Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A Frivolous Post, Or Celebrity

In a spate of disingenuousness and false modesty, singer Ricky Martin has announced on his website that he is gay.

The man born Enrique Martin Morales has good sense when it comes to presidential preferences, having supported Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary, and deserves credit for his philanthropic activites. But he appears confused when he says

I am proud to say that I am a fortunate homosexual man. I am very blessed to be who I am.

He does not say why he is "very blessed to be who" he is. Perhaps it is to have children whom he obviously loves; he does not say. Nevertheless, one can reasonably ask:

- Why is he "a fortunate homosexual man?" If he means he is a homosexual man who is generally fortunate, it is almost self-evident: fame, family, fortune- not bad. If, however, he means that he he is fortunate to be a homosexual, he might want to explain how lucky he is to be a minority within a society which prefers heterosexuality.

- Why is he "proud" to be homosexual? Heck, I'm not "proud" to be heterosexual. It is, as most sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, and others point out, most likely the luck of the draw. He ought to be proud of his professional success, his successful career, and his effort on behalf of others; but of his sexuality? If a male celebrity were to proclaim his pride in being heterosexual, he would be, understandably, roundly criticized for taking credit.

- Why is R.M. "blessed" to be gay? One definition of "blessed" is "highly favored or fortunate (as e.g. by divine grace)." That is why some Christians, routinely asked how they are, respond "blessed." It is a reference to the unmerited favor they believe God has conferred upon them through faith in Jesus Christ. Choose for yourself whether to accept the theology; that is, however, a legitimate definition of "blessed" (and "grace"). This contradicts Martin's claim to be "proud" to be gay. If he has been blessed/chosen to be gay (and perhaps he has been, given the force of "nature" rather than "nurture"), there is no reason to be "proud." (To continue the analogy: Christians, believing themselves "elected" to salvation, emphasize the importance of humility, as in Romans 3:27, Ephesians 2:9).

Martin remarked also

Many people told me: "Ricky it's not important", "it's not worth it", "all the years you've worked and everything you've built will collapse", "many people in the world are not ready to accept your truth, your reality, your nature."

The claim that "many people" have told him "all the years you've worked and everything you've built will collapse" sounds a lot like the standard line from politicians: "I know this stand is politically unpopular and will cost me votes but...." His contention (channeling the "many people") that "many people in the world are not ready to accept your truth, your reality, your nature," is similarly self-serving. The acknowledgement of homosexuality may have cost Martin years ago when he was asked about his sexuality by the likes of The Mirror and Barbara Walters; back when homosexuality was less accepted and the entertainer was more popular, with more to lose. Now? It's hardly a bold move.
Gingrich Nearly Almost Right

I come not to bury Newt Gingrich but to praise him.

It all began on March 21 when Washington Post syndicated columnist Dan Balz wrote

But former Republican House speaker Newt Gingrich said Obama and the Democrats will regret their decision to push for comprehensive reform. Calling the bill "the most radical social experiment . . . in modern times," Gingrich said: "They will have destroyed their party much as Lyndon Johnson shattered the Democratic Party for 40 years" with the enactment of civil rights legislation in the 1960s.

The following day, under the headline "Clarifying Gingrich on LBJ," Balz explained

Gingrich responded with several emails saying that the context misrepresented his views by implying that he believed Johnson was wrong to sign the major civil rights legislation of the 1960s. To the contrary, he said, the civil rights revolution of 1956-1965 was "morally absolutely necessary" for the country and Johnson was correct in pushing for the legislation. Other Johnson actions, he said, inflicted more damage to the Democratic coalition.

Johnson shattered his party, Gingrich went on to say, because he had "grotesquely overreached" in four areas: mismanagement of the economy, the failure in Vietnam, the cultural divisions that emerged in part over Vietnam and later civil rights initiatives. Johnson's mistake on civil rights, he said, was not in signing major legislation but in later getting ahead of the country by supporting school busing and failing to take a firmer stance against racial violence in the cities.


Gingrich overreacted- not unlike most of his party- when he referred to health care reform as "the most radical social experiment.... in modern times." But Democrats had a similar (360 degree difference) reaction. James Clyburn, the third highest in rank of House Democrats, called it "the Civil Rights Act of the 21st century" and President Obama himself modestly commented

In the end what this day represents is another stone firmly laid in the foundation of the American dream. Tonight, we answered the call of history as so many generations of Americans have before us. When faced with crisis, we did not shrink from our challenges. We overcame them. We did not avoid our responsibilities, we embraced it. We did not fear our future, we shaped it.

Foundation of the American dream. The call of history. We shaped our future. Passage of health care legislation is truly the most significant action of a government in the history of the world, or so Clyburn, Obama, and Gingrich imply.

Give the Georgia Democrat, then, a partial pass on his overheated rhetoric. His assertion that civil rights legislation "shattered the Democratic Party for 40 years" also is partially true.

The Democratic Party was not "shattered," inasmuch as three Democratics have since been elected to the presidency and Congress has been under Democratic control for most of the period. But perhaps Gingrich actually was referring to the destruction of the Democratic Party in the South, given that President Johnson, upon signing the 1964 Civil Rights Act, famously told aide Bill Moyers "we have lost the South for a generation." It was obviously a prescient remark, even more so because it now has been over two generations, with little indication of being halted.

Succumbing to the clarion call of political correctness, Gingrich, under fire for implying that Democrats made a strategic error in addressing civil wrongs, on Monday chose not to clarify his remark by noting that he was merely talking politics, not policy. Instead, he suggested that economic mismanagement and the Vietnam War destroyed the Democratic coalition.

Nonsense. Despite the short-term harm done to Democratic office-seekers by the Vietnam War and economic troubles, the long-term damage to the Democratic Party has taken place in the American Southeast. And that has been- or was- largely, though not entirely, because of race.

In a paper (pdf) entitled "Barack Obama And The South," Charles S. Bullock III (p. 11) found

Obama ran as well among African Americans in the South as in the rest of thenation but had substantially less appeal to southern whites than nationwide. The exit polls show Obama receiving 43% of the white vote across the nation. In the South, he comes up just short of 30% of the white vote.

The argument is not refuted by conceding that any national Democrat does worse among whites in the South than elsewhere. Long ago- as LBJ predicted- Democrats in the south (and elsewhere, to less effect) became identified in the public's mind with support of racial minorities. Defend Southerners against the charge of racism, if you will; unquestionably, however, race has been a more salient isue in the South and revolt against the Democratic Party among whites thus inevitably has been greater in the Southeast than elsewhere.

So the former Speaker and outspoken conservative was on to something, initially, when he made a connection between passage of civil rights legislation and the political impact upon the Democratic Party. Unfortunately, his clarification, probably motivated by fear, made less sense.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

A Basic Misunderstanding

Call it another opportunity to dump on the woman who could have been a heartbeat from the Presidency.

First, the cheap shot. In Searchlight, Nevada yesterday, Sarah Palin in her opening remarks yukked it up:

I was going to ask Todd if I could borrow his sunglasses. I would have to take these off and it would make it really tough for me to see the teleprompter. And then I realized, no teleprompter, time to kick in old school. Good thing I remember how to use the poor man's version of the teleprompter.

"The poor man's version of the teleprompter." That would be written notes (not her palm this time), to which Palin periodically referred. I guess we're supposed to believe that is so much more sophisticated than use of a teleprompter.

Now for the substance.

Given that Sarah Palin declared "....That the constitution provides the path to a more perfect union. It's the constitution," it's significant that she also would say

in these volatile times when we are a nation at war, now more than ever is when we need a commander-in- chief, not a constitutional law professor lecturing us from a lectern.

No, "we" do not need a commander-in-chief. The commander-in-chief does not propose legislation; nominate individuals to the cabinet, the federal judiciary, or anywhere else; nor even determine if, when, and where to commit United States combat forces.

According to the document Mrs. Palin purports to revere, the President

shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States.

We- by which Palin undoubtedly meant the people of the United States- do not need a commander-in-chief. That would be violative both of the letter, and the spirit, of the Constitution.

Our nation does not have a king. We do not have a ruler who governs by divine right or who exercises unlimited power.

There is a reason that the President is commander-in-chief of the armed forces (when actually called into service) and not of civilians. Palin, who yesterday blustered "we're not going to sit down and shut up," seems not to understand that. But she sometimes appears to be auditioning for Autocrat of the United States and may dream of that power over the populace that only a commander-in-chief of the American people would have. Either that, or she boasts of love for a document she has little understanding of.
A Divinely Inspired Document?

It's hard to nail down a speech that is a string of virtually endless sound bites, but Sarah Palin, who was unable to handle a job as governor, made a few interesting comments at the Tea Party rally yesterday in Searchlight, Nevada. Speaking, obviously, of President Obama, Palin remarked

In these volatile times when we are a nation at war, now more than ever is when we need a commander-in-chief, not a constitutional law professor lecturing us from a lectern.

Don't think for a moment that this is a stupid thing being said by a stupid person. Sarah Palin is a well-educated and well-traveled individual, though until the last few years rather disinterested in national and international policy and a disinterested consumer of news. When she ridicules being "a constitutional law professor," she's doing it as someone who is pretending that she believes knowledge of the law and experience as a professor is disqualifying. She figures her audience, not as well educated as she, will buy it. Call it elitism of the right, an instinct to look down on her own audience (as she demonstrated months ago in Indiana, video below).

Palin went on to express admiration for the Constitution, maintaining

We're going to get there, friends, though, because, our vision for America is time-tested truths. The government that governs least governs best. That the constitution provides the path to a more perfect union. It's the constitution.

So the constitution "provides the path to a more perfect union"- and it's troubling that our President knows that document inside and out as a constitutional law professor.

If that seems like a contradiction, well, that's because it is. And it doesn't end there. The constitution, Palin declares, "provides the path to a more perfect union" because, presumably, it represents the idea that "the government that governs least governs best." (Reproductive freedom ? That's another issue, but consistency is the hobglobin of little minds, don't you know.)

But, digression aside- that would be the point of digression- Palin continued to say

And that only limited government can provide the opportunities for prosperity for all of us equally. And that freedom is a god-given right and freedom is worth fighting for.

Let's replay that:

the constitution provides the path to a more perfect union. It's the constitution. And that only limited government can provide the opportunities for prosperity for all of us equally. And that freedom is a god-given right.

This is not taken out of context. The constitution -it's the constitution"- "provides the path to a more perfect union." But "freedom is a god-given right."
So is it the constitution or God? It has to be one or the other.... unless this document itself is divinely inspired, which would be a truly bizarre claim for a Christian or someone who claims to be such. It's almost blasphemous- but Sarah Palin either is contradicting herself or making an extraordinary assertion, one that is typically made (with more credibility) about only the Bible. And maybe that "lamestream media" her spechwriter derides should ask her if she is, in fact, putting these two documents on a par with each other. That would be the media which, Mrs. Palin's supporters periodically whine, are oh, so tough on her.


Saturday, March 27, 2010

Irresponsible And Reckless

Responding to threats of violence against House members who voted for health care reform, Representative Eric Cantor (R.-VA) on March 25 declared "Let me be clear -- I do not condone violence. There are no leaders in this building, no rank and file members in this building, that condone violence, period."

Then he went on to condone violence.

I've received threats since I assumed elected office, not only because of my position but also because I'm Jewish. I've never blamed anyone in this body for that, period. Any suggestion that a leader in this body would incite threats or acts against other members is akin to saying that I would endanger myself, my wife or my children. Just recently I have been directly threatened. A bullet was shot through the window of my campaign office in Richmond this week, and I've received threatening e-mails. But I will not release them, because I believe such actions will only encourage more to be sent....

I want to stress this and it's very important. Legitimate threats should be treated as security issues and should be dealt with by the appropriate law enforcement officials. It is reckless to use these incidents as media vehicles for political gain.

That is why I have deep concerns that some, Chris Van Hollen and Tim Kaine in particular, are dangerously fanning the flames by suggesting that these incidents be used as a political weapon. Security threats against members of Congress is not a partisan issue and they should never be treated that way. To use such threats as political weapons is reprehensible.

I'm not naive enough to think that letters, statements or press releases will prevent anyone disturbed enough to commit violence from acting. But I do know that such letters, statements and press releases can very easily fan the flames. By ratcheting up the rhetoric, some will only enflame these situations to dangerous levels. Enough is enough. It has to stop.


Shorter Cantor: I need to be on record denouncing violence, which I then blame on people who bring it to the attention of the public and thereby provoke justifiably angry people.

There is another problem with Cantor's statement, however. But as Jed Lewison notes at Daily Kos (its video below), there is

virtually no way somebody would ever have targeted that particular office if they were going after Cantor. For starters, neither his campaign site nor his official site list the building as his campaign office. The building itself does not have any markings to suggest that it housed his campaign office. And if all that weren't enough, the office isn't even located in his congressional district.

It's highly unlikely, therefore, that an individual would have known the office was Cantor's. The bullet did not enter his office but instead hit the outside of a building which houses his office. And Cantor told a newspaper he wasn't sure the shot was not random.

But that didn't stop the #2 Republican in the House of Representatives. And now he has been called on it. On Thursday, a report on the blog of the Richmond, Va. Police Department includes

A Richmond Police detective was assigned to the case. A preliminary investigation shows that a bullet was fired into the air and struck the window in a downward direction, landing on the floor about a foot from the window. The round struck with enough force to break the windowpane but did not penetrate the window blinds. There was no other damage to the room, which is used occasionally for meetings by the congressman.

The Richmond Police Department is sharing information about the incident with appropriate law enforcement agencies.

At this time there are no suspects.

So let's agree with "The Lonely Conservative," who on 3/25- but evidently before the police report was issued- blogged

So, which side is more violent? Will the main stream media report this non-stop for the next three weeks? Probably not.

Hopefully, this conservative's (premature) wish will come true and the media will "report this non-stop for the next three weeks." A GOP leader, anxious to claim that violent attacks are made not only on Democratic but also upon Republican officeholders, calls a press conference to announce that a bullet has been "shot through the window of my campaign office." But he realizes that its location was not widely known, there is no evidence that the culprit even knew it was his office, and probably that the bullet never penetrated the outside walls. But he does believe that the media message will be this: violence is bipartisan and its victims, bipartisan.

It's one thing for Sarah Palin to encourage violence and Newt Gingrich to condone violence. It's quite another for a top Republican to condemn as "reprehensible" using incidents as "a political weapon" at the same time he himself is knowingly and brazenly distorting a criminal matter and using it as a political weapon.










Of One Mind, Or Else

The very conservative, if relatively erudite former Bush 43 speechwriter David Frum, has involuntarily resigned from the American Enterprise Institute. He had the temerity to suggest in his blog on March 21 that the lockstep opposition of the GOP to health care reform has damaged his party politically. He explained

No illusions please: This bill will not be repealed. Even if Republicans scored a 1994 style landslide in November, how many votes could we muster to re-open the “doughnut hole” and charge seniors more for prescription drugs? How many votes to re-allow insurers to rescind policies when they discover a pre-existing condition? How many votes to banish 25 year olds from their parents’ insurance coverage? And even if the votes were there – would President Obama sign such a repeal?

We followed the most radical voices in the party and the movement, and they led us to abject and irreversible defeat.

There were leaders who knew better, who would have liked to deal. But they were trapped. Conservative talkers on Fox and talk radio had whipped the Republican voting base into such a frenzy that deal-making was rendered impossible. How do you negotiate with somebody who wants to murder your grandmother? Or – more exactly – with somebody whom your voters have been persuaded to believe wants to murder their grandmother?


It did Frum's employment status little good when the voice of GOP corporatism, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, two days later complained

Mr. Frum now makes his living as the media's go-to basher of fellow Republicans, which is a stock Beltway role. But he's peddling bad revisionist history that would have been even worse politics.

Mike Allen of Politico reports

David Frum told us last night that he believes his axing from his $100,000-a-year “resident scholar” gig at the conservative American Enterprise Institute was related to DONOR PRESSURE following his viral blog post arguing Republicans had suffered a devastating, generational “Waterloo” in their loss to President Obama on health reform. “There's a lot about the story I don't really understand,” Frum said from his iPhone. “But the core of the story is the kind of economic pressure that intellectual conservatives are under. AEI represents the best of the conservative world. [AEI President] Arthur Brooks is a brilliant man, and his books are fantastic. But the elite isn’t leading anymore. It’s trapped. Partly because of the desperate economic situation in the country, what were once the leading institutions of conservatism are constrained.

In the wake of Frum's forced resignation, economist Bruce Bartlett, who worked for President Reagan, President Bush 41, and was himself fired from a right wing think tank when he criticized Bush 43, recalled that Frum a few months ago had asked if he

had noticed any comments by AEI "scholars" on the subject of health care reform. I said no and he said that was because they had been ordered not to speak to the media because they agreed with too much of what Obama was trying to do.

It saddened me to hear this. I have always hoped that my experience was unique. But now I see that I was just the first to suffer from a closing of the conservative mind. Rigid conformity is being enforced, no dissent is allowed, and the conservative brain will slowly shrivel into dementia if it hasn't already.


Justifiably frustrated- and enraged- by the ubiquitous charge that liberals are the politically correct, Hullabaloo's other blogger, tristero, observes

None of the bozos who require purity tests in liberal and leftwing circles are anywhere remotely as powerful or as influential as the fanatical psychopaths who both fund and staff the conservative think tanks. Nor are they likely to become influential anytime in the forseeable future. I can't think of even a moderately liberal group, let alone a genuinely leftwing group, that funnels staff that have been ideologically vetted into the government at anything close to the level at which the AEI and the Federalist Society pack presidential administrations with the politically correct. Nor does any liberal-leaning group - say, CEIP or CAP - require anything close to the purity of ideology the right does. It's very simple:

The politically correct are conservatives. The politically correct are rightwingers. The politically correct are the teabaggers. The politically correct are Republicans.


They are not "fanatical psychopaths" (o.k., maybe fanatical fits). These folks act on behalf of their own financial and/or ideological interests, however damning they may be to the middle class. But there is a strong, and much under-reported, element of political correctness in Republican circles.

In the wake of Majority Leader Harry Reid's controversial comment about candidate Barack Obama, in January The New Republic's Jonathan Chait made a similar point. He noted

Last weekend began with Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee, clinging to his job primarily via implicit racial blackmail. Steele’s tenure has consisted of a string of gaffes and managerial blunders, but Republicans had concluded that his color made him un-fireable. “You’re not going to dump the first African American chairman,” an influential party strategist told Politico, “That’s the only reason....”

.... the immediate Republican response to Obama has been to find their own black guy. In 2004, the Illinois GOP imported lunatic Alan Keyes from Maryland to run for Senate, on the apparent assumption that another African American could neutralize Obama’s strength. In 2009, they elevated the buffoonish Steele to party chairman, where he has proven a regular source of embarrassment. (Incidentally, why are such a high proportion of black Republicans in elected life crazy? Is it because the party’s demand for ideologically qualified African Americans so outstrips the supply? I’m open to alternative explanations.) The post-election Bobby Jindal wave and the current Marco Rubio wave--Mike Huckabee: “He is our Barack Obama but with substance”--represent ethnic variants of the we-need-our-own-black-guy strategy.

The campaign to whip up faux racial outrage at Reid likewise shows a party clumsily attempting to mimic what it considers a devastatingly effective tactic.


Conceding that Democratic racialism represents... an opposition to racism taken to excesses of hypersensitivity," Chait maintained "Republican racialism is an attempt to mimic Democratic racialism without first having any grasp of the original sentiment underlying it- a parodic replica of the original thing, like a person who decides to convert to Judaism by studying Madonna."

Though not identical, these two strains of GOP thought are a variant of the dreaded "political correctness." Republicans have a problem with race, and it's not primarily racism but rather an awkward attempt to convince minorities and independents that they, too, embrace ethnic heterogeneity. And if the present-day GOP sometimes appears to be short of ethnic diversity, we learned from the health care debate that it increasingly shuns intellectual diversity, a state of affairs which has now ensnared David Frum.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

And When Exactly Did They Cooperate?

On August 12, Iowa's Chuck Grassley, ranking member on the Senate Finance Committee and member of the Gang of Six, characterized health care as a "government program that determines if you're going to pull the plug on grandma."

Five days later, Grassley acknowledged that if most Republicans were to vote against it, he, too, would vote against a bipartisan health care bill he might help craft.

Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona told reporters the next day that even if its concessions made it into the bill, the GOP was unlikely to support the health care reform bill pending, and eventually passed, in the Senate.

And South Carolina's Jim DeMint had employed a historical reference when in a conference call with tea party participants on July 17 he declared "If we’re able to stop Obama on this it will be his Waterloo. It will break him."

And shortly after following the "Hell no, you can't" rant (video below) of House Minority Leader John Boehner, all 178 Republicans, no doubt (sarcasm alert) voting their conscience, voted in lockstep to allow insurance companies to continue denying coverage to children and to drop loyal customers when they get sick, to block Medicare from covering more of the pharmaceutical needs of the elderly, and to leave 30-plus million Americans uninsured. All of them. Not to be confused with the House's previous vote (on its own bill), in which all but one Republican voting against health care. (Louisiana's Joseph Cao waited until the requisite number of votes for passage had been cast, then voted "aye" to preserve his career in a majority-black district.) And not to be confused with the vote in the Senate, in which all 40 Republicans voted against the bill which ultimately became law.

Those votes, in turn, were consistent with the GOP's cry of "No!" when a modest stimulus bill was proposed in the United States Congress and all 176 House Republicans, followed by 37 of 40 Senate Republicans, voted against it.

The New York Times recently summarized the legislative strategy of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who "warned against the lure of the short-term attention to be gained by going bipartisan, and linked Republican gains in November to showing voters they could hold the line against big government."

The Facebook page of the GOP's last vice-presidential nominee, according to The Huffington Post, "now carries a map featuring 20 gun sights, one for each of the Democrats targeted this year by her political action committee SarahPAC. Three of the gun sights, those where incumbent Democrats have already announced their retirement, are colored red." Mrs. Palin says supporters will "aim for these races and many others" in a "first salvo" to get conservatives elected.

A gas line between the propane tank and the grill at the home of the brother of freshman U.S. Representative Tom Perriello (D-Va)- one of several apparent attempts at intimidating supporters of health care- and the National Republican Congressional Committee takes "blaming the victim" to a new level:

Central and Southside Virginians are the ones who are going to have the bear the burden of increased taxes. What you're seeing is a frustration among his constituents who believe he's not listening to them.

Enter John McCain. The man who was the GOP's last presidential candidate warned on Monday during an interview with an Arizona radio affiliate

There will be no cooperation for the rest of the year. They have poisoned the well in what they've done and how they've done it.

Please check the link. This is not from the Onion. And John McCain was not reported to have followed his absurd remark with a wry smile, a chuckle, and assurance that he was only joking.

In the presidential election lost by McCain and Palin, Republicans hit the mother lode. While the country voted for change, the nation, and the GOP, got a President who values bipartisanship and cooperation above all. To this all, the Repub Party said: not good enough. We want our agenda enacted. Otherwise, we will yell, scream, pout, and rationalize violent attacks upon our opponents.








Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A Little Premature

"Admiral Kelly, Captain Card, officers and sailors of the USS Abraham Lincoln, my fellow Americans: Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the Battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed. And now our coalition is engaged in securing and reconstructing that country."

It was less for those words spoken by President George W. Bush on 5/1/03 than for the huge banner reading "MISSION ACCOMPLISHED," which formed a backdrop for his statement, that Mr. Bush has been ridiculed for several years. Since then, 4,227 Americans have died in Iraq in what the Pentagon refers to as "post-combat ops." Still the war goes on, only one of many reasons to have considered Bush 43 a failed President.

But on that day in 2003- more than two years after he took office- Mr. Bush posed as a successful president with a shot at even greatness. His words that day stand as testimony to the foolishness of evaluating a presidency after so brief a time.

But not to famous liberal/progressive blogger Matt Yglesias, currently at Think Progress. In a post with the unintentionally ironic heading "Perspective," Yglesias wrote at 11:01 p.m., approximately 17 minutes after the House of Representatives approved health care reform

Now that it’s done, Barack Obama will go down in history as one of America’s finest presidents. It’s always possible of course that, like LBJ, he’ll get involved in some unrelated fiasco that mars his reputation. But fundamentally, he’s reshaped the policy landscape in a way that no progressive politician has done in decades.

Under the circumstances, it’s in some ways crazy to realize the scope of things still on the congress’ plate. The House has already passed major legislation dealing with climate change and financial regulation, and the president is also committed to significant reform of K-12 education and the immigration system.


Barack Obama has served little more than a year of what will be at least a 48-month presidency. We have little idea, at this stage, of the impact of health care reform. And then there are those pesky little issues of campaign finance, labor relations, financial industry reform, energy policy, response to climate change, the economy, defense policy, national security and civil liberties, foreign policy, and so many others.

Yet, Matt Yglesias knows Barack Obama "will go down in history as one of America's finest presidents." This is little different than the remarks of the guy who claims President Obama "is an unmitigated disaster no matter which way you slice it" and is "the most pro-abortion president in the history of the country.... a guy who believes in infanticide."

Barack Obama may become a great president, though it makes little sense so to claim for, oh, approximately 44 months. Alas, 44 months will not be long enough to remove Matt Yglesias' distinction as one of the most foolish bloggers in America's history.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A Hopeful Start

A frustrated Rush Limbaugh, apoplectic at the thought that health care reform will benefit the Democratic Party politically, today exclaimed

I think that in the meantime, we ought to start demanding all of the benefits. We want the premium reductions now! We want access to free services now, like the free preventive care like colonoscopies and whatever, mammograms.

We want the deficit reduction starting now! We want all the promises today. We don't want the promises in 2014; we don't want the promises in 2019. We want it now! We want all of the goodies in this bill to happen immediately. Because after all, most of the people that supported it think the stuff happens immediately. If Obama is to be true to his word, if Obama's to be true to his supporters who voted in support of this thing, we want it all now: Deficit reduction, free services, and the reduction in premiums. We want all these kids that are gonna get to stay on their parents' policies until 27. We want that on now. We want the preexisting condition insurance changed so that it happened right now. We want 32 million people without health care to have it this week. We don't want to wait until 2015 for these poor, unfortunate people.


It's coming, Rush, it's coming, though much of the change wrought by the bill approved Sunday night by the House of Representatives won't occur overnight. It took us many years to get a health care system far inferior to what we as Americans deserve, and it's going to take a while to transform it into something we can be proud of.

However, according to MSNBC's Rachel Maddow (video below) last night, change will come quickly.

Immediately, small businesses can apply for tax credits for insurance they purchase for their employees. There will be assistance for the elderly to pay for pharmaceutical drugs. The "doughnut hole" is hereby filled and a $250 rebate check will be sent to those who already reached that threshold in 2010.

Ninety days (June 21, 2010) after the bill is signed, a high-risk pool will be operating and refusal to cover an individual for pre-existing conditions will be prohibited.

As of September 23, 2010, children cannot be denied coverage for pre-existing conditions; rescission (dropping a customer when he/she becomes sick) will be eliminated; lifetime limits on coverage will be dropped; and young people can stay on their parent/parents' insurance until they turn 26.

As of January 1, 2011 a minimum medical loss ratio will be established, in which insurance companies will be required to spend on coverage at least 80% of what they collect in premiums. And there will be free preventive care for Medicare patients.

Obstacles remain. A delay in implementation would not be surprising, and Republicans are readying court action to invalidate the law, though that probably will be unsuccessful. Moreover, there is that pesky problem of mandating individuals to buy an inferior product (insurance) which they may not, even with subsidies, be able to afford, and the upward pressure that may place on the price of premiums. Still, it's not a bad start, achieved against the full-throated opposition of the Corporate Party of No.





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Maneuvering With Stupak

As far as I can tell, the first sigh of relief at the impending passage in the House of Representatives of the Senate health care bill came at 12:25 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, when freep.com (Detroit Free Press) reported

Assured by President Barack Obama that no federal dollars will be spent on abortions, U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak and other anti-abortion Democrats signed on to health care reform legislation, likely providing the critical votes needed to pass the landmark legislation later today.

The Executive Order President Obama agreed to sign was released by the White House shortly before the 4:00 p.m. news conference at which the Michigan Democrat announced the deal, confirming federal law that denies federal funding for any abortion.


Curious, then, that the first report of the agreement which would virtually guarantee passage came in the early afternoon. Earlier in the day, in a program- ABC's This Week- first airing at 10:00 AM EDT, House Democratic Chairman John Larson had assured viewers

We have the votes now as we speak. President Roosevelt passed Social Security. Lyndon Johnson passed Medicare. Today, Barack Obama will pass health-care reform.

This raises the intriguing possibility that the Obama-Stupak deal was not reached was reached well before the media became aware of it- or that such an arrangement was unnecessary. Perhaps it really wasn't necessary in order to secure Representative Stupak's vote for the Affordable Health Care for America Act. In a video (below) posted October 29, 2009 by The Foundry Blog, Stupak is shown describing to a town-hall audience in Cheboygan, Michigan his likely response if he lost a vote on "no public funding for abortion."

Would I vote against health care? If I had a chance to vote my conscience on it, I probably would not. I probably would still vote for health care at the end of the day.

So it appears that Bart Stupak would have voted in favor of the legislation under almost any circumstance. Where does that leave pro-choice groups, evidently having been played for fools by the White House? The statements of NARAL Pro-Choice America, the National Organization for Women, and Planned Parenthood-USA indicate that they are angry, or at least anxious to assure donors that they are still fighting for the reproductive rights of women. And Representative Donna DeGette (D-CO), chairperson of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus, adds of the deal: "You have to ask the White House why they did it. It was really coming from the White House," she said. "The Speaker wasn’t even in the meeting."

In the end (or, as President Kennedy would say, "in the last analysis"; or, as the inside the Beltway crowd says now, "at the end of the day"), therefore, these groups weren't double-crossed by Nancy Pelosi or even Bart Stupak. It appears their pockets were picked by the guy at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.



Monday, March 22, 2010

Not Funny, But Inaccurate

A day after a HISTORIC vote when HISTORY was made for all of HISTORY, it may seem odd to talk about climate change. But whenever a guy takes a cheap shot at the only individual to have been elected president but denied the office by the Supreme Court, it shouldn't be ignored.

And so it is that this fellow Ken Connor, head of the Center for a Just Society on February 19 snarked

It was all laughs for Al Gore last November when he hit the media circuit to promote his new book and educate the ignorant masses about the imminent threat of catastrophic climate change. He had the rapt attention of the politicians and the pundits and the celebrities. He’d won an Academy Award! The former Vice-President and presidential hopeful had built a new career as the voice of the Green Movement, and business was booming. What a difference three months makes.

In the face of the embarrassing Climategate scandal and an unprecedented winter season that has for the first time ever delivered measurable snowfall to all 50 states, Al Gore’s absence from the public stage has been conspicuous. Perhaps he’s taken a page from Punxsutawney Phil’s playbook and is hibernating in hopes of a sunnier forecast come April.


Perhaps Punxsutawney Phil won't have to wait until April "in hopes of a sunnier forecast." The website phillyweather.net reports these temperatures (fahrenheit, in degrees) for Philadelphia, Pa. for the week of 3/14-3/20: 3/14,50; 3/15, 46; 3/16, 62; 3/17, 66; 3/18, 69; 3/19, 71; 3/20, 74. (and Sunday, March 21 was well above 70 degrees.) The blogger notes

The week's weather was, as you would expect, much above average overall. Temperatures in Philadelphia averaged 8.6 degrees above where we should be for mid March (remember our average high should be in the lower and middle 50's, not the lower and middle 70's!), with the average temperatures between Thursday and Saturday running over twelve degrees above where we should be. Our monthly departure in temperatures is 5.5 degrees above -- if we held that departure from average through the end of the month we would have the 6th warmest March on record.

And for the benefit of the groundhog or Ken Connor looking for that "sunnier forecast"- most of those days came with bright sunshine- and without the fierce, cold winds common in the Philadelphia region in March. (It is not uncommon for the very coldest, in wind-chill terms, day of the season to arrive in March.)

Notwithstanding the misunderstanding of climate deniers this past winter: Snow today in Arizona! Global warming is a hoax!, a week's time in one portion of the country is weather, not climate, and tells us little about long-term warming trends. This, however, does:

this year NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association) is reporting that combined land and ocean temperatures in January 2010 were the 4th warmest on record since 1880. The combined ocean and land global temperature was 38.08 degrees last month. That's +1.08 degrees Fahrenheit.

NOAA partially attributes the warming to the current El Nino in the Pacific. The warm month globally continues the trend of 2009, which was the 5th warmest year on record globally.


Even Roy Spencer, a skeptic of the human origin of global warming, reviews University of Alabama-Huntsville satellite data and concedes

February was second warmest in the 32-year record, behind Feb 1998 which was itself the second warmest of all months.

(These records show January as the warmest record in this 32-year period.)

NOAA further observes

There has not been one cooler than average year globally in a quarter of a century, since 1984.

Globally 9 of the past 10 years are in the top 10 warmest years on record. In fact, the past 9 years in a row are among the top 10 warmest years on record since 1880. This is remarkable and statistically highly unlikely in a system that is showing only natural variability.

Ken Connor is not unique in ridiculing Al Gore, of course. But he does remind us that before someone criticizes the guy who supported Gulf War I, opposed Gulf War II, made a fortune in the stock market, recognized before anyone in Congress the potential of the Internet, and spoke of climate change decades ago, he ought to have a few facts.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Cost Variable

I am not the first to say this, but.... whenever you're tempted to make an analogy to Adolph Hitler or Nazism: stop. Politicians, pundits, bloggers, and columnists really ought to avoid suggesting actions or motives are comparable to the World War II genocidal machine. They are not, and and the analogy has the primary effect of trivializing the Holocaust, a uniquely horrifying historical event.

Ken Connor, chairman of the Center for a Just Society, has no such compunction. He has written a fairly widely circulated opinion piece entitled "The Economics of Abortion"- not The Primacy of Life, Life As a Priority, or Stupak defended.

Defending the effort of Representative Bart Stupak (D-MI), whose has been attempting to to insert (further) anti-abortion language into the health care bill, Connor makes that odious comparison, arguing

The perverted ethics that justified Hitler’s “Final Solution” are the same as those that allow today’s liberated woman to celebrate her “right” to chemically or mechanically eliminate the parasitical “condition” of pregnancy.

Striving to convince readers that opposition to restricting (beyond the Hyde Amendment) abortion rights is based upon a cold, insensitive, economic calculation, Connor disingenuously describes this as Stupak's "colleagues' calculated position on abortion."

If you pass the Stupak amendment, more children will be born, and therefore it will cost us millions more. That’s one of the arguments I’ve been hearing. . . . Money is their hang-up. Is this how we now value life in America? If money is the issue – come on, we can find room in the budget. This is life we’re talking about.

It's highly unlikely that has been more than an ancillary argument put forth by pro-choice members of Congress, although one can hardly blame Stupak for implying otherwise ("money is their hang-up") and hoping that naive activists repeat it. Virtually all pro-choice sentiment throughout society- especially among politicians- is based on the idea that prohibiting abortion is an infringement on the rights of women to control their own body.

Bart Stupak has fought for anti-abortion language in the health care reform bill that would go beyond the Nelson language in the Senate bill, which may be voted on later today. (Assuming Stupak is unsuccessful, the Nelson amendment will remain in the legislation.) It is actually the pro-life contingent which would impose its ideology and objectives upon market forces and use the power of the purse to deter abortion. As Jodi Jacobson explained in late December, the Nelson language

legislates a "market farce," by prohibiting insurance companies from calculating or taking into account when deciding on the level of premiums needed the cost savings from abortion care as against maternity care.

As one expert put it:

This is a tax on women and a fraud perpetrated on the country. By ignoring the cost-savings, it unfairly presents abortion coverage as far more expensive than it actually is. This is no different than focusing on the harms caused by cutting someone with a scalpel while ignoring any benefits from surgery.

There's a reason why 87% of private plans offer abortion coverage. It makes little sense to deny this coverage to women who want to terminate a pregnancy - after all, the costs of prenatal care and childbirth are far higher in almost every case. [But under the Nelson language], insurers can only take into account costs but not savings, which means that the fee for the rider will be artificially high [and] of course the insurance companies will keep the windfall.

[The cost issue] is not why I support reproductive rights but that's just how it is. Pro-lifers don't like the fact that a market-based solution, so intrinsic to many of their other arguments, does not lead to the outcome they want, so they lie about the numbers. And it is so typical of pro-life arguments; a pathological need to hide the truth from people and use fake numbers to make their point. There is absolutely no justification for not including cost savings in the calculation except that the reality of the situation is unsavory to pro-lifers.

Under the Nelson language, then:
Women now get a Hobson's choice. They can live in a state that completely opts out of coverage, meaning that coverage will essentially be totally unavailable. Or they can live a state that provides some limited coverage, but only if they pay an inflated and unreal price through additional bureaucratic coverage. The manager's amendment is a double barrier in the way of women's access to healthcare.


Manipulation of market forces and consideration of economic factors thus has become a weapon in the arsenal of the anti-abortion rights forces. Characterization of one's position as "pro-life" may be accurate, but nonetheless (and perhaps intentionally) obscures the effort to make that reproductive choice cost-prohibitive. If consideration of money is a shameless, inhumane variable in setting abortion policy, perhaps the Congressional pro-life advocates need to look in the mirror and consider their own priorities.
As Options Diminish

Representative Alan Grayson (D-FL), a favorite of the left blogosphere, has introduced an amendment for a quasi-public option, one which would extend Medicare, though require individuals to pay in at cost. It would be a significant improvement to the current health care system and a helpful addition to the Senate health care bill, which may be voted on by the House as early as tomorrow.

Still, no vote has been scheduled on this proposal. And over in the Senate, supporters of the public option are busy caving, as would appear from a March 19 item in The Burlington Free Press about the approach of two U.S. Senators, one from Vermont:

The National Journal reported on its Web site Thursday that Sanders and Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., would shelve an amendment to the bill during the reconciliation process in exchange for assurances the proposal would be resurrected later.
A statement by Will Wiquist, a Sanders spokesman, confirmed the report. “Bernie is a strong supporter of a public option and will continue to work to create a system that provides competition for private insurance companies as a way to hold down skyrocketing premiums,” Wiquist said by e-mail. “He thinks majorities in the House and Senate would support a public option.”


These would not be "moderate" Democrats, but the very progressive Jeff Merkley and the even more progressive/populist Bernie Sanders, an avowed Socialist and Independent who caucuses with the Democrats as the less conservative major party.

Clearly, this is more of a failure of nerve or strategy than of philosophy on the part of these Senators. And perhaps it is understandable, as the report goes on to explain that Vermont's other (Democratic) Senator, Pat Leahy, stated

the final health reform package headed for House and Senate votes will recognize the early investment Vermont has made in its Medicaid program, meaning more than $100 million in added funding for Vermont’s Medicaid programs over the next 10 years.

The Medicaid solution for states such as Vermont was one of the last issues to be resolved in final work on the plan. Leahy, with support from Sanders and Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., pushed for the remedy, which fixes underfunding for Vermont as an “early leader” state that offers more generous Medicaid programs than much of the country.


A renewed push for a public option would be a little more credible if the White House were to encourage it, an unlikely eventuality. Eli at Firedoglake yesterday recalled

the progressive community got 60+ representatives to pledge to oppose any health care reform bill that did not contain a public option; a bloc that would make such a bill impossible to pass. That sounds pretty “make me do it,” right? (Sure, now the progressives are folding like they always do, but Obama could have easily pretended to take them seriously.)

And what happened? First Obama made no attempt to pressure Ben Nelson or Joe Lieberman to vote for cloture – and only cloture – on the public option, nor did he ever press Harry Reid to try to pass it through reconciliation.

Then, when Scott Brown took Teddy Kennedy’s seat and forced reconciliation back onto the table, Obama still made no effort to push for the once-again-attainable public option, and even excluded it from his own sidecar proposal, despite the high probability that it would pass, the progressive PO-Or-Bust pledge, and the new “Public Option Please” letter.

Only when the public option was safely removed from the conversation did Obama and all his supporting organizations unleash all the personal arm-twisting and full-court press that we crazy hippies were supposedly so unrealistic to expect from them last year.


The sarcasm inherent in reference to the "Public Option Please" letter, authored by U.S. Representative Jared Polis (D-CO) and U.S. Representative Chellie Pingree (D-ME), may have been prompted by this excerpt:

As Democrats forge “the path forward” on health care, we believe that passing the public option through reconciliation should be part of that path. We urge you to favorably consider our request to include a public option in the reconciliation process.

Translation: If a public option is promptly added after passage, we'll be grateful, but meanwhile we'll vote for anything characterized as a "path forward."

In November, Representative Diana DeGette (D-DO) had penned a letter with 61 signatories (the names of whom DeGette has all along refused to reveal) to Speaker Pelosi vowing

We will not vote for a conference report that contains language that restricts women's right to choose any further than current law.

Now, as Firedoglake's Jane Hamsher describes, an effort is underway to accomodate Representative Bart Stupak (D-MI) on extending anti-abortion rights language beyond the Hyde amendment. One member of DeGette's group- which has met with the Speaker- reportedly said yesterday

It is outrageous that a Democratic Speaker, a Democratic Majority Leader and a Democratic President should support rolling back women’s reproductive rights.

And what will they do about it? Probably about the same as supporters of a public option. They will huff and puff and be content with some reassuring words from Congressional leadership, taking its cue from the White House. And the vast majority of them will usher the bill toward what, most pundits predict, will be passage.

So perhaps Representative Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), who recently announced this week that he wil change his vote on "reform" from "no" to "aye," gave the best rationale to approve the legislation when he on Wednesday he reasoned

One of the things that has bothered me is the attempt to try to de-legitimize his presidency. That hurts the nation when that happens... We have to be very careful that President Obama’s presidency not be destroyed by this debate. . .Even though I have many differences with him on policy, there’s something much bigger at stake here for America.

Republican Senator Jim DeMint understood this well when he boasted last July (video below)

If we’re able to stop Obama on this it will break him. It will be his Waterloo and we will show that we can, along with the American people, begin to push those freedom solutions that work in eevery area of society. It will break him.

In the end, in some sort of irony, we may have an extremely conservative South Carolina senator to thank for (double cliche ahead) pushing reform (such as it is) past the finish line. DeMint threw down the gauntlet, and Democrats since then have had to consider the possibility that defeat of "Obamacare" would set the stage for the destruction of the presidency of America's first black President. And they would find that a heavy responsibility, and burden, to bear.


Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A Noble Idea

Digby noted yesterday that Representative Alan Grayson (D-Fl) has introuduced a bill which would enable everyone in the country to buy into Medicare. Grayson (video below) cautions It "is not a plan for subsidies. Everyone will have to pay their own costs."

Grayson explains

It takes this enormously valuable public resource called the Medicare provider network and makes it available to all Americans..... yet only one-eighth of the public can use it. The most expensive part (of a health care plan) is to set up a provider network.

This is a good effort, so far, and bolder than President Obama's vision (eventually dropped) of a public option in which no more than ten million individuals were expected to enroll. However, it is not a single-payer program, which would not be "at cost" and fails to establish health care as a right. (Contrary to what Rush Limbaugh pretends to believe, "Obamacare" does not create a right to health care. Not even close.) But the plan would build on an existing framework- Medicare- on which, as Grayson points out, the federal government already has spent an enormous sum in establishing a provider network "from Nome, Alaska to Key West, Florida."

Digby maintains "I'm there. I think every progressive in the land should sign on."

(A)Good and (B)so what?

On July 31, 2009 the Progressive Caucus released the text of a letter addressed to House Democratic leadership in which its 60 signatories pledged

Any bill that does not provide, at a minimum, for a public option with reimbursement rates based on Medicare rates – not negotiated rates – is unacceptable.... We simply cannot vote for such a proposal.

Obviously, their resolve waned, evaporated, dissolved, and eventually disappeared. The House bill contained a weak public option, the Senate bill contained none, and the Senate bill is the one currently in play. If Speaker Pelosi can round up enough votes, the bill passed by the United States Senate will be approved by the House and President Obama will promptly sign it and declare an awesome victory.

Today, Firedoglake's Jane Hamsher provides the statements of 15 House Democrats who had pledged to vote for only a bill which included a public option. Frustrated, she observes

Whatever Barack Obama wants to do will be the farthest left any piece of legislation gets, and if anyone should try to challenge from the left, the unions and the liberal organizations and party blogs would rise up to condemn them and whip them into line — even if it means completely reversing themselves and devolving into total incoherence. And they’ll be rewarded with carve-outs and corporate money and expensive advertising and personal sinecures for playing their role in facilitating the corporate cash pipeline. Because that’s the job of the ever-expanding veal pen: cover Obama’s left flank and shut down progressive opposition.

And it's hardly likely that the White House would actively support such a progressive action. As a blogger on DailyKos (how did something even questioning Barack Obama get past Moulitsas?) noted today in referring to a New York Times piece (partial link here; subscription may be necessary for full article) of last August

Hospital industry lobbyists, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of alienating the White House, say they negotiated their $155 billion in concessions with Mr. Baucus and the administration in tandem. House staff members were present, including for at least one White House meeting, but their role was peripheral, the lobbyists said.

Several hospital lobbyists involved in the White House deals said it was understood as a condition of their support that the final legislation would not include a government-run health plan paying Medicare rates — generally 80 percent of private sector rates — or controlled by the secretary of health and human services.

"We have an agreement with the White House that I’m very confident will be seen all the way through conference," one of the industry lobbyists, Chip Kahn, director of the Federation of American Hospitals, told a Capitol Hill newsletter.


So let's support Mr. Grayson's bill- but understand that it's simply not going to happen.





A Gift To Democrats

On his CNN program "Rick's List," Rick Sanchez has a segment highlighting the "most intriguing" person of the day.

If Sanchez never has fingered J.D. Hayworth, he should sometime. Hayworth, who is running on the right against John McCain for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate, is known for several things. He opposed to illegal immigration and a guest-worker program (rightfully so) and to man-horse marriage.

On Monday, Rachel Maddow hosting, logically, The Rachel Maddow Show, interviewed (video below) Hayworth and challenged him on a couple of claims. The ex-U.S. Representative claimed the Massachusetts Supreme Court "defined marriage as simply, quote, 'the establishment of intimacy'" which "would mean if you really had affection for your horse, I guess you could marry your horse."

Perhaps that would be the case if the Massachusetts Supreme Court really had made that connection. Not only, however, did Maddow argue at that moment that Hayworth was mistaken, but in a segment (video way below) the following evening, stated "I looked it up again. He‘s wrong. The ruling doesn't define marriage as the establishment of intimacy. It just doesn't."

Roughly the same transpired on Hayworth's contention on Monday "If you really go back and take a look at the numbers, I ranked ninth in overall contributions from those who might even have a tangential affiliation to Jack Abramoff. In fact, some other groups rated higher." The following night, Maddow explained.

Groups. When he says “groups,” that‘s the giveaway. Mr. Hayworth is ninth on a list that he found of everyone, including campaign committees and groups who got Abramoff money.

I had only asked Mr. Hayworth about being a top Abramoff money recipient among members of Congress. He was, in fact, a top recipient of Abramoff-related money among members in Congress. I was right. I did not have my facts wrong.


Hayworth's inaccurate remarks to a broadcaster from a network few voters in a Repub primary in Arizona, and perhaps not even many in a general election, watch will have little impact on a GOP primary or a general election in a state fairly hostile to liberals and Democrats. But J.D. made another statement that appears to have been little noticed.

Referring (transcript here) to the incumbent's attacks upon him for his connection to Abramoff, Hayworth remarked

As for John McCain, a man who says he‘s a man of honor, I think quite frankly, he knows these charges to be incorrect. And in desperation to keep his job, sadly, he is now proving himself unfit for service in the United States Senate.

Is now proving himself unfit for service in the United States Senate. This is not synonymous with "is unfit for service in the United States Senate"- but that's, as Republicans use to say, "nuance." If John McCain is renominated, his Democratic opponent could do worse than to run a commercial featuring a former Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives saying his party's nominee "is now proving himself unfit for serviice in the United States Senate."





Monday, March 15, 2010

A Simplistic View Of Education

To be fair: he did promise us "change we could believe in." True, some of us had no idea what that meant, but Barack Obama did promise us "change." In late February, the Providence (R.I.- but is there any other Providence?) Journal reported

the Central Falls school Board of Trustees, in a brief but intense meeting, voted 5-2 to fire every teacher at the school. In all, 93 names were read aloud in the high school auditorium — 74 classroom teachers, plus reading specialists, guidance counselors, physical education teachers, the school psychologist, the principal and three assistant principals.

This began when Secretary of Education Arne Duncan decided to require

states, for the first time, to identify their lowest 5 percent of schools — those that have chronically poor performance and low graduation rates — and fix them using one of four methods: school closure; takeover by a charter or school-management organization; transformation which requires a longer school day, among other changes; and “turnaround” which requires the entire teaching staff be fired and no more than 50 percent rehired in the fall.
Negotiations between the teachers' union and the Superintendent of Education eventually broke down, apparently because of a demand that teachers assume more duties- with some additional pay, but not commensurate with the increased responsibilities.

In separate statements, both Duncan and President Obama supported the radical response of the school board in what the newspaper called "Rhode Island's tiniest, poorest city."

And that is the problem which seems to have escaped the attention of Messrs. Duncan and Obama. Richard Rothstein, a research associate of the Economic Policy Institute and visiting professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, has written Class and Schools: Using Social, Economic, and Educational Reform to Close the Black-White Achievement Gap. In it, he explains

The achievement gap between poor and middle-class black and white children is widely recognized as our most important educational challenge. But we prevent ourselves from solving it because of a commonplace belief that poverty and race can't "cause" low achievement and that therefore schools must be failing to teach disadvantaged children adequately. After all, we see many highly successful students from lower-class backgrounds. Their success seems to prove that social class cannot be what impedes most disadvantaged students.

Yet the success of some lower-class students proves nothing about the power of schools to close the achievement gap. In every social group, there are low achievers and high achievers alike. On average, the achievement of low-income students is below the average achievement of middle-class students, but there are always some middle-class students who achieve below typical low-income levels. Similarly, some low-income students achieve above typical middle-class levels. Demography is not destiny, but students' family characteristics are a powerful influence on their relative average achievement.

Widely repeated accounts of schools that somehow elicit consistently high achievement from lower-class children almost always turn out, upon examination, to be flawed. In some cases, these "schools that beat the odds" are highly selective, enrolling only the most able or most motivated lower-class children. In other cases, they are not truly lower-class schools—for example, a school enrolling children who qualify for subsidized lunches because their parents are graduate students living on low stipends. In other cases, such schools define high achievement at such a low level that all students can reach it, despite big gaps that remain at more meaningful levels.
According to Sara Mosle, who has reviewed Diane Ravitch's The Death and Life of The Great American School System for Slate, President Obama's Race to the Top fund rests on the assumption that data, gleaned from testing, can pinpoint schools that are failing and prescribe a remedy. He

wants to tie individual students' scores to individual teachers, so achievement can be monitored not only school by school but also classroom by classroom, and then teachers can be fired or given raises accordingly.

The fallacy behind standardized testing of students- including, but not limited to the practice of "teaching to the test"- has been well described and documented. Beyond that, however, Ravitch (a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution before she saw the light), notes

No school or school district or state anywhere in the nation had ever proved the theory correct. Nowhere was there a real-life demonstration in which a district had identified a top quintile of teachers, assigned low-performing students to their classes, and improved the test-scores of low-performing students so dramatically in three, four or five years that the black-white test score gap closed.
The idea that schools can be improved by simply identifying bad teachers and replacing them has been one of the underling rationales for the charter school movement. However, Mosle reports that Ravitch found a

study by two Stanford economists, financed by the Walton Family and Eli and Edythe Broad foundations (staunch charter supporters), involved an enormous sample, 70 percent of all charter students. It found that an astonishing 83 percent of charter schools were either no better or actually worse than traditional public schools serving similar populations. Indeed, the authors concluded that bad charter schools outnumber good ones by a ratio of roughly 2 to 1.

Ravitch concluded that no one has found the "silver bullet" which would significantly improve student performance across the nation. She argues, rightly, for "humility" in determining causes and solutions and concludes

The only guaranteed strategy [for improving schools] is to change the student population, replacing low-performing students with higher-performing students.

Notwithstanding the wealth of factors imperiling the American school system, Ravitch here appears to have fingered one routinely overlooked: the students. It's understandable that few on the left or the right (and President Obama routinely is on both simultaneously) even consider the individual when assessing the woes of public education. The right, as expected, wants to run down teachers (government employees) and their union and much of the left is wary that acknowledging that students in disadvantaged districts (such as Central Falls, R.I.) are underperforming compared to students elsewhere invites (unjustified) racial explanations.

While blaming teachers and basing evaluation of their performance on test scores is easy and comforting, President Obama could invoke one of his famous "teaching moments" and explain the cold, hard facts to the country. Unfortunately, he lacks either the understanding or the fortitude to do so.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Textbook Politics

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

There is something afoot in the State of Texas, and it's not mainstream- anything.

An individual who blogs as "TFN" at the Texas Freedom Network, which describes itself as "a mainstream voice to counter the religious right," apparently is monitoring the proceedings of the Texas Board of Education. As has been noted- but insufficiently- in the media, conservatives have overtaken the Texas Board of Education, which sets curriculum standards for the entire state. Consequently, the State of Texas has become the second largest purchaser of school textbooks in the country and guides the decisions of major publishers.

Clearly, what happens in Texas is unlikely to stay in Texas. The Board, currently composed of ten Republicans and five Democrats, voted over the course of three days this past week to impose a far-right agenda upon Texas school districts and, perhaps, the nation. This included a plank requiring students to learn about " the conservative resurgence of the 1980s and 1990s, including Phyllis Schlafly, the Contract With America, the Heritage Foundation, the Moral Majority and the National Rifle Association."

More disturbingly, the Board now requires not only economic theorists Karl Marx, John Maynard Keynes, and Adam Smith be taught, but also free-market cheerleaders Milton Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek. Perhaps they didn't realize that Adam Smith was a laissez-faire champion- or perhaps they did and merely wanted to stack the deck.

The Texas Freedom Network spent one day live-blogging the proceedings during which, among other actions, the Board voted to: replace Thomas Jefferson with Sir Thomas Aquinas, Reformation giant John Calvin, and Sir William Blackstone as influences on the Englightenment; emphasize the right to bear arms (presumably leaving out the precondition of "a well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State"); eliminate “free enterprise (capitalist, free market)” in favor of "free enterprise."

But there was another interesting tidbit:

12:28 – Board member Mavis Knight offers the following amendment: “examine the reasons the Founding Fathers protected religious freedom in America by barring government from promoting or disfavoring any particular religion over all others.”

How to interpret this? The mainstream conservative argument regarding the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution has been: the framers did not intend to discourage religious expression, nor even to prevent government from favoring religion. Rather, so it is claimed by the right, the framers meant merely to prevent government from favoring one specific religion over another.

I don't buy this argument; it is likely that the men putting together the Constitution intended the government to remain neutral, or nearly so, on the matter of religion. Still, the standard conservative argument is legitimate (reasonable) and has at least a little merit. Yet, the far-right Texas Board of Education finds even this interpretation of the establishment clause to be overly restrictive, liberal, or just plain unacceptable. It is uncomfortable with the idea that government shouldn't promote or favor "one specific religion over another." It is an extraordinary, extreme stance.

But the dangerous conflation of cultural and economic conservatism is best reflected in the statement, made to The New York Times in February, of Board member Dr. Don McLeroy, a dentist who describes himself as a Christian fundamentalist. He argued

The men who wrote the Constitution were Christians who knew the Bible. Our idea of individual rights comes from the Bible. The Western development of the free-market system owes a lot to biblical principles.

The theory that "the men who wrote the Constitution were Christians who knew the Bible" merits more space and time to refute, as has been done by others. The framers typically were affiliated with one Christian denomination or another. But a fundamentalist or an evangelical should know better than most that mere identification with a denomination does not a "Christian" make. A commitment to faith in the man for whom "Christianity" is named is vital. And it's hard to understand why someone would want to claim slaveholders (as some of the Founders were) as "Christian."

Similarly, one could write a book examining the superficiality of claiming "our idea of individual rights comes from the Bible (and) the wesetern develpment of the free-market system owes a lot to biblical principles." For now: the Head of the church said to a young man "if you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor...." and to his disciples "only with diffiulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven." Jesus was not an unabashed Marxist but he hardly gave a ringing endorsement to acquisitive, unrestrained capitalism (or "free enterprise") when

he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons.

As Texas goes, so goes the nation? Not if common sense prevails.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Cut Spending, Increase Economic Distress

In his interesting, if somewhat misguided, column on Thursday in The New York Times, David Brooks captures the essence of President Obama:

The fact is, Obama is as he always has been, a center-left pragmatic reformer. Every time he tries to articulate a grand philosophy — from his book “The Audacity of Hope” to his joint-session health care speech last September — he always describes a moderately activist government restrained by a sense of trade-offs. He always uses the same on-the-one-hand-on-the-other sentence structure. Government should address problems without interfering with the dynamism of the market.

Unfortunately, the right-of-center Brooks likes the part of being restrained by a sense of trade-offs and not interfering with the "dynamism of the market." Not surprisingly, Brooks fails to recognize that the near-destruction of the economy by powerful Wall Street interests demands a President committed to an activist government and willing to intervene in a market distorted by those bent on get enormously rich-quick financial schemes.

The lingering recession, and deep recession faced by Barack Obama upon taking office, have necessitated aggressive action by the Chief Executive. However, Brooks refers to(Obama's failure to respond to) "the greatest moral challenge of our day: the $9.7 trillion in new debt being created this decade."

One of the most curious- or perhaps disturbing- element of the public debate over President Obama's response to the economic crisis has been the the right's sudden concern over deficits. (If you want to be smug and condescending, call it a "born again" concern about deficits. But only if you want to be smug and condescending.) Deficits were enormous, and the national debt ballooned, during the reign of King George the XLIII so that the supremely wealthy could get their tax breaks.

But it goes beyond that, beyond the whiff of hypocrisy. It is downright irresponsible to get exorcised over deficits in the face of severe recession. Running deficits in a time of depression may be counter-intuitive to many people, given that when times are tough in the family, its spending will drop. But national policy more rationally is countercylical; when spending drops among those families and businesses- throughout the private sector- government has to pick up the slack and spur demand by increasing spending.

Further, our current debt-to-GDP ratio is not at an historically high level, as economist Dean Baker explains:

The current projections show that even ten years out on our current course the ratio of debt to GDP will be just over 90 percent. The ratio of debt to GDP was over 110 percent after World War II. Instead of impoverishing the children of that era, the three decades following World War II saw the most rapid increase in living standards in the country's history.

We can also look to Japan, which now has a debt to GDP ratio of more than 180 percent. Investors are not running from Japanese debt. They are willing to hold long-term debt at interest rates close to 1.5 percent. In our own case, the 3.7 percent interest rate on long-term Treasury bonds remains near a historic low.

Brooks, who is not a fire-breathing extremist, GOP water-carrier, or prone to condescending smugness, is not the only figure who seems unable to understand this. Take for example, the fire-breathing extremist and GOP water-carrier given to condescending smugness who is on the radio for three hours every weekday:

I have to tell you, the more public employment we get and the more money that goes to those jobs the less of it in the private sector. Jobs in the private sector produce things. Jobs in the government sector are a drain on the private sector by definition. You have to take money out of the private sector in the form of taxes, printing it, or borrowing it, in order to pay this ever-expanding group of government employees which does not produce anything. They are a pure drain.

Ignore, for now, the elitism inherent in referring to a large group of working class and middle class Americans as "a pure drain." Concentrate instead on the contradictions in Limbaugh's thinking.

As President Obama evidently understands, in a recession the federal government should not raise taxes but needs to increase spending. Ad so the deficit has risen, though not as calamitously as the GOP claims. While the federal government spends, jobs increase, more money goes into workers' pockets, and consumer spending increases. Not rocket science, you would think.

But if the federal government does not give to state governments "in order to pay this ever-expanding group of government employees," the state governments face a Hobson's choice, as forty-one of them do now. They can cut the size of their workforce, throwing working class and middle class Americans out of work and their families into an economic tailspin. At which point they will stop spending, creating a further drag on the economy, including increased job loss. Less is bought, and sales tax revenue declines, as does income tax revenue because, obviously, the employee is no longer an employee.

Alternatively, the state government can increase the rate of a broad-based (income or sales) tax or increase user or other fees. But that approach carries its own set of problems, especially in a recession.

Economics 101 they call it, though not everyone accepts these basic tenets of Keynesian economics. Still, when a Republican such as Rush Limbaugh goes on a rant intended to instill fear about public spending, or a sane Republican like Brooks anguishes over the deficit, they ought to do a better job of explaining why we should believe him.

Presidential Failure

Asked on the Overtime segment on Bill Maher's Real Time, "so, Van, Steve, do you think the media should change the way it co...