Healthcare Day

HEALTHCARE DAY....This is sort of anticlimactic, but Barack Obama officially announced today that Tom Daschle would be both his nominee to head up Health and Human Services and his healthcare czar. Ezra Klein reports that Obama was quite clear about pushing through reform quickly:

Key words: "This year." Obviously, he doesn't mean in 2008. But that does suggest a year one commitment, which syncs with Obama's previous statement that he'd like to send a bill to Congress by March or April. Given the financial emergency, that might prove optimistic. But Obama made a point during the presser of arguing that the two are connected. "This has to be interwoven into our economic recovery program," he said "This can't be put off because we're in an emergency. This is the emergency!"

Jon Cohn agrees:

In response to the final question, the only one on health care, he said "the time is now to solve this problem. I met too many families in this campaing, even before the economic downturn, who were desperate." He then mentioned the role health care costs played in personal bankruptcies and employer struggles, and reiterated that "this has to be intimiately woven into our economic recovery program. It's not something we can put off because we're in an emergency. This is part of the emergency. We want to make sure the strategy reflects that truth."

So: good news. The only cautionary note I'd add is that it doesn't sound like Obama has made any commitments yet about what kind of reform he plans to focus on right out of the gate. If it's the full-blown plan he proposed during the campaign, that's great. If it's expansion of SCHIP and a push to automate medical records — well, that's good stuff too, but not exactly the change we've been waiting for. I'm pretty optimistic that he's talking about the former, but obviously we'll have to wait and see.

The Rest of the World

THE REST OF THE WORLD....Marc Ambinder says that Barack Obama's economics team is really, really worried about a genuine collapse of the global economy. But he wonders if they're worried enough about the collapse of individual countries:

To be sure, Pakistan is nearly broke, and U.S. policy makers seem to be aware of that; but a worldwide demand crisis could lead to social unrest in countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, Singapore, the Ukraine, Japan, Turkey or Egypt....The question: what's the administration's policy in this area? Which countries can we afford to let fail? Which unstable states would concern us the most? Is there something the U.S. can do, in advance, should do, in advance, to forestall the collapse of other economies?

Palin Delusion at the Weekly Standard

The conservative magazine The Weekly Standard let the founder of a Sarah Palin advocacy group called "Team Sarah" write an article about the state of Palin's image in America, which is an awful lot like commissioning the head of GM to write an unbiased evaluation of the auto industry bailout. And in a real shock, the Standard writer concludes Palin's "popularity is undimmed." In fact, she compares Palin to Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Despite the best efforts of the media, left-of-center feminists, and a brigade of political elites, including more than a few Beltway Republicans, to write obituaries for Palin's national political career, she continues to be the second biggest phenomenon of the 2008 election cycle, behind only the president-elect....
Some of the most eloquent [Palin supporters] are women ecstatic over the new brand of feminism Palin represents: populist and pro-life. There is no other woman on the national political stage like her--and hasn't been in recent times. To whom could she be compared--Geraldine Ferraro, Hillary Clinton, Barbara Boxer, Dianne Feinstein? She doesn't begin to fit this cookie-cutter model of pro-choice, pro-gender-quota woman in politics that left-feminism has served up.
But Palin has forebears in American politics. She looks a lot more like the early suffragists than anyone on the national stage now, especially in her pro-life stance. Susan B. Anthony, for whom my organization is named, for instance, called abortion "child murder." Elizabeth Cady Stanton called it a sickening symptom of women's mistreatment: "When we consider that women are treated as property, it is degrading to women to treat our children as property to be disposed of as we see fit."

(The writer also notes that part of Palin's appeal is that "she likes being a woman." This is an important point because, as you know, all female feminists on the left hate themselves.)

Of course, this is the sort of article you would get from an admitted Palin supporter whose only reporting appears to have been talking to or observing other Palin supporters. It gets the state of Palin's national popularity exactly wrong. It is not "undimmed." A new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows that while Palin is popular among this country's diminishing set of self-identifying Republicans (73%-13% approval vs. disapproval rating), Palin's overall popularity rating is a net negative, 35%-45%. You know what that means? Palin's popularity is in fact very, very dimmed among Democrats and independents.

Polls Suggest Obama Insulated From Blago Situation

New poll numbers suggest that America is solidly behind Obama as he takes office — more so than previous presidents-elect. MSNBC's First Read postulates that, as a result, Obama will be able to (1) withstand distractions like the Blagojevich situation without seeing his honeymoon coming to end, and (2) be more aggressive in his initial policy initiatives.

Obama is enjoying a bigger honeymoon than his recent predecessors ever did. Just consider these numbers in the latest NBC/WSJ poll: 67% say they're pleased with Obama's early appointments, 75% believe that the level of his involvement in making policy has been exactly right, and his fav/unfav rating is 67%-16%. By comparison, a month after their initial presidential victories, Bush's rating was 48%-35% and Clinton's was 60%-19%. These scores -- combined with the fact that nearly 80% believe Obama will face bigger challenges than other recent presidents have, and 90% who say the nation's economy has gotten worse over the past 12 months -- seem to have given Obama some leeway with the American public. "We're seeing a president who has been given a longer leash by the American public," says NBC/WSJ co-pollster Bill McInturff (R). "This is not a traditional start of a presidency where people give you just a couple of months." For Obama that means, potentially, he has the opportunity to throw the long ball in his first year in office, as well as withstand an early setback or two.

Clean Air

CLEAN AIR....Here's some unexpected good news. The Bush administration has decided to back down on its last-minute efforts to loosen a pair of environmental regulations:

The Environmental Protection Agency yesterday abandoned its push to revise two air-pollution rules in ways that environmentalists had long opposed, abruptly dropping measures that the Bush administration had spent years preparing.

....The proposal on parks would have changed the rules for new plants being built nearby....Clean-air advocates had protested that this might allow parks such as Virginia's Shenandoah — where the famous mountaintop views are already obscured by smog and haze — to become even dirtier on certain days.

....The other rule dealt with the agency's New Source Review process, which dictates when existing power plants must implement additional pollution-control measures....John Walke of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, said the rule would have allowed plants to operate for longer hours and produce more overall pollution.

"I am stunned. I've been fighting these dirty rules for years," Walke said. "And within the span of an hour," he said, both were suddenly moot.

It's not clear what prompted this about face. But it's welcome news regardless.

And Now For Something Completely Different

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT....Yesterday I posted a chart that plotted the frequency of prayer vs. partisan affiliation. It came from Razib Khan, who created it using data from the University of Chicago's General Social Survey. Today, although he was happy that a few blogs linked to it, he lamented that "alas, the practice of looking to the GSS to test some intuition or CW hasn't spread like wildfire."

Well. That's like catnip around here. I myself have never done this for a simple reason: I didn't know I could. But it turns out that some fine folks at Berkeley have built a simple web interface for the GSS and several other big databases (here), and anyone who feels like poking around can do so. So I did.

The interface lists all the questions that the GSS asks and allows you to plot variables against each other to see what pops out. I did that for a while, generating nothing of any value, until I finally discovered something of vital importance: one of the questions on the 2006 GSS was, "How many people named Kevin are you acquainted with?" And there was even a followup question: "How many of those people named Kevin do you trust?"

I had to find out. Now, I could have plotted this against anything I wanted — age, sex, religious attendance, zodiac sign (really) — but this is a political blog, so I plotted it against party affiliation. The results are on the right, and they're a little disturbing. Eyeballing the numbers, people appear to know an average of two Kevins each, but they only trust about half a Kevin each. So on average, people only trust about 25% of all the Kevins they know.

That's a little deflating, isn't it? But interesting! If you're named Kevin, that is. You can check out results for your own name, but only if your name is Kevin, Karen, Shawn, Brenda, Keith, Rachel, Mark, Linda, Jose, or Maria. Your guess is as good as mine about why they chose those ten.

You can also do other stuff, of course, and that includes mining the data and abusing the results to produce results you find pleasing. And then blogging about it. You can probably expect some of that in the future. Until then, have fun.

Clean Coal: Caroling at a Home Near You

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Everyone seems to be getting into the holiday spirit, even...lumps of coal? A coal trade group called American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE) has sponsored a holiday campaign called "The Clean Coal Carolers" which features lumps of cartoon coal singing songs like "Frosty the Coalman" and "Abundant, Affordable." The website allows you to choose which hats and scarfs to dress the coal in. But all the scarves in the world can't hide the fact that "clean coal" is more a buzz word than an actual technology.

Last month Casey Miner reported for Mother Jones that:

The types of technology the industry says it will use are expensive and ineffective at best, and potentially catastrophic at worst—in other words, even if we were able to get our technology up to speed and somehow capture the carbon leaving every coal plant in the country, we wouldn't have anywhere safe to put it.

The Clean Coal Carolers also have a Facebook page with 22 fans, including one named "Asthma" and another "Black," short for Black Lung. Those are either parts of ACCCE's elaborate ruse or they are smart-ass kids who have studied Al Gore's "Reality" ad campaign, launched last week to "debunk the clean coal myth," and Mother Jones' past coverage of clean coal like "Follow The Money Deep Under Ground" by Shadi Rahimi and "Scrubbing King Coal" by James Ridgeway.

The Zero dB Project: Torture Playlist

Earlier today, the British human rights law organization Reprieve launched a campaign against the use of music as a weapon in war, called Zero dB (zero decibels = silence). Artists Massive Attack and Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello joined Reprieve to demand that the US military stop playing their songs to captured detainees. Back in February, Mother Jones compiled a playlist of the songs used to induce sleep deprivation, "prolong capture shock," disorient detainees during interrogations—and drown out screams. The mix was based on a leaked interrogation log and the accounts of soldiers and detainees. For more, listen to MoJo's Torture Playlist—and a conversation with investigative reporter Justine Sharrock about "no-touch torture."

From the AP:

For many detainees who grew up in Afghanistan—where music was prohibited under Taliban rule—interrogations by U.S. forces marked their first exposure to the pounding rhythms, played at top volume. The experience was overwhelming for many. Binyam Mohammed, now a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay, said men held with him at the CIA's "Dark Prison" in Afghanistan wound up screaming and smashing their heads against walls, unable to endure more. "There was loud music, (Eminem's) 'Slim Shady' and Dr. Dre for 20 days. I heard this nonstop over and over," he told his lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith. "The CIA worked on people, including me, day and night for the months before I left. Plenty lost their minds."

Multiple Choice Redux

MULTIPLE CHOICE REDUX....So what's the dope on Europeans and multiple choice tests? First up, my editor emailed this morning to weigh in:

I went to school in Germany and Italy, and I never had to break out a No. 2 pencil to fill in little circles until I took the GRE to come to the US. It may have changed a little, but by and large European education systems don't use them — lots of tests, and lots of questions, but generally of the fill-in-the-blank or provide-the-answer-here variety.

So: it sounds like European testing is more rigorous than in the U.S. But hold on. Robert Waldmann, who provoked the question in the first place, adds this:

The tradition in Italy is that most exams are oral (I am not kidding). Also students seem to have been taught to recite the 5 pages from the textbook which are most related to the question they are asked.

On US vs Italian high schools, obviously Italian high schools are more rigorous (I mean US high school is very exceptional as is the fact that most people in the US completed high school way back in the 20s). However, there was a comment by Italian students who were in the US on an exchange program that with multiple choice tests one has to think. Compared to learning by rote and reciting that is really true.

Hmmm. I think we need better agreement on just what "rigorous" means. If the Italian alternative to multiple choice is parroting back sections of a textbook, multiple choice starts to look pretty good.

In any case, there were lots of good comments to my original post from people who went to school in Europe, and the general consensus is that multiple choice tests are virtually unknown there. So here's another question: aside from standardized testing (i.e., NCLB-related stuff) how common are multiple choice tests in the United States these days? My schooling is now 30 or 40 years in the past, but my recollection is that there was very, very little of it in my extremely average suburban high school. It wasn't unknown, mind you, and I remember one of my English teachers saying that he liked to include at least a short MC section on his tests because you can't BS your way through it no matter how talented you are at that kind of thing, the way some people can with essay tests. But that was mostly the exception, not the rule. And yes, my math teachers all insisted that we show our work. (Much to my and my classmates' abiding dismay.)

Anyway, as long as we're on the subject, here's yet another tidbit. Via email and personal discussions, the one topic that seems to come up almost universally with teachers at the university level is writing. It's not so much that their kids are bad at math or reading or specific areas of knowledge (though there's always some of that, of course), but that they can't write. And they are convinced that this is getting worse, and that it's not just that they have over-rosy memories of students in the past. Anyone care to weigh in on this? Do high schools not require very much writing these days? Or what?

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How crazy is it that this goofball amateur phenomenon of combining the vocals of one song with the instrumentation from another continues to produce interesting, amusing, and hypnotic tracks, despite being declared dead, useless, and stupid? While Girl Talk's more or less enjoyable album (consisting mostly of fast-paced combos featuring rap over hipster rock) is landing in many year-end Top 10s, I've always preferred the well-constructed mashup song to the hyper laptop DJ set, a focused short story to the mixtape's sprawling novel. Here are a couple of the best recent tracks (and, well, one concept album).