.

As Friedman should know, were the Republicans interested in "saving" Social Security, a program that's not actually in very much trouble, a compromise bill could be hashed out and passed inside of a month. It's not complicated - adjust the tax rate, the cap on contributions, eligibility ages and... done. Just like last time.

As Friedman should also know, the path to winning elections does not include cutting Medicare and Social Security spending. Friedman doesn't like Paul Ryan's plan because Ryan's supposed cuts would "deprive the country of the very discretionary spending required to do what we need most: nation-building at home." As usual it's difficult to know if Friedman is speaking in ignorance of the facts or if he just doesn't want to be honest, but it's difficult to believe that Friedman isn't aware that Ryan's budget cuts are secret. It's also difficult to believe that Friedman thinks Ryan's plan would actually balance the budget. Or perhaps Friedman sees such a huge upside in privatizing and voucherizing Medicare and in slashing Social Security that he just doesn't care about the rest.

Except, that is, for bipartisanship.
Finally, the plan has to win bipartisan support, so the candidate advocating it not only wins the election but has a mandate to implement his plan afterward.

The Ryan-Romney budget fails that test.
Now in fairness, when Friedman describes something as "bipartisan" he actually means "consistent with what I want", with the remarkable conceit that if either Romney or Obama were to endorse doing exactly what he wants they would win an overwhelming mandate in the November election. But Friedman should also recall that it was not long ago that President Obama offered a "grand bargain" to the Republicans, a deal that included significant cuts to Medicare and Social Security, and the Republicans said "No". Why? Apparently because they believed that agreeing with a long-term budget plan that did everything that they supposedly want, they would help the President get reelected. Politics over policy. Sorry, Tom, but even if your policy ideas were good, "bipartisanship" is about politics.

Friedman clings to a nonsensical notion of what a budget can do,
Obama has proposed his own 10-year budget. It is much better than Ryan’s at balancing our near-term need to revitalize the pillars of American success, by cutting, taxing and investing. But it does not credibly address the country’s long-term fiscal imbalances, which require cuts in Medicare and Social Security.
Earth to Friedman: If a budget is better over a ten-year period, there's no need for further discussion or qualification. It's simply better. Why? Because even projecting out ten years we're engaged in a considerable amount of guesswork. Because the present Congress cannot bind future sessions of Congress to its budget priorities. Because you never know when another terrorist attack, war, or opportunistic President who wants to cut taxes for the rich will come along and adopt "deficits don't matter" as its fiscal policy.

Friedman remains dewy eyed about the failed National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, and "Simpson-Bowles" report as a blueprint for the future. Again, never mind the budgetary gimmickry such as arbitrary spending caps. Friedman is certain that a report that failed to win bipartisan report among members of the committee would have been embraced by Congress. What's more, he believes that Congress would have been so happy to pass a Simpson-Bowles flavored budget that they would have approved an infrastructure spending bill and might also have passed another stimulus bill.
If Obama had embraced the long-term deficit commission, he would have had a chance of combining it with some near-term stimulus — investments in infrastructure — that would have helped the economy and grow jobs. Without pairing it with Simpson-Bowles, Obama had no chance of getting more stimulus....

But had Obama embraced the bipartisan “Simpson-Bowles,” and added his own stimulus, he would have split the G.O.P., attracted gobs of independents and been able to honestly look the country in the eye and say he had a plan to fix what needs fixing. He would have angered the Tea Party and his left wing, which would have shown him as a strong leader ready to make hard choices — and isolated Romney-Ryan on the fringe.
What the bleep is he smoking?

First, "Simpson-Bowles" is bipartisan only in the sense that its authors were historically associated with the two leading political parties. It couldn't get majority support from the committee itself. Contrary to Friedman's suggestion there's no indication that Congress has ever been interested in passing it - after all, were they interested nothing is stopping them.

Second, you cannot "embrace" Simpson-Bowles, an austerity plan, and tack on stimulus spending. It's an inherent contradiction of the plan. Yes, I get the real issues - what's important to Friedman is that the plan slashes Social Security and Medicare, so he would be perfectly content with allowing the short-term picture to be out of balance in order to achieve his long-term goals. Except, as previously noted, the short-term is all that matters - the next Congress can be expected to have different spending priorities.

Third, you cannot "embrace" Simpson-Bowles and also tack on infrastructure spending. Simpson and Bowles took the position that "infrastructure was indeed a problem in need of upgrade, and... the solution is to reduce the deficit in order to free up the necessary funds to tackle the problem, rather than adding it to existing spending".

Fourth, if you're going to assert that a good budget will "invest in all the things that have made us great as a country: education, infrastructure, quality government institutions and government-funded research", it's fair to note that not only is Simpson-Bowles inconsistent with infrastructure spending, it proposed cuts to education spending. The more you get into the details, the more appears that Friedman is indifferent to "all the things that have made us great as a country".

Fifth, there is simply no way that either the Republican Party or mainstream media would have looked at a proposal from President Obama that said, "We embrace Simpson-Bowles. Except for austerity - we want another stimulus bill. And except for infrastructure - we want a huge investment in infrastructure. Oh yes, and except for education spending which should increase, not decrease," and not made the argument that he was in fact rejecting Simpson-Bowles, or at least the parts that mattered. They would observe a huge increase in government spending, a huge increase in the deficit, and that embracing cuts you're not willing to enact doesn't count for much.

Sixth, although Friedman may sincerely believe otherwise, cutting Social Security and Medicare spending are not popular. As Friedman knows, Ryan's reinvention of Medicare is a radical plan, well beyond the cuts proposed in the Affordable Care Act, yet Republicans engage in shameless demagoguery about those cuts.

Seventh, Friedman asserts,
Obama says his plan incorporates the best of Simpson-Bowles. Not only is that not true, but it misses the politics. Republicans will never vote for an “Obama plan.”
Why does Friedman imagine that Obama's presentation of the Simpson-Bowles plan with virtually nothing left intact, except the cuts to Social Security and Medicare that Thomas Friedman believes are the best part of that plan, would be perceived as something other than "an 'Obama plan'"?

If the Republicans won't vote for anything Obama endorses, no matter how good it is, by Friedman's "logic" the President must offer them somebody else's plan without regard to its quality, because in Friedman's mind a plan is only "good" if it can gain bipartisan support. Yes, folks, they pay him to write this stuff.

Friedman's conclusion is that "Obama is running on a suboptimal plan" (i.e., one that doesn't slash Medicare and Social Security") and that means "If he’s lucky, he might win by a whisker".
If Obama went big, and dared to lead, he’d win for sure, and so would the country, because he’d have a mandate to do what needs doing.
Friedman has a short memory. President Bush claimed a "mandate" to reform and privatize Social Security after his reelection, and his own party wouldn't back him. As shocking as it may be to Thomas Friedman, fount of conventional wisdom, rich beyond the dreams of most Americans, a lot of people actually depend upon Social Security retirement benefits and Medicare, and cuts to those programs are not popular.

For goodness sake, the Republican Party would like few things more than to slash or eliminate Social Security and Medicare. If there were a whit of sense to Friedman's notion that endorsing those cuts would pave a path to the White House, Romney would have been there months ago. Following Friedman's advice is a sure path toward making an election night concession speech.

David Brooks is Sam Spade?

Despite its pretensions, David Brooks' latest column will teach you absolutely nothing about how to run a NGO, but it seems to convey a pretty good sense of what Brooks perceives when he looks in the mirror. Fun house times....

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Weighing the Merits of Drug Legalization

George Will appears to be conflicted about drug legalization, recognizing the reality that there is a natural human attraction to intoxication but that substance abuse and addiction present genuine problems for society. I think he misses the big picture here,
Drinking alcohol had been a widely exercised private right for millennia when America tried to prohibit it. As a public-health measure, Prohibition “worked”: Alcohol-related illnesses declined dramatically. As the monetary cost of drinking tripled, deaths from cirrhosis of the liver declined by a third. This improvement was, however, paid for in the coin of rampant criminality and disrespect for law.
Prohibition lasted only from 1920-1933, and created a host of ills through the distribution of low-quality bootleg liquor and "medicinal alternatives". To the extent that prohibition affected cirrhosis rates, it seems likely that it was more of a result of its bringing about, coinciding with, and/or contributing to changes in how people consumed alcohol. From an era of hard liquor to mixed drinks and beer, from the rummy to the beer belly. As Will notes, even during prohibition "oceans of [alcohol] were made, imported, transported and sold."

Will imagines that changes in the legality or availability of specific addictive substances is likely to have a massive impact on the rate of addiction within a given society:
So, suppose cocaine or heroin were legalized and marketed as cigarettes and alcohol are. And suppose the level of addiction were to replicate the 7 percent of adults suffering from alcohol abuse or dependency. That would be a public health disaster.
Yes, if you assume that a public health disaster would result, the result will be a public health disaster. They joys of circular reasoning.

What appears to be true is that across societies, even in cultures that have strong prohibitions on the use of intoxicants and draconian penalties for drug use or trafficking, a relatively predictable percentage of the population will become addicted to alcohol or drugs. There's no reason to believe that legalizing cocaine or heroin would lead to massive increases in the overall rate of addiction. To that point, the overwhelming majority of people who receive opiate and opioid medication for acute injuries simply stop taking the medication when their pain subsides, and although an extraordinary number of G.I's experimented with heroin during the Vietnam war the overwhelming majority were able to stop using drugs when they returned home. I'm not going to suggest that people play with fire - I think people should assume that they will succumb to hopeless addiction if they start using, more to the point injecting, heroin - but it's quite clear that some people are predisposed to addiction and that predisposition can vary significantly by substance.

Also, while Will is correct that society is not "like a controlled laboratory", he is incorrect that a failed experiment with legalization could not be reversed. It might not be tidy, but it's difficult to imagine a bigger mess than we saw with prohibition and its repeal - and we pay a huge price for the "war on drugs" while making absolutely no progress against either drug availability or the rate of addiction.

Will's economic arguments against legalization make absolutely no sense. First he imagines that legalization will cause the prices of cocaine, heroin and marijuana to fall by 90%. Then he imagines that taxes will be so high that widespread tax fraud will occur and illicit sales will continue. Again, it's circular - Will presupposes the facts necessary to drive his conclusions.

I sense that Will does not partake of illicit substances, as his experience with drug dealers appears largely derived from television dramas,
Furthermore, legalization would mean drugs of reliable quality would be conveniently available from clean stores for customers not risking the stigma of breaking the law in furtive transactions with unsavory people.
I think he should ask his drug-using friends and colleagues how they obtain their substances of choice. Rush Limbaugh bought drugs through his maid - no need for any unsavory contacts. Drug dealing was1 historically a problem at large manufacturing plants, but the dealer wasn't a seedy criminal on a street corner - it was a co-worker. High school kids can buy drugs from other high school kids. Sure, of course, street corner dealing does occur, but huge numbers of drug users buy drugs from people in their own peer group. In some correctional facilities, prisoners buy drugs from prison guards. There are lots of small time marijuana dealers who support their own use by buying in bulk and selling to their friends. Although you always have that option, and as casual use turns to addiction you're more likely to go that way, it's simply not the case that the only way to get street drugs is through "furtive transactions with unsavory people". Ever since the pager came along, for a great many drug users the purchase of their substance of choice has been no more unsavory than ordering a pizza delivery.2

Will intimates at the end that he has an answer to the problem of illicit drug trafficking, at least for cocaine and heroin,
America spends 20 times more on drug control than all the world’s poppy and coca growers earn. A subsequent column will suggest a more economic approach to the “natural” problem of drugs.
I expect he's suggesting that we simply pay farmers not to produce coca or to grow poppies. That's going to be easier with coca, as it's pretty easy to grow opium poppies in a random patch of rain forest or jungle. Right now we're pushing crop substitution, but that creates a significant risk and cost for the coca farmer that is absent with coca production - the cocaine cartels will come to their farms, pick up their crops and pay cash, whereas if they grow alternative crops they run the risk that there won't be a market for their product, and have to get it to market in salable condition. You could pay them cash - well over what the cartels pay, simply based upon a periodic verification that they're not growing coca. If they also grow and sell a crop, all the more power (and profit) to them - we give them a windfall, and they still save money.

But even if we presuppose that such a model would work for opium and cocaine production, that you wouldn't simply push opium production onto wild lands, you would not solve the larger problem of addiction and drug use. When I was in Thailand a decade ago, during a hike through a national park our guide pointed to a field in the distance - opium poppies. He explained that the government would fly over the park during the times of year when poppies traditionally bloomed, looking for telltale patches of red, so the growers had switched to a poppy that bloomed at a slightly different time of year. It's not that the patch wasn't visibly cultivated, or that the government was unaware of the game - if my guide knew what was going on, so did law enforcement. But for some reason....

Meanwhile, what drug was exploding in popularity in the cities? Meth. And that's a big part of the story of prohibition - you don't eliminate drug use, but instead inspire drug substitution. So when the war "works" you can end up creating a population of drug addicts that is dependent upon a much more harmful, toxic, polluting alternative to the drug you've targeted. When people are addicted, you should never underestimate their willingness to ingest or inject toxic waste as part of the small price they're willing to pay to get high.

If the trade-off between having a licit, pharmaceutically pure line of substances of choice for addicts to use, and their relying upon contaminated street drugs, we need to consider the impact of toxicity when calculating which is better for society.

Will also seems to view legalization as an all-or-nothing proposition. He recognizes that cigarettes and alcohol are legal, but cannot imagine how we might legalize marijuana without also legalizing heroin. There's an old joke, "What's a lethal 'hit' of marijuana" - "A twenty-five pound brick falling from a tenth floor window." The various state-level experiments with legalization have not been a model of sound public policy, but they do suggest that Will's notion of increased usage and of a collapse in the market price will not occur with legalization. Portugal's experience with transitioning from a criminal justice model to a public health, harm reduction model has been associated with a decline in marijuana use.

There's something else to consider, as well: Even though we're still fighting the old drug war against cocaine, heroin and marijuana, we're in a culture in which people are increasingly addicted to pharmaceuticals - pain medications and benzodiazepines. If you look at the massive quantity of pills that are diverted into the illicit market, it's difficult to imagine how the status quo could exist without a great many drug manufacturers and politicians turning a blind eye to the problem. And if you want to talk about the potential to increase the number of addicts, consider that pharmaceuticals are designed to target specific receptors more quickly and more efficiently than their natural counterparts. For some addicts, heroin is what you have to settle for when you can't find a source for your pills. A public health problem?
Drug overdose death rates in the United States have more than tripled since 1990 and have never been higher. In 2008, more than 36,000 people died from drug overdoses, and most of these deaths were caused by prescription drugs.
That's the future.3

As with any discussion of drug policy, I would like to tell you that there are easy answers and solutions, but there aren't. Whichever door we pick, we will find pain, misery and suffering on the other side. We can at least conclude this much, though: The present approach of criminalization and interdiction has proved to be ridiculously expensive and a policy failure.
1. It probably still is an issue, but I haven't heard much about it lately.

2. Way back when I was in law school, a clinical professor described a drug dealer who in fact owned pizza stores - and customers "in the know" would order, let's say, special toppings to be delivered with their pizzas. A little baggie slipped into the pizza box.

3. Dystopian science fiction, notably including the works of Philip K. Dick, often pictures a world in which highly addictive pharmaceuticals have displaced all other forms of drug abuse. So far the primary pharmaceutical "drugs of choice" have been developed as bona fide medicines, but if you liberate them to do so you can anticipate that companies will seek to make drugs that are addictive beyond anything presently on the licit or illicit markets.

Paul Ryan and His Invisible Friends

I recently read the suggestion that we should assume that Paul Ryan is sincere, that he's advancing the bona fide viewpoint that the government should have a balanced budget and that the size and scope of government should be reduced. Here's the thing: Although I don't dispute that deficit hawks exist and have good reasons for wanting a balanced budget, you cannot take Paul Ryan's plan seriously as an effort to balance the budget because he provides specifics only in relation to tax cuts. You want to know where he's going to cut the budget? You have to guess. That's neither serious nor honest.

Similarly, absent an indication of where the cuts will come from, we have no reason to believe that Ryan's plan actually involves reducing the scope or scale of government. Ryan has, in the past, voted for massive spending bills, massive budget deficits, and a massive unfunded expansion of Medicare. Why should I overlook his actual voting history and assume that he has somehow "seen the light", when he won't explain what light he has seen? He's clear enough that he wants to increase military spending and slash taxes for the richest Americans. Why no specifics on budget cuts? If he has cuts in mind but is afraid that honesty will cause the public to denounce his plan, he's not being honest - and if his plan were passed that dishonesty would carry over until it finally necessary to reveal the cuts and which point the members his party would abandon the cuts in the interest of saving their seats - which would result in yet another Republican run-up of the deficit. If he does not have any cuts in mind he's also being dishonest - he knows he can't deliver and the entire exercise is a charade.

I see that Paul is now alluding to the political game that politicians play, and which I mentioned this morning in the context of Paul's budget: that politicians one thing in public and another in private:
"There are a number of Democrats but I don’t want to name their names, because I don’t want to get them in trouble," he said. "I’ve had 12 come up to me and say, 'I love what you're doing with Ron [Wyden],'" he said. As for going public with their support, Ryan said the Democrats told him: "No way, I’ll get killed."

"I’m not going to out Democrats who I believe are in office, who are favorably disposed to these ideas, for their own sake and for the sake fo getting this consensus realized," Ryan said at the gathering hosted by Bloomberg View in Manhattan Tuesday morning.
Have you ever noticed that Paul Ryan looks a bit like Don Adams? Just saying. No, really, in fairness there probably are some "blue dog" Democrats who are jealous that Paul Ryan is getting so much credit for spouting budgetary nonsense, and they can't get in on the game. By the same token, there are likely a significant number of Republicans who think Newt Gingrich's assessment of Ryan (before he tried to win the nomination and reversed himself) was spot on. Ryan won't be naming them, either.

If the Republicans had a serious proposal to balance the budget, they would reveal it. They wouldn't be hiding behind one man and the latest iteration of his secret plan.

Paul Ryan, Mediocrity and Politics

Let's say you're a mediocre Member of Congress. You've served for ten or more years, your seat is safe, and by virtue of your tenure you have some decent committee assignments - but you have no legislative accomplishments, no national name recognition, no real agenda, no fire in your belly. Half the people in your district can't recall that you represent them, and many of those who do see you as having essentially bought your way into Congress based upon an inherited name and inherited money. You've been a reliable vote for whatever the presidents of your party wanted, but being a "yes man" can only carry you so far. Do you ride out the rest of your career in relative obscurity? Or do you look at some of the nut jobs who have managed to hitch their dimly lit stars to various reactionary movements and causes and say, "I can do that, too."

Now let's imagine that one of the positions you've gained is that of Chairman of the House Committee on the Budget. You are approached by the leaders of your party with a budget plan that is quite radical. They tell you, "Put your name on this plan, push it forward, and we'll stand squarely behind you. We'll line up commentators and columnists who speak of you in glowing terms." You might ask, "What's in it for me" - but you already know what's in it for you: the potential to be nationally known and recognized, the potential to escape your mediocrity. You might ask, "What's the downside", but you know that as well: really, nothing. The worst that happens is that your plan is rejected, the party says, "That was his idea, not ours," and you are left with some favors you can call in. Perhaps you can use those favors to attach your name to a significant bill, and at least seem less mediocre. You're not signing onto anything so radical that you're putting your seat in danger. Really, you can't lose.

There's nothing new in such a story. Change a detail here or there and you can find examples from pretty much any era, pretty much any country, pretty much any form of government. But in the modern era of 24-hour news coverage (take an hour's worth of news and stretch it to the point of breaking, add mediocre commentary and what passes for analysis, and call it a 24-hour news network), it's perhaps easier than ever to parlay a contrived alliance into at least short-term political fortune - as demonstrated by the mediocre candidates who were taken seriously during the Republican primary season, and the eagerness of the media to continue to cover a "race" that has for all practical purposes been over for quite some time.

Paul Ryan seems to be pretty much a classic example of this phenomenon. The problem from a policy standpoint is that the elevation of partisan mediocrity clouds the issues and harms the public debate. Actually, that's only a problem for the other side - that's your goal. When your party and the pundits and news commentators aligned with your party consistently misrepresent your plan as being some sort of stroke of genius, and the larger media goes along for the ride (or prefers to cover the horse race instead of the facts) the facts become irrelevant to the public debate.
Enter Mr. Ryan, an ordinary G.O.P. extremist, but a mild-mannered one. The “centrists” needed to pretend that there are reasonable Republicans, so they nominated him for the role, crediting him with virtues he has never shown any sign of possessing. Indeed, back in 2010 Mr. Ryan, who has never once produced a credible deficit-reduction plan, received an award for fiscal responsibility from a committee representing several prominent centrist organizations.

So you can see the problem these commentators face. To admit that the president’s critique is right would be to admit that they were snookered by Mr. Ryan, who is the same as he ever was. More than that, it would call into question their whole centrist shtick — for the moral of my story is that Mr. Ryan isn’t the only emperor who turns out, on closer examination, to be naked.
Fascinating, isn't it, how the spin applied to "your plan" can turn you from an example of Congressional mediocrity into somebody ballyhooed as fiscally responsible, an idea man, one of the most influential politicians in the nation (begging the question of exactly who it is that you are influencing).

There's another aspect to politics that has, over time, come to complicate the lives of politicians: A long history in which you lie to voters about your beliefs, lie to the media, and even maintain a consistent voting record consistent with your public image, while you work behind closed doors with other politicians (many of whom are as publicly dishonest as you are) to broker a deal based. You and politicians like you create a toxic public atmosphere around certain issues, but make sure that there are enough votes to pass a compromise bill. You may even prefer to make more concessions to the other side as a matter of sound public policy, but first and foremost your job as a Member of Congress is to get reelected, so if there are enough votes to pass the bill you helped craft you may even publicly denounce it and vote against it. If your vote is needed, you'll give a duplicitous speech about how the merits of the bill and needs of the country forced you to support a bad bill, and how you hope that parts can be repealed or will be overturned by the courts.

Think back to Evan Bayh, lamenting the "good old days" when Senators would socialize together, putting aside their partisan differences at night. That's easier when everybody understands that the public performance is largely an act, that at the end of the day everybody wants to get reelected - and to do that you need to pander to special interest groups and donors. The problem is that changes in the media, along with the rise of unofficial information channels (websites, blogs, Youtube), both help true ideologues rise to power and make it more difficult for politicians to ever deviate from their party's claimed orthodoxy, and easier for people to find and emphasize points of past deviation (even if, at the time, you were being a good foot soldier for your party). The parties continue to hold sufficient influence over the media and political commentators, perhaps especially the beltway types who love to think of themselves as powerful and well-connected, wise and influential.

If you're a media darling, though, with no real accomplishment, it's pretty easy for your party's leaders to shift the spotlight elsewhere. Had the spin of Ryan and his plan not worked, he would be long forgotten. Just another mediocre Member of Congress who voted for (can you believe it) Medicare Part D and TARP? His budget? Now spun as a stunt that his party never supported, just one guy trying to cover up his own voting history. How could somebody like that possibly be taken seriously as a fiscal conservative with that record, right? For all the talk about Ryan's influence it seems largely to be an illusion - it's not clear that he has actually influenced anything.

This much is clear:
  • The budget with Ryan's name attached won't ever become law, and even if it did his party would soon run, screaming, from the implications of everything but the tax cuts for the rich.

  • The only budget you can take seriously is the present budget, because in a year or two you're going to have a new Congress with a new agenda - and you can't bind them.

Warren Buffett offers a genuine solution to budget deficits - not necessarily wise on policy, but one that would unquestionably be effective:

If Congress wanted to balance the budget, Congress would balance the budget. The rest is a show.

Friday, April 06, 2012

David Brooks in Full-Scale Hack Mode

One thing you should never forget about David Brooks is that he's a partisan. He provides advice to political parties and candidates that comes in one of two flavors: Advice to the Republicans that he believes will help the Republicans, and advice to Democrats that he believes will help... the Republicans. I suspect that one of the reasons he is viewed as more moderate or centrist is that he sometimes criticizes his own party, but if you examine the criticisms you will find a treacly mix of Beltway conventional wisdom and Brooks' own conceptions of the things his party must change to strengthen its position at the polls. Brooks is consistently sloppy with his logic and sloppy to dishonest with his facts and, when push comes to shove, is happy to transcribe the latest party memo into column form.

Case in point, David Brooks on the budget differences between the Paul Ryan plan and the Obama Administration. Brooks writes,
It was no accident that Ryan fared so well. His budget, with its deep cuts and revolutionary reforms, might have frightened many House Republicans. But Ryan got critical help from House majority whip Kevin McCarthy, who turned over his conference room in the Capitol for a series of lectures to the entire Republican caucus on the looming debt crisis and Ryan's answer in his budget. (Some members returned to hear the lecture a second time.) When the budget committee approved the Ryan document, all 22 Republicans voted for it....

While that was a blow to Obama, he would still have the commanding position in a debate with Ryan. He's president and commander in chief. Ryan is a House committee chairman. There's a difference. Obama has the biggest megaphone and gets the most attention. The media, while critical of Obama's budget, are largely on his side ideologically. Press attacks on Ryan are inevitable. Indeed, they've begun. Obama can change the subject and drag the media off with him.
Oh, sorry, that was actually Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard. Barnes lets us in on something Brooks himself keeps secret,
Ryan personally lobbied conservative talkers, including Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, columnists such as David Brooks of the New York Times, think tanks, reporters, policy experts, and anyone else Ryan could get to sit down with him.
When you look at what Brooks actually says and writes, the biggest difference from Barnes' earlier argument is the byline because... they're both stumping for Ryan. Here's Brooks:
BROOKS: (Laughing) You know, what's actually interesting is how Paul Ryan has become, sort of from being the edge of the Republican Party to being the center. Though, what was interesting is how much he got attacked from the right for this budget because at no time over the next 10 years does it actually balance the budget. It increases spending by $1.2 trillion over the next 10 years and increases spending about 3 percent a year.

So there's a lot of spending in there. There's a lot of government in there. But at least he has gone farther than anybody else. And it doesn't tell how he's going to pay for everything, but he's gone farther than anybody else to getting us to avoid a fiscal catastrophe. And so, for that - it's not my perfect budget - but for that I think he deserves a lot of credit. And it's an enormous political risk for the Republican Party for which I think they're to be saluted.
When confronted with a few of the realities of the Ryan plan, "a Republican budget that continues $5.4 trillion in the Bush tax cuts and then, on top of that, adds $4.6 trillion in tax cuts by cutting the top rate", and the plan's lack of specifics, Brooks huffs,
Well, you know, first of all, it doesn't eviscerate government. As I mentioned, it goes up 3 percent a year. It's only 13 percent over the next 10 years, less than what Obama is proposing. But it is a serious budget. It is a budget that gets us in the direction of not having a fiscal catastrophe. If the Democrats can come up with a budget, their own budget, which gets us in the direction of avoiding a fiscal catastrophe, then we can compare two plans.

But so far, we have one plan.
So... we can compare the Ryan "plan" to the Obama "proposal" to compare how much growth Ryan and Obama are respectively projecting for government spending over the next decade, but when it comes down to policy details the Obama "proposal" isn't a "plan" and thus cannot be compared to Ryan's "plan". Talk about your semantic games. But the games do Brooks the favor of avoiding having to address the Ryan plan's unworkability - it's a fantasy created for people like Brooks who prattle about "avoiding a fiscal catastrophe" but who don't have an appreciable interest in or understanding of how an economy works.1

A more honest columnist might address the facts, attempting a direct comparison of the Ryan and Obama budgets, noting where they exhibit common ground, noting the areas in which they differ. Consider, for example, Ezra Klein,
You would never know from the rhetoric in President Obama's budget speech that there are broad swaths of government policy on which he and Paul Ryan mostly agree. But if you look at their budgets, there's actually a surprising amount of convergence: Neither man's budget makes any changes to Social Security. Both budgets are content to find their savings elsewhere. Another: Both men have proposed capping Medicare's rate of growth at GDP+.5% (that is to say, Medicare's budget could grow by however fast the economy grew, plus half a percentage point. So if the economy grew by 3%, Medicare's budget could increase by 3.5%). They would hold Medicare to that growth rate in different ways, but, over the past year, they have actually converged on how much spending is appropriate in Medicare.

That's a change from past years. Ryan's 2010 Roadmap included major reforms to Social Security, including private accounts. His previous budget featured much more dramatic reforms to Medicare, including a much lower growth rate. But Ryan has backed off of his cuts to seniors. It is, after all, an election year.

Today, the difference in the two party's visions is really in their plans for everything else: Ryan's budget increases defense spending, cuts taxes on the rich, and pays for all that -- and for his deficit reduction -- with deep cuts to programs for the poor and to the basic services the federal government carries out. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that 62 percent of Ryan's cuts are to programs for the poor. (Graph.)

Obama's budget, meanwhile, features large tax increases on the rich, some cuts to the defense budget, some cuts to government services, and relatively few cuts to programs for the poor. Consequently, his budget has somewhat less deficit reduction than Ryan does over the next 10 years.
Klein offers a thorough, substantive examination of how Ryan believes his plan compares to the President's, concluding,
The two parties have clear and contrasting fiscal visions: Ryan offers more deficit reduction, large tax cuts, and higher defense spending, and he pays for it through large cuts to programs for the poor and other government services. Obama offers somewhat less deficit reduction, somewhat lower defense spending, significantly higher taxes on the rich, and much less in cuts to programs for the poor and basic government services.

Ryan thinks his budget is better than Obama’s, and Obama thinks his budget is better than Ryan’s. But in terms of where the two budgets spend and cut, and who they tax, there’s no real disagreement here.
In short, contrary to Brooks' claim, there are two budgets you can compare, and although neither side would be prompt to admit it there's a lot of common ground between the two proposals. Why? Because there are only so many sources of tax revenue, and there are only so many areas of spending that can be subjected to significant cuts. But understanding economics? Comparing proposals? Examining the truth of what each side is saying? Not Brooks' style.
Obama cast himself as the fiscal moderate who embraced the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles approach. (Perhaps we were all asleep during the Simpson-Bowles-Obama consciousness tour.) Then he unleashed every 1980s liberal cliché in the book, calling the Republicans a bunch of trickle-down, Trojan horse-bearing social Darwinists.
When it comes to the facts, Brooks frequently does appear to be asleep. Let's remind ourselves of the history,
The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform was a bipartisan panel created in February 2010 to find ways to reduce the mounting federal debt. On Dec. 3, 2010, a plan put forward by the panel’s two chairmen, Erskine Bowles and Alan K. Simpson, won the support of 11 of its 18 members. That fell short of the supermajority of 14 needed to send a proposal to Congress for a vote....

In the months that followed, President Obama, who had created the commission, several times spoke approvingly of the Simpson-Bowles plan’s general approach of combining spending cuts and tax increases. But Mr. Obama never embraced the specifics of the plan. And it had been rejected by the House Republicans who were on the panel, including Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the head of the House budget committee.

Nevertheless, "Simpson-Bowles" became a shorthand phrase used by political observers pushing for a "grand bargain" that would reduce the government’s projected long-term deficits.
Sometimes I wonder if he has heard of the paper, but Brooks might consider picking up an occasional copy of the New York Times so that he can keep up with the basic facts. Heck, he might have even caught this column, about how a certain President named Obama was negotiating with a certain Republican named John Boehner to broker a budgetary "grand bargain" - that is to say, a Simpson-Bowles-type resolution to the parties' budget differences.
Meanwhile, President Obama and John Boehner, the House speaker, have been quietly working on another. They suddenly seem close to a deal.

There’s a lot you don’t know about these two Grand Bargains. But they probably have the elements that have been part of just about every recent bipartisan debt proposal: some sort of tax reform that lowers overall rates while raising revenue by closing loopholes; cuts in the level of entitlement spending without much fundamental reform; a freeze on domestic discretionary spending. Mostly, there will be vagueness. The specifics of what exactly will be cut and who will be taxed will not be filled in.
The author of that column was... oh my. David Brooks? I guess he wrote it in his sleep.

So Brooks' first argument, that Obama has never embraced a Simpson-Bowles-type approach to the budget deficit, is pure nonsense, refuted by his own words. What about this "social Darwinist" stuff? Unbelievable:
Social Darwinism, by the way, was a 19th-century philosophy that held, in part, that Aryans and Northern Europeans are racially superior to brown and Mediterranean peoples.
Actually, social Darwinism is the sort of thinking you get from people like Charles Murray and David Brooks, when they argue that society functions more or less as a meritocracy and people are filtered into various social strata based upon their behaviors and aptitude. Brooks, for example, argues that a five-year-old's ability to resist grabbing a marshmallow as a high probability indicator of the child's future achievement, and adheres to the notion that we basically fall into a social and intellectual hierarchy by the end of high school. In Brooks' own words,
Somehow we've entered a world in which we obsess over structural reforms and standardized tests, but skirt around the moral and psychological traits that are at the heart of actual success.
No hints of "social Darwinism" there....

How does Brooks define "social Darwinism" when the President uses the term?
Social Darwinism, by the way, was a 19th-century philosophy that held, in part, that Aryans and Northern Europeans are racially superior to brown and Mediterranean peoples.
Brooks' logic, as such, appears to be that back in the 1940's some critics of eugenics used the term to criticize the racial policies of the Nazis and of European facists, and therefore any use of that term is tantamount to calling somebody a Nazi or a fascist. Brooks apparently also slept through the various attempts of right-wing commentators, including one of Brooks' colleagues, to associate eugenics with modern political liberalism / progressivism. President Obama was merely pointing out the fact that a lot of Republican budgetary policy is predicated upon the notion that the rich are more deserving than everybody else, a point Brooks does not actually attempt to refute. While the President did use a term that was intended to get listener's attention, and does implicate a historic association between social Darwinism and racially discriminatory policies, the President's use was far from outside the realm of ordinary political discourse. Argue that both sides can do better, and I'm with you. Argue that an allusion to social Darwinism is tantamount to calling somebody a fascist or eugenicist and you're displaying the conduct you're pretending to condemn.

Brooks whines,
Obama exaggerated these normal-sized differences into a Manichaean chasm. Under Ryan, Obama charged, 10 million college students would get their financial aid cut by $1,000, Alzheimer’s research would be slashed, 200,000 children would lose their chance to enter Head Start.

Where did Obama get these specifics? He imagined them. He imposed some assumptions that are nowhere to be found in the Ryan budget. He compared Ryan’s reduced spending increases with proposed growth, not current levels.
Back to Ezra Klein, first on Pell Grants,
Ryan attacks the president’s record, but he doesn’t debate the president’s numbers. Here’s what Ryan said about Pell grants in his initial budget release:
The administration’s budget pushes Pell Grant spending toward unsustainable rates, contributing to tuition inflation and inhibiting upward mobility and access to better opportunities.
There’s more programmatic detail on page 86 and 87 of this document. The bottom line is that the two sides agree: Ryan thinks Obama is spending too much on Pell grants, and Obama thinks Ryan is spending too little. This is, again, a debate over description, not about numbers.
Brooks also, in effect, lies about the President's argument. The President did not say, "Ryan's plan specifies the following cuts...", he instead pointed out that the cuts had to come from somewhere and that if you considered those areas in which Ryan was ruling out cuts or increasing spending, the implications were quite obvious:
Now, you can anticipate Republicans may say, well, we’ll avoid some of these cuts -- since they don’t specify exactly the cuts that they would make. But they can only avoid some of these cuts if they cut even deeper in other areas. This is math. If they want to make smaller cuts to medical research that means they’ve got to cut even deeper in funding for things like teaching and law enforcement. The converse is true as well. If they want to protect early childhood education, it will mean further reducing things like financial aid for young people trying to afford college.
Brooks admits up front that Obama's argument is essentially true,
It should be said at the outset that the Ryan budget has some disturbing weaknesses, which Democrats are right to identify. The Ryan budget would cut too deeply into discretionary spending. This could lead to self-destructive cuts in scientific research, health care for poor kids and programs that boost social mobility. Moreover, the Ryan tax ideas are too regressive. They make tax cuts for the rich explicit while they hide any painful loophole closings that might hurt Republican donors.
That is, Brooks knows that the Ryan budget is an exercise in mendacity that deliberately obscures or omits mention of the benefits cuts it intends for the poor and middle class. Brooks attempts to balance the mendacity by implying that the Ryan plan is also hiding from the wealthy the closing of tax loopholes that they would prefer remain open, but... the cuts are an explicit part of the plan, even if not specified, while the loophole closings remain theoretical. Brooks can accuse the President of being unfair in addressing the reality of Ryan's budget cuts, and where the money must come from, but the President is correct - we're talking simple math. Brooks instructs us that the Ryan plan can be anticipated to cut "programs that boost social mobility" and "scientific research", but his head explodes when the President describes the very programs he admits would have to be cut?

While contending that the Ryan plan allows for modest growth of the government over time, Brooks either has no understanding of the significance of the Ryan plan's projections or is choosing to be dishonest about the implications. The three big areas in which the government can make cuts are Medicare/Medicaid, Social Security and the military. We know that Ryan supports significant increases in military spending. If you don't want to cut spending, you have to increase revenues. We know that Ryan favors massive tax cuts, primarily for the benefit of the wealthy. Meanwhile, tje cost of Medicare and Social Security are projected to grow at a rate significantly in excess of inflation. If you crunch Ryan's numbers, in order to maintain the size of government he proposes, you must slash government spending, including making massive cuts to Social Security and Medicare. In a best case scenario for the Ryan plan, either those cuts are implemented or the deficit goes through the roof.

Courtesy of Barnes we already know that Brooks and Ryan are in communication, with Ryan actively and successfully enlisting Brooks to promote his ideas, so how hard would it be for Brooks to call Ryan and ask him, "The President says you would have to make massive cuts to college financial aid, Alzheimer's research and Head Start for your numbers to work, and it does appear that you would have to make massive cuts to scientific research and programs that boost social mobility - so tell me, how are you going to protect Alzheimer's research, college financial aid and Head Start from your budget cuts, and if you don't cut those programs exactly what will you be cutting?" The fact that he didn't do exactly that is quite telling. He's not interested in those facts.

One of the most bizarre episodes of the past year was when Politifact branded the truthful statement, that Paul Ryan's plan to privatize and voucherize Medicare would end the program as we know it, as the "lie of the year". Even Brooks cannot be so obtuse to have slumbered through the controversy over Politfact's gaffe - when even the National Review publishes arguments that the Politifact claim is absurd, you should be able to figure out that it has problems.
The Ryan plan is a deep, serious reform — it ends some of the program’s major features, and if traditional-Medicare supporters see those features as the core of the program, it’s fair for them to say it ends the program. And regarding point three, as Matthew Yglesias points out, only the elderly are eligible for Medicare, so it makes sense to use the elderly in ads, even if today’s elderly aren’t the ones affected.
In addressing Ryan's Medicare proposals, Brooks does exactly what you would expect of him - he ignores the facts, omits mention of the controversy, and substitutes a fallacious appeal to Politifact's (purported) authority for any actual discussion of the facts and realities of Ryan's plan.

Brooks next argues that the Medicare reforms Ryan presently proposes are softer and cuddlier than the ones he has proposed in the past - but expresses that at its core Ryan's plan remains intent on voucherizing and privatizing Medicare. You can see why Brooks prefers an appeal to authority to addressing the facts, because on the issue of "ending Medicare as we know it", they remain on the President's side. Brooks specific defenses of Ryan's revised plan reveal at best an astonishing display of credulousness and at worst the mendacity his political analysis so often betrays:
He made a series of specific accusations that have been easily swatted away by the Ryan defenders: That the Ryan plan would allow the insurance companies to cherry-pick the healthiest seniors (in fact, there are specific passages in the plan forbidding that); the Ryan plan would mean lower benefits for seniors (in fact, the plan would guarantee seniors the equivalent of current benefits while giving them other options).
Brooks starts by misrepresenting what the President said,
The way these private insurance companies save money is by designing and marketing plans to attract the youngest and healthiest seniors -- cherry-picking -- leaving the older and sicker seniors in traditional Medicare, where they have access to a wide range of doctors and guaranteed care.
Brooks implies that the President means that insurance companies would be able to prohibit certain seniors from choosing their plans, but that was not the President's contention. How does Brooks propose that the Ryan plan would "forbid" the type of plan design and marketing that the President describes? Do I hear... crickets? If it is as easy to refute the President's argument as Brooks claims, why does he find it necessary to misrepresent the argument?

In terms of Brooks' conceit that the Ryan plan would not result in the loss of benefits, the President in fact argued,
Instead of being enrolled in Medicare when they turn 65, seniors who retire a decade from now would get a voucher that equals the cost of the second cheapest health care plan in their area. If Medicare is more expensive than that private plan, they’ll have to pay more if they want to enroll in traditional Medicare. If health care costs rise faster than the amount of the voucher -- as, by the way, they’ve been doing for decades -- that’s too bad. Seniors bear the risk. If the voucher isn’t enough to buy a private plan with the specific doctors and care that you need, that's too bad.
In other words, if we pretend money is not an issue every senior could buy into Medicare, but the Ryan plan deliberately caps the subsidy for premiums, both in terms of inflation and in terms of relative cost, such that in relatively short order the premium will be well below the projected cost of Medicare. Seniors who cannot afford the extra cost will lose benefits. And as the President noted, healthier seniors will opt for lower cost plans, sickly seniors who can afford it will find a way to buy into Medicare, and the net result will be that Medicare-level benefits will be less and less affordable. Once again, Brooks misrepresents the statement and issues. And once again, Brooks offers no actual rebuttal.

Brooks finishes with a typically platitudinous display of Beltway "wisdom",
The first truth is that we will have to do these big things to avoid a fiscal calamity. The second truth is there is no one party solution; there has to be a merger of respectable ideas. The third truth is that gimmicky speeches obscure the president’s best character and make it seem as if he doesn’t understand the scope of the calamity looming in front of us.
The first truth is that ten year budget plans are nothing but an exercise in gimmickry - no present Congress can bind a future Congress, so the only budgets that count are one- to two-year plans. Even if we pretend that ten year budget projections are well-grounded in reality, and can be relied upon even if we have unexpected costs or crises (a financial industry collapse, a war, a financial bubble, a prolonged recession in Europe...), today's budgetary rectitude can result in tomorrow's budgetary recklessness. Brooks apparently slumbered through the manner in which the Clinton-era budget surplus was used to justify the Bush tax cuts - cuts that remain a huge contributing factor in our present budget deficit.

For all of Brooks' feigned umbrage at the President's having "exaggerated the differences between his budget and the Ryan budget," you can't help but wonder what planet he's from. Brooks thrives on exaggeration and lives by the false dichotomy. When Brooks examines political discourse, does he truly see one side as presenting a clinical, objective presentation of the other side's policy proposals? No heat, only light? Exaggeration is part of how the game of politics is played, and Brooks has to know that.

The second truth is that politics and policy are not the same thing. In a two party system, sometimes one political party or the other will have the better policies. Sometimes neither will have good policies. In either of those contexts, political compromise will result in the implementation of bad policy. If Brooks means to argue that with a Republican majority in the House and the continuation of the filibuster in the Senate, you must often sacrifice good policy in order to achieve political consensus necessary to get things done, true enough - that's politics. But that's anything but satisfying if you're interested in advancing the best policies. The compromises that are made to get the bare majority necessary to pass contentious legislation usually reflect the worst of Congress - greed, avarice, the sacrifice of good policy in the name of self-interest - and usually weaken the resulting legislation.

The third truth is that you can count on partisan political commentators to act as partisans, and Brooks' demagoguery in his own column is far worse than anything he accuses the President of having done. And that remains true even if you take Brooks' representations at face value rather that looking at what the President actually said.

David Brooks: Beltway wisdom at its finest....
1. Update: Via Dan Larison, here's Bruce Bartlett's take on Ryan's budget:
In short, looking only at the tax side of Ryan’s plan, he is anticipating enactment of an extraordinarily ambitious tax reform on top of the most ambitious budget cutting effort ever enacted. He would sharply cut outlays for every major program except Social Security and national defense. Every governmental function one can think of would be virtually abolished except for Medicare, Social Security and defense. A key reason for the severity of these cuts, of course, is that Ryan would cut taxes at the same time he is cutting spending. To achieve balance with lower than projected revenues requires even larger cuts in spending.

I do not believe any of this will ever happen or could ever happen. I think Ryan has an undeserved reputation for seriousness in budget matters. The word “fantasy” would better apply. As Prof. Calvin Johnson of the University of Texas law school told me, the tax side of Ryan’s plan “is floating in the clouds without any connection to earth or reality.” And of course accomplishing what he hopes to do on the spending side is even more fanciful.

In my opinion, the Ryan budget should be seen as nothing more than a PR document for Republicans so they can say they have a plan to balance the budget, cut taxes, and cure the common cold. It may serve that narrow purpose, although many Republicans are saying that it doesn’t go far enough in slashing spending. I wish I could buy some of the stuff these guys are drinking or smoking.

Anyone can make up numbers that balance the budget while slashing taxes at the same time if they have no concern whatsoever for the proper functioning of government, no concern for the hardship it would cause, and are in a position to order the CBO to accept those numbers at face value. Coming up with specific legislative changes that will actually implement such a vision, getting it enacted, and accepting the consequences is something else altogether.
Imagine what Brooks' response might have been had Obama been that blunt.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

What a Brilliant Idea, Tom

Once again, Thomas Friedman has advice for the Palestinians on how to achieve peace with Israel. Surprisingly it does not involve finding a Palestinian Gandhi (although perhaps he thinks of Marwan Barghouti as a Palestinian Mandela).1
I can certainly see the efficacy of nonviolent resistance by Palestinians to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank — on one condition: They accompany any boycotts, sit-ins or hunger strikes with a detailed map of the final two-state settlement they are seeking. Just calling for “an end to occupation” won’t cut it.
Actually, were he an honest man, Friedman would admit that he cannot see the efficacy in boycotts, sit-ins or hunger strikes. The media neither cares about nor covers them, freeing people like Friedman to ignore the long history of Palestinian peaceful protest and its failure to bring about results. I believe it was Moshe Dayan, many years ago, who commented on the phenomenon that, as of about twenty years ago, Israel's history was of refusing to make concessions during periods of calm then making concessions during periods of uprising, and expressing that it was no surprise that the Palestinian take-away was that only uprising would bring about concessions. The Israeli government under the likes of Ariel Sharon and Netanayahu internalized that message, and responded by refusing to make concessions under any circumstances. So here we are.

Friedman is talking about more than peaceful protest. He describes, "Unabated, disruptive Palestinian civil disobedience in the West Bank". What he fails to explain is how "unabated, disruptive Palestinian civil disobedience in the West Bank" would do anything but make the lives of ordinary Palestinians more difficult, let alone how it would inspire any action by Israel or the rest of the world. Guess what? It would not.

But that map thing, an interesting idea. Which isn't to say that Friedman is strong on the details:
Palestinians need to accompany every boycott, hunger strike or rock they throw at Israel with a map delineating how, for peace, they would accept getting back 95 percent of the West Bank and all Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem and would swap the other 5 percent for land inside pre-1967 Israel.
The five percent figure is not arbitrary. It's about the minimum amount of Land that Israel would have to cede back to the Palestinians in order to minimize the disruption to the massive population of Israeli "settlers" it has moved onto Palestinian lands. The five percent issue is more complicated than Friedman lets on, given that settlements were placed for strategic purposes and quickly transform a proposed map from having a neat, sensible border to an absurdity, with fingers of land crisscrossing the proposed Palestinian state in order to keep settlements deep within the occupied territories and a network of access roads.

If a Palestinian map simply showed a long line (for a road) with a big circle around Tel Aviv, Friedman would no doubt take strong issue with the notion that the Palestinians were offering a fair trade. But although quick to suggest that the Palestinians should give up the 5% of their own land most desirable to settlers "in exchange for" land inside Israel's present borders, there will be difficulty establishing the terms of a land swap that is equivalent. Also, even offering such a map legitimizes the presence of Israel's illegal settlements on Palestinian land, the notion that Israel should not have to do anything to remove or reduce those settlements, and that whatever concessions the Palestinians make should be a starting point for the amount of land expropriated from the occupied territories for the continued enjoyment of settlers.

Friedman links to a proposal from the Washington Institute that includes a proposed map. The map highlights both how, even in a conservative land swap plan, settlements will carve up the proposed Palestinian state. Is Friedman claiming that all of the historic claims about Israel's need for defensible borders is propagandistic hogwash? Because how in the world would you protect those borders from, say, rocket attack? And yes, every time peace comes close to breaking out, anti-peace groups on both sides engage in provocations to try to scuttle the peace process, so something like that will happen. Does Friedman imagine that the final map will include huge "no go" areas for Palestinians in their own state, with similarly huge areas that will be under continued Israeli military occupation? The "Geneva Initiative" maps present similar issues.

The map proposals highlight the lack of bargaining power by Palestinians. The Palestinian side is asked to make enormous concessions as part of the settlement because it has no choice. The difficulty in presenting a map capitulating to the perpetual presence of settlements is that it destroys at the outset the credibility of the Palestinian negotiating team with the Palestinian people. They're giving up 5% of the occupied territories before negotiations even begin, while as Friedman knows the Palestinian people view themselves as having already surrendered 78% of their land in exchange for what they believed would be their own state on the remaining 22%. Even if the Palestinian people understand how negotiations will end they have to start with the Green Line.

But let's say the Palestinians come up with a map that they believe they can sell to the Palestinian people, and approach the Israeli government with the proposal that they agree on final borders for both a Palestinian and Israeli state. The first thing they might do is say, "Let's compare our map to yours." Surely, after all, if it's reasonable to expect the Palestinians to produce a map "to reassure" the Israelis, turnabout is fair play. Why are there no official Israeli maps proposing the settlement of land issues with the Palestinians? Why isn't Friedman calling on the Israeli government to produce a map? As Friedman knows, while Netanyahu has indicated that he will negotiate over borders if and when negotiations ever resume, he has long taken the position that discussion of borders be pushed to the end of negotiations. There are no official Israeli "starting point" maps, and those that have been offered by Israel in association with past negotiations have not been made public.

There's something else to consider here, which is that the problem of the settlements - the issue that Friedman sees as so central to the present conflict that it must be addressed up front with an extraordinary concession by the Palestinians - is entirely of Israel's creation. Why does Friedman overlook that history, four decades of explicit warnings about how the settlements were complicating the peace process, and the fact that the strongest proponents of settlement understood that and forged ahead with the intent of complicating or preventing the eventual creation of a Palestinian state?

This is not by any stretch of the imagination a one-sided conflict, but it is and always has been an asymmetric conflict. Fairness is something of a sideshow. It's reasonable to propose that the Palestinians will have to make disproportionate concessions in order to achieve a final resolution of the conflict, as they have next to no bargaining power and nobody to champion their cause. The eventual settlement will include a ridiculous border that keeps the bulk of the settlements inside of Israel. But I find it hard to believe that anybody, save perhaps Friedman himself, would view Friedman's proposal as serious: "Concede, up front 95% of what the other side demands, then give up the rest (or more) in negotiations."

Here's an idea - Israel and the Palestinians could agree to enter into a binding arbitration under which each side would submit a proposed map of the final borders of an Israeli and Palestinian state. A panel of arbitrators would then accept one or the other as a binding, final resolution of the border issue. We could even include the two maps Friedman mentions in his column as possible alternative choices, to try to diminish any chance of the panel's having to pick the lesser of two evils. Does Friedman believe that Netanyahu would agree to participate?
1. Friedman quotes a Ha'aretz article,
Barghouti, as Haaretz noted, “is the most authentic leader Fatah has produced, and he can lead his people to an agreement. ... If Israel had wanted an agreement with the Palestinians it would have released him from prison by now.”
If Friedman disagrees, why did he present that quote? But if he agrees, what's the purpose of arguing that the Palestinians should capitulate in order to try to get a peace deal from a government that does not want peace?

Who Will Run for President in 2016

Assuming that Romney loses the 2012 election, the question becomes "Who will run in 2016", at which time both parties will be looking for a winning candidate.

On one hand, it's impossible to predict what is going to happen in four years. In 2003, President Obama was a state senator. In 1989 there was no buzz about Bill Clinton as the next president. By the same token a candidate who looks appealing today may, four years from now, look like yesterday's news. An up-and-coming candidate, a fresh face and voice, may start to look older, stale, unaccomplished. The dangers of what can happen over four years seem to be particularly pronounced for Republicans, given that there's now a significant part of the Republican base that is offended by political compromise. The Republican Party as a whole has reaped significant reward for being "the Party of 'No'", but that approach is not particularly helpful to a candidate who wants to build a record of accomplishment, or to somebody who has to appeal to a national audience as opposed to the voters of a particular state or district.

The "dream" candidates on the Republican side, the candidates that sat out the present race but are depicted as possible contenders in 2016, include Paul Ryan, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, Marco Rubio, Tim Pawlenty, Rob Portman, Jeb Bush, Nikki Haley, and Bob McDonnell. I think some of those candidates are lightweights whose inclusion in the list serves to highlight only how the media and party can sometimes elevate mediocre people to undeserved heights (no offense, Paul Ryan), but there is something you can draw from that list: Unlike the majority of candidates in the present primary, most of those potential candidates are viewed as having some level of genuine substance, and moderate to strong understanding of the issues facing their states or our nation.

If you are of the opinion that the Republican Party's strongest candidate looked at the 2012 campaign as one the Republicans were destined to lose, it makes sense that the "better" candidates would sit out the race. The problem with that theory is that after the 2010 midterm elections and with the nation's sluggish recovery from recession and the housing bubble, this should have been a great time for a strong Republican candidate to run for the presidency.

The Republicans need to consider the factors that kept what many believe to be their best candidates for winning the White House from joining the 2012 campaign. If it turns out to be that their various litmus and purity tests allow Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann to be taken seriously but exclude Bobby Jindal or Rob Portman, that's something they need to consider. There was room in the 2012 primary season for serious policy discussions between the candidates. It would have been interesting to hear a serious debate between Jon Huntsman, Ron Paul and Mitt Romney, but neither Huntsman nor Paul were deemed sufficiently serious as candidates by their own party. A Romney victory could reinforce that effect in 2020. A Romney loss might bring about a different approach to the primary in 2016, but I'm not holding my breath.

Again assuming President Obama is reelected, the Democratic race for the nomination promises to be an exercise in contrasts with the Republican contest. Possible nominees include Andrew Cuomo, Martin O'Malley, Hillary Clinton, Mark Warner, Kay Hagan... some of whom are anything but household names. And again, let's not forget the "Bill Clinton" effect - the strongest candidate for either party may not be on our present radar - and that some candidates who presently look reasonably strong will no longer look like serious contenders when the primary season begins. But one thing seems clear, the Democratic race will be between candidates who will be addressing actual policy issues. You may recall from four years ago that addressing the issues sometimes brings more heat than light, and is not always done well, but I don't expect that you'll see anything approximating the "bubble candidate of the weak week" show we saw in this year's Republican contest before the party finally, sort of settled on Mitt Romney.

Citizen Romney

If you recall the film, Citizen Kane, you likely recall the start of the film when a dying Kane drops a snow globe that falls to the floor and shatters. Snow globe-style falling snow is used throughout the film as it segues through the chapters of Kane's life. The story covers Kane's escape from poverty through inherited wealth, and how he parlays that wealth into success as a newspaper magnate with political aspirations - there's lots of stuff to work with. But best start now, because before you know it the most obvious substitution for a snow globe, the Etch-a-Sketch, is not only going to be part of pretty much every analysis of Romney's shifting positions, but will be used as a segue between "what he said then" and "what he's saying now" in countless political ads.

If you haven't seen it, I recommend an earlier Citizen Kane parody, the "Rosebud" episode of the Simpsons. I can't offer you a link to the video, so for now you'll have to settle for this:

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

War of the Platforms

How quickly we forget Microsoft (not that we should).... From an interview of Larry Page,
We are in an interesting place in tech where almost none of the big companies—Apple (AAPL), Facebook, Amazon.com (AMZN)—are working together. Why is that?

Big companies have always needed and cooperated in areas where it made sense. I don’t know that I believe there is some huge, strange change in that.

We were real interested in getting instant messaging to work across networks back in the day, and we worked really hard with AOL (AOL) to do that. You know, integration between Google Talk and AOL Instant Messaging. It ended up being a tremendous amount of technical effort. There were some user benefits generated by it, but I’m not sure it was ultimately worth the effort. I would say that my experience with these things is that they have been somewhat difficult.
As I interpret the first part of the answer, that's the important part: "We (Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Google) don't see cooperation as being in our self-interest." The second part, about technical difficulties, is peripherally relevant - if you are trying to merge multiple platforms into a single interface you will encounter technical issues. But we're really talking VHS / Betamax here - the parties aren't interested in merging their platforms because they all want to win.

A number of years ago, Netscape created an Internet browser. After a sluggish start, Microsoft started listening to concerns that the browser might be the platform of the future, displacing or marginalizing the operating system, and used its massive market power to make Internet Explorer the dominant browser. Judging from their subsequent treatment of Explorer, they apparently then decided that they had killed the threat and went back to sleep.

Also, for pretty much as long as there has been an Internet, there have been efforts to bring the Internet to television. Microsoft was an early competitor for Internet TV, but between poor resolution, a poor interface and a difference in how people traditionally interact with their televisions as opposed to their computers, that didn't work out so well. Which isn't to say that Microsoft has given up - it is trying to turn the Xbox into an interface to television and movie programming.

There was a lot of hype a few months back about the possibility of an Apple television, with a lot of talk about interface. I would not be surprised if Apple is devoting considerable resources to researching television technology, how to improve displays, how to improve streaming, how to improve interface. But I'm increasingly skeptical that they are going to become so territorial about the television space that they attempt to enter the commoditized space of high definition televisions.

If television and movie producers were as eager to sign on to distribution through iTunes in the same manner as the music industry, perhaps there would be a greater opportunity for a premium-priced Apple branded television with an impeccable interface to their store, a brilliant screen, a wonderful interface, and packages of content that would allow owners to avoid subscribing to Cable (although they would have to get high speed Internet access somewhere). But the stars aren't aligning in that manner, so I expect Apple will continue to emphasize its products as an interface to Television. In friendly to not-so-friendly competition with Google, Microsoft and Netflix, with Amazon's recent Playstation deal suggesting that it, also, is entering the game.

Fundamentally, this appears to be a platform war. Microsoft is reportedly fashioning its next OS to integrate well with its relatively unsuccessful smartphone OS and its upcoming tablet OS. Amazon is happy to build its Kindle OS on Android, but strips out the parts of Android that most benefit Google. Google is pushing television integration and Google Play. Facebook is... I'm not sure, but as long as a huge percentage of social network traffic and gaming occurs through their platform, they're a possible contender. And all of them want you to buy entertainment products and software through their proprietary stores, taking a commission on the sale of each new song, TV show, movie or application you purchase.

The iPad has turned out to be an amazing platform. Although people talk about Facebook as a potential advertising company, it is only profitable by virtue of the commission it charges to third parties for the use of its platform. Microsoft understands that Windows for PC is eroding as a platform, and is hoping to reestablish itself through the Xbox and various Windows 8 products. Google is taking a gamble with Android as a platform, with Amazon demonstrating how a third party can take full advantage of its work in developing a fully featured, stable mobile operating system and swap in its own web store, but they'll keep pushing it as a platform and will probably try to come up with a revenue sharing model to keep other smartphone and tablet manufacturers from following Amazon's suit or switching to Windows.

And yes, those platform wars are going to creep into your living room. If you have a gaming system, Apple TV or iPad, arguably even a smart phone, they're already in your living room looking for opportunities to expand their reach. Huge numbers of TV viewers already have a second device running while they watch TV - how do you bring the two (or more) screens together? How do you make your smart device the default interface or control for the television and, from there, perhaps the default source for premium, purchased or rented video content? And as server-based games get more powerful, can even the promised exceptional graphics performance of the next generation of game stations continue to hold n advantage over app-based purchased, subscription or freemium gaming? Take your game from tablet to TV, back to tablet, to smartphone, to car, to friend's house, to friend's TV.... It's going to be interesting.