2010 - %3, January

The Gender Gap in College Admissions

| Fri Jan. 29, 2010 8:12 PM EST

Women outnumber men in both applications to college and degrees earned, so much so that gender affords some male applicants the extra boost they need to gain admission. Is this practice fair? And more importantly, why are fewer men applying to and graduating from college? The Los Angeles Times gives an interesting take on these questions in this editorial. An excerpt: 

A 2007 analysis by U.S. News & World Report, based on the data sent by colleges for the magazine's annual rankings, found that the admissions rate for women averaged 13 percentage points lower than that for men. But percentages don't tell the whole story. It could be that the men were stronger candidates, or they might have applied in areas of engineering and science where women's numbers are still lower. But such justifications, even if true, are unlikely to fully explain these numbers. At schools such as the University of California, where admissions rely overwhelmingly on statistical measures of academic achievement such as grades and test scores, the disparities don't appear. Far more women than men applied to UCLA—the UC's most selective campus—last year. The university accepted about the same percentage of each, with a slight edge to the women. As a result, the freshman class has close to 800 more women than men.

In recent years, several college leaders have admitted that their institutions give a boost to male applicants to maintain gender balance on campus. Most students of either sex, they point out, prefer such balance. If Vassar accepted equal percentages of each sex, women would outnumber men by more than 2 to 1.

The dean of admissions at Kenyon College in Ohio, a formerly all-male school, brought the matter to broad public attention in 2006 with an Op-Ed article for the New York Times describing the dilemma of her admissions office. "What messages are we sending young women that they must . . . be even more accomplished than men to gain admission to the nation's top colleges?" Jennifer Delahunty Britz wrote.

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The Echo Chamber

| Fri Jan. 29, 2010 8:04 PM EST

A regular emailer writes in with a theory about why Republicans allowed their Q&A with President Obama to be televised live:

I am surprised there is so much joking around about Obama creaming the GOP caucus on national TV today. I am not surprised, of course, by the jokes themselves — I am surprised that some of the underlying context is missing. Has everyone forgotten that, since the presidential campaign, the Fox News and congressional Republicans' line on Obama has been that he looks like a great orator in front of the teleprompter but is completely naked when taken off-script. It is with this in mind that we have to look at today's invitation — they wanted Obama on their home turf with their script and they thought they could humiliate him on national TV. They expected him to fumble and fail. In a sense, it was not dissimilar from the Democrats' campaign in Massachusetts.

This sounds plausible. Obama does use a teleprompter a lot, and conservatives have been drinking their own Kool-Aid for so long that they ended up believing their own puerile mockery about it being a crutch for a narcissistic, empty suit of a president. I guess that's the downside of living in the Drudge/Fox/Rush echo chamber.

The funny thing, though, is that if you watch the Q&A with your eyes (and ears) open, it's pretty obvious why Obama uses a teleprompter. It's not that he doesn't have the answers. He demonstrated today that he knows his stuff cold. But he does grasp for words sometimes, hesitating for extended periods and then coming up with some real clunkers. For example:

I raise that because we're not going to be able to do anything about any of these entitlements if what we do is characterized, whatever proposals are put out there, as, well, you know, that's — the other party is being irresponsible; the other party is trying to hurt our senior citizens; that the other party is doing X, Y, Z.

"The other party is doing X, Y, Z" is not going to go down in history as great oratory. Obviously Obama and his communications team are aware that he's prone to this kind of thing sometimes, and they'd just as soon avoid it. Thus the teleprompter.

Can "Superman" Save Our Schools?

| Fri Jan. 29, 2010 7:56 PM EST

Enthusiasts of wonky documentaries who turned out in droves to watch 2006's An Inconvenient Truth may have a new film to geek out on. Waiting for Superman, which premiered at Sundance late last week, is Truth director Davis Guggenheim's critical look at the public education system's prolonged faiure to educate the nation's neediest students.

Though Superman shows no overt political leanings, it has a clear villian—the powerful Democrat-backed teachers' unions. Guggenheim's criticism of teaching's perks (lifetime tenure, compensation based on seniority rather than performance) may not be a new idea, but the film takes a particularly tough stance against politicians like Bill and Hillary Clinton, whom Superman characterizes as beneficiares of the unions. And such criticism may garner the film some unlikely supporters—the same conservatives who loathed Truth

In fact, for all its focus on underprivileged, inner-city kids, sections of "Superman" feel like they could have been cut together by Bill O'Reilly. Slo-mo footage of union leader speeches opposing reform that could help problem schools. Hidden-cam video of a teacher reading a newspaper and checking his watch as his class goofs around. New York educators being paid millions to not teach. A major subject of the film, reform-minded DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, runs into a crippling teachers-union road block in her effort to shift pay structures to reward good teachers." Reuters

An Inconvenient Truth for the O'Reilly set? Now that I'd like to see.

Public Doesn't Care About Filibusters

| Fri Jan. 29, 2010 6:08 PM EST

Earlier this week, New Mexico senator Tom Udall, a freshman Democrat, introduced a resolution that, should it succeed, would set in motion a process that could lead to the elimination of the filibuster at the start of the 112th Congress next January. (If that sentence sounded unnecessarily clunky and complicated, well, welcome to the Senate.)

Udall's resolution seeks to reverse the long-held notion known as the "continuing body" theory, which posits that Senate rules transfer from one Congress to the next, and thus can only be changed by a two-thirds vote (or, more likely, an act of God). "Continuing body" sounds like a great name for a New Age healing ritual, but it's a really lousy way to run a government: as a result of the built-in impediments to reform, the Senate operates on a set of rules that only a handful of its members ever voted for. Instead, Udall contends that every Congress has the authority to set its own rules, under Article 1 Section 5 of the Constitution. He's probably right.

Beyond the Immediate Needs in Haiti

| Fri Jan. 29, 2010 5:58 PM EST

In the days since the January 12 earthquake pummeled Haiti, aid has poured in from around the world through governments, the United Nations, and non-governmental organizations. And while the immediate relief work has been difficult and at times frustrating, workers on the ground there have made one thing clear: We should be thinking in terms of decades, not days, when it comes to assisting the tiny nation.

In a call with reporters on Thursday, staffers for a number of NGOs in the country emphasized the need for long-term support. The outpouring from private citizens has been substantial; InterAction, a coalition of U.S.-based NGOs focusing on global poverty, this week reported that Americans have given $350 million to support relief work. Much of that is helping meet immediate needs for food, water, medical supplies, and shelter. But with the devastation already retreating from the headlines, the needs for the next months, years, and possibly decades should not be forgotten, they said.

"We're not talking years as in 2, 3 or 5... but more of the long-term solutions for Haiti," said Amy Gaver, director of international response and programs at the Red Cross. "Haiti has needed a global solution for systemic problems for a very long time." The relief work, said Graver, should include planning for sustainability, with a focus on the long-term and a plan for organizations within the country to assume control of rebuilding.

Mario Flores, director of disaster response field ops at Habitat for Humanity International, said as many as 200,000 houses were severely damaged, and 1.2 to 1.5 million people face displacement. "Haiti had a lot of problems before the earthquake; the earthquake has only exacerbated those problems," said Flores. NGOs and governments working in the country, he said, should take the time "to really think through what the long-term recovery is going to look like."

The quake and resulting exodus from Port-au-Prince is also stressing other areas of the country as an estimated one million city dwellers return to the countryside. George Packer explains the country's long-term needs vividly in a piece in the New Yorker this week as well.

The country's extreme poverty and fraught politics, of course, have both intensified the impacts of the natural catastrophe. "The situation before earthquake was quite precarious," said Kathryn Bolles, director of emergency health and nutrition at Save the Children. Relief, then, must also seek to address the bigger challenges in the nation. And it's also compounded by concern that this recent quake may be a prelude to more extreme seismic catastrophes in the region, and the ever-present danger of severe tropical storms.

As the long-term challenges begin to become clear, the greatest need is still for monetary donations. Here's a list of some of the most effective NGOs to give to.

Golf-Loving, Ethically Challenged Rep. to Retire

| Fri Jan. 29, 2010 5:38 PM EST

Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.), who has recently come under fire for his shady charity, won't seek reelection in the fall. In a statement released this afternoon, the nine-term GOP congressmen attributed the abrupt announcement "to the recent diagnosis of my wife" with an "'incurable' autoimmune disease." No mention was made of allegations made surrounding the Frontier Foundation, a six-year-old educational nonprofit that has bankrolled golfing trips for the congressman instead of handing out scholarships. The Internal Revenue Service is still determining whether to investigate Frontier and Buyer, its "honorary chairman."

While Buyer's decision can be read as a victory for government accountability groups, it is less clear what effect it will have on voters in Indiana. A Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesperson crowed to The Hill, "Instead of drinking Eric Cantor and the NRCC’s Kool-Aid, House Republicans continue to show a lack of confidence in their ability to take back the House as Republican retirements are mounting and their own members refuse to invest in the [National Republican Congressional Committee]." Questions about the foundation did little to damage Buyer's lead in the opinion polls—Republicans maintain a 14-point edge in his district. With a less ethically challenged candidate, it now seems even more likely that the GOP will hold Buyer's seat in the 2010 midterm elections.

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US Makes Copenhagen Climate Pledge Official (Sort of)

| Fri Jan. 29, 2010 4:28 PM EST

The United States committed to cutting emissions 17 percent by 2020 under the Copenhagen Accord on Thursday. But it attached a pretty big caveat. The commitment only takes effect if Congress passes legislation requiring those reductions. That's one very monumental "if."

The US was responding to a Jan. 31 deadline by which all countries who had joined the Copenhagen Accord in Denmark in December had to list their non-binding pledges to cut greenhouse gases. The US promised to cut emissions "in the range of 17%, in conformity with anticipated U.S. energy and climate legislation, recognizing that the final target will be reported to the Secretariat in light of enacted legislation."

The US Climate Action Network has been keeping track of commitments from other countries. Only 26 countries out of 192 countries have associated with the accord so far (the document was so hotly contested that no nations agreed to formally sign it.) However, those countries represent approximately 72 percent of total worldwide emissions.

While the US commitment is wishy-washy, on Friday the Obama administration did announce a plan to reduce the federal government's emissions 28 percent by 2020. White House Council on Environmental Quality chair Nancy Sutley told reporters the aim was for the government to "lead by example."

And it's not a small example: the federal government is the country's largest individual consumer of power, representing an estimated 1.5 percent of the country's total energy use. It spent $24.5 billion on electricity and fuel in 2008, and it is responsible for 500,00 buildings, 600,000 vehicles, and purchases $500 billion in goods and services each year. Sutley estimated that if the government meets its targets, it would save 205 million barrels of oil each year and would be the equivalent of taking 17 million cars off the road.

Of course, this is only a drop in the bucket when compared to the emissions produced by the entire US. But after Obama's disappointing comments on energy in his State of the Union address earlier in the week, it was a welcome piece of good news on the environment front.

 

O'Keefe Might Have Been On To Something

| Fri Jan. 29, 2010 4:26 PM EST

James O'Keefe, the conservative activist of ACORN video fame who was arrested this week for his involvement in an alleged hare-brained scheme to tamper with Sen. Mary Landrieu's phone lines, posted a statement today claiming that the real aim of the caper was to prove that Landrieu's office wasn't answering constituents' calls. The explanation for why he, and three accomplices dressed up as phone company workers, allegedly entered a federal building under false pretenses has come off as laughable. Which is too bad. O'Keefe's suspicion about the Louisiana senator is a common one, particularly among Tea Party activists, and not just in Louisiana. Many of them are convinced that members of Congress are ignoring them, largely because the activists have a nearly impossible time getting any live person on the line in their offices.

Last month, I hung out with a group of activists from the Tea Party Patriots who were in DC trying to lobby the Senate against the health care bill. Mark Meckler, one of TPP's national coordinators, told me at the time that he was convinced that his senator, Barbara Boxer from California, had her staff take the phones and fax machine off the hook at night so that people couldn't leave messages or send faxes. He said he'd actually checked several times to see if he could get through to her office at 3 a.m., but says he never had any luck. That was one reason he camped out for hours in her office that day--to see if her staff ever answered the phone. I might chalk this up to conservative paranoia, except that when I tried calling Boxer's DC office just now, I had a pretty similar experience. When I pressed "3" to speak to a staff member, I was put on hold for a minute and then disconnected. Other reporters apparently have the same complaint about Boxer, and I've had similar experiences with other senators, most recently trying to get through the main line of the office of Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH). (His press secretary is still ignoring me.)

I suspect that the Tea Partiers are right: These aren't isolated incidents, which makes me wish that O'Keefe hadn't been such a bonehead and had actually, as he said, "used a different approach" to his investigation. A real expose on how little members of the Senate connect with constituents might have forced a few of them to at least staff up the phone lines. As it is, dealing with a Senate office is often worse than trying to get customer service from Comcast. No wonder the Tea Partiers are mad!

Obama and House GOP Bring Question Time to US

| Fri Jan. 29, 2010 4:20 PM EST

Update: Read about Demand Question Time, a campaign by a cross-partisan group of bloggers, techies and political consultants, including Mother Jones' David Corn, who are calling on the White House to make Q&A sessions between Obama and the GOP a regular event. The campaign's website is here.

That was must-see TV.

President Barack Obama spoke to an issues retreat held by House Republicans on Friday afternoon and demonstrated two things: 1. he's damn good, 2. this sort of face-off should happen all the time.

Obama opened by effectively delivering typically well-designed remarks. But what followed was historic: House Republican members asked him questions. It was the closest the United States has seen to the question time conducted in the British Parliament. The atmosphere wasn't as raucus. There was no shouting, no pounding on tables. Everyone was very polite. But the GOPers did try to press the president on tax cuts, health care reform, the budget, the stimulus, deficits, and their gripes about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Obama treated their queries with respect, answering them on substantive terms. He walked a fine line: talking about the need for bipartisan cooperation but also forcefully calling out the Republicans for their extreme rhetoric. At one point, he said that if the Republicans were going to describe his health care overhaul as a "Bolshevik plot," then there couldn't be much opportuntiy for collaboration. He explained that by demonizing the plan in such a fashion, the GOP was not allowing itself any room for compromise, for it would then face the wrath of its Tea Party wing.

Friday Cat Blogging - 29 January 2010

| Fri Jan. 29, 2010 4:01 PM EST

Inkblot and Domino are waiting. And waiting. And waiting. For something. I'm not sure what. Probably dinner, though this picture was taken around two in the afternoon, so dinner was a very long way away.

In the meantime, who knows? Maybe someone will come out and do some gardening. Maybe someone will walk their dog on the sidewalk beyond the far wall. Maybe a hummingbird will come flitting around. All sorts of possibilities. And if they wait long enough, dinner will arrive! It always does eventually.