2011 - %3, January

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for January 26, 2011

Wed Jan. 26, 2011 5:30 AM EST

A 101st Combat Aviation Brigade, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) AH-64 Apache helicopter undergoes maintenance checks as the sun sets on Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan. The 101st CAB is based out of Fort Campbell, Ken. Photo via U.S. Army.

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"He Did a Good Job—He Almost Sounded Like a Republican"

| Wed Jan. 26, 2011 12:29 AM EST

Listening to Republicans' immediate reaction to President Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday night, you'd almost think they didn't hear the same speech. "I thought he did a good job—he almost sounded like a Republican," freshmen Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), said minutes after exiting the House floor. Another freshman, Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), told Mother Jones, "It sounded like a lot more of the same—a lot more government spending." Rep. Allen West (R-Florida) hit both points at once: "It was a president caught between two worlds—the world of trying to be a fiscal conservative and the world of trying to appease his base."

Though Republicans were quick to slam the key pillars of Obama's speech—his call for greater innovation, infrastructure spending, and education investments—as just "another stimulus," but the president's biggest critics were willing to admit there was a lot to like as well.

Obama's promise to revamp the tax code garnered praise from Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), a top-ranking conservative. "If he wants to work with Republicans to fundamentally flatten the tax code of all the various loopholes and credits and deductions, [we're] happy to work with him on that," Hensarling said, as he waited in line for a cable appearance.

Firebrand conservative Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) said that he was pleasantly surprised by the president's nod to clean coal. "It was couched in the language subtly," he said. "But maybe he is giving us some openings for all energy all the time, which I'm for."

West, the Florida freshmen, even showed off his copy of Obama's speech: In the margins, he'd scribbled, "Good point!" near the president's lines praising teachers and addressing illegal immigration.

To be sure, the parts of the speech that drew the most Republican cheers also have the dimmest chance of becoming law: there's little political drive on either side for a comprehensive energy bill, immigration refrom, or tax-reform legislation. And Republicans are still bent on beating up Obama on the budget. Though the president's call for a freeze on all discretionary government spending drew a few gasps, King noted that that the freeze would only be "a good thing" if Obama were to roll back spending to 2008 levels—a massive cut that House Republicans are demanding.

In King's view, even the much-ballyhooed across-the-aisle seating arrangement showed the limits of bipartisanship: Members of each party couldn't applaud as a block, he noted, and so  "there wasn't much response from the crowd. I've never been a SOTU address and seen such a flat response."

SOTU Wrapup

| Tue Jan. 25, 2011 11:20 PM EST

I decided not to liveblog the SOTU this year because I was pretty sure it would be an unusually uneventful speech. And I think that's how it turned out. (Transcript here.) In the end, the only thing that surprised me was how uneventful it was. With only a very few exceptions that were passed over pretty quickly (healthcare reform is great, student loan reform is great), there was almost literally nothing in there that couldn't have been in a George W. Bush speech. It was intensely technocratic and bipartisan: we need better education, we need to invest in infrastructure, we need to concentrate on innovation, we need tax reform, we need to get the deficit down, we're going to crush the Taliban, etc. etc. And even if you grant that "invest" is just another word for "spend," he was mostly talking about the kind of spending the Republicans could, in theory, go along with.

As for the responses, what can you say? Paul Ryan probably did about as well as anyone could do with one of those things, but his speech was mushy and vague to the point of parody. Michele Bachmann had a bit more pep to her step, but her attempt to pretend that the economy was great under George Bush was pretty laughable.

All in all, not a memorable night. Which is too bad, in a way, since I think Obama's education/technology/infrastructure message is actually pretty important. It's too bad nobody is really in a mood to hear it right now.

POSTSCRIPT: And a note to John Boehner: dude, we know you're a Republican. Obama is the opposition. We get it. But your preposterously ostentatious boredom during the entire speech really needs to go. You should at least pretend you're not in junior high school anymore.

Compton's "Parent-Trigger" Update: Read the Compton School District's Letter to Parents

| Tue Jan. 25, 2011 9:33 PM EST

Last night, I asked Parent Revolution to send me a copy of the letter that the Compton Unified School District mailed out to parents of students at McKinley Elementary School. Compton Unified printed the letters on Wednesday, Jan. 19th, and sent them to parents who requested that this chronically low-performing school be turned into a charter:

"As part of the District's responsibility to evaluate the Petition, we ask that you come to McKinley Elementary School on January 26 or 27, 2011, between the hours of 7:30am-9am or 3pm-6pm (on either date) to sign a form verifying your signature on the Petition. Please make sure to bring photo identification (such as a California driver's license) as you will be asked to show identification before being provided a signature verification form."

(See full letter below.)

Why such extremely narrow window of time? The Compton District officials know that most Compton residents are low-income parents, often working two jobs. Do they open their mail every day? I don't. Will parents be able to get time off from work on such short notice? I can't. Not to mention that the district requests that all parents come with photo IDs, which will surely be an issue for some undocumented parents in this predominantly Latino school.

Then the letter says that the signatures of no-shows will be disqualified.

This gives me serious pause. I've been working with the San Francisco Unified District since November, where I report on a high school with test scores similar to McKinley's, and I haven't seen anything like this in SF.

To be fair: Parent Revolution doesn't seem like a fair player in this political fight either. The signature gathering process was done under the radar; Louis Freedberg over at California Watch rightfully calls it a "stealth campaign." The district, the school, and even McKinley's PTA didn't know anything about it in advance. As state PTA president Jo Loss told California Watch, the Parent Revolution's petition gave parents only one option: to turn this school into a charter, even though the law provides three other choices.

If nothing else, it's hard to shake the feeling that the Compton District's extremely narrow window for verifying signatures of this most controversial and important petition in education reform was unprofessional at best, deliberate at worst. Ron Suazo, Compton School District spokesperson, didn't want to comment on the phone when I called this morning. He told me he'll email me the official response by the district explaining their rationale later today. I'll post it as soon as it comes in, but it's 6:30 pm PST and so far, nothing.

[Update on Jan. 27: Good news for parents who signed the petition, after two days of calling and emailing by MoJo, the Compton Unified sent in a statement from Acting Superintendent Karen Frison:

"We understand McKinley parents/guardians may not be able to attend our signature verification process, so we will offer a make-up date the following week, and we will also contact them if they have been unable to meet with us. The district is open to developing other ways for them to participate in an effort to accommodate their work schedules. The signature verification process is designed to protect the voice of McKinley's families, regardless of their position on the parent trigger law."]

Read the Compton Unified School District letter to parents:

The Big Freeze

| Tue Jan. 25, 2011 8:46 PM EST

Barack Obama plans to propose a five-year discretionary spending freeze in tonight's State of the Union address. Is this a good idea? A preemptive capitulation to Republican deficit hawks? Or what?

I vote for "or what." Let's all keep in mind that budgets are set one year at a time, and they're mostly set by Congress. The president has a certain amount of agenda-setting power, but that's about it. Members of Congress will do whatever they want, and next year they'll once again do whatever they want. If that means spending more money, they'll spend more money. Obama could announce a hundred-year discretionary spending freeze and it would mean about as much as a five-year freeze. This is more a PR exercise than anything else and should be evaluated on those terms.

Florida Republicans Planning a Putsch?

| Tue Jan. 25, 2011 8:03 PM EST

Over the next few weeks, yours truly is going to highlight the political sideshow that is the Sunshine State in a little feature I'd like to call "What's the Matter With Florida?" From the new billionaire ex-CEO governor who can't count or set a budget, to his regulatory logjamming and pro-corporate political appointments, to the GOP-run legislature's fight against fair voter districting (2000 anyone?), to statewide Republicans' preoccupation with residents' poop tanksit's a real-time lesson in what conservative-dominated governance looks like in America after George W. Bush.

As a taste, here's but a single development on a single day:

Screw the Fountain of Youth. Florida House Republicans have discovered something better in one of their smoky, hubris-filled back rooms: a hot-tub time machine.

At least, that seems the most plausible explanation for today's developments: They dropped trou, jumped into the warm frothy waters of their  whirlpool, and used it to travel six years hence, when they shall continue to reign benevolently over the state's lower legislative chamber. The St. Petersburg Times reports:

We're hearing from a top Miami Republican lawmaker that Miami-Dade's Republican delegation, the biggest in the state, voted as a bloc to make Rep. Richard Corcoran House Speaker in 2017-18. Though he's a Suncoast guy, Corcoran had big Miami bonafides: He was the chief of staff to Miami's only House Speaker, Marco Rubio, the current U.S. senator and Republican star.

...from what the lawmakers and consultocracy are telling us, Corcoran is well on his way to succeeded Chris Dorworth who will succeed Will Weatherford who will succeed current House Speaker Dean Cannon.

Wuzzat? You wanted to know how it's possible that a political party already has its next four speakers of the 120-seat Florida House picked out, when voters have yet to go to the 2012, 2014, and 2016 polls and grant that party a majority of the seats? And you don't buy the hot-tub thing?

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State of the Union: Live Video Coverage and Commentary

Tue Jan. 25, 2011 8:00 PM EST

President Barack Obama delivered his 2011 State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress tonight on Capitol Hill. Mother Jones has full coverage, with reporters Suzy Khimm and Kate Sheppard in the room and others weighing in from around DC. Follow the action right here, and watch this space throughout the night for updates and reactions. Here's the CSPAN live feed:

 

Here's what MoJo's reporters are saying:

Book Blogging: The States of Our Union Are Misspelled

| Tue Jan. 25, 2011 7:54 PM EST

Photo: Wikimedia CommonsPhoto: Wikimedia CommonsI recently picked up a copy of George R. Stewart's Names on the Land. It's a fascinating account of the naming of America: How we got places like Mugfuzzle Flats, Coeur d'Alene, and Fort Worth, and (to put it in unsufferable press release-ese) what that says about us.

Among other things, we learn that the Senate debate over the naming of West Virgina briefly devolved into a discussion of whether Queen Elizabeth was, in fact, a virgin. And that before Congress settled on "Nevada" (over the superior and geographically relevant "Washoe"), there was a proposal to name it "Bullion," after its only notable export.

The big revelation, though, is that despite all appearances to the contrary, "Oregon" is actually a misspelling of "Wisconsin." Or rather, it's a corruption of the original French corruption of the original Native American word. A somewhat erroneous 17th-century French explorer suggested that the Wisconsin River might lead all the way to the Pacific Ocean, so when the Americans finally got around to the Pacific Northwest, it seemed like a logical name. Here's the process, according to Stewart:

Wisconsin <— Ouisconsink —> Ouariconsint —> Ouaricon-sint —> Ouaricon —> Ourigan —> Ouragon —> Oregon

Simple enough, I guess. Anyways, this officially makes Oregon redundant. Perhaps Obama can address this in his State of the Union?*

*Update: No.

The Myth of Slow Growth Revisited

| Tue Jan. 25, 2011 7:26 PM EST

Was economic growth in the period 1950-80 really significantly higher than it has been in the period since then? Yesterday I said that growth rates in those two periods were actually about the same, and today Stuart Staniford and Ryan Avent say I'm wrong. They both have a point, so let's revisit this.

Stuart points out that a 100-year logarithmic chart hides small differences. Ryan points to decadal averages for real GDP. So here's a new chart that addresses both of these concerns (GDP and population data from FRED.):

First off, I'm using GDP per capita, not raw GDP, since that's a better measure of actual economic growth. Stuart suggests that GDP per working-age person might be a better measure, and I'm open to that depending on what it is we want to measure. Still, GDP per capita is the usual measure, so that's what I used.

The most obvious conclusion that pops out from the data is that growth has been fairly steady for the past sixty years with the exception of a nice growth spurt in the mid-60s. You can see that in the average growth rates per decade:

  • 1950s: 1.67%
  • 1960s: 3.42%
  • 1970s: 2.49%
  • 1980s: 2.43%
  • 1990s: 2.02%
  • 2000s: 1.27% (through 2007)

For the 30-year period 1950-79, growth averaged 3.18%. For the 28-year period 1980-2007, growth averaged 2.53%.

There are a couple of conclusions here. (1) The 60s were great, the 2000s were lousy. (2) Overall growth in the most recent three decades was indeed lower than in the three decades of the postwar era. (3) But not by a lot.

So I overstated things yesterday, but I'd still say it's the economy of the aughts that's a problem, not the entire post-70s era. The fact is that the post-70s economy as a whole simply wasn't a lot worse than the post-40s economy. The problem during this era wasn't primarily that growth was lackluster, it's that middle class wages consistently lagged growth by upwards of a percentage point per year.

So to revisit yesterday's point: yes, growth is important. You can't have 2% wage growth if the economy is growing 1.27% per year. But it's not enough. We had good growth for three decades after the end of the 60s and it didn't produce steady middle-class income gains. Distribution is important too. 

A Flood of Unusual Accuracy

| Tue Jan. 25, 2011 5:27 PM EST

Credit: Malene Thyssen, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.Credit: Malene Thyssen, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

An interesting analysis in Environmental Research Letters of the accuracy of media reporting of climate-related sea level rise. The premise: That the mass media associates sea level rise with climate change and reports on it frequently, yet the scientific community remains dubious of the media's accuracy.

So how good or bad is the situation really? The authors examined the accuracy of reporting between 1989 and 2009 by seven prominent US and UK newspapers:

  • New York Times
  • Washington Post
  • Los Angeles Times
  • Financial Times
  • The Times (London)
  • The Guardian
  • The Telegraph
 Credit: NASA.Credit: NASA.
 
Their findings—a surprise to me and I suspect to the authors too—that journalists have done an excellent job portraying scientific research on sea level rise projections to 2100.
 
So why the unease? 
 
Well it turns out that while coverage of the issue of sea level rise has risen in the past 20 years, it's done so in fits and starts pegged to major news cycles—the release of an IPCC report, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the 2009 COP-15.
 
 

Credit: Environmental Research Letters DOI:10.1088/1748-9326/6/1/014004)Credit: Environmental Research Letters DOI:10.1088/1748-9326/6/1/014004

There's been little to no coverage of direct research, the completion of specific projections, or the publication of incremental but important papers. For those milestones, the mass media is largely silent. Obviously this speaks to the different tool sets of media and science—media being the microphone, science the microscope. If we can ever get them working together, we'll get real traction against the flood.

 

Credit: Wikinedia Commons.Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The authors conclude:

Mass media presentations of climate change remain key influences that bound discourses and shape the spectrum of possibility for climate mitigation and adaptation actions. Amid much recent criticism of climate science and the media on the high-stakes, high profile and highly politicized issue, accurate reporting on projections for sea level rise by 2100 demonstrates a bright spot at the interface of climate science and mass media. These findings can contribute to more measured considerations of climate impacts and policy action in the public sphere.
  
The paper:

 Crossposted from Deep Blue Home.