2010 - %3, August

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for August 3, 2010

Tue Aug. 3, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

An official starts the timer and calls the finish line to synch their watches as competitors for the 2010 Army Reserve Best Warrior Competition sprint out to start the 10-kilometer ruck march before dawn on Fort McCoy, Wis., on July 28. Photo via the US Army.

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Congress and the Media

| Mon Aug. 2, 2010 6:19 PM EDT

George Packer goes through a long list of reasons the Senate has become broken recently — CSPAN, 3-day workweeks, spiraling fundraising requirements, ideological hardening following the Reagan Revolution — and then adds this one:

One day in his office, [Tom] Udall picked up some tabloids from his coffee table and waved them at me. “You know about all these rags that cover the Hill, right?” he said, smiling. There are five dailies — Politico, The Hill, Roll Call, CongressDaily, and CQ Today — all of which emphasize insider conflict....Bloggers carry so much influence that many senators have a young press aide dedicated to the care and feeding of online media. News about, by, and for a tiny kingdom of political obsessives dominates the attention of senators and staff, while stories that might affect their constituents go unreported because their home-state papers can no longer afford to have bureaus in Washington.

[Chris] Dodd, who came to the Senate in 1981 and will leave next January, told me, “I used to have eleven Connecticut newspaper reporters who covered me on a daily basis. I don’t have one today, and haven’t had one in a number of years. Instead, D.C. publications only see me through the prism of conflict.” Lamar Alexander described the effect as “this instant radicalizing of positions to the left and the right.”

The new media environment may have some advantages over the old one, but the old one had a few too. This one is a pretty good example.

DC's Strange Love Affair with Paul Ryan

| Mon Aug. 2, 2010 5:31 PM EDT

Jamelle Bouie explains why Republicans ought to be delighted with Rep. Paul Ryan's "Roadmap for America's Future":

Under the Ryan plan, taxes for the richest 1 percent of Americans would fall by half, on top of making the Bush tax cuts permanent....Households with incomes of more than $1 million would receive an average annual tax cut of $502,000, and the richest one-tenth of 1 percent of Americans would receive an average tax cut of $1.7 million a year. To offset these tax cuts, the Ryan plan would place a consumption tax on most goods and services.

These taxes would overwhelmingly affect working and middle-class Americans. According to Citizens for Tax Justice, the Ryan plan would increase taxes by an average of $2,000 on everyone with an income under $100,000.

This is an underappreciated aspect of Ryan's plan. Another underappreciated aspect, and one that's fast becoming a pet peeve of mine, is that there's nothing "smart" or "brave" about it. For some reason, practically everyone talks about how Ryan is the only Republican in Congress who's willing to put his money where his mouth is and tell us exactly what he'd cut out of the federal budget. But he doesn't. His plan merely caps various kinds of spending: there's a cap on Medicare, a cap on Social Security, and a cap on domestic spending. Reduced to its policy essence, that's it.

This is the fourth grade version of a "plan." I can come up with something similar in about a minute. In fact, I will. Here's my "plan":

  • I think federal spending should be capped at 23% of GDP.
  • Interest on the national debt comes to 3% of GDP.
  • Social Security gets 5% of GDP.
  • Medicare gets 8% of GDP.
  • Defense spending gets 3% of GDP.
  • Domestic spending gets 4%.

Pretty good plan, huh? Of course I'd need to pad this out with lots of charts and tables, some quotes from famous people, and a policy proposal or two. Nothing damaging, mind you, mostly just things that hide the fact that I'm not really proposing any specific cuts, only offering a few broad spending caps and (natch) some tax cuts for the rich.

Oh, and his plan doesn't eliminate the deficit, either. Other than that, it's pretty good.

Will Crazy Town Conservatism Backfire?

| Mon Aug. 2, 2010 2:29 PM EDT

Marc Lynch is optimistic that the current conservative meltdown over the Ground Zero mosque — along with their general increase in wild-eyed Muslim bashing — is going to backfire:

It's not just the clear national security imperative to build strong, positive relations with Muslims at home and abroad, and to avoid strengthening al-Qaeda's narrative of a clash of civilizations. It's not just about the security needs in counter-terrorism, where the Muslim-Americans most offended by right-wing bigotry are the main bulwark against radicalization in their communities. It's that the right-wing campaigns are so deeply and fundamentally contrary to American values. America is exceptional for its acceptance of faith in public life and for its tolerance of different religions within a common national identity. While the GOP base may thrill at the escalating anti-Islamic rhetoric, most mainstream Americans will recoil when this hits prime time. It may not look like it right now, but I think that the rising anti-Islamic trend on the right will backfire by highlighting its true extremism, if not downright lunacy.

It makes me happy that someone is out there to talk me down off the ledge. Maybe all this demagoguery will backfire! That would be great, wouldn't it?

Can Money Really Buy That Senate Seat?

| Mon Aug. 2, 2010 1:46 PM EDT

In an election year marked by the rise of the self-funded candidate, here's a memo to the politicos out there: Splashing your own cash to win over voters is, according to a new study, a potentially dumb investment. Quite dumb, in fact. The National Institute on Money in State Politics studied more than 6,000 state races in which various candidates or their immediate families spent a whopping $700.6 million to boost their own campaigns. But did that spending translate into success? Not really: A measly 11 percent of those self-funded candidates won.

That low rate is a good thing, right? Well, kind of. Here's Sam Pizzigati from the Working Group on Extreme Inequality:

So can we breathe a sigh of relief, secure in the knowledge that the rich can’t buy their way into political power? We might want to put a hold on that sigh. Money still matters.

Those candidates whose campaigns spend the most turn out to win the most, the National Institute study also found, by a wide margin. Candidates who collected and spent more campaign cash than their rivals, says the study, won 87 percent of their races.

There's a key distinction here. Modest levels of self-funding—donating a few hundred or thousand dollars to your campaign—doesn't look like it makes much of a difference, especially in smaller state races where budgets are puny compared to, say, the millions spent running for the US House or Senate.

But then you have self-funded candidates—who, ironically, are self-styled as "populists" and "outsiders"—like Florida Senate candidate Jeff Greene, Connecticut Senate hopeful Linda McMahon, and California gubernatorial frontrunner Meg Whitman, who together have spent well over $100 million on their campaigns. That kind of cash, the study shows, brings a major chance of success, given that kind of candidate's near-limitless ability to cut ads, publish campaign lit, travel throughout their states, and so on. After all, look at those three candidates' poll numbers, which continue to climb and climb.

The state representative, in other words, who chips in part of his paycheck to hand out lawn signs might be wasting his money. But the real-estate mogul who spends more on his campaign than most people earn in their lifetime shouldn't have a problem buying a seat in the US Senate.

The Economics of Plagiarism

| Mon Aug. 2, 2010 1:35 PM EDT

The New York Times, in one of its patented trend stories about the ultra privileged, says that plagiarism is on the rise. Here's the explanation:

Digital technology makes copying and pasting easy, of course. But that is the least of it.

Wait. Just stop. Why is this the least of it? I'm willing to bet large sums of money that this is, in fact, virtually the entire explanation. The internet simply makes way more relevant text available to students and makes it far easier to copy. Compare this obvious explanation to the other claims offered up:

The Internet may also be redefining how students [...] understand the concept of authorship and the singularity of any text or image....“Because you’re not walking into a library, you’re not physically holding the article, which takes you closer to ‘this doesn’t belong to me.’ ”....Undergraduates are less interested in cultivating a unique and authentic identity — as their 1960s counterparts were — than in trying on many different personas, which the Web enables with social networking....The main reason [plagiarism occurs] is because students leave high school unprepared for the intellectual rigors of college writing.

Seriously? College kids are redefining authorship? Old style physical books seem more like they're really written by someone else? Students no longer think of term papers as ways of expressing their unique and authentic identity? High schools suck?

Maybe so. God knows I can't prove any of these theories are wrong. But I'd sure guess that if you make something about a hundred times easier than it used to be, that's a pretty good guess about why that something is on the rise.

Of course, I cheated when I came to this conclusion. The author of the piece, Trip Gabriel, insists that modern kids barely even consider copying from the internet to be wrong. But at the very, tippy end of the article, we get this: "At the University of California, Davis, of the 196 plagiarism cases referred to the disciplinary office last year, a majority did not involve students ignorant of the need to credit the writing of others."

In other words, they know perfectly well that it's wrong. They do it because they're lazy and don't feel like trying to craft sentences of their own. Just like every plagiarist in history. But it would have ruined the story to put that near the top.

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More Preschool, Please

| Mon Aug. 2, 2010 12:35 PM EDT

A few days ago Jonah Lehrer pointed to a new paper by Flavio Cunha and James Heckman about the value of intensive preschool education. Their conclusion: this is a great way to spend money. But here's the catch: critics of early education programs often point out that reported IQ gains don't last. And that's true (though there have been a few exceptions). But IQ isn't everything:

Instead, preschool seemed to improve performance on a variety of “non-cognitive” abilities, such as self-control, persistence and grit. While society has long obsessed over raw smarts — just look at our fixation on IQ scores — Heckman and Cunha argue that these non-cognitive traits are often more important. They note, for instance, that dependability is the trait most valued by employers, while “perseverance, dependability and consistency are the most important predictors of grades in school.”

....Furthermore, the gains from preschool appear to be so significant and consistent that, according to Cunha and Heckman, investing in early childhood education is just about the most cost-effective way to spend public money. The economists calculate that, for every dollar invested in preschool for at-risk children, society at large reaps somewhere between eight and nine dollars in return. That’s how I want my tax-dollars spent.

Me too. I've always been impressed by the results of research showing the value of self-restraint. Kids who do well on a test of delayed gratification ("You can have one cookie now, but if you wait five minutes you can have two cookies") do well in later life too — and self-control appears to be just about as important as intelligence in predicting success. (Lehrer has the full story here.) What's more, regardless of what effect early intervention programs have on schoolwork or life earnings, they might well be worth it solely for their effect on crime. As Mark Kleiman says in When Brute Force Fails:

The famous Perry Preschool Project appears to have largely failed in its attempt to raise the measured IQs of participants, but the effects on criminal behavior seem to have been profound....[And] in a well-evaluated experiment in upstate New York, nurse home visitation for expectant mothers whose demographic profiles put their children at high risk of poor outcomes reduced the arrests among children of those mothers by 69 percent compared to the matched control group. If that result is even close to correct, nurse home visitation focused on high-risk mothers is surely cost-effective as crime control — compared, for example, with prison building — even ignoring all its other benefits and cost savings.

More early childhood interventions, please. And lead abatement too. If you're looking for projects that are likely to have really high ratios of benefits to costs, these are your babies.

Taxes and the Public

| Mon Aug. 2, 2010 12:02 PM EDT

Via Ezra Klein, here is Andrew Therriault on a recent poll about whether the Bush-era tax cuts should be repealed:

The brief summary: Pew did a national poll which found that only 30% of respondents wanted to extend all of the Bush tax cuts, while 27% wanted to repeal them for the wealthiest taxpayers, and the plurality (31%) wanted to repeal ALL of the tax cuts.

....This is pretty amazing. We could argue to no end about the reasonableness of (effectively) raising taxes during a recession, but that’s not the point....What’s really important here is that, while Democratic lawmakers are clamoring to get on the tax cut bandwagon (or off of the tax increase bandwagon, if you’re thinking about attack ads), Americans appear willing to have a reasonable conversation about taxes — that is, one in which raising taxes is at least on the table.

Actually, what's even more amazing is that these numbers haven't really changed much over the years. The Bush tax cuts for the wealthy have never been especially popular. The only change over the past couple of years has been an increase in the number of people who want to repeal all of Bush tax cuts, not just the cuts for the wealthy.

So: it's a no-brainer, right? Popular opinion is in favor of repealing at least the tax cuts for the wealthy by a margin of 58% to 30%. And since everyone is supposedly concerned about the budget deficit, this is a quick and popular way of reining it in. In fact, you could combine a complete repeal with a phased payroll tax holiday and even get a fiscal stimulus out of the deal. Too bad that Republicans are convinced that payroll taxes aren't real taxes since they barely affect the rich at all. Otherwise this would be a great idea.

Poll: Arizonans Say Racial Discrimination Is on the Rise

| Mon Aug. 2, 2010 11:24 AM EDT

However Arizona's immigration law holds up in court, nearly half of the state's residents believe that the polarizing debate has revealed underlying racial tensions and made Latinos more likely to be discriminated against. The Arizona Republic writes up the results of a poll it recently conducted:

In The Republic's telephone poll of 616 adults, conducted statewide between June 30 and July 12, nearly half of respondents—48 percent —said Latinos are more likely to be discriminated against compared with non-Latinos than they were six months ago. More than a third of respondents disagreed. The rest did not know or had no opinion.


Nearly half of Arizonans also believe the immigration debate has revealed racial problems here and that Latinos are more likely to have their legal status questioned than they were at the start of the year, the poll indicates.

The poll results confirm how the heated controversy about Arizona's controversial law has fueled fear and suspicion within the state, even before any parts of the measure had a chance to take effect. A federal judge blocked the most controversial parts of Arizona's law last week and seems likely to strike them down in her final ruling. But there are still parts of the law that went into effect on Thursday—particularly a measure that outlaws transporting or harboring illegal immigrants—that continue to worry immigration-rights advocates.

It remains to be seen whether there will actually be an uptick in discrimination against immigrants by officials or the public at large in the wake of the law's passage. But it's clear that the measure has created a climate of fear that's divided the state's residents. And it could portend the controversy that's to come in the other states that are still considering broad-sweeping anti-immigration laws like Arizona's. While the federal legislators wanted to defer an immigration overhaul for another day—in part out of fear that the debate would prove too polarizing—it's becoming increasingly clear that they can't escape the heated politics surrounding the issue.

BP "Carpet Bombed" Gulf With Dispersants

| Mon Aug. 2, 2010 9:12 AM EDT

Congressional investigators want to know why the Coast Guard consistently greenlighted BP's requests to apply more dispersant chemicals to the Gulf spill than the company had been authorized to use; they are also raising queestions about whether the company used far more of these chemicals (whose health and environmental effects are largely unknown) than either BP or the Coast Guard have reported publicly.

It's a question we asked several weeks ago, after Coast Guard logs indicated that BP had routinely sought and received approval to exceed the maximum daily amount of disperstants allowed under a May 26 joint directive from the Coast Guard and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the House energy and environment subcommittee, wants answers from the Coast Guard on why BP's applications to exceed the dispersant limits "appeared to be rubber stamped," even though the EPA stated that such exceptions should be granted only in "rare cases." Further, subcommittee staff found discrepancies between dispersant figures BP reported to Congress and those it asked the Coast Guard approve, suggesting the firm used the chemicals in larger quantities than were authorized for use even under special circumstances.

In one example, the subcommittee staff found that Doug Suttles, BP's chief operating officer, stated in a June 12 letter to the Coast Guard that the maximum daily application of dispersants on the surface in the days before June 16, 2010 was 3,360 gallons. But according to the dispersant totals BP provided to Markey's committee, the company applied 14,305 gallons of dispersant on June 11 alone. The company reported using another 36,000 gallons on June 13 and 10,706 gallons June 14.

Not only does this raise questions about whether BP was playing straight with the government, but also about whether the Coast Guard was following through on its responsibility to monitor the company's use of the chemicals. According to the official totals from BP and the Coast Guard, 1.8 million gallons of the chemicals have been applied. Now, it's beginning to look like the real total may be much higher.

"BP carpet bombed the ocean with these chemicals, and the Coast Guard allowed them to do it," said Markey in a statement. "After we discovered how toxic these chemicals really are, they had no business being spread across the Gulf in this manner."