Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Meanwhile, at the Department of Education...

One of the President's old basketball buddies now is in charge of passing out $4.35 billion which, we are told, will jump start the process of transforming American education. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will dispense the funds as "incentives to competition," specifically to states and school districts that knuckle under to the Administration's formula for "reform."

Duncan is a Hyde Park liberal who never was a teacher, and whose "success" as CEO of the Chicago schools is open to question -- given that the Chicago schools remain among the worst in the nation. States that wish to benefit from Duncan's largess must take two steps immediately: ensure that there is no limit on the number of charter schools permitted under their laws, and ensure that there are no obstacles to tying teacher pay to student test scores.

That's not education reform. That's an ideological juggernaut bent on crushing anybody in state government or educational leadership who disagrees.

There is nothing in the Administration program that requires states to close down the 37% of charter schools where students do worse than the students in local traditional schools, or to reexamine the charters of the 46% that do no better despite the suspension of union work rules (see CREDO National Charter School Study*). There is no provision for research to determine whether existing merit pay structures actually improve student outcomes, and which, if any, works best.

It's interesting that teachers in charter schools are displaying a lot more interest in unionizing, citing factors like longer hours, lower pay, and very high teacher turnover. High turnover is not surprising in a building where the principal can unilaterally change the teaching load from five classes to six without even bothering to consult, much less negotiate. It's not surprising in a building where "teachers" with no experience or training are tossed into classrooms with nothing but happy platitudes expressed in pie-in-the-sky "mission statements" to back them up.

In the meanwhile, though, there are plenty of young, would-be teachers -- idealistic to the point of stupidity or stupid to the point of idealism -- who will flock to the flood of charter schools that will be inspired by Duncan's pot of gold. In the rush by fiscally challenged states to grab the money, charters will be approved for applicants who would have been denied had some restrictions on the number of charters remained in place. The effect of the Duncan plan will be to reduce competition.

Anticipate a glut of "awareness" charters, catering to every racial, ethnic, and interest group you can imagine. Anticipate a glut of for-profit charters specializing in glossy brochures aimed at impressing parents and state legislators. Anticipate that the 37% pure failure rate will surpass 50%. Anticipate that the program will be a political success, because all those racial, ethnic, and interest groups will be happy, and the for-profit school industry will be pouring much of it's new profit into lobbying and campaign contributions.

For more complete critiques of charter schools and merit pay, please see my most recent articles for the online magazine, Suite 101.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Health care

I tried to hear the President say something of substance in his news conference last night, but to no avail -- unless you count the minor point that he's okay with taxing millionaires. Whoop de doo.

Obama is not nearly so fluent when speaking off the cuff as he is when delivering a prepared speech, but still adroitly ducked a question about whether he would insist on a public option being part of the final bill. He also managed to avoid making any concrete suggestions regarding how cost containment could be accomplished. Both of those must be present in a final bill if we are to have any hope of a successful outcome.

The harder task, by the way, is the cost containment -- and the problem lies not with the "moderates" of both parties who insist on fiscal responsibility, but with the "business as usual" Democrats catering to health industry lobbyists working to preserve the cash cows of their particular employers. It seems to be clear to everybody but doctors and hospitals that the "fee for service" model has to be jettisoned and replaced with outcome based compensation. It seems to be clear to everybody but Big Pharma that insurance plans should not pay for high priced drugs under patent protection when older, generic substitutes will work just as well, or better.

I needn't go through all the examples of industry players fighting hard to maintain the status quo because it's more profitable than change -- everybody who's been paying attention gets it -- but the resistance to researching which treatments for different medical conditions achieve the most positive outcomes is not just mind boggling -- it is immoral. Don't blame the lobbyists, though -- they're just doing their jobs. Blame Congress.

The CBO's recent report, which projects a trillion dollar cost over ten years for the plans currently knocking around the House committees, should not be ignored. It's not often I find myself in agreement with Ben Nelson and Mike Ross, but their criticisms of the plans that currently are in play are valid criticisms.

It's time for the rest of the Democratic Party to deal with cost containment -- and it's time for Barack Obama to take the lead.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Odds and ends

Sotomayor confirmation:

Being elected to the Senate is harder (well, more expensive) than being elected to the House. In most Congressional Districts, a trained monkey could be elected -- indeed, might have a distinct advantage, provided it threw its excrement at the right people. Senators, however, must rise at least to the level of Zippy the Chimp.

Will they make Sotomayor take a drug test? I don't see how she could have withstood those questions without tranquilizers to help her stay calm and amphetamines to keep her awake.

Goldman-Sachs profits:

Now that Lehman and Bear-Stearns are gone and Merrill-Lynch is a subsidiary of the moribund B of A, Goldman-Sachs is the only game in town. Although they've put aside money to pay anticipated executive bonuses, those won't come due until the end of the fiscal year -- and who knows what might happen next quarter?

Is it conceivable that Goldman's execs will agree their bonuses should be tied to long-term growth, or that the federal government will force the issue? Don't hold your breath.


When LaFolette and his Progressives fought for the referendum process way back when, they never foresaw contemporary California. Starting with Proposition 13, back in 1978, the referendum process in California has driven the state into total dysfunction. Spend enough money and you can get Californians to support any vaguely populist sounding bullshit you like. Then you can just stand back and watch the state go a bit further down the crapper. Hell, you don't even have to live there!

While the Governator counts down to the end of his political career, a particularly pernicious little piece of shit by the name of Ted Hilton is building his reputation by abusing children. In the meanwhile, I've read that current Attorney General and former governor Jerry Brown is interested in being governor again -- along with a bunch of other characters whose motivations are beyond ordinary human comprehension.

I'm usually opposed to state constitutional conventions, because they almost always do more harm than good. In the case of California, though . . .

Meanwhile, in New York...

I don't know the extent to which outsiders are following what a wrestling promoter probably would call the Amazing Idiocy in Albany, but it's pretty idiotic. I'm sure a lot of New Yorkers were wishing they had Spitzer back, whores and all, but it's starting to look like Patterson is getting things in hand.

Constitutional or not, Richard Ravitch was an inspired choice for Lieutenant Governor, and you couldn't find a better choice than Jay Walder to replace Ravitch at the MTA. Both sleazy outer-borough city Dems who defected to the Republicans are back in the fold now, I'd say in large part due to Patterson's actions, and some urgently needed legislation actually might get passed when everybody gets back from vacation.

New York hasn't changed much since the days of Boss Tweed, but at least it has rules. They're corrupt rules, but, in their corrupt way, rational. All in all, I'd rather be here than in California.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Regarding oil prices

There's been a lot of prattle, lately, about volatility in the price of oil. For some reason, lots of analysts insist on relating oil prices to expectations of economic recovery. Personally, I think that's nonsense.

Let's start by noting that there are tankers brimming with crude sitting at anchor in ports all over the world. There is no shortage of oil, despite feeble attempts by OPEC to create one. There is a glut. Let's continue by recalling that oil is denominated in dollars, so that buying oil futures is a straightforward hedge against a weakening dollar.

Fed and Treasury actions to alleviate the recession have created vast quantities of dollars since the beginning of the year. It seems to have been "common sense" for investors to buy oil futures as a hedge against inflation. As it happens, though, that sense was much too common, so demand pushed up prices.

When the Commodity Futures Trading Commission suggested it would put limits on the purchase of oil futures by buyers who are not end users -- that is, those buying the futures purely as investment vehicles -- it seemed likely that demand, and therefore price, would decline. Hence, demand, and therefore price, declined.

As usual, none of this has very much to do with the overall economy, much less the price of gasoline at the pump. Gasoline prices, distinct from oil prices, continue to be controlled by the same old oligopoly -- so gasoline will continue to cost whatever the buying public is willing to pay.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Regarding excess

To those who think the public mourning for Michael Jackson is excessive, let me say two words:

Ronald Reagan.


The money from the Obama stimulus package finally is finding its way into the economy, and some economists are saying that it won't be enough. It won't, but don't hold your breath while waiting for more. It seems that a substantial majority of Democrats in the Senate actually are Republicans, while a dozen or so actually are Whigs. As for those who nominally are Republicans, well... Does anybody remember a guy named Mussolini?

I'm too lazy to look up the specific posts, but I'm sure that when the stimulus was under discussion last year I was pushing direct aid to the states. The states, remember, tend to have balanced budget provisions in their constitutions, and when a whopping economic meltdown comes along and tax revenues are way down, the states have to enact whopping budget cuts.

Those who worry that the current stimulus spending is inflationary might bear in mind that cuts in state spending significantly outweigh the increase in federal spending. The overall impact of combined government spending right now is deflationary. Lost decade, anyone?

The chance for another stimulus bill right now is nil, but just in case somebody in Washington decides to act rationally, let me reiterate: give the goddamned money to the states, to restore the jobs and programs they're cutting even as we speak. Money used to restore cuts gets into the economy a lot more efficiently than money for new spending.

Friday, July 3, 2009

"Meek and Mild"

Yesterday, I suggested that Barack Obama's problem was that he came to power by not being a "scary black man." Today, I listened to the podcast of WNYC's "On The Media," and heard some relevant commentary. Here's a quotation from Duke historian Tim Tyson:
There's a sense in which Mrs. Parks is very important to our post-civil rights racial narrative, because we really want a kind of sugar-coated civil rights movement that's about purity and interracial non-violence. And so we don't really want to meet the real Rosa Parks. We don't, for example, want to know that in the late 1960s, Rosa Parks became a black nationalist and a great admirer of Malcolm X. I met Rosa Parks at the funeral of Robert F. Williams, who had fought the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina with a machine gun in the late 1950s and then fled to Cuba, and had been a kind of international revolutionary icon of black power. Ms. Parks delivered the eulogy at his funeral. She talks in her autobiography and says that she never believed in non-violence and that she was incapable of that herself, and that she kept guns in her home to protect her family. But we want a little old lady with tired feet. You may have noticed we don't have a lot of pacifist white heroes. We prefer our black people meek and mild, I think.
Barack Obama is no Rosa Parks. He remains "meek and mild," despite the fact that he is now the President of the United States of America. I guess old habits die hard. Granted, his chance of winning that office would have been about as great as Jesse Jackson's if he hadn't played the "good nigger" so well, but now he's there, and he's there in a time of multiple crises. "Meek and mild" won't cut it.

Come on, Barack! Nobody's saying you have to be an arrogant asshole like Bush, but a touch of "scary black man" might be just what we need right now.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Not our coup?

Like most of the rest of the world, I imagine, my initial assumption upon hearing about the coup d'etat in Honduras was that the United States, somehow or another, was involved. After all, how many Latin American military coups ever took place without our involvement?

Consider: the Honduran military and the US military work in what we like to call "close cooperation." Most of their officers were trained in the notorious School of the Americas, and their military budget is pretty much whatever we give them. Deposed president José Manuel Zelaya, originally elected from a party of the center-right, now is buddy-buddy with Hugo Chavez, and was exploring the very Chavezian notion of overturning Constitutional term limits.

It really sounded like a natural for US intervention, except for one thing -- Barack Obama says we didn't do it, and even is standing with the rest of the OAS in demanding that Zelaya be reinstated.

On the other hand, every country in the world that bothered to have an embassy in Honduras has withdrawn its ambassador save one. You guessed it. We're the one. It seems, as well, that the US State Department had some clear inkling that a coup was in the works -- and reportedly was working behind the scenes to "resolve the conflicts" between Zelaya, his opponents in the legislature, and the generals.

So, what actually happened? Was the coup truly cooked up entirely by Zelaya's Honduran opponents? Is it conceivable that there may have been US military and/or CIA involvement without anybody bothering to mention it to Obama? Word has it that Zelaya pissed off Hillary big time recently when she showed up in Teguchigalpa on a red eye flight, and Zelaya insisted that she go to a private room at the airport and shake hands with every member of his large, extended family before letting her get to the embassy to crash.

The big winner in all this, of course, is Hugo Chavez -- precisely because it boggles the mind to consider a military coup in the region without a fat US thumb on the scales. Our President, as usual, seems unwilling to risk offending anybody -- even in Honduras -- and hence is trying to steer his typical wimpy course between "extremes," even while the rest of the world is taking assertive action.

Personally, I'm sick of all the compromises, both at home and abroad. It's time to stop all the political pussyfooting and take a moral stance -- on military coups, on health care, on torture, on open government, and more. My suspicion is that Obama got where he is by studiously avoiding any action that might make him look like a "scary black man," but now he's the goddamned president! It's time for him to stop acting like a wimp and take a chance on doing what's right.