Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Rick Perry: Anti-science because liberals like it

National Review's Rich Lowry defends Rick Perry against the "anti-science smear":
Perry’s offenses against science consist of his statements on evolution and global warming, areas where “the science” is routinely used to try to force assent to far-reaching philosophical or policy judgments unsupported by the evidence.

Unless he has an interest in paleontology that has escaped everyone’s notice to this point, Perry’s somewhat doubtful take on evolution has more to do with a general impulse to preserve a role for God in creation than a careful evaluation of the work of, say, Stephen Jay Gould. Perry’s attitude is in the American mainstream. According to Gallup, 40 percent of Americans think God created man in his present form, and 38 percent think man developed over millions of years with God guiding the process. Is three-quarters of the country potentially anti-science?

Similarly, Perry’s skepticism on man-made global warming surely has much to do with the uses to which the scientific consensus on warming is put. It is enlisted as support for sweeping carbon controls that fail any cost-benefit analysis and gets spun into catastrophic scenarios that are as rigorous as Hollywood movie treatments.
In other words, Lowry is saying that Rick Perry is against the established science—but that's OK because liberals use science to try to advocate for liberal policies. Thus, if liberals said something like, "The sky is blue, therefore we must raise taxes," Perry would assert that the sky is pink. And Lowry would approve.

Now, I don't particularly care what Perry as an individual thinks about evolution or climate. But as a potential national leader, I'm concerned because—based on Lowry's defense—it signals an overall approach of ignoring actual facts and settled knowledge if those facts and knowledge suggest policy actions that Perry doesn't like. Rather than come up with a counter-proposal for action, or arguing (as Lowry does) about cost-benefit analyses, Perry simply gets to decide that reality isn't real. It might be too narrow to suggest that such an attitude is "anti-science." It's more like "anti-empirical knowledge." And that's a kind of relativism that "hard headed" conservatives like to decry.

Today in inequality reading: Can middle class marriages be saved?

In a July column with Ben Boychuk, I suggested the growing American inequality of the last 30 years probably had something to do with the fact that more Americans are "opting out" of marriage:
One of the prime benefits of wedlock is the economic security that comes from partnering. But such security has been increasingly difficult to come by: America's median household incomes have stagnated since 1980, even though many more households now have both a mother and a father working outside the home. That stagnation is easy to attribute to conservative policies that have steered more money to rich individuals and big corporations at the expense of workers.

In other words: It's much harder to raise a family. No wonder more middle-class Americans are "retreating from marriage," choosing cohabitation or divorce over the increasing economic strains of commitment.
That assertion was greeted with some skepticism, but now I've got some backing from Don Peck in his new article at The Atlantic, "Can the Middle Class Be Saved?"
In the March 2010 issue of this magazine, I discussed the wide-ranging social consequences of male economic problems, once they become chronic. Women tend not to marry (or stay married to) jobless or economically insecure men—though they do have children with them. And those children usually struggle when, as typically happens, their parents separate and their lives are unsettled. The Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson has connected the loss of manufacturing jobs from inner cities in the 1970s—and the resulting economic struggles of inner-city men—to many of the social ills that cropped up afterward. Those social ills eventually became self-reinforcing, passing from one generation to the next. In less privileged parts of the country, a larger, predominantly male underclass may now be forming, and with it, more-widespread cultural problems.

What I didn’t emphasize in that story is the extent to which these sorts of social problems—the kind that can trap families and communities in a cycle of disarray and disappointment—have been seeping into the nonprofessional middle class. In a national study of the American family released late last year, the sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox wrote that among “Middle Americans”—people with a high-school diploma but not a college degree—an array of signals of family dysfunction have begun to blink red. “The family lives of today’s moderately educated Americans,” which in the 1970s closely resembled those of college graduates, now “increasingly resemble those of high-school dropouts, too often burdened by financial stress, partner conflict, single parenting, and troubled children.”
Conservatives like to blame lower-class refusal to marry on welfare—and perhaps it plays a role—but the truth is that unemployment and poverty do plenty to damage the institution of marriage on their own.

Read the whole thing. It's a long and mostly discouraging article that focuses on the effects of inequality, generally. There's hope, but it will take decades to achieve—if at all—by which time late-30s men and women like myself will have been displaced, economically, but younger generations.

What kind of history are they teaching at Bowdoin College?

In an otherwise fascinating overview of the Great Courses company in City Journal, Heather Mac Donald takes pains to contrast the company's market-driven approach of bringing the canon to its audience to the overly PC approach to curriculum taken by actual colleges. Here's a typical example high in the piece:
This past academic year, for example, a Bowdoin College student interested in American history courses could have taken “Black Women in Atlantic New Orleans,” “Women in American History, 1600–1900,” or “Lawn Boy Meets Valley Girl: Gender and the Suburbs,” but if he wanted a course in American political history, the colonial and revolutionary periods, or the Civil War, he would have been out of luck. A Great Courses customer, by contrast, can choose from a cornucopia of American history not yet divvied up into the fiefdoms of race, gender, and sexual orientation, with multiple offerings in the American Revolution, the constitutional period, the Civil War, the Bill of Rights, and the intellectual influences on the country’s founding.
Here's some actual highlights from the Bowdoin College history program offerings for Fall 2011:
110. Medieval, Renaissance, and Reformation Europe
Dallas Denery T 8:30 - 9:55, TH 8:30 - 9:55
A wide-ranging survey of pre-modern European history, beginning with the reign of the Roman Emperor Constantine (c. 272 – 337) and concluding with the Council of Trent (1545-1563). Particular attention is paid to the relation between church and state, the birth of urban culture and economy, institutional and popular religious movements, and the early formation of nation states.

142. The United States since 1945
Daniel Levine T 2:30 - 3:55, TH 2:30 - 3:55
Consideration of social, intellectual, political, and international history. Topics include the Cold War; the survival of the New Deal; the changing role of organized labor; Keynesian, post-Keynesian, or anti-Keynesian economic policies; and the urban crisis. Readings common to the whole class and the opportunity for each student to read more deeply in a topic of his or her own choice.

201. History of Ancient Greece: Bronze Age to the Death of Alexander
Stephen O'Connor T 2:30 - 3:55, TH 2:30 - 3:55
Surveys the history of Greek-speaking peoples from the Bronze Age (c. 3000–1100 B.C.E.) to the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C.E. Traces the political, economic, social, religious, and cultural developments of the Greeks in the broader context of the Mediterranean world. Topics include the institution of the polis (city-state); hoplite warfare; Greek colonization; the origins of Greek “science,” philosophy, and rhetoric; and fifth-century Athenian democracy and imperialism. Necessarily focuses on Athens and Sparta, but attention is also given to the variety of social and political structures found in different Greek communities. Special attention is given to examining and attempting to understand the distinctively Greek outlook in regard to gender, the relationship between human and divine, freedom, and the divisions between Greeks and barbarians (non-Greeks). A variety of sources—literary, epigraphical, archaeological—are presented, and students learn how to use them as historical documents. Note: This course fulfills the pre-modern requirement for history majors.

232. History of the American West
Connie Chiang T 10:00 - 11:25, TH 10:00 - 11:25
Survey of what came to be called the Western United States from the nineteenth century to the present. Topics include Euro-American relations with Native Americans; the expansion and growth of the federal government into the West; the exploitation of natural resources; the creation of borders and national identities; race, class, and gender relations; the influence of immigration and emigration; violence and criminality; cities and suburbs; and the enduring persistence of the “frontier” myth in American culture. Students write several papers and engage in weekly discussion based upon primary and secondary documents, art, literature, and film.

243. Old Regime and Revolutionary France
Meghan Roberts M 11:30 - 12:55, W 11:30 - 12:55
At the beginning of the eighteenth century, many heralded King Louis XIV as the most powerful monarch to ever rule. By the end of the century, however, the French people overthrew this vaunted monarchy. Topics include: why did France have a revolution? What conflicts--social, cultural and intellectual--helped shape politics and society? What were the global implications of events in France, especially for the enslaved populations of French colonies? How did the Revolution impact everyday life, including social relationships and material culture? Why did the French Revolution become radical and--all too often--violent?

274. The Shot Heard 'Round the World: The History of the American Revolution
Strother Roberts M 9:30 - 10:25, W 9:30 - 10:25, F 9:30 - 10:25
For those who lived through it, the American Revolution was a very personal experience. It pitted neighbors against neighbors, tore local communities apart, and destroyed families. It ruined livelihoods and ended lives. But the Revolution was also a global phenomenon. Its ideological origins lay in ancient Greece and Rome. Its economic causes stretched around the globe to the tea plantations of China. It spawned battles fought from the icy tundra of the subarctic to the tropical waters of the Caribbean. Its ideals and values have inspired generations from around the globe. Only by studying the complexity of the Revolution, by placing the local experiences of newly-minted Americans within the global backdrop of their times, can this formative stage of United States history be fully understood.

307. Topics in Medieval and Early Modern European History
Dallas Denery T 1:00 - 3:55
A research seminar for majors and interested non-majors focusing on Medieval and Early Modern Europe. After an overview of recent trends in the historical analysis of this period, students pursue research topics of their own choice, culminating in a significant piece of original historical writing (approximately 30 pages in length)
I can't imagine that this course offering is substantially different from the one Mac Donald referenced. And certainly there are also classes—The History of Latinos in the United States, "Bad" Women Make Great History: Gender, Identity, and Society in Modern Europe, 1789-1945—that emphasize a gender- or race-based view of history. What's more, that's fine: Not to get overly PC about it, but "other" people have long experienced and shaped history in different ways than what we've received from the Dead White Males. There shouldn't be a reason, moreover, that the Dead White Males and the Dead French Women can't co-exist on the same campus.

But it's simply not the case—as Mac Donald implies—that those kinds of courses are taught at Bowdoin to the exclusion of the kind of broad sweep of history classes she apparently prefers. Mac Donald's problem can't be that the gender- and race-based curricula have pushed the more traditional stuff out of Bowdoin's offerings. The problem, apparently, is that they exist at all.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Netflix Queue: 'Bodyguards and Assassins'

The movie that "Bodyguards and Assassins" reminds me most of is Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." Like the Gibson flick, "B&A" seeks to tell an origin story—instead of a religion, we're looking at the birth of modern China—and sanctify it through bloody martyrdom.

The year is 1906, and we're in Hong Kong. Real-life revolutionary Sun Yat-Sen is expected to visit soon to plot a series of uprisings that will result in the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty and usher in, as the characters say, a "people's republic." They also call this a democracy—and we even hear a quote from Abraham Lincoln early on. To aid his cause, a small group of men commit themselves to protecting him from an assassination plot, by any means necessary.

I won't spoil the details of how they succeed—if it's a spoiler to you that Sun Yat-Sen doesn't die, then read your history, son—but suffice it to say that there are many intricate fight scenes, and many, many sacrifices made by the good guys. And here's where Gibson comes in: While many bad guys die in the course of events, those deaths are a blur. The pains inflicted on the good guys, meanwhile, are mapped out in painstaking detail: every thrust of the spear, every hook tearing at flesh, every drop of blood spilled—often in slow motion. When a character dies, we're given their obituary on-screen: Name, date of birth, and date of death. It's meant to make you identify with these men, and their cause, and it succeeds.

Adding to this myth-making is the film's treatment of Sun himself: We're not allowed to see his full face in full focus until the last few minutes of the movie. There's something reminiscent of religions that ban the depiction of their gods and prophets in this: Sun Yat-Sen is a man, it turns out, with a face and everything—but he's clearly something more than a man.

I don't want to make too big a deal of this: Certainly our own film industry has given us plenty of "America Eff Yeah!" moments, so it's tough to begrudge the Chinese their own. (Though it plays more subtly than some other Chinese flicks I've seen lately, there's still a latent "foreigners are bad" vibe going on here, though it's understandable given the colonialism the Chinese endured during this time.) And it's certainly effective—I found myself moved a number of times throughout the movie. The film is undeniably entertaining.

And yet...

The Chinese movie industry, like China itself, is growing bigger and more sophisticated—slowly but surely offering a challenge to Hollywood's domination of the global box office. And movies like "Bodyguards and Assassins" are clearly meant to shape the audience's view—both domestically and abroad—of what China is all about. It's fine to be entertained by "Bodyguards and Assassins." One hopes non-Chinese viewers of the movie take some time to learn what the real modern China is all about, both for good and for bad.

Friday, August 26, 2011

No anthem: Good for Goshen College

Mennonites represent:
Tiny Goshen College in Indiana has banned the "The Star Spangled Banner: at all sporting events because the Mennonite school's president considers the National Anthem's words to be too violent.

The 1,000-student school had already banned the words last year, but the band could still play the music for patriots in attendance. Now, the school has banned the song entirely, according to NBC Sports.
NBC Sports actually misses a really critical part of the story: Goshen didn't play the anthem for decades—and had only done so in recent years after pressure was brought to bear by a right-wing radio host.

Full disclosure time: I'm a lapsed Mennonite. Graduated from a Mennonite Bretheren college. I have friends associated with Goshen.

I'm no longer a complete pacifist. But, within the Christian tradition, Mennonite pacifism makes a lot of sense to me: it follows the admonishment of a Jesus who warned Peter to put away his sword. The folks at Goshen figure they owe more allegiance to the God they worship than to their country, and to their credit they don't conflate the two. Although I no longer share that pacifism—though, admittedly, I'm very dovish—I'm grateful that Goshen is returning to a stance that is in keeping with its values and traditions. Mostly, I hate to see bullying radio hosts win.

Which is why find this irritating:
NBC Sports' Rick Chandler weighed in, saying: "I suppose we could have followed the example of the Mennonites and simply fled, giving the nation back to the British. But then we’d all be playing cricket."
How smug. I'm not aware that Goshen's Mennonites have tried to press their no-anthem pacifism on anybody, or shown such scorn to the broader culture that embraces the anthem. They've simply tried to be true to who they are. Rick Chandler—and America—don't have to agree with Goshen. But the disrespect he shows to the college is, at best, unseemly. America should have room for those who pick up the sword and those who decline.

Those authoritarian Tea Partiers

In the wake of a North Carolina study proclaiming that the Tea Party movement contains both libertarian and authoritarian elements, Ben and I debate whether or not freedom-loving Tea Partiers have a bit o' dictator in them. My take:
It's obvious that the Tea Party mixes authoritarian and libertarian instincts. Candidates running on its platform surged to success in 2010 on a platform of lowering taxes and reducing government regulations. But when they entered Congress and state legislatures around the country, what they did instead was start to take away other people's rights.

A woman's right to an abortion? The House of Representatives tried to eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood, while legislatures in states like Kansas rewrote licensing rules to make it nearly impossible for abortion clinics to operate.

A worker's right to collectively bargain? Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin famously spearheaded the effort to take that right away from the state's public employees, and Republican legislators all over the nation have backed legislation that would make it more difficult for unions at private-sector companies to collect dues and advocate for their membership.

A couple's right to marriage? If there's a Tea Party effort to extend those freedoms to gay couples, I've missed it. Certainly, Tea Party favorite -- and Republican presidential candidate -- Michele Bachmann opposes those efforts.

You don't need an academic study to prove what the headlines clearly indicate. (And many liberals and libertarians believe in a parenting style that requires obedience from their children; it's difficult to defend the study's methodology.) For all the talk of liberty and the Constitution, Tea Party politicians have narrowed the rights of everybody who isn't their crony.

Tea partiers love to fly the Gadsden Flag when it comes to taxes on rich people and corporations; they love small government less able to prod corporations into keeping our water and air clean. They're fine, however, when government puts a boot heel on the necks of other people -- little people.

Maybe there's a principle involved there, but it has little to do with a commitment to liberty.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Josh Rosenau on liberalism and optimism

My friend Josh Rosenau picks up on that John Derbyshire post, and offers some thoughts about my pessimistic liberalism:
Liberals and (sensible, pre-teabagger) conservatives generally recognize the issues Joel raises. Some people sometimes suffer in unregulated markets, wars hurt some people, and majoritarian influence can have pernicious effects, especially on racial, religious, ethnic, and sexual minorities.

Conservatives who are willing to grant any of those premises, though, essentially throw up their hands. They'll grant that markets aren't always good for everyone, but they'll insist that government intervention would just make it worse. Or sure, Jim Crow laws are an affront to American standards of decency, but government can't just impose integration on the South, we just have to leave it for folks to sort that out on their own. And so forth.

In other words, both sides acknowledge the facts on the ground, an acknowledgment which Joel considers pessimistic. But what makes him (and me!) liberals is that we think something can be done about that. We think that government regulations can make markets fairer. We think government actions can improve the lot of oppressed minorities. We think government action can avert or at least alleviate the suffering caused by war.

And in practice, that optimism (in the capacity of government to do things) has been repeatedly vindicated. The Marshall Plan, the New Deal, civil rights laws and the Great Society all show government doing exactly these things, in ways that strengthen society and even out damaging inefficiencies. We've seen the same benefits from the stimulus bill, and from Affordable Care. There are comparable gains to be seen from enacting climate change policies.

Conservatism is pessimistic in that it rejects the possibility of fixing problems. And if you don't think you can fix a problem, you often try to ignore that it exists (as we see with global warming denial). Liberalism is not pessimistic for acknowledging that problems exist, it would only be pessimistic if it gave up on the idea of fixing those problems.
Read the whole thing, as they say.

The 'depravity of the poor'

Another reason I'm liberal—because, frankly, I don't want to be like this guy:
It is simply a fact that our social problems are increasingly connected to the depravity of the poor. If an American works hard, completes their education, gets married, and stays married, then they will rarely — very rarely — be poor. At the same time, poverty is the handmaiden of illegitimacy, divorce, ignorance, and addiction. As we have poured money into welfare, we’ve done nothing to address the behaviors that lead to poverty while doing all we can to make that poverty more comfortable and sustainable.
David French, I suspect, has the causation backwards. Being poor makes it difficult to make good life choices.
Last December, Princeton economist Dean Spears published a series of experiments that each revealed how “poverty appears to have made economic decision-making more consuming of cognitive control for poorer people than for richer people.” In one experiment, poor participants in India performed far less well on a self-control task after simply having to first decide whether to purchase body soap. As Spears found, “Choosing first was depleting only for the poorer participants.” Again, if you have enough money, deciding whether to buy the soap only requires considering whether you want it, not what you might have to give up to get it. Many of the tradeoff decisions that the poor have to make every day are onerous and depressing: whether to pay rent or buy food; to buy medicine or winter clothes; to pay for school materials or loan money to a relative. These choices are weighty, and just thinking about them seems to exact a mental cost.
There are certainly some folks who are poor due to their own poor choices. But there are many people who are born into situations in which making good choices is, in fact, extremely difficult.

Conservatives believe folks should pull themselves up by their bootstraps. In some cases, they mock and taunt those who never had access to bootstraps in the first place. Rarely do the offer actual solutions; they choose to complain about the solutions others offer, instead. Liberals—often imperfectly—try to make sure that people actually have bootstraps to do the pulling.

I am a pessimistic liberal

Over at The Corner, John Derbyshire repeats an argument I hear from time to time.
Liberalism is optimistic. It is a doctrine of progress and improvement. (Why do you think they call themselves “progressives”?)
I can't speak for others who call themselves liberal, but I think my liberalism has generally stemmed from a deep well of pessimism. Just to pluck out three examples...

• I think that over time, an un- or under-regulated market will accrue all or most of the rewards to the people who already have the most resources, generally squeezing workers who actually do much of the wealth creation in that market.

• I think that, without a government to step in and safeguard everybody's rights, majorities will generally stomp on the neck of minorities—be they racial, religious, or sexual minorities.

• I think that when we go to war abroad, lots of people whom we never think about get killed. That it generally costs more and lasts longer than we're promised.

So I favor regulated markets, the rule of law, and a dovish foreign policy. Not because—as conservatives allege—I expect government to create some kind of heaven on earth. I know that's not possible. But I think government can curb our worst tendencies and mitigate their results. I don't expect heaven, but I do think we can—and should—work to stay out of hell.

Paul Krugman is expected to defend or repudiate something he never said

As we know by now, Paul Krugman didn't actually praise Tuesday's earthquake as a potential source of economic stimulus, but conservative critics of Krugman find it truthy enough that they're continuing to push the meme. Here's Steven Horwitz:
1. As Roger Koppl pointed out on Facebook, Krugman only denies having said it, he doesn't deny that he agrees with that statement.
Hey: Can we agree that it's insane for somebody to make up something a person said, then expect that person to publicly state whether they agree or disagree—as though the onus is on the person who had their identity stolen to defend statements they didn't push into the public arena in the first place? If that's where the debate is going, we're all going to disappear up our own asses fairly quickly.

Hey, I heard Steven Horwitz say "It's OK to lie about anything as long as it makes a Democrat look bad." Now, I didn't actually hear that, but gosh—he hasn't denied that he agrees with that statement. I think we can draw the proper conclusions from that.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

How can we tell which scientists are right about climate change?

On the surface, Kevin Williamson sounds reasonable here:
Scientific disputes are highly specialized, and meaningful participation in them requires a great deal of non-generalist knowledge. I’m generally skeptical of argument from credential, but there’s a time for it. For instance, a great number of scientists have a particular view of global warming. Richard Lindzen has reservations about that view. Professor Lindzen is an atmospheric physicist a full-on professor at MIT. Your average politician is not packing the gear to get in the middle of that fight. I’m not. Chait isn’t, either. Is Lindzen not a real scientist? Is he a kook? Is Jonathan Chait going to make that case? Given two scientists with different opinions about climate forecasting, why exactly ought I to consult Jonathan Chait, or Jon Huntsman?
But here's the thing: We laypeople don't have to referee a dispute between two scientists. We can look at what the broader scientific community has to say about the topic. And it's not a 50-50 proposition.
In 2010, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a survey of 1,372 climate researchers, finding that 97 to 98 percent of those publishing in the field said they believe humans are causing global warming. That’s the same majority that existed in a similar 2009 survey. Dissenters do exist, the PNAS study found, but “the relative climate expertise and scientific prominence of the researchers unconvinced … are substantially below that of the convinced researchers.” Either way, the ranks of dissenters don’t appear to be swelling.
Now, is it possible that more than 1,000 climate scientists who comprise the leaders in their field are wrong about this? Sure. Anything's possible. But given the overwhelming consensus, it would seem that folks like Rick Perry who claim science has disproven climate change have an added burden to make their case.

That would be the case in the scientific realm. In the political realm, it's different, of course.

I'm concerned that Rick Perry (seemingly) cavalierly denies climate science because that suggests to me that he has decided to entirely disregard true facts and the conclusions that emerge from them. I have more respect for conservatives like Jim Manzi and Steve Hayward who generally acknowledge the scientific consensus and argue more about the appropriate response. (They think liberal solutions would do too much damage to the economy to be worth the trade-off, roughly speaking.) That's a great debate to have. But it seems ridiculous to debate whether climate change exists when the knowledgeable dissenters are so few.

Yes, that's exactly what we meant when we said Rick Perry is anti-science

Rick Perry's Sophisticated Campaign Machine | The Weekly Standard: "While his critics have been eager to dismiss the Texas Governor as anti-science, the The New York Times takes a look at an upcoming electronic book, "Rick Perry and His Eggheads: Inside the Brainiest Political Operation in America." The book's author shows Perry's approach to politics is at once rigorously scientific and unconventional."

Pennsylvania public workers not overcompensated

News from EPI: Pennsylvania public-sector workers not overcompensated, EPI study finds: A new Economic Policy Institute study released today finds that full-time state and local government employees in Pennsylvania are not overcompensated, when compared to otherwise similar private-sector workers.  Pennsylvania public employees’ hourly compensation costs are a statistically insignificant 2.1 percent lower than that of private-sector employees.
That's a local note, but it's consistent with the findings of most similar studies. Republicans are trying to paint public workers as unfairly and grossly overcompensated, but generally speaking, they're not.

Monday, August 22, 2011

E.J. Dionne is delusional this morning

His column reads like a fit of pique, instead of the usual smart commentary from a columnist who knows how the real world works.
President Obama has only one option as he ponders a world economy teetering on the edge: He needs to go big, go long and go global.

Obama should not be constrained by what the Tea Party might allow subservient Republican leaders in Congress to do. He should state plainly, eloquently and in detail what he thinks needs to happen. Neither history nor the voters will be kind to him if he lets caution and political calculation get in the way.
Ah, surely Dionne must be coming up with a laundry list of ideas that depend on executive action instead of a recalcitrant Congress! Let's hear them!
Going big means immediate action to boost the economy, even though this will increase the short-term deficit. His proposals to continue the payroll tax cut, extend unemployment insurance and enact patent reform are good, but they are not enough.
Wait. Pretty sure those items would all require action from a recalcitrant Congress...
At the same time, Obama should put forward a plan of his own to close the long-term deficit. He should not be hemmed in by his negotiations with congressional Republicans to get the debt ceiling raised. They don’t hold the nation’s credit hostage anymore. He should lay out exactly what he would do and abandon his practice of making preemptive concessions to his opponents.

That means Obama should not be shy about urging eventual tax increases, particularly on the wealthy. And let’s be clear: These would not be immediate tax hikes; they’d kick in a year or two from now.
Yeah, this really requires the cooperation of a recalcitrant Congress...
Ah, but won’t congressional Republicans block as much of this program as they can? That’s the wrong question.
Well, no, not really.

Count me among those who believe that Obama hasn't been a very effective negotiator, ceding ground to Republicans in his opening moves instead of making them make him give up stuff. That means the whole process gets pulled to the right. And what's more, I think Dionne's list makes sense.

However: Dionne is urging the president to lay out an agenda that has no chance of being enacted with Congress in its current political configuration. Doing so would most likely make the president look even weaker than he already does. This stuff would be great on the campaign trail, but as an actual agenda for the next year of governance it's suicide.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Free lunch for all those rich kids in Detroit public schools

Via Rick Henderson, I see that Henry Payne is trying to stir up class warfare against the rich at National Review ... by taking aim at a program meant to help the poor. Specifically, it's a federal program that would provide free lunch to every student in Detroit's public schools, whether or not they qualify for free or reduced lunches.

The post is called "Richie Rich's Free Lunch," and it gets populist from there:
Funnily enough, they failed to mention the recent $4.5 billion expansion of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, which will now provide free lunches to ALL — rich and poor, needy and non-needy — of Detroit’s 65,800 public school-students. (Detroit is one of three pilot programs starting this month for a free-for-all that will ultimately cover similar districts nationwide.)

This new program is part of Obama’s orgy of spending, a binge that has ballooned the federal budget by 25 percent since his inauguration. But the program’s logic is even more insane than the price tag: The administration says it is giving rich kids free food to eliminate the shame that less-fortunate students may feel in receiving free food. We’re not making this up.

What’s next — handing out free Chevy Volts to all 16-year olds in order to reduce the stigma that low-income kids feel driving used 1990 Geo Metros?

Does anybody but a desk-bound government bureaucrat honestly think that class stigma will disappear if you give Richie Rich a free lunch? School districts with 62.5 percent or more of students from homes below 130 percent of the poverty level qualify — a threshold Detroit easily clears with 78 percent.
I don't know if this is a worthy program or not, and I think Payne's concerns—less inflammatorily expressed—might be the genesis for a good debate: do we want to provide for families that can provide for themselves?

But Payne expresses himself in fundamentally dishonest fashion, imagining a world where gangs of rich public school kids roam the halls of Detroit High School (or whatever) fat on taxpayer-supplied baloney sandwiches. Why dishonest?

• Because do rich parents generally send their kids to inner-city public schools? C'mon. (Payne, who lives near Detroit, is presumably familiar with the situation.)

• As Payne himself notes, 78 percent of Detroit students fall below the qualifying standard for free-and-reduced lunches anyway. It's not a stretch to presume that a chunk more exist just above the threshhold. (If that presumption is incorrect, I'll happily retract the statement.) If there are any rich kids benefiting from the program, they comprise a small—and probably nearly non-existent—minority.

I can easily imagine a government program that becomes more efficient by just providing the lunch to every student instead of trying to separate out the few who don't qualify. Money, time, and bureaucratic energy are saved and a few people who don't deserve benefits get them anyway. Big whoop.

Again, I don't know if the program is necessarily worthy. But I know that Payne's framing doesn't fairly represent who, exactly, will be served by the program. Dishonest argumentation isn't very persuasive.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

How to respond to urban violence?

Ben and I talk about the Philadelphia "flash mobs" and the London riots in this week's Scripps Howard column. I argue that recession-era austerity isn't just cutting the safety net—it's also undermining our ability to police our cities:
Urban violence is nothing new but American city-dwellers are used to the problem being mostly contained to poor, largely minority areas of our cities. The recent incidents in Philadelphia, Chicago, and Kansas City are notable for one commonality: they took place in those cities' glitzier shopping districts, "good neighborhoods" usually untouched by strife.

Cynicism is easy; violence only matters when it happens to the white and well off. But the perception of increased violence, fair or not, can create a negative feedback loop that has real effects on a city and its prospects. Think of New York in the 1970s; it took decades for the city to make a comeback.

So while we need to plug away at underlying social ills -- and there are many -- we should also take quicker and more direct action. We must flood the streets with cops.

The idea has an honorable liberal pedigree. It was President Bill Clinton, after all, who pushed to put 100,000 new police officers on American streets back in the 1990s. And smart police forces have adopted "community policing" methods -- where officers walk a beat, like in the old days, getting to know neighborhood residents -- that have proven effective in preventing crime, but require manpower.

Here's where government austerity compounds the problem: The police forces in Philadelphia, Chicago, and Kansas City have been stretched in recent years by recession-era budgeting. The problem will get worse: Federal grants to local police forces across the country are being slashed in the name of deficit cuts. Police forces are being asked to do more with less. Like everybody else, they can't.

The drive to slash domestic spending isn't just affecting social programs and the safety net. It's cutting into protective services that could help put a lid on violence and unrest. Be sure to give thanks to the Republican Party.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Still here...

...obviously, I'm still posting the column once a week. But most of my energy this summer has gone to recovering from surgery. One more surgery in September. I want to get back to writing regularly, but this has proven to be quite the ordeal. Hope I'll see you soon.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Is it time for a balanced budget amendment?

That's the Scripps Howard column topic this week. Ben and I note: "The current proposal -- introduced by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., -- would require the government to spend no more than it takes in, but it doesn't stop there. It would limit government expenditures to 18 percent of the gross domestic product, and require a two-thirds majority of Congress to approve any tax increase. The government could depart from those guidelines only when the country is at war."

My take:
Tea Partiers and conservatives make a big show of their fealty to the Founders, but the proposed balanced budget amendment is a big slap in the face of Alexander Hamilton.

Hamilton, after all, urged Americans to adopt the Constitution precisely because it gave Congress unlimited power of taxation.

Limiting that power, he said, would leave the central government weak and toothless, unable to provide for the common good. He knew what he was talking about -- the Articles of Confederation that previously governed the country so restricted Congress' taxing power that it was unable to pay America's Revolutionary War debts.

"The federal government," Hamilton wrote in Federalist 31, "must of necessity be invested with an unqualified power of taxation in the ordinary modes."

He added: "How is it possible that a government half supplied and always necessitous, can fulfill the purposes of its institution, can provide for the security, advance the prosperity, or support the reputation of the commonwealth? How can it ever possess either energy or stability, dignity or credit, confidence at home or respectability abroad? ... How can it undertake or execute any liberal or enlarged plans of public good?"

Somebody should run these questions past the GOP, which seems not to care these days about the "dignity or credit" of the federal government. If Hamilton was right, the proposed balanced budget amendment -- which makes it virtually impossible to raise or levy new taxes -- would return America to the days of being a weak, fractious country with a weak, fractious government.

Balanced budgets are good things in times of peace and prosperity -- something Republicans forgot under George W. Bush. They can be actively harmful during wars or recessions. The proposed amendment addresses only half that equation, and is thus a danger to America's future.

The Founders knew better; too bad today's GOP doesn't.
Ben's take: He's agin' it too, but for different reasons.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

About that FDA-sponsored SWAT team at Rawesome Foods

Stuff like this makes me think about becoming a weirdo libertarian:
A multi-agency SWAT-style armed raid was conducted this morning by helmet-wearing, gun-carrying enforcement agents from the LA County Sheriff's Office, the FDA, the Dept. of Agriculture and the CDC (Centers for Disease Control).

Rawesome Foods, a private buying club offering wholesome, natural raw milk and raw cheese products (among other wholesome foods) is founded by James Stewart, a pioneer in bringing wholesome raw foods directly to consumers through a buying club. James was followed from his private residence by law enforcement, and when he entered his store, the raid was launched.

Law enforcement then proceeded to destroy the inventory of the story by pouring the milk down the drain and / or confiscating raw cheese and fresh produce for destruction.
Understand: food safety regulations exist for a reason. Nobody's very happy when grandmas start dying of E coli because they ate bad spinach. At the same time, Rawesome Foods and its customers have made a deliberate—possibly even informed—decision not to abide by standard food practices, seeing possible benefits they think outweigh the risk.

Maybe there's a way to balance both the concerns and desires, in a way that protects public safety while giving producers and consumers the choice to experiment.

Here's my proposal: let raw food producers semi-opt out of FDA regulations—but require they plaster all their products with huge stickers and labels with a warning: "This product has not been inspected by the FDA and may not meet minimum food safety requirements." What's more, the FDA would retain the right to take away the opt-out status for five years if a producer ended up being the source of a bacterial outbreak of some sort. I'm guessing that provision would be used rarely.

What does my proposal do? Well, it lets producers and consumers make free, but informed, choices. (The cost barriers to entering the market would probably come down for new entrants, as well.) Major producers would probably opt to stay within the FDA system rather than afix those large labels to their products. But the FDA would be relieved of some of its more piddling inspection and enforcement duties. Everybody wins.

And we might not be treated to the spectacle of a SWAT team raiding a dairy farm.