2010 - %3, August

Obama's Speech Recap: Winding Down in Iraq

| Tue Aug. 31, 2010 9:42 PM EDT

First things first: did Obama mention the surge in tonight's speech? Huh huh, did he? No he didn't. Gretchen Carlson is going to go ballistic. (Again.)

OK then. Glad we got that cleared up. What else? Well, I was struck by his mention of his call with George Bush earlier today. The White House obviously played up this call before the fact, and I assume that Obama was hoping to get some kind of bipartisan mileage out of it. But in the end, all he said about it was this: "No one could doubt President Bush's support for our troops, or his love of country and commitment to our security." I can't help but think that if this is the most he could say, the phone call must have been a bit of a bust.

I was also struck by what he said about the success of the troop drawdown: "This was my pledge to the American people as a candidate for this office. Last February, I announced a plan that would bring our combat brigades out of Iraq, while redoubling our efforts to strengthen Iraq’s Security Forces and support its government and people. That is what we have done." This is, technically, true, but it ignores the fact that Obama's plan was a fairly modest variation on the Status of Forces Agreement negotiated by Bush in late 2008. But why ignore that? If you're looking for some kind of conciliatory message to conservatives without going as far as congratulating George Bush for the surge, why not mention this? "It is time to turn the page," Obama said, and framing his withdrawal as a continuation of Bush's policy seems like it would have been a good way to help that happen.

Beyond that, the most striking part of the speech was more in Obama's attitude than in his words —though it was in his words too. It was, I thought, crystal clear that Obama still thinks the Iraq war was a dumb war; that he fully intends to keep drawing down forces there; that he fully intends to draw down forces in Afghanistan on schedule; and that going forward he has no intention of projecting further American force abroad if he can possibly help it. That all seemed pretty palpable from the way he talked about both the Iraq war (which he credited with no positive purpose at all) and the Afghanistan war (where he did acknowledge a purpose, but proposed only tightly limited goals with an emphasis on withdrawal starting next year). And then this:

Our nation’s strength and influence abroad must be firmly anchored in our prosperity at home. And the bedrock of that prosperity must be a growing middle class.

Unfortunately, over the last decade, we have not done what is necessary to shore up the foundation of our own prosperity. We have spent over a trillion dollars at war, often financed by borrowing from overseas. This, in turn, has short-changed investments in our own people, and contributed to record deficits. For too long, we have put off tough decisions on everything from our manufacturing base to our energy policy to education reform. As a result, too many middle class families find themselves working harder for less, while our nation’s long-term competitiveness is put at risk.

And so at this moment, as we wind down the war in Iraq, we must tackle those challenges at home with as much energy, and grit, and sense of common purpose as our men and women in uniform who have served abroad.

Those are the words of a man who wants to stop spending blood and treasure on war and start spending it at home. I would have appreciated hearing a little bit of detail to back this up — just a little! — but no dice. I suspect that would have inevitably taken him into partisan territory, and he was obviously avoiding that, as he usually does. His comment that "over the last decade we have not done what is necessary to shore up the foundation of our own prosperity" was about the closest he got to any kind of partisan shot taking.

In the end, then, a perfectly good speech. The final few minutes didn't do much for me, but these kinds of valedictories rarely do. It probably worked better for other viewers. And while conservatives obviously won't like the fact that Obama is so plainly non-thrilled with the exercise of military power, I liked it just fine. And I thought Obama also struck a good overall tone: composed and deliberate, not bombastic or triumphant. We go to war when we have to, but it really is a last resort. I feel more confident about the ultimate withdrawal of troops from both Iraq and Afghanistan now than I did yesterday, and that's a message I really wanted to hear.

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Culinary Interlude: The Case For Pork-Barrel Spending

| Tue Aug. 31, 2010 8:15 PM EDT

Why They Hate Us: Pork ribs from Arthur Bryant's in Kansas City, Missouri (Photo: Tim Murphy).Gratuitous: Ribs from Arthur Bryant's in Kansas City, Missouri (Photo: Tim Murphy).

Corn on "Hardball": Why Did We Go To War in Iraq?

Tue Aug. 31, 2010 6:53 PM EDT

On the occasion of President Obama's Oval Office speech on Iraq, David Corn and Dan Senor duke it out over the origins of the Iraq war on MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews. Spoiler alert: Corn outclasses Senor with an Ernest Hemingway quote.

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.

Glenn Beck's Melodrama

| Tue Aug. 31, 2010 6:07 PM EDT

Since Glenn Beck is in the news thanks to his trillion-person rally this weekend, it's as good a time as any to ask a naive and unanswerable question. But here it is anyway: When did our taste in populist rabble-rousers decline so badly? Or has it? I don't watch Beck very often, but I catch his act every once in a while, and the thing that always strikes me is how obviously phony it is. This isn't a subtle thing, either. Every inflection is so plainly calculated that it's like watching an old-time silent melodrama. 

Of course, my experience with populist rabble-rousers is slim. Maybe William Jennings Bryan sounded the same way. Ditto for Billy Sunday and Father Coughlin and Joe McCarthy.

But I still don't quite get it. I know that conservatives used to have similar complaints about Bill Clinton's shows of emotion, which they considered phony. But whether they were or not, he at least made them seem genuine. Beck almost seems to deliberately go out of his way to make his emotions obviously artificial.

I dunno. Is this just the standard veneer of revivalist preachers, which I have no experience with? Are there conventions to this kind of thing, the way that opera singers emote conventionally and everybody knows how to interpret it? Or what? I just don't get who it is who buys this stuff. To me, Beck practically seems to be openly mocking his audience.

Sorry, Drilling Regulators: No More Oil Orgies

| Tue Aug. 31, 2010 3:50 PM EDT

Last night, Michael Bromwich, the new director of the Interior Department's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement (formerly known as the Minerals Management Service), circulated an email to staffers outlining new ethics policies for employees who deal with offshore drilling, an attempt to reform his run amuck division's rep for being too cozy with oil and gas interests. Most of the new rules seem like a no-brainer, but given MMS' history, perhaps we should be grateful they're now on paper.

Here's how Bromwich's memo begins:

District employees must perform their duties based solely on the facts and information they collect or that are presented to them in accordance with applicable regulations, without any coercion or improper influence from any industry personnel. Pursuant to the procedures set forth below, District employees must immediately report any situation or incident where industry personnel attempt to bribe, harass, coerce or improperly pressure or influence a District employee with respect to the performance of the employee’s official duties, including the issuance of Incidents of Noncompliance (INCs) or any other action considered or taken by the employee in accordance with applicable regulations.

I wish the memo included a line more specifically saying, "Hey, no more porn, meth, and oil parties," but maybe that's too much to ask.

Under the new guidelines, BOEM staffers will be barred for two years from handling any matter involving a former employer in the industry. Employees will also have to inform their supervisors about any other potential conflicts of interest, and will be required to submit requests to be relieved of duties that might present a conflict. Staffers will also have to recuse themselves from duties that involve companies that employ a family member or friend.

The division has undergone a major overhaul since the Deepwater Horizon disaster. The head of the agency at the time, Elizabeth Birnbaum, was canned. It's name was even changed to make a clean break from MMS' sordid past. The Interior Secretary also split the division into separate units for regulation and revenue-collection.

Even knowing how bad it was at MMS pre-Deepwater, it's still a bit shocking that, as the Houston Chronicle reports, this "is a first for the federal agency that regulates drilling, which previously had no formal guidelines governing such potential conflicts." But why stop at MMS? Seems like something they might want to extend to other DOI divisions while they're at it.

What's Missing From Interior's New Scientific Integrity Policy?

| Tue Aug. 31, 2010 3:18 PM EDT

The Department of Interior issued a new draft policy on scientific integrity on Tuesday, a long overdue addition to the agency's manual outlining the rules and regulations for employees when it comes to ensuring that their decisions are based on sound science. It's certainly a step in the right direction, given such a policy didn't even exist previously. But there are still concerns that the policy doesn't go far enough in reforming an agency known for ignoring (or outright manipulating) scientific findings.

In the wake of the BP disaster, Interior has come under increased scrutiny when it comes to its enforcement and oversight activities. The Minerals Management Service, now renamed the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, has been singled out for the bulk of the criticism. As the agency's Inspector General pointed out in April, in its not-so-subtly-titled report "Interior Lacks a Scientific Integrity Policy," DOI's other divisions have also fallen down on the job when it comes to upholding sound scientific practices. At fault, the IG says, has been the lack of a policy on the subject. From the report:

We found that Interior has no comprehensive scientific integrity policy and only one of its bureaus has such a policy. In addition, we found that Interior has no requirement to track scientific misconduct allegations. Without policies to ensure the integrity of its scientific research, Interior runs the risk that flawed information will reach the scientific community and general public, thereby breaching the public's trust and damaging Interior's reputation. The time for a comprehensive scientific integrity policy at Interior is, therefore, long overdue.

The report offered a few examples illustrating why the lack of a policy is problematic. In one case, a deputy assistant secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks "was found to have unduly influenced a critical habitat designation." In another, a National Park Serve senior science adviser for Point Reyes National Seashore "misrepresented research regarding sedimentation, failed to provide information sought after from Freedom of Information Act request, and misinformed individuals in a public forum regarding sea life data, and put into question NPS' scientific integrity."

The IG's office recommended that the agency develop and implement an Interior-wide, comprehensive scientific integrity policy, one that covers "all agents, appointees, employees and contractors involved in researching and publishing scientific results of any kind." Now, the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility says the draft policy DOI produced only includes about half the rules that are needed. While agency scientists would be disciplined for things like falsifying data and not disclosing or avoiding conflicts of interest, there are a number of concerns. Chief among them is that the draft policy only applies to employees, contractors, and volunteers, excluding supervisors and appointees. Which is pretty key—most of the officials responsible for suppressing or altering scientific data have been political appointees.

"The scientists within Interior are not the ones rewriting documents inappropriately. Scientific misconduct stems from Interior's political appointees and hand-picked senior managers but these folks are not covered by the policy," said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. "Interior's approach to scientific integrity in essence penalizes the victims and gives a free ride to the perpetrators… Reform at Interior needs to start at the top."

The policy will be open for public comment for the next 20 days. It's also worth noting that President Obama issued a directive in March 2009 calling for a new scientific integrity policy covering all the federal agencies, an attempt to reform the tattered reputation agencies earned under the Bush administration for burying or manipulating incovenient science. Each agency was also supposed to write its own policies, and today's DOI draft is in response to that directive. And while the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy was supposed to deliver the overarching policy for all agencies by July 2009, it still has yet to be completed.

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The Worst Possible Greenhouse Gas Regulation

| Tue Aug. 31, 2010 2:16 PM EDT

Jon Chait notes a recent poll showing strong public support for EPA regulation of greenhouse gases:

The paradox of climate policy is that the most popular policy responses are those that hide costs from consumers. Cap and trade is more popular than a carbon tax, and regulation is more popular than [cap and trade]. But cap and trade is more efficient than regulation, and a carbon tax is more efficient than cap and trade.1

Well, yeah. The masses are easily fooled, aren't they? That's why credit card companies hide their fees, telephone companies charge you for an unlisted number, and airlines are willing to do almost anything to raise revenue other than increase the headline price of flying from one city to another.

In any case, Jon takes this as an example of where American democracy ought to work: sure, the masses are ill-informed, but elites know better, and Congress should respond to those elites and end up substituting a carbon tax for EPA regulation.

Maybe. But it depends on your definition of "elite," doesn't it? In the case of carbon regulation, the only elites who really matter are big corporations, and I think they've made the tactical calculation that EPA regs are less bad than either a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system. They might change their minds at some point, but EPA is the devil they know, and its reach has known boundaries. Start mucking around with cap-and-trade and you've created an entirely new monster that you might not be able to control. So my guess is that Congress is responding to elites just fine. Unfortunately, as they usually do, they're responding to the elites that actually matter, not the chattering classes that Jon is thinking of.

1As longtime readers know, I'm not actually convinced of this. In a real-world comparison, I think cap-and-trade might actually be a better, more efficient choice than a straight tax. But I'll leave that aside for the moment.

What Makes a Great Teacher Great?

| Tue Aug. 31, 2010 1:14 PM EDT

The LA Times has provoked the wrath of local teachers by posting a database of teacher performance based on a metric called "value added," a measurement that supposedly controls for the quality of incoming students, English proficiency, individual behavior problems, and so forth. (Q&A here.) But a new EPI report says that value-added sucks anyway:

One study found that across five large urban districts, among teachers who were ranked in the top 20% of effectiveness in the first year, fewer than a third were in that top group the next year, and another third moved all the way down to the bottom 40%. Another found that teachers’ effectiveness ratings in one year could only predict from 4% to 16% of the variation in such ratings in the following year. Thus, a teacher who appears to be very ineffective in one year might have a dramatically different result the following year. The same dramatic fluctuations were found for teachers ranked at the bottom in the first year of analysis.

Education expert Kevin Carey agrees that value-added is a lousy metric:

But, and this is an enormous caveat, everything else we currently use is worse. A teacher’s years of experience, their education credentials, their certification status, the prestige of their college or their college GPA, even in-class observations. None of these measures does as good of a job at predicting a student’s academic growth as a teacher’s value-added score. Yet, we continue to use these poor proxies for quality at the same we have such passionate fights about measures of actual performance.

Still, it remains true that virtually everyone agrees that value added is "not all that great" (Carey's conclusion). So what should we do instead? Carey says we just don't know. We have lots of minimum standards for teaching quality (no uncertified teachers, no violence, no classroom drunks, no overuse of mimeographed worksheets, etc.) but we don't know much about what makes a teacher stellar:

What kind of teaching is as good as mimeographed worksheets are bad? We don’t really know. The qualifications-and-competence mindset doesn’t allow us to know. We can’t see it, and so gradually we allow policies and institutions and organizational cultures to evolve that pretend it doesn’t exist.

....There’s a natural tendency to proceed from here to the conclusion that we need to intensively study [great teachers like LA's Zenaida Tan] so we can help others be more like them. And we should, this will be valuable research. But we ought not expect it will produce a new list of qualifications and competencies to which every teacher must adhere. Just as there are many different kinds of great writers and lawyers and artists, so too does great teaching come in all manner of variations. This should be seen as entirely positive for the teaching profession. The jobs worth having — and worth paying for — are those that can’t be wholly reduced to definable rules.

Yet the union that purports to represent Tan has done nothing but oppose the creation of the only measures that accurately identify her value as a professional. In doing so, it helps depress the public understanding of all teachers as professionals. If the LA Times hadn’t performed these value-added calculations and published them, who would have? How long do great teachers have to wait to be recognized? How long are they going to be held hostage to a mindset that pretends they don’t exist?

This is no surprise, I guess, since we have so little idea of what makes someone great at any profession. What makes a product manager great? Or a CEO? Or a magazine editor? Or a blogger? No one knows. If you go to the business section of your local Barnes & Noble you can find a hundred books with a hundred different vague and unhelpful answers based on little more than the author's instincts. Talk to business professors and you'll get some different answers, but probably not ones that are an awful lot more reliable.

But the problem with teachers is that assessing their performance isn't just hard, it's even harder than any of those other professions. Product managers interact closely with a huge number of people who can all provide input about how good they are. CEOs have to produce sales and earnings. Magazine editors and bloggers need readers.

But teachers, by definition, work alone in a classroom, and they're usually observed only briefly and by one person. And their output — well-educated students — is almost impossible to measure. If I had to invent a profession where performance would be hard to measure with any accuracy or reliability, it would end up looking a lot like teaching.

So this means we end up using things like value-added, even though we know they're not very good. What other choice do we have, after all? Sara Mead recommends greater reliance on "validated and reliable observational tools, such as the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS), that look at teacher classroom behaviors and measure the extent to which teachers are implementing behaviors linked to improved student outcomes," and that sounds like a good idea to me. But even if this works, it will take years or decades to produce usable results. What do we do in the meantime?

The criticisms of value-added seem compelling. At the same time, if a teacher scores poorly (or well) year after year, surely that tells us something? At some point, we either have to use this data or else give up on standardized testing completely. It just doesn't make sense to keep using it if we don't bother taking the results seriously.

Auto Industry Lobby Fail

| Tue Aug. 31, 2010 12:37 PM EDT

Soon, your car might come with a letter grade for fuel efficiency. The Environmental Protection Agency is considering a plan to add As, Bs, Cs, and even Ds to the window stickers that appear on new cars and trucks. Electric vehicles would get an A+, while plug-in hybrids would earn As. The Toyota Prius, Ford Fusion Hybrid, and Honda Civic Hybrid (all gas-electric cars) would get A-, while other hybrids would fall in the B range. Less fuel-efficient vehicles like pickup trucks and sports cars would get Cs and Ds. As you might imagine, the automobile industry lobby isn't too thrilled by this idea:

Automakers questioned the proposed letter grades, saying it might affect sales. Gloria Bergquist, a spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said "the letter grade inadvertently suggests a value judgment, taking us back to school days where grades were powerful symbols of passing or failing." She said a broad range of vehicle technologies were needed to improve fuel efficiency.

This has to be one of the worst PR statements ever. I almost suspect the AP writer put it in to embarrass the AAM. "Inadvertent" generally means "unintentional." But I'm pretty sure that the letter grade system intentionally suggests a value judgment. Showing that some vehicles are better for the environment than others is kind of the point of the exercise. If the new system "affects sales" by encouraging people to buy more fuel-efficient cars, well, I'm sure the EPA wouldn't complain about that, either. And what's all this about "school days" being the long-forgotten past "where grades were powerful symbols of passing and failing"? Last time I checked, they still are. A Maybach 57 might get an "A" in acceleration, but it only gets a D+ when it comes to the environment. That's life. Anyway, this statement gets an F. That's for "FAIL."

Obama and the Surge

| Tue Aug. 31, 2010 12:19 PM EDT

Marc Ambinder comments on Barack Obama's primetime Iraq speech tonight:

Now then: will he take the bait dangling from Republican hooks and give President Bush credit for the surge? He will telephone President Bush earlier in the day, presumably to thank the president for his judgment in a way that does not acknowledge that his own opposition to the surge was (in retrospect) incorrect. Officials make the argument that people read a lot into the surge, and that a number of different factors, some of them independent of the surge, contributed to the taming of the insurgency. Obama won't get into those arguments there, but it will be interesting to see how he deals with the historical narrative that has President Bush mistakenly choosing to go to war in Iraq and then supporting a strategy that brought about its close more quickly.

Since it's a slow news day, let's mull this over. First take: can you imagine anything that would piss off the liberal base more than acknowledging that the surge worked? You'd be able to hear the steam coming out of lefty ears from sea to shining sea. Second take: Even if he decided to do it anyway, would it be worthwhile? If he wants to be honest, Obama would have to at least mention all those other factors that Ambinder mentions, namely that the reduction in violence in 2007 was quite clearly the result of 4 S's: Surge, Sadr ceasefire, Sectarian cleansing, and Sunni Awakening. But is this too much to talk about? And would it seem churlish to acknowledge the surge and then immediately try to take some of the credit away from it?

Third take: Forget it. Not only would mentioning the surge piss off liberals, but it would also imply some kind of "victory" in Iraq, and surely Obama can't be dimwitted enough to come within a light year of claiming that, can he? Of course not. Not with sporadic violence back in the news and Iraqi leaders still stalemated on forming a government five months after the March elections.

So I'll predict no direct mention of the surge. And since I'm usually wrong about this kind of stuff, I suppose you should try to lay down some money right away on Obama mentioning the surge tonight. But I still don't think he'll do it.

POSTSCRIPT: And now for a usage question. What's the right way to refer to four things that start with the letter S? Should it be 4 Esses? 4 Ses? 4 S's? Or what? They all seem pretty awkward to me.