Saturday, March 30, 2013

Guess what happens when you tie teachers' (and administrators') pay directly to student test scores?

Ms. Parks admitted to Mr. Hyde that she was one of seven teachers — nicknamed “the chosen” — who sat in a locked windowless room every afternoon during the week of state testing, raising students’ scores by erasing wrong answers and making them right. She then agreed to wear a hidden electronic wire to school, and for weeks she secretly recorded the conversations of her fellow teachers for Mr. Hyde. 

In the two and a half years since, the state’s investigation reached from Ms. Parks’s third-grade classroom all the way to the district superintendent at the time, Beverly L. Hall, who was one of 35 Atlanta educators indicted Friday by a Fulton County grand jury. 
Move over, Michelle Rhee (test cheating was also apparently rife in the D.C. schools under her tenure).  So often it's the icons of toughness, the lionized apparent miracle workers who create a culture of fear and greed that breeds corruption:

Friday, March 29, 2013

God evolves

It's good news, I suppose, that more and more pastors and theologians are finding scriptural sanction for gay marriage, as  Evan McMorris-Santoro reports -- a nice illustration of Robert Wright's thesis that God grows kinder and better as human society evolves socially and ethically.

The process involves obvious self-delusion, as interpretation of texts invested with supreme authority always does. Here, for example, is Obama ally and megachurch pastor Delman Coates putting his "flexibility" on display:
Coates is a Biblical scholar and said his own views on marriage equality came from studying his faith's holy book....He said his understanding of Christian faith has always required flexibility and open-mindedness.

"We are evolving. Not just in our understanding of civil marriage, but we're also evolving in our understanding of what the scripture is affirming and what it is condemning," Coates said. "I think as more reasoned Christians take a look at scripture, it's pretty clear."

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

A hat-tip to ARRA for the freight rail boom

The Wall Street Journal's Betsy Morris reports on an investment boom in freight rail and freight rail infrastructure that's aiding the nascent comeback of U.S. manufacturing.
Welcome to the revival of the Railroad Age. North America's major freight railroads are in the midst of a building boom unlike anything since the industry's Gilded Age heyday in the 19th century—this year pouring $14 billion into rail yards, refueling stations, additional track. With enhanced speed and efficiency, rail is fast becoming a dominant player in the nation's commercial transport system and a vital cog in its economic recovery.

This time around, though, the expansion isn't so much geographic—it is about a race to make existing rail lines more efficient and able to haul more and different types of freight. Some of the railroads are building massive new terminals that resemble inland ports. They are turning their networks into double-lane steel freeways to capture as much as they can get of U.S. freight demand that is projected to grow by half, to $27.5 billion by 2040, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. In some cases, rail lines are increasing the heights of mountain tunnels and raising bridges to accommodate stacked containers. All told, 2013 stands to be the industry's third year in a row of record capital spending—more than double the yearly outlays of $5.9 billion a decade ago.
As the examples of infrastructure upgrades in Morris's article suggest, freight infrastructure is financed mostly by private capital.  The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act's  $8 billion in high speed rail grants, while focused mainly on passenger service, do include projects that improve infrastructure for freight rail, however. Describing rail upgrades in his book on the stimulus, The New New Deal, Michael Grunwald illustrates how passenger and freight rail infrastructure are often intertwined:  

Monday, March 25, 2013

Two presidents on popular sovereignty

Last week, Andrew Sullivan rather arrestingly juxtaposed George Washington's warning against a nation indulging "passionate affection" for another nation and Obama's declaration in his speech upon arrival in Israel that "our alliance is eternal, it is forever – lanetzach.”

So now we know that Obama laid on the schmaltz as precondition to challenging Israelis a day later to secure their own future by offering justice to the Palestinians. In that challenge, Gershom Gorenberg sees a vital fusion of  venue and message:
The first breakthrough was in method: Obama started by negotiating with the Israeli public. The choice of venue, an auditorium full of university students rather than the Knesset, was not a glitch, as many people thought beforehand. The venue was the message: The politicians have been too slow, so I'm stepping around them to talk to normal Israelis first.
That appeal directly to popular sovereignty suggests another presidential pairing across the centuries.  First, consider Obama's understanding of bottom-up sovereignty in the Jerusalem speech:

Friday, March 22, 2013

Gone shellin'

for a few days in Sanibel, FL, which I imagine many people before me have dubbed Sanishell, as it is the mollusk exoskeleton capital of the universe. I am a nonexpert but very enthusiastic shell-hunter.  As someone who generally can't shut the stream of consciousness down or do anything that might broadly be called meditative, I find hunting for my favored sea treasures mesmerizing.

Today, as I was standing ankle deep at the water's edge scanning a small mountain of tiny shells getting bathed by alternate waves, a similarly engaged sixty-something asked me what I was looking for. I said shark's eyes, a kind of bulbous chestnut-shaped shell that spirals to a kind of nipple, just to say something. This gentleman managed to tell me in short space, after mentioning a couple of shell names that meant nothing to me, that he owns a foundry in Michigan, making auto parts among other things, that manufacturing has made something of a comeback but is nothing like before, and that wages have been hollowed out first by the women's movement and then by Asian competition. He then launched into a series of arch-conservative credos about the sanctity of the U.S. Constitution and how its uniqueness is founded on faith in God, how wealth is created (manufacturing, mining, farming), how the Second Amendment is the key to all our freedoms. I listened to all of these and parried some, mildly, while meanwhile this guy keeps pulling the most amazing micro-turrets and ice castles, all under an inch long, out of the shell heap and handing them to me.  I said he was teaching me dependence on handouts; he said he was teaching me to fish; I contemplated starting an encore career giving shelling lessons, meanwhile pulling out two or three of these augurs and ceriths, or whatever you call these amazing little leaning towers of Pisa, myself.

It's ridiculous to suggest that Obama and Boehner could have cut a deal if they'd played golf together more. What's obviously called for is a shelling summit in Sanibel.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Look what the GOP can get for $300 billion

In July 2011, Obama was reportedly ready to sign off on a grand bargain for deficit reduction that would include $800 billion in new revenue and somewhere in the neighborhood of $3 trillion in spending cuts over ten years. David Brooks said that Republicans would be crazy not take such a deal.  And that decision may pay off for them.

If Republicans can stomach the sequester and withstand pressure from defense contractors and other constituent groups, they can close the books on ten-year deficit reduction with some $2.7 trillion in spending cuts and the measly $600 billion in new revenue that Obama unaccountably settled for on Jan. 1 (plus additional interest savings).

The double catch is that even Republicans profess to dislike the sequester's indiscriminate swing of the meat ax, and Republicans also purportedly want to cut and "reform" entitlements -- though they would prefer to induce Obama to do the dirty work on that front.  And the funny thing is that he will -- if Republicans would only give ever so little on revenue. My educated guess is that if they would agree to say $200 billion worth of tax loophole closures or tightenings, Obama will go quite far in altering the structure of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

There's one other catch. Republicans would have stop doing their utmost to strangle Obamacare in the crib. That's their ticket to privatizing Medicaid and Medicare.

Consider the Rubicon on Medicaid that's been stealthily crossed in the last month. Sarah Kliff explains:

Monday, March 18, 2013

I get nervous when I read sentences like this

from Greg Sargent:
But there is no realistic scenario under which Democrats agree to serious entitlement cuts without new revenues, so until this position changes, we’re very likely going to remain stuck in extended sequestration.
It seems to me that progressive watchers of the budget wars like Sargent and Brian Beutler tend to underestimate Obama's capacity to move the goalposts on itself. Remember his alleged retort to Boehner's opening offer late last year to raise about $800 billion in new revenue over ten years via (unspecified) loophole closures: "I get that for free"?  He didn't. And as Sargent's post implies, he won't any time time soon. Relatedly, remember Obama's not-quite-hard line about the Bush tax cuts -- that they would not be extended for households earning over $250k? They were (up to $450k).

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The counter-scenario: Republicans cave on sequestration

Since January, I have periodically vented my mounting frustration over the apparent fact that Obama, by yielding at the pressure points of the debt ceiling on Aug. 1, 2011 and the fiscal cliff on Jan. 1, 2013, effectively inflicted the sequestration cuts on the country.

For the record, I am inclined by character toward regret and self-reproach, which I'm arguably projecting onto Obama. There is always the possibility that his chosen pressure point, the pain imposed by the sequestration that the Republicans have learned to love, will work.  A few days ago, I cited a Times article by Robert Pear about the rising chorus of lobbyist lamentation over the cuts as evidence of the long-term damage the sequester will inflict. The article could also be read, however (and in fact more or less asked to be read), as evidence that the lobbying pressure will at some point prove irresistible to the GOP:

Friday, March 15, 2013

Jack Goldsmith's disillusionment

John Podesta, Bill Clinton's former chief of staff, has an op-ed calling on Obama to release the legal memos setting forth the administration's rationale and guidelines for targeted killings. Good for him. As he notes, he has standing to weigh the competing imperatives of national security and public disclosure -- and with respect to the administration's legal deliberations, he comes down firmly on the side of disclosure.

I am more interested, though,  in the thinking of someone with even more standing to address the legal issues arising from the administration's covert operations: Jack Goldsmith, the short-term head of George W. Bush's Office of Legal Counsel who countermanded the insane torture memos that authorized the Bush administration's torture regime.  There's a link to a Feb. 5 Goldsmith op-ed at the bottom of Podesta's. Goldsmith's latest tells a sad story of disillusionment when compared with Goldsmith's 2009 writings.

Goldsmith takes a step back to consider not just the need for disclosure regarding the drone memos but the need to develop a new legal framework for "secret warfare":

The truest thing you will read today

Really, I promise. Think about it.
In this case, the overreaction is to a paring knife accidentally baked into the bottom of a birthday cake:. Never mind the parental hysteria: here's Walmart:

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Obama, the GOP's enabler

The president's powers are limited. The president's powers are limited. The president's powers are limited.

It's the mantra both of political scientists and progressive commentators like Greg Sargent and Steve Benen, driven mad almost on a daily basis by "both-sides-are-to-blame" commentators on the budget impasse who won't acknowledge that Republicans refuse to compromise, i.e. consider any new revenue as a component of deficit reduction.

In the legislative arena, the president really has one concrete power: the veto. When it comes to budgetary matters, that power is closely related to his ability to "set the agenda," since appropriations must be renewed on a regular basis (and new debt authorized) or the government ceases to function. Sunsetting legislation like the Bush tax cuts also sets up deadline/crisis points.

As a funding (or tax) deadline looms, the president can set out parameters for what he regards as fair and prudent legislation and say, I will sign when satisfactory legislation reaches my desk.

That's what Bill Clinton did in response to the massive cuts to Medicaid and Medicare that the GOP-controlled Congress wrote into their bills in 1995. He faced down their threats not to raise the debt ceiling (not taken too seriously at that stage in our development) and to shut down the government by not sending funding bills that met his terms (which happened twice).

That's what Chris Christie did in his first legislative battles in New Jersey. He set his terms and announced that he would sit back, crack open a beer and wait for legislation that met them.

The catch is, you have to be willing to trigger a crisis if the "qualifying" legislation never arrives. That's what Obama has never been willing to do.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Political science consensus judgment of the day

The U.S. District Court of political commentary, xpostfactoid division, affirms in part and vacates in part Peter Beinart's remediation order* for the GOP [n.b. note update at bottom for second appeal ruling] : seriously challenge for the presidency, a Republican will have to pointedly distance himself from Jeb’s older brother... It won’t be enough for a candidate merely to keep his or her distance from W. John McCain and Mitt Romney tried that, and they failed because the Obama campaign hung Bush around their neck every chance it got. To seriously compete, the next Republican candidate for president will have to preempt that Democratic line of attack by repudiating key aspects of Bush’s legacy. Jeb Bush would find that excruciatingly hard even if he wanted to. And as his interviews Sunday make clear, he doesn’t event want to try.

Upheld:  it would be a good idea for the next GOP presidential candidate, and probably all GOP candidates for the foreseeable future, to distance themselves from W.  David Frum saw the writing on the wall back in February 2008:

Ryancare hits the workplace

The voucherization of American health insurance may already be upon us.

No, Paul Ryan has not gotten his proposed "premium support" system for Medicare enacted.  But increasing numbers of employers are adopting or considering a shift from "defined benefit" to "defined contribution" insurance plans -- a shift that mirrors the transformation of pension benefits over the past twenty years (as Peter Orzag pointed out in a Dec. 2011 column).

Under a defined contribution model, as described in a recent Booz & Co. report, "instead of designing and offering defined health benefits, companies make cash contributions to savings accounts that employees use to purchase insurance products of their choice. This model allows the company to cap its healthcare cost at a desired threshold" (p. 4).

To meet the nascent and anticipated demand for this model, health insurers and benefits consultants are rolling out private healthcare exchanges enabling employers to outsource the benefits management. these exchanges provide a menu of health insurance options to the employees of companies that buy in. Such exchanges have been a feature of health plans for retirees for some time; companies are now beginning to offer them to current employees.

Adoption of this system may be accelerated by the coverage mandates the ACA imposes on employers that provide health insurance -- e.g., the ban on annual and lifetime benefit caps, the requirement to offer coverage to employees' children up to age 26, the free provision of preventive care, and other mandates.

Question: given the ACA requirement that employer plans cover a minimum 60% of participants' average medical costs, and cap participants' annual out-of-pocket expenses at $6250 per individual/$12500 per family, and meet the minimum essential benefit requirements that govern the ACA exchanges or potentially pay a penalty,* how can an employer control its costs by capping its "defined contribution"?

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Learning to love Obamacare, cont.

Recently, conservative healthcare policy commentator Avik Roy pivoted from a long history of denouncing the Affordable Care Act to acceptance of its status as law of the land and thence to a happy vision of a marriage between Obamacare and Ryancare, whereby seniors are progressively migrated onto the ACA's exchanges, and Medicare's remaining "public option" (traditional Medicare) becomes available to non-seniors on the ACA exchanges.

This pivot highlights the Heritage Foundation pedigree of the ACA: Democrats embraced "premium support" and healthcare exchanges because the combo seemed the only form of universal healthcare provision that Republicans could support; Republicans promptly demonized the effort even as they proposed migrating its structure into Medicare. In any case, the ACA exchanges should indeed serve as a proving ground for the dubious notion that managed competition among insurers will reduce healthcare costs.

A recent article by two partners at Mercer Health and Benefits, a major HR consultant, highlights another effect of the ACA that should cheer conservatives.  The ACA's coverage mandates, Tracy Watts and Eric Grossman assert, have raised the cost of coverage and so led more employers toward a form of health insurance that shifts more costs to policyholders and possibly lowers them overall:

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Medicare for all, or Obamacare for seniors? Or both?

Many have noted that the Medicare reform plan included in Paul Ryan's 2012 budget, though sketchy in detail, looked a lot like Obamacare for seniors plus a public option -- the public option being traditional Medicare, which would compete with private plans on an ACA-like exchange.  Throughout the presidential campaign, Ryan emphasized that his plan would not affect current seniors, only kicking in for those under 55 when the plan was enacted.

This year, to meet the GOP target of balancing the federal budget within ten years, Ryan is reportedly planning to move the migration age up.

That possibility has led Avik Roy, the most vocal spox for conservative health reform ideas, to stop worrying, love the ACA, and envision its fusion with Ryancare:
There has been an important development since last year’s House budget: the reelection of President Obama. Obama’s victory means that Obamacare will be implemented, warts and all, making it politically impossible to repeal, even if Republicans are fortunate enough to retake Washington in 2017.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Speaker for the dead? Nasr indicts Obama's AfPak policy in Holbrooke's name

Vali Nasr, a former aide to the late Richard Holbrooke when he was Obama's special envoy to Afghanistan, has put the gist of his book-length brief against the Obama administration's conduct of foreign policy in a j'accuse published in Foreign Policy.

In Nasr's narrative, Obama's conduct of war and diplomacy in Afghanistan and Pakistan -- Holbrooke's bailiwick --  was controlled by a narrow coterie of White House staff. The policy, according to Nasr, was overmilitarized, diplomatically disengaged, driven mainly by domestic political considerations, and undermined by Obama's timeline and swift withdrawal. The wound that drives the whole is Nasr's conviction that his patron, master diplomat Richard Holbrooke, was undercut at every turn and never given a chance to operate.

The heart of the strategic indictment (motive is a separate story) is that the admnistration first slow-walked and then mis-timed and undercut its negotiation with the Taliban, which Holbrooke had urged almost from the start. Here's the gist:

Monday, March 04, 2013

As God gave him to see the right

I am nearing the climax of Ronald C. White's excellent Lincoln's Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural (2006).  It is leading me to reflect once again why a speech that casts a war that slaughtered 600,000 men as a divine judgment and collective punishment continues to move me.  There is something unique about the tired notion of divine judgment as transmuted by Lincoln's mind and bottomless suffering.

White casts the speech as a species of Jeremiad, a dominant form in Puritan preaching, rooted in the inevitable perpetual sense that the New Israel (like the old one) was forever backsliding. White demonstrates that Lincoln was intimately familiar with the genre, which he describes as follows:
The thrust was that the people had sinned by straying from the original vision of their forefathers and thus deserved punishment. Their sin was linked with the judgment of God. Judgment should give rise to repentance. If there was repentance, the preacher offered the possibility of forgiveness. Forgiveness portended hope. Hope should lead to reform (Kindle location 2102-04).

For the United States the "original vision," as Lincoln increasingly cast it in the war's later days (White notes), is the Declaration's credo: all men are created equal..endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. Punishment for corruption of that vision, in Lincoln's provisional judgment, is an eye-for-an-eye affair:

Sunday, March 03, 2013

How long have we known the truth about the Cuban missile crisis?

I "agree" with the reader cited below by James Fallows in his continuing series on threat inflation and ensuing U.S. military engagements:
I said that nearly all the major official "threats" of the modern era proved in retrospect to have been hyped. Missile gap, Tonkin Gulf, WMD, etc. Reader JA immediately replied, "You left out terrorism." And reader AS wrote:
It's true that we came close to nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis. But according to a well documented article in the Atlantic [plus others],  the missiles themselves were an inflated threat, i.e., according to US generals at the time did not materially hurt US security and could easily be traded, as they eventually secretly were, for US missiles in Turkey. 

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Did the two-year budget war just end with a GOP victory?

[Update 2]: I usually try to avoid the blog-first-ask-questions-later temptation but may have succumbed to it in this case. Important qualification of news on which this post is based from Brian Beutler. The question is whether Obama has announced intention to sign a continuing resolution by March 27 that funds the government through Sept. 30 at levels incorporating the sequestration:

it's hard to write about this. My understanding is that he will not sign CR that makes the sequester caps the new top line...

however he will sign one that preserves the existing top line, even if sequestration makes him cut beneath it.

Technical but important difference.

yes indeed! Can there really be a "here's the budget but you have to cut below it" provision?
that's what we have today under sequestration. The new CR would simply carry the current budget forward, soup to nuts.
 More qualifications in updates at bottom.  So perhaps the answer to the question in the post title is 'not yet,' though I still think that Obama has maneuvered himself into a bad position. Here's the original post.
*     *     *     *
Every time the next budget showdown looms, Dem-side writers always eagerly game out what will happen when Obama refuses to yield and Republicans are forced to propose x, or defend y.

It never happens. Obama always punts, or caves.

The next showdown was to be March 27, when the continuing resolutions funding the government run out, and new funding bills will have to be passed, either at sequestration levels -- or not.  Here, for example, is Brian Beutler on February 26:
The most important factor in this fight is probably the reality that Obama doesn’t have to face voters again and thus is willing to veto sequestration replacement bills if they’re composed of spending cuts alone. Congressional Democrats are fully aware of this, too, and that creates a powerful incentive for them to hold the line.

So sequestration will begin. Obama won’t cave. And then the tension sequestration was intended to create — and in fact has created — between defense hawks and the rest of the GOP will intensify and actually splinter the party. If that doesn’t happen quickly enough, then the sequestration fight will become tangled up in the need to renew funding for the federal government at the end of March. If Republicans don’t cave before then, they’ll precipitate a 1995-style government shutdown, public opinion will actually begin to control the outcome, and it’ll be game over.
But what did Obama do on the eve of sequestration? The Times' Michael Shear and Jonathan Weisman report:

Friday, March 01, 2013

The tax-cutters' eternal advantage

David Atkins does not like Obama's proposed Medicare and Social Security benefit cuts and complains about moral um, unequivalence in D.C.:
The idea that spending cuts are morally and politically superior to revenue increases is so ingrained the Village political press that to even put the shoe on the other foot creates an unthinkable scenario. This is one of Ronald Reagan's most baleful legacies: a Washington establishment that can't stop believing it's the 1980s or early 1990s.