Wednesday, April 29, 2009

This Pole's got balls!

By Andrew Gumbel for LA Times
April 29, 2009  | Guardian

Krystian Zimerman, the great Polish concert pianist, is usually a man of few words. He doesn't, as a rule, talk to the audience during performances. He says little or nothing in the press between his all-too-rare concert tours - not even about his habit of travelling everywhere with his own Steinway grand piano. He rarely grants them the pleasure of an encore.

So he triggered more than the usual rumble of discomfort when he raised his voice in the closing stages of a recital at Los Angeles' Disney Hall on Sunday night and announced he would no longer perform in the United States in protest against Washington's military policies.

"Get your hands off my country," Zimerman told the stunned crowd in a denunciation of US plans to install a missile defence shield on Polish soil.  Some people cheered, others yelled at him to shut up and keep playing. A few dozen walked out, some of them shouting obscenities.

"Yes," Zimerman responded with derision, "some people when they hear the word military start marching."

According to Mark Swed, the Los Angeles Times's veteran classical music critic who witnessed the incident, Zimerman hesitated before deciding to speak up. He was about to strike up the first notes of the final piece on his programme, Karol Szymanowski's Variations on a Polish Folk Theme, when he "sat silently at the piano for a moment, almost began to play, but then turned to the audience".

Swed said he delivered his tirade "in a quiet but angry voice that did not project well".

Zimerman appears to have been upset by Barack Obama's decision, announced this month, to maintain the Bush-era policy of installing a missile defence shield in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Obama insisted the shield was part of a defensive posture against Iran, not Russia, and that he intended to remove it as soon as the threat from Iran subsided. But many Poles have accused the US of wanting to mount a military occupation of their country, and fear the shield could make them a target of Russian aggression.

Classical musicians are not exactly famous for political ranting. When Beethoven became disillusioned with Napoleon after he crowned himself emperor in 1804, the loudest thing the composer did was remove the dedication to him from his Eroica symphony. Leonard Bernstein spoke out against the Vietnam war and hosted a notorious fundraiser for the radical Black Panther movement, but never discussed his politics from the conductor's podium.

Zimerman, though, has developed something of a track record - especially since the 9/11 attacks. In 2006 he announced he would not return to the United States until George Bush was out of office. The same year, at Baltimore's Shriver Hall, he prefaced his performance of Beethoven's Pathetique sonata with a denunciation of America's prison at Guantánamo Bay.

At least some of his opprobrium appears to be personal. Shortly after 9/11, his piano was confiscated by customs officials at New York's JFK airport, who thought the glue smelled funny. They subsequently destroyed the instrument.

For several years he chose to travel with just the mechanical insides of his own piano and install them - he is a master piano repairer, as well as player - inside a Steinway shell he borrowed from the company in New York. In 2006 he tried to travel with his own piano again, only to have it held up in customs for five days and disrupt his performance schedule.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Taibbi: Teabagging the teabaggers

Taibbi is right on, but he has a potty mouth.  I lightly edited this to keep it PG-13 for ya'll. 

If you teabaggers are against gov't spending, then you should have been out there years ago protesting all federal spending, not just the kind that builds roads, guarantees home loans, and gives medical care to children. 

By Matt Taibbi
April 16, 2009  | Smirking Chimp

Many protesters expressed a sense that basic American freedoms of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are threatened by new Washington policies seen by many as more socialistic than capitalistic. The proposed taxpayer bailout of homeowners who may have inflated their earnings in order to secure mortgages is one example, says Jeff Crawford, a protester from Dacula, Ga.

"The first year after the Mayflower arrived, the colonists tried a communal method of storing and sharing food and it failed miserably," says Mr. Crawford. "Why are things any different now?"

Eighteenth-century symbolism was rife at the Atlanta event as speakers drew comparisons with the Boston patriots who dumped the King's tea in Boston Harbor to protest taxation without representation, an act that began the American Revolution and the founding of the United States.

I have to say, I'm really enjoying this whole teabag thing. It's really inspiring some excellent daydreaming. [...]

Previously Michelle Malkin's writing was on the edge of unreadable; she's sort of like Ann Coulter, only without that tiny fraction of P.T. Barnum/Mick Jagger-esque self-promotional flair that makes Coulter at least vaguely interesting. When you read Ann Coulter, you know you're reading someone who would molest a hippopotamus if she thought it would boost her Q rating. That's a rare quality and it commands one's attention.

Michelle Malkin doesn't have that. She's just a mean little dunce who's wedged herself into a nicely paying career as a GOP spokesclown, and she's going to ride that gig for as long as it keeps gas in her minivan.

And that's fine, good for her. But that doesn't make her readable. However, this move of hers to spearhead the teabag movement really adds an element to her writing that wasn't there before. [...]

Anyway this teabag thing has really gotten out of control. It's amazing, literally amazing to me, that it wasn't until Obama pushed through a package containing a massive public works package and significant homeowner aid that conservatives took to the streets. In other words, it wasn't until taxes turned into construction jobs and mortgage relief that working and middle-class Americans decided to protest. I didn't see anyone on the street when we forked over billions of dollars to help JP Morgan Chase buy Bear Stearns. And I didn't see anyone on the street when Hank Paulson forked over $45 more billion to help Bank of America buy Merrill Lynch, a company run at the time by one of the world's biggest assholes, John Thain. Moreover I didn't see any street protests when the government agreed to soak up hundreds of billions in "troubled assets" from Citigroup, a company that just months later would lend out a jet furnished with pillows upholstered with Hermes scarves to former chief Sandy Weill so that he could vacation in Mexico over Christmas.

Look, I'm a taxpayer too. And I'm no less pissed off than any of these people about the taxes I have to pay. Just today I was reading hedge-fund manager David Einhorn's book, Fooling Some of the People All of the Time, about his battles with a company called Allied Capital.  Einhorn was shorting Allied because he found accounting irregularities in Allied's books after analyzing the firm. Among other things, he found that an Allied subsidiary called BLX was irresponsibly handling tens of millions in Small Business Association loans, shoving this SBA money out to unworthy recipients and costing the taxpayer an enormous amount of money. When Einhorn went to the SBA, they basically blew him off. "We see this all the time; what's so special about those?" was the SBA official's response when Einhorn presented him with evidence of loan fraud. Einhorn pointed out that one of the reasons companies like BLX got away with bilking the government was because the enforcement agencies were so understaffed: he routinely found that agencies like the SEC and the OIG could not or would not investigate fraud against the taxpayer because they had no staff to pursue the investigations.

That attitude, that complete and total I-don't-give-a-f--- attitude about taxpayer money, that's endemic to almost every branch of the government. We saw in the last five years how contractors in Iraq nakedly robbed money from the you and me, running phantom convoys across the desert (some companies called that transporting "sailboat fuel"), systematically risking human life and gouging the taxpayer more or less right out in the open. There was over $100 billion in sole-source, non-competitive contracts in Iraq in 2006; a House Committee identified just 50 contracts totalling more than $21 billion that require "scrutiny," but not much has been recovered so far. Why did they get away with it?  Because there is basically no serious enforcement mechanism, in the military or anywhere else, for preserving taxpayer money given to contractors.  In Iraq, the military auditor, SIGIR, had about seventy men in the entire military theater at the time I was there. We just bailed out AIG to the tune of more than $160 billion; its primary auditor, the Office of Thrift Supervision, had exactly one insurance expert on its staff while AIG was falling apart.  There were staff cuts at the SEC several times in the last ten years; in fact there was a crucial cut of the SEC budget in an $821 billion Omnibus spending bill at the tail end of 2003 (just in time for the housing bubble) that was packed with plenty of pork and, again, inspired no protests from Joe Sixpack.

Meanwhile the federal government has systematically expanded a whole ecosystem of contractor-handout programs, most of them with names the public has never heard of. How many people out there are aware of all the millions in grants given to fortune 500 companies over the years through the Advanced Technology Program (ATP), which basically subsidizes the R&D departments of already rich firms while allowing those same companies to keep the benefits of those innovations? How about the nearly $5 billion in loan guarantees given to Boeing over the years through the Ex-Im Bank?  How about the Foreign Military Financing Program, which gives millions of dollars to dozens of foreign countries every year so that they can buy American-made weapons?

Or how about the four or five billion dollars we spent annually for the last decade or so on Federal Housing Authority subsidies?  Well, actually, the teabaggers probably would get riled up about those programs, which subsidize mortgage loans to low-income homeowners.  The one constant in teabagger outrage is that the whatever wasteful government program they're freaking out about has to benefit some poor slob, or else they usually don't give a shit.  What they forget, of course, is that FHA loans ultimately benefit the banks a lot more than the poor slobs — a homeowner defaulting on his FHA loan loses his house, but the bank that irresponsibly issued the loan (without fear, knowing they are backed up by the government) is still fully compensated, with you picking up the tab.

So yeah, government waste sucks, it's rampant at every level, and taxes are a vicious racket, and everyone should be pissed off.  What's hilarious about the teabaggers, though, is how they never squawk about waste until the spending actually has a chance of benefiting them.  You will never hear of a teabagger crying about OPIC giving $50 million in free insurance to some mining company so that they can dig for silver in rural Bolivia.  You won't hear of a teabagger protesting the $2.5 billion in Ex-Im loans we gave to GE through the early part of this decade, even as GE was moving nearly a hundred thousand jobs overseas over the course of ten years.  And Michelle Malkin's readers didn't seem to mind giving IBM millions in Ex-IM and ATP loans at the same time it was giving its former CEO, Lou Gerstner, $260 million in stock options.

In other words teabaggers don't mind paying taxes to fund the salaries of Bolivian miners, Lou Gerstner's stock options, deliveries of "sailboat fuel," the Hermes scarves on Sandy Weill's jet pillows, or even the export of their own goddamn jobs.  But they do hate it when someone tries to re-asphalt their roads, or help bail their slob neighbor out of foreclosure.  And God forbid someone propose a health care program, or increased financial aid for college.  Hell, that's like offering to share your turkey with the other Pilgrims! That's not what America is all about!  America is every Pilgrim for himself, dammit!  Raise your own mother----ing turkey!

Oh, and there's one other thing. I heard today from Steve Wamhoff of Citizens for Tax Justice.  He had an interesting tidbit to offer on the teabagging movement. According to his research, 39% of respondents with incomes below $30,000 told the Gallup agency that they felt that federal income tax levels were "too high."  Which is interesting, because only 32% of respondents in that income category will pay any federal income taxes at all on their 2008 income. You can draw your own conclusions.

The really irritating thing about these morons is that, guaranteed, not one of them has ever taken a serious look at the federal budget.  Not one has ever bothered to read an actual detailed study of what their taxes pay for.  All they do is listen to one-liners doled out by tawdry Murdoch-hired mouthpieces like Michelle Malkin and then repeat them as if they're their own opinions five seconds later.  That's what passes for political thought in this country.  Teabag on, you fools.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Dems straddle fence on emissions

Even Democrats are not immune to the influence of Big Oil and Coal.  Because of fence-sitting Democrats, we may end up with an energy bill passed by the House that mandates cutting CO2 emissions only 6 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, instead of 14 percent like Obama wanted.  Probably House Republicans will oppose any cuts, no matter how small, making passage uncertain and the bill's fate in the Senate even more precarious.

By comparison, the original 1997 Kyoto Treaty which the U.S. Senate refused to ratify then, and which Bush proudly rejected, proposed cutting greenhouse gas-emission levels 5.2 percent below 1990 levels by 2012.

Friday, April 24, 2009

U.S. trails China, EU in green investments

U.S. trailing China, EU in 'green' investments
By Ben Furnas
April 20, 2009 | Center for American Progress

A February analysis by HSBC Global Research in Hong Kong projects that nearly 40 percent of China's proposed $586 billion stimulus plan—$221 billion over two years—is going toward public investment in renewable energy, low-carbon vehicles, high-speed rail, an advanced electric grid, efficiency improvements, and other water-treatment and pollution controls. This stimulus is on top of historic levels of government spending and private investment in renewable technology, energy efficiency, and low-carbon growth all across China. The upshot: China, according to a recent analysis, is "the largest alternative energy producer in the world in terms of installed generating capacity."


This massive stimulus plan will spend over 3 percent of China's 2008 gross domestic product annually in 2009 and 2010 on green investments—more than six times America's green stimulus spending as a percentage of our respective economies. This is about $12.6 million every hour over the next two years. In the United States, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act invests $112 billion in comparable green priorities over the next two years, about half as much as China, according to HSBC. This represents less than half of one percent of our 2008 gross domestic product.

President Barack Obama has proposed additional public investment in renewable energy research of $15 billion annually, paid for by charging dirty energy corporations for their pollution. While this would amount to just one tenth of one percent of America's 2008 GDP, it would be a good start. With this money, the United States would finally join China and dozens of other nations across the world in providing public investment for renewable energy, including Japan, Germany, Canada, France, South Korea, Denmark, and Spain.

[By contrast,] in a series of energy bills in 2001, 2003, and 2005, the Bush administration plowed billions of dollars into dirty energy—oil, coal, and nuclear—while neglecting clean renewable energy industries. The 2001 energy bill gave 80 percent of its value to tax breaks for oil, gas, nuclear, and coal companies. The 2003 energy bill, drafted in secret with Vice President Dick Cheney and members of the oil, gas, coal, and electric industries, gave $23.5 billion to dirty energy and loosened environmental regulations. Finally, while the 2005 bill contained a token level of investment in renewable energy, it also provided even more support for dirty energy, offering $27 billion in subsidies for coal, oil, and nuclear energy.


But as the Bush administration doubled down on the energy of the past, nations across the world invested in the future. Japan, China, and European countries zoomed past the United States, with a combination of dirty energy regulations, public investments, and private market incentives.

In 2006, according to the most recent data from the Renewable Energy Policy Network, the United States, the world's largest economy, invested less in new capacity for renewable energy than either the EU-25 or China. In fact, according to the most recent data, the entire United States invests less in renewable energy per year than the country of Germany, which boasts less than one-third the population of the United States and an economy less than one-fourth our size.


The imperative for renewable sources of energy, energy efficiency, and green transportation and power infrastructure is clear. And yet, we continue to neglect these priorities while plowing tens of billions of dollars of subsidies into polluting and wildly profitable oil and gas companies that create far fewer jobs and exacerbate global warming.

President Obama's energy plan would eliminate $30 billion in giveaways to oil and gas companies and make polluting energy companies pay for their global warming pollution in order to invest in renewable energy infrastructure and cut taxes for 95 percent of working American families. This is the way to go.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Sowell: U.S. medical care the best?

Here's one rebuttal to Thomas Sowell who said that U.S. medical care is the best:

"There is evidence that patients in the U.S. are getting less medical care as the economy worsens.  A March report from the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions said 25% of consumers have delayed medical care they couldn't afford because of the bad economy.  A recent analysis by the Associated Press found that diabetics were cutting back on care, possibly to the detriment of their health."

U.S. medical care may be the best, but only for those who can afford it.  And in a bad economy with higher unemployment, medical care is becoming even more inaccessible.  U.S. medical care is more than twice as expensive as the average in other industrialized countries, with health insurance costs rising 2-4 times above inflation year to year, and total costs for insured employees expected to rise 8.9% in 2009.  Sowell says Americans don't have to wait for medical procedures, but obviously they must wait if they are uninsured or underinsured and have to save up the money first.  Likewise, a Mercedes is a great car, and maybe I will own one someday, but I can't afford one now.  So what good is to me if I need to go someplace today?

The high cost of medical care leads directly to the high cost of health insurance.  Sowell is wrong (or just pedantic) to separate the two.

Most people who use the emergency room as their primary physician don't do so to reserve money for a "more upscale lifestyle," as Sowell claims.  It was callous and blue-blooded of Dubya to say that Americans can "just go to an emergency room" for medical care, and it's even more callous of Sowell to repeat it.  Emergency rooms are extremely expensive*, and they do not provide regular preventive care, which is essential to keeping medical costs down.

(*Last year my wife went to an emergency room with flu-like symptoms.  After being put under an IV for a few hours she felt 100% better.  But before she left the hospital, nobody could tell her how much her treatment had cost.  Weeks later, still nobody could say.  We received bills and corrections to previous billings from various doctors and specialists for months afterward, since the fact that she was uninsured and wanted to pay out of pocket confounded their whole billing and collection system based on private insurance.  The total came to nearly $1,000.  I guess if we were too poor, we just wouldn't have paid, and the hospital would have eaten it, or passed on the cost to the insurance companies.  Is that Sowell's idea of economic efficiency?  We cannot even call that a health care "system.")

Sowell is right that people's lifestyle choices affect their health.  But not all health costs are due to lifestyle.  America's high infant mortality rate is a prime example.  We are the richest country on Earth but we rank 29th in the world for infant survial.  If a mother is uninsured, she likely won't get the care she needs.

Nobody said we have to emulate one country or another's health care system.  Countries and health systems vary.  We can pick and choose what suits us best.  Regardless, what makes any kind of insurance work is pooled risk.  There is no bigger pool in the U.S. than the population of the U.S.  If government is the provider of health insurance, then it can spread risks and costs among 300 million insured and negotiate with doctors and drug companies for lower prices.  Meanwhile, we can keep private clinics and medical care for those who want to pay out of pocket.  The two systems don't have to be mutually exclusive.

I think a grand compromise on national health care will happen.  The U.S. gov't will probably become the single payer for health care, or else mandate employer coverage and pay for the unemployed.  But rising costs will bury any system, public or private, so Obama is correct to focus on controlling costs. Building on state pilot programs launched by Bush, Obama is investing $100 billion over 10 years to establish electronic medical records, which could save the health industry $200-300 billion a year.  The gov't must also offers doctors malpractice protection.  This would cut costs in at least two ways, the other being that doctors won't order so many expensive tests (like MRIs) to insure themselves against misdiagnosis.  Another piece of the compromise might be federal assistance to drug companies in the form of tax credits or subsidies for their drug development costs (which run into the $ billions each year); in exchange the gov't would get discounts on prescription drugs.  There are surely dozens of other ways to cut medical costs, like relying on nurse practitioners and "quick clinics" instead of doctors for treatment of colds, flu, and other common, easily treatable illnesses.  Returning to our reliance on the traditional family doctor (primary care physician) would also cut costs by reducing patients' visits to expensive specialists at the first sign of a problem.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Obama against DC schools' federal vouchers?

Juan Williams' liberal credentials encourage me to give his views (see below) on school vouchers full consideration, but unfortunately, he is mostly wrong.  He is right that Washington, DC's federally funded school voucher program is unique in that it does not take away funds from DC's education budget.  As I've said before, I strongly suspect that conservative politicians promote school vouchers as a way to indirectly de-fund our public schools, thereby further lowering their performance, and thus making private schools look even better by comparison, thereby strengthening their argument that vouchers work.

He is also right it's commendable how parents have found the extra money to pay the costs of private school that were not covered by the $7,500 annual voucher.  (The average voucher amount in DC is about $6,000.)  That shows their real dedication to education.  Despite what school their kids may attend, these parents' emphasis on education is probably the biggest reason for their kids' higher relative performance.  But unfortunately, removing their kids from the public school system is the equivalent of "brain drain," leaving behind children whose parents do not, or cannot, emphasize education as strongly.  This hurts the performance of children left behind, since children learn not only from their teachers, but also from their peers.  And the more good students who leave, the fewer positive examples remain for those children who are left behind.

Regarding the results of vouchers in DC, specifically, Matthew Yglesias remarked:

"After 3 years, there was a statistically significant positive impact on reading test scores, but not math test scores. The OSP improved reading achievement for 5 of the 10 subgroups examined. .... But given that the baseline is what's probably the worst-performing big city public school system in the country the results are actually kind of meager. DC needs its kids to be doing much better than this."

I share his sentiments, based on my personal experience as an after-school tutor at a DC charter school.  The kids came from various DC schools.  They had to apply for acceptance to the program, and even sign a study "contract" (if I recall correctly).  We always told the kids they were special and above-average, and relative to their peers in DC, they were.  But frankly, skills-wise, most were below their peers from the white suburbs where I'm from.  This is the real problem -- the real relative performance problem.  In the final analysis, it's not their performance relative to their own past performance that matters, or their peers in DC, but rather their performance relative to more affluent suburban kids (against whom they will compete for college entrance and scholarships), and indeed, relative to their European and Asian coevals (against whom they will compete for employment). 

Juan Williams' swipe against performance-based pay has nothing to do with vouchers, but this is also probably a bad idea, at least if performance is defined solely by test scores.  You proponents of private schools, ask yourselves:  Have you ever heard of a private school teacher getting a bonus or a promotion because of her students' test scores?  If they don't do this at private schools, which are supposedly the ideal, then why should we impose this kind of incentive system in our public schools?  What's the logic? 

Studies of student performance -- whether they attend public or private school -- show that performance is tied mainly to income and education levels of their parents.  Imagine the absurdity of rewarding a teacher with a bonus, when she simply lucked out having students from good homes; or, conversely, punishing a teacher who decides to make a difference in a school district where children come from poor or broken homes!  The remedy here would seem to be to make any bonuses relative to students' past performance; but this could lead to more absurdity.  For example, say a student performed poorly in a prior year with a very bad teacher, but performed better the next year with an "average" teacher, relatively speaking.  Then the average teacher would receive a bonus for being... average.  Moreover, for financially-motivated teachers, the incentive would be to teach children in lower grades, who do not have such a long record of poor performance, rather than teach junior and high school, where years of educational neglect cannot be reversed in one academic year.   

And, if unionized teachers really were as lazy and dastardly as critics say, they could game an incentive system based on relative performance by encouraging low-average performance at first, followed by spectacular "improvement" later on, thereby netting a big bonus.  Beyond all that, I won't be the first to point out that teachers should not spend all their time "teaching to the test," which is the incentive created by the proposed performance-based pay system. 

A critic of testing-based performance pay correctly noted in Education Week: "To believe that teachers will try harder if offered a financial incentive is to assume that they aren't trying hard now, that they know what to do but simply aren't doing it, and that they are motivated more by money than by their students' needs.  These are unlikely and unsupported conclusions, which teachers find insulting rather than motivating." 

Indeed, financial incentives work for greedy Wall Street bankers, for example, who enter a finance career and endure 70- and 80-hour work weeks precisely because of the insanely big payoffs.  But people don't become teachers because of the fat paycheck.  Their incentive is moral and personal fulfillment, which is why throwing money at them doesn't make any sense. And let's not forget that teachers at many parochial schools receive less pay than their public school counterparts.  This is not because they are worse teachers.  Their schools can't (or won't) pay them as much, but they can offer smaller class sizes, strong organizational support and discipline, and bright, motivated students from well-to-do and religious families.  For these teachers, the personal rewards they receive outweigh the financial rewards available elsewhere. 

But if you believe money makes the world go round, then the choice is clear: We must dramatically increase teachers' pay (with 6-figure salaries for the best teachers), to encourage the best and brightest to become public school teachers instead of lawyers, bankers, and corporate managers.  If you don't like the idea of your taxes being increased to pay for that, then let's think about other solutions, like seeing what works at charter and parochial schools and emulating that.

Nevertheless, it might be possible to create a relative-performance-based incentive system that avoided most of these problems, but it would have to be pretty complex to avoid incentivizing the wrong behavior.  I can't imagine it off the top of my head.

Another problem with basing everything on standardized testing, in general, is that testing is not standard.  Bush tried to remedy this problem by pushing a uniform national standardized test for all students.  This quite sensible big-government idea failed, in part, because it did not push a standardized curriculum to go along with it.  In other words, all kids now take the same national test (in addition to their state's standardized tests), but they are all learning different things.  Doesn't make sense, does it?  That's why we need to do away with local, politicized boards of education, state boards of education, and put the Dept. of Ed. in charge of schools everywhere, and evening out the funding gaps nationwide.  Beyond having special needs and coming from better or worse backgrounds, kids are kids, and they should be learning the same things in Brooklyn as they do in Boise, in order to compete in the future global economy.

By the way, a Hoover Institution study discovered something very interesting about parents' backgrounds and what they want from their kids' schools: "Parents in high-poverty schools strongly value a teacher's ability to raise student achievement and appear indifferent to student satisfaction.  In wealthier schools the results are reversed: parents most value a teacher's ability to keep students happy." 

And yet poorer, more demanding parents get worse teachers: "…the teachers in higher-poverty schools in [Hoover's] sample have fewer years of experience than their counterparts in lower-poverty schools (11.8 years vs. 14.0 years).  In comparison to their counterparts, teachers in higher-poverty schools are less likely to have credits beyond a bachelor's degree (66 percent vs. 78 percent) and are less likely to have attended the most prestigious local university (75 percent vs. 80 percent) for their undergraduate degree." 

So here's the upshot: "In more affluent schools, parents are likely to oppose measures that increase the focus on standardized test scores at the cost of student satisfaction.  More generally, programs that increase the focus on basic skills or classroom management at the expense of student enjoyment or other academic facets not measured on standardized tests are likely to be unpopular in more affluent schools." 

In other words, No Child Left Behind-type emphasis on test scores has the most support from parents whose kids score the lowest.  Makes sense, right?  Wrong.  Teaching to the test hasn't improved test scores.  Indeed, students from affluent suburbs -- where testing is de-emphasized and more touchy-feely teaching is valued -- score better on standardized tests.  What does this tell us?  We're short-sighted and employ double standards, that's what.  As with teacher pay and incentives, many of us have come to believe that what's good for poor and inner-city schools is different than what's good for wealthier suburban schools.


Obama's Outrageous Sin Against Our Kids

By Juan Williams

April 20, 2009 |


As I watch Washington politics I am not easily given to rage.


Washington politics is a game and selfishness, out-sized egos and corruption are predictable.


But over the last week I find myself in a fury.


The cause of my upset is watching the key civil rights issue of this generation — improving big city public school education — get tossed overboard by political gamesmanship. If there is one goal that deserves to be held above day-to-day partisanship and pettiness of ordinary politics it is the effort to end the scandalous poor level of academic achievement and abysmally high drop-out rates for America's black and Hispanic students.


This is critical to our nation's future in terms of workforce preparation to compete in a global economy but also to fulfill the idea of racial equality by providing a real equal opportunity for all young people who are willing to work hard to succeed.


In a politically calculated dance step the Obama team first indicated that they wanted the Opportunity Scholarship Program to continue for students lucky enough to have won one of the vouchers. The five-year school voucher program is scheduled to expire after the school year ending in June 2010. Secretary Duncan said in early March that it didn't make sense "to take kids out of a school where they're happy and safe and satisfied and learning…those kids need to stay in their school."


And all along the administration indicated that pending evidence that this voucher program or any other produces better test scores for students they were willing to fight for it. The president has said that when it comes to better schools he is open to supporting "what works for kids." That looked like a level playing field on which to evaluate the program and even possibly expanding the program.


But last week Secretary Duncan announced that he will not allow any new students to enter the D.C. voucher program. In fact, he had to take back the government's offer of scholarships to 200 students who had won a lottery to get into the program starting next year. His rationale is that if the program does not win new funding from Congress then those students might have to go back to public school in a year.


He does not want to give the students a chance for a year in a better school? That does not make sense if the students and their families want that life-line of hope. It does not make sense if there is a real chance that the program might win new funding as parents, educators and politicians rally to undo the "bigotry of low expectations" and open doors of opportunity — wherever they exist — for more low-income students.


And now Secretary Duncan has applied a sly, political check-mate for the D.C. voucher plan.


With no living, breathing students profiting from the program to give it a face and stand and defend it the Congress has little political pressure to put new money into the program.  The political pressure will be coming exclusively from the teacher's unions who oppose the vouchers, just as they oppose No Child Left Behind and charter schools and every other effort at reforming public schools that continue to fail the nation's most vulnerable young people, low income blacks and Hispanics.


The National Education Association and other teachers' unions have put millions into Democrats' congressional campaigns because they oppose Republican efforts to challenge unions on their resistance to school reform and specifically their refusal to support ideas such as performance-based pay for teachers who raise students' test scores.


By going along with Secretary Duncan's plan to hollow out the D.C. voucher program this president, who has spoken so passionately about the importance of education, is playing rank politics with the education of poor children. It is an outrage.


This voucher programs is unique in that it takes no money away from the beleaguered District of Columbia Public Schools. Nationwide, the strongest argument from opponents of vouchers is that it drains hard-to-find dollars from public schools that educate the majority of children.


But Congress approved the D.C. plan as an experiment and funded it separately from the D.C. school budget. It is the most generous voucher program in the nation, offering $7,500 per child to help with tuition to a parochial or private school.


With that line of attack off the table, critics of vouchers pointed out that even $7,500 is not enough to pay for the full tuition to private schools where the price of a year's education can easily go beyond $20,000. But nearly 8,000 students applied for the vouchers.  And a quarter of them, 1,714 children, won the lottery and took the money as a ticket out of the D.C. public schools.


The students, almost all of them black and Hispanic, patched together the voucher money with scholarships, other grants and parents willing to make sacrifices to pay their tuition.


What happened, according to a Department of Education study, is that after three years the voucher students scored 3.7 months higher on reading than students who remained in the D.C. schools. In addition, students who came into the D.C. voucher program when it first started had a 19 month advantage in reading after three years in private schools.


It is really upsetting to see that the Heritage Foundation has discovered that 38 percent of the members of Congress made the choice to put their children in private schools. Of course, Secretary Duncan has said he decided not to live in Washington, D.C. because he did not want his children to go to public schools there. And President Obama, who has no choice but to live in the White House, does not send his two daughters to D.C. public schools, either. They attend a private school, Sidwell Friends, along with two students who got there because of the voucher program.


This reckless dismantling of the D.C. voucher program does not bode well for arguments to come about standards in the effort to reauthorize No Child Left Behind. It does not speak well of the promise of President Obama to be the "Education President,' who once seemed primed to stand up for all children who want to learn and especially minority children.


And it's time for all of us to get outraged about this sin against our children.

Krugman: 'Irish-type fiscal straitjacket' needed in U.S.?

Before you read Krugman, here's a good synopsis of Ireland's housing bubble from the Irish Times in October 2008 (before the shite really hit the fan):

Ireland's Housing Market: Bubble Trouble says house prices rose by a cumulative 300 per cent in real terms between 1992 and 2006. The unprecedented boom in prices was fuelled by particularly strong housing demand caused by a relatively young and growing population, rapid growth in disposable income and low - at times negligible - interest rates.


It says the tax structure in the Republic played a role in fuelling the housing bubble by creating favourable tax treatment of residential property and house purchases for investment purposes.


"Households are allowed a tax deduction on mortgage interest payments, while there is no tax on property values or imputed rent and only limited taxation of capital gains on residential property . . . Generous tax provisions may have encouraged the spiral in houses prices," says the report, which concludes that the Irish tax structure is one of the most favourable to encourage home ownership across the EU.


Household indebtedness in Ireland, 81 per cent of gross domestic product, is among the highest in the euro area and about 80 per cent of personal credit is secured on property, says the report, which notes speculation in the buy-to-let market also helped fuel the boom.

Erin Go Broke

By Paul Krugman

April 19, 2009  | New York Times


"What," asked my interlocutor, "is the worst-case outlook for the world economy?" It wasn't until the next day that I came up with the right answer: America could turn Irish.


What's so bad about that? Well, the Irish government now predicts that this year G.D.P. will fall more than 10 percent from its peak, crossing the line that is sometimes used to distinguish between a recession and a depression.


But there's more to it than that: to satisfy nervous lenders, Ireland is being forced to raise taxes and slash government spending in the face of an economic slump — policies that will further deepen the slump.


And it's that closing off of policy options that I'm afraid might happen to the rest of us. The slogan "Erin go bragh," usually translated as "Ireland forever," is traditionally used as a declaration of Irish identity. But it could also, I fear, be read as a prediction for the world economy.


How did Ireland get into its current bind? By being just like us, only more so. Like its near-namesake Iceland, Ireland jumped with both feet into the brave new world of unsupervised global markets.  Last year the Heritage Foundation declared Ireland the third freest economy in the world, behind only Hong Kong and Singapore.


One part of the Irish economy that became especially free was the banking sector, which used its freedom to finance a monstrous housing bubble. Ireland became in effect a cool, snake-free version of coastal Florida.


Then the bubble burst. The collapse of construction sent the economy into a tailspin, while plunging home prices left many people owing more than their houses were worth. The result, as in the United States, has been a rising tide of defaults and heavy losses for the banks. 

[Gee, how did Ireland manage to do that to itself without its own version of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and ACORN??.... - J]


And the troubles of the banks are largely responsible for putting the Irish government in a policy straitjacket.


On the eve of the crisis Ireland seemed to be in good shape, fiscally speaking, with a balanced budget and a low level of public debt. But the government's revenue — which had become strongly dependent on the housing boom — collapsed along with the bubble.


Even more important, the Irish government found itself having to take responsibility for the mistakes of private bankers. Last September Ireland moved to shore up confidence in its banks by offering a government guarantee on their liabilities — thereby putting taxpayers on the hook for potential losses of more than twice the country's G.D.P., equivalent to $30 trillion for the United States.


The combination of deficits and exposure to bank losses raised doubts about Ireland's long-run solvency, reflected in a rising risk premium on Irish debt and warnings about possible downgrades from ratings agencies.


Hence the harsh new policies. Earlier this month the Irish government simultaneously announced a plan to purchase many of the banks' bad assets — putting taxpayers even further on the hook — while raising taxes and cutting spending, to reassure lenders.


Is Ireland's government doing the right thing? As I read the debate among Irish experts, there's widespread criticism of the bank plan, with many of the country's leading economists calling for temporary nationalization instead. (Ireland has already nationalized one major bank.) The arguments of these Irish economists are very similar to those of a number of American economists, myself included, about how to deal with our own banking mess.


But there isn't much disagreement about the need for fiscal austerity. As far as responding to the recession goes, Ireland appears to be really, truly without options, other than to hope for an export-led recovery if and when the rest of the world bounces back.


So what does all this say about those of us who aren't Irish?


For now, the United States isn't confined by an Irish-type fiscal straitjacket: the financial markets still consider U.S. government debt safer than anything else.


But we can't assume that this will always be true.  Unfortunately, we didn't save for a rainy day: thanks to tax cuts and the war in Iraq, America came out of the "Bush boom" with a higher ratio of government debt to G.D.P. than it had going in.  And if we push that ratio another 30 or 40 points higher — not out of the question if economic policy is mishandled over the next few years — we might start facing our own problems with the bond market.


Not to put too fine a point on it, that's one reason I'm so concerned about the Obama administration's bank plan.  If, as some of us fear, taxpayer funds end up providing windfalls to financial operators instead of fixing what needs to be fixed, we might not have the money to go back and do it right.


And the lesson of Ireland is that you really, really don't want to put yourself in a position where you have to punish your economy in order to save your banks.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Index of crashing U.S. home prices - YIKES!

For those of you interested in burst housing bubble....  The S&P/Case-Shiller U.S. National Home Price Index was explained by a finance expert:

"The indices give you a way to track the change in the typical home value over time.  Typically, there is an anchor at 100 at some point.  When the index value is 140, it means that at that point in time, the value of a typical house was 140/100 = 1.4 times what it was in the period that the value of the index was 100.  If the index falls to 80, that would mean that the value of a typical home is only 80% of what it was when the index value was 100.

"Obviously, you can do the math at any point in time also (meaning that you don't have to reference back to 100).  For instance, if the index value today is 105 for a home in your area, and it was 135 two years ago, that would mean that the typical home has fallen by 105/135 - 1 = -22.22% (or in other words, it is worth 105/135 = 77.78% of what it was worth two years ago."

Take an average house in Cleveland, for instance, which had an index of 102.89 in January 2009, which represents the same value as in August 2000.  From January 1987 to January 2009, the average house in Cleveland has nearly doubled in value.  But the average price has come down 16.7% since the all-time high in July 2006.  Obviously, people who have had the same house for 20 years aren't as affected.  Until 2008, generally house prices had only increased.  The people who bought a home in the last few years are the ones really hurting.

Phoenix (down 48.5% from its high), San Diego (-40.8%), San Francisco (-43.1%), LA (-39.2%), Las Vegas (-46.5%), Tampa (-37.3%), Miami (-43.4%) and Detroit (-39%) have been hit particularly hard, which is probably not news to people who live there.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

FOX: DHS report on radical right 'offensive'

In any other country on Earth, people who stockpile guns and explosives, talk seriously about violent revolution, and profess a hatred of their government would be considered suspicious characters.  It would be stupid not to pay attention to them.  But in America, such kooks are called patriots

Mark my words, these kooks are going to do something violent and bad while Obama is our president.
  (It's happened once already).  Their hatred and suspicion of him started before he was even elected, with right-wing nuts calling him an "America hater," an "Arab," a "communist," a "terrorist," or a "terrorist-sympathizer."  Meanwhile, FOX and talk radio continue to egg these nuts on....

Chorus of Protest Grows Over Report Warning of Right Wing Radicalization
April 15, 2009  | FOXNews

The government considers you a terrorist threat if you oppose abortion, own a gun or are a returning war veteran. 

[Nice fair & balanced lead sentence there, FOX.  I mean, why wait till the body of the article to scare and anger your readers?  Immediately go for the jugular.  We expect nothing less. - J]

That's what House Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said Wednesday in response to a Department of Homeland Security report warning of the rise of right-wing extremist groups. 

[Who said what?...  Sorry, I'm still angry and scared after reading that lead sentence.  I'm worrying about how Obama is going to take my guns away, or start spying on our veterans.... - J]

Smith, who said the report on "right-wing extremism" amounts to "political profiling," said that DHS is "using people's political views to assess an individual's susceptibility to terror recruitment." He joins a growing chorus of protest from irate conservative groups that are protesting the report's findings.

The report, titled "Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment," released last week by DHS' Office of Intelligence and Analysis, said while there is no specific information that domestic right-wing terrorists are planning acts of violence, it suggests acts of violence could come from unnamed "rightwing extremists" concerned about illegal immigration, abortion, increasing federal power and restrictions on firearms -- and it singles out returning war veterans as susceptible to recruitment.

A senior Republican Judiciary Committee aide tells FOX News that the Obama administration "should immediately retract the report and apologize," saying that according to the report, pro-lifers, anyone who lost their jobs or are one of the thousands of military veterans who have fought to prevent another 9/11 could be suspect.

DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano defended the report Wednesday, saying it is part of an ongoing series of assessments to provide information to state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies on "violent radicalization" in the United States.

"Let me be clear: we monitor the risks of violent extremism taking root here in the United States," Napolitano said in a statement. "We don't have the luxury of focusing our efforts on one group; we must protect the country from terrorism whether foreign or homegrown, and regardless of the ideology that motivates its violence."

The report follows a similar report released in January by DHS that detailed left-wing threats, focusing on cyberattacks and radical "eco-terrorist" groups like Earth Liberation Front, accused of firebombing construction sites, logging companies, car dealerships and food science labs. The report notes that left-wing extremists prefer economic damage on businesses to get the message across.

"Their leftwing assessment identifies actual terrorist organizations, like the Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front. The rightwing report uses broad generalizations about veterans, pro-life groups, federalists and supporters of gun rights," said Smith. "That's like saying if you love puppies you might be susceptible to recruitment by the Animal Liberation Front. It is ridiculous and deeply offensive to millions of Americans."

U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-FL, told FOX News he was "offended" by the report's suggestion that returning troops could be potential targets for extremist groups.

"I am very offended and really disturbed that they would even say our military veterans, our returning war heroes would be capable of committing any terrorist acts," he said. "Where do they get off doing that? I demand an apology from [Napolitano] and even the President of the United States." 

[Gee, what a surprise, another American getting offended over nothing.  Obama should send him a box of pink Kleenex. - J]

Veterans' groups are also taking issue with the report, which says disgruntled vets are considered coveted recruits for groups looking for "combat skills and experience."

"Returning veterans possess combat skills and experience that are attractive to rightwing extremists," the report reads. "[DHS] is concerned that rightwing extremists will attempt to recruit and radicalize returning veterans in order to boost their violent capabilities."

Pete Hegseth, chairman of Vets for Freedom, said the report represents a "gross misunderstanding and oversimplification" of the country's service members.

"It's amazing they would single out veterans as a threat to this country," said Hegseth, an Army veteran who served in Iraq. "It underscores a pervasive belief that some are trying to spread that veterans are victims and we're coming home as damaged goods that need to be coddled instead of celebrated."

The report prompted a harsh and swift reaction for the American Legion on Tuesday. In a letter to Napolitano, American Legion National Commander David Rehbein blasted the report as incomplete and politically-biased.

"The American Legion is well aware and horrified at the pain inflicted during the Oklahoma City bombing, but Timothy McVeigh was only one of more than 42 million veterans who have worn this nation's uniform during wartime," Rehbein wrote. "To continue to use McVeigh as an example of the stereotypical 'disgruntled military veteran' is as unfair as using Osama bin Laden as the sole example of Islam."

Napolitano said in her statement on Wednesday that she was aware of the letter, and plans to meet with Rehbein sometime next week.

"I will tell him face-to-face that we honor veterans at DHS and employ thousands across the department, up to and including the Deputy Secretary."

"We are on the lookout for criminal and terrorist activity but we do not nor will we ever monitor ideology or political beliefs," read Napolitano's statement. "We take seriously our responsibility to protect civil rights and liberties of the American people, including subjecting our activities to rigorous oversight from numerous internal and external sources." 

[Unlike Bush, who did spy on groups through the FBI and even the Pentagon (!) based on their ideology and political beliefs, through so-called "threat assessments." - J]

Herb London, president of the Hudson Institute, a Washington-based think tank, said DHS' latest report "clearly appears to censor right-wing opinion," while its earlier assessment of left-wing extremists does not.

"I must say it's chilling, it worries me a great deal," London said. "I never have encountered a time in American life when condemnation of a president is not permitted. This really did strike me as odd, indeed."

London called on President Obama to repudiate the right-wing report.

"What is the message here? That conservative organizations are not permitted to engage in any language that might be described as unfavorable to the president," London said. "Keep in mind this is entirely subjective to begin with."

[The DHS report never mentions censoring anybody.  Just like Bush never tried to censor anti-war groups like Raging Grannies, and Gold Star Families for Peace, even as he spied on them and collected dossiers on their members. - J]'s Joshua Rhett Miller and FOX News Radio's Mike Majchrowitz contributed to this report.

Monday, April 13, 2009

FOX: 'Tea Parties' are 'tempest in a teapot'

My theory about these bizarre Tea Parties is that the conservative powers that be (Freedom Works and the Koch family foundations) want to distract their base from drawing some uncomfortable conclusions from the U.S. financial crisis.  Namely, that our capitalist system needs strong federal regulation; but more importantly, that greed as an incentive does not always produce the best results for society.  The housing bubble, sub-prime mortgages, predatory lending, and extreme leverage and risk-taking by banks -- these had nothing to do with high federal taxes or gov't spending.  As a response to these problems, the Tea Parties make no sense.  They're irrelevant. 

"But what about the stimulus package?" conservatives may counter.  The stimulus is supposed to be a partial remedy to the financial crisis.  Reasonably, conservatives cannot protest the treatment (stimulus) and ignore the disease (burst housing bubble).  But that's just what these Tea Parties are designed to do.
  They want to pretend that high taxes and profligate spending got us into our current mess, which simply isn't true.

By John Tantillo
April 11, 2009  | FOX News

I'd bet my Borsalino hat that five years from now the tea party of 2009 is going to be considered little more than a fad that flopped. In fact, it shouldn't even be compared to the monumental event that kicked our great country off with a rebellious bang.
The one thing I know Karl Marx got right was that history repeats itself: the first time as tragedy; the second time as farce.

This time it's a farce. Like anything marketed, popular movements need a symbol that resonates widely and deeply. The connection can't be complicated or second hand. It's got to have clout and it's got to instantly make sense to everyone.

For colonial Americans, tea was a powerful symbol. It was something they drank a lot of and it was taxed heavily and this taxation was something they had no say over. Throwing it overboard said everything that needed to be said. They didn't steal it; they rejected it. This was a statement that went straight to the British purse strings. It might have looked spontaneous, but it was sophisticated and made perfect sense in the context of the time.

Tea has nothing to do with our frustrations today. If tea was taxed at 100% most of us could still afford to drink it. Unfortunately, the tea of this year's tea party is just a recycled symbol and, not only that, this symbol doesn't make much sense.

After all, the colonials had no legal recourse to object to the taxation that was making their lives miserable. We do, even if it means an agonizingly long wait for the next election. Before you protest, you've got to figure out what you're protesting and the 2009 tea party simply doesn't help anyone do that.  Being angry isn't enough.  In marketing and branding, you must be for something –from there you can create a plan that can capture the hearts and minds of most Americans.

The second big problem with the tea party movement is its origin. As we all know, it began in the media with Rick Santelli's rant on live TV. It did not begin with the equivalent of Rosa Parks on a bus (a very vivid protest symbol to a very real injustice).  It is always better to start with reality, a "real" person standing for something, not a "media" person ranting about something.

In other words, the tea party isn't really grass roots and these days this perception matters –- the last election showed us this both in the Obama camp's powerful pull strategy and also with the "surprise" reaction to Palin in large part because she was a media and Washington outsider (another pull strategy success –- see my post on that here).

What about the merchandise? Merchandise can make things lose credibility and take away their seriousness –- that's one of the things happening now. Get the mug, but skip the revolution.

This is America, I'm never against someone making a buck, but the merchandising of the tea party shows better than anything that we're talking about a fad here, nothing more.

Just listen to Jason Kang, VP of marketing for Zazzle, an online retailer selling tea party items: "This is probably one of the bigger things –- not counting the election– that we've seen since the Client 9 sex scandal broke in 2008."

Hey, if a marketer's comparing your "serious" political movement with "Client 9 sex scandal" sales you know you're in trouble. By and large fads don't turn into long-lasting brands and they usually don't originate movements — they live and die alone.

I'm also concerned that the tea party will do further damage to Republicans and conservatives. I've written about how the Republican brand is in the marketing wilderness (see that post here).

One problem is that everyone seems to be getting too excited about not very much. From the sound of the tea party news coverage, you'd think we're talking about millions of pieces of tea party memorabilia being snapped up by a nation on the march  — I saw one commentator get enthusiastic about 50,000 views of a YouTube video on the tea party — that's a mighty low number of views for a mass movement especially when surfing dogs can garner millions.

And speaking about numbers, how exactly are the organizers going to measure the effectiveness of this thing?  What's the tactical yardstick to determine success?  Are the numbers going to have to be Obama campaign numbers or something more modest?  And while we're at it, remember how small turnout numbers at some McCain events worked against him . . . once you put them out there, the numbers can come back to bite you.

In marketing terms, the enthusiasm seems a little too desperate and that rubs off on the perception of brand Republican as being desperate as well.

Another problem is a perceived lack of imagination.

Recycling a great political symbol like the tea party only re-enforces the perception that conservatives aren't capable of being creative.

A third problem is negativity.

The tea party will be seen as the Republican party delivering another resounding "no" without offering any solutions. When the colonists dumped the tea, they were demanding representation. When they didn't get representation, they took representation by force — a positive negativity if you will.

The 2009 tea party isn't part of a constructive negotiation or a revolution, it's a rant without any consequences — just like Santelli's rant on air. Not paying the portion of ones' taxes going to programs you really object to would be a powerful statement — but I doubt if the tea partiers are going to get around to doing this.

My sense is that conservative commentators and opinion-shapers who are seen promoting the tea party may very well regret this decision later on when the real protest comes along and leaves them in the dust.

The real protest? Well, that's basically where I think all this is headed.

There's real frustration out there with creeping Big Government and it's probably going to grow, but it's too soon after the election for that many Americans to take a protest movement seriously. Also, none of us can predict the future except to say that it usually surprises us. Ten years ago no one would have predicted that Barack Obama would be president or a company with a strange name like Google would be one of our most successful enterprises.

No one knows what the real protest is going to be that galvanizes the Republican party and possibly even a nation, but my guess is that like the first tea party it will be innovative, memorable and based on the reality of the moment. It will probably be something like twitter-generated protests where hundreds of people spontaneously swarm the branches of banks that accept more bailout money. Or, if we're talking important food groups, let's see what happens if the government puts a hefty tax on fast food –- that'll be some party.

Again, I don't know what the real protest will be, but I guarantee that we'll all recognize it when it comes.

So let's wait for the political hurricane to come and not get too excited about this tempest in a teapot.

And remember, it's always easier to understand politics (and almost everything else in life) when you keep marketing and branding in mind.