2011 - %3, January

I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change

| Thu Jan. 6, 2011 5:16 PM EST

The conservative fetish with the Constitution came to a new apex on Thursday, when lawmakers read the document aloud on the House floor—not quite in its entirety—at the behest of the new Republican majority. But even as they lavished praise on the venerated document, some Republicans were quick to ennumerate the ways they'd love to change it—as well as radically reinterpret its provisions.

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Jerry Brown vs. the Parent Trigger Law?

| Thu Jan. 6, 2011 3:26 PM EST

Editors' Note: This education dispatch is part of a new ongoing series reported from Mission High School, where education writer Kristina Rizga is known to students as "Miss K." Click here to see all of Mojo's recent education coverage, or follow The Miss K Files on Twitter or with this RSS Feed.

After a week of depressing announcements about looming budget woes, the California Teachers Association is celebrating some good news for a change. On Wednesday, The Sacramento Bee reported that governor Jerry Brown plans to spare K-12 education and community colleges from another massive round of cuts—if, and this is a big if—California voters can accept higher taxes on their purchases, cars, and income. Brown plans to hold a related special election this spring.

Today, Brown's office released the names of the seven members who'll sit on California's State Board of Education, the state body that sets education policies for the state. Gone is a member who supported the "parent trigger" law, a controversial education reform that union members staunchly opposed. Anti-charter advocate and education professor Diane Ravitch views the new board as a victory, tweeting that control has shifted from big-business/foundations to teachers and teacher unions.

Speaking of charter schools, Brown opened two himself when he was mayor of Oakland and has since signaled to pro-charter advocates, including US education secretary Arne Duncan, that he now believes charter schools are driven by faith in overly simplistic solutions with a "pervasive technocratic bias and an uncritical faith in the power [of] social science."

Two Christmases

| Thu Jan. 6, 2011 3:19 PM EST

Welcome to the recovery:

Retailers did not get all that they wanted for Christmas, with December sales coming in lower than expected. But the holiday season altogether was still the strongest since 2006, and several categories including luxury continued their growth.

....“A lot of companies and sectors out there did well, better than analysts expected,” particularly the more exclusive retailers, said Chris Donnelly, a senior executive in the retail practice at Accenture, the consulting firm.

....Luxury items continued to rise, even more so than analysts had expected, with the two higher-end stores reporting results — Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue — beating estimates by the biggest amounts. At Saks, sales at stores open at least a year, a measure called same-store sales, rose 11.8 percent, beating estimates of 3.9 percent. And Nordstrom’s rose 8.4 percent, versus estimates of 3.4 percent.

Italics mine. Holiday sales overall weren't bad, which is a promising sign. But maybe not so promising for ordinary working schlubs.

Can the Military Tolerate Dissent?

| Thu Jan. 6, 2011 2:58 PM EST

Over at The Atlantic, Tim Kane wrote a fascinating story about brain drain from the military ranks. It's a far-ranging piece, but he touches on a critical issue facing our nation, security-wise and culture-wise:

Why are so many of the most talented officers now abandoning military life for the private sector? An exclusive survey of West Point graduates shows that it's not just money. Increasingly, the military is creating a command structure that rewards conformism and ignores merit. As a result, it's losing its vaunted ability to cultivate entrepreneurs in uniform.

Why is this important? Because it totally pisses off conservative rah-rah types by attacking their carefully assembled myths about America and its armed forces. One of the leading right-wing milblogs, Blackfive, neatly captures those myths:

I was unaware that cultivating entrepreneurs in uniform was an ability we would even want to vaunt...The military is a top-down hierarchy that will stifle creativity and free thinking by design...You cannot have a cohesive military command structure if everyone is following their own idea of what a standard operating procedure should be. Will this chafe the cones of some highly talented people who if left to their own devices would do some awesome things? Of course it does, tough shite. At some point the highly talented maverick becomes a drag on the over all effectiveness.

How Progressive is Gene Sperling?

| Thu Jan. 6, 2011 2:08 PM EST

Is Gene Sperling a good candidate to replace Larry Summers as Obama's head of the NEC? David Corn writes a long defense of Sperling today, playing up his progressive credentials. But what about all that Goldman Sachs dough he lined his pockets with after he left the Clinton administration?

According to a source familiar with the episode, Goldman Sachs approached Sperling for advice on globalization. He took this opportunity to pitch the company an idea in sync with his nonprofit work: the firm ought to invest in social capital in poorer nations. He suggested it focus on business education in developing countries. Goldman Sachs asked for a proposal. He worked one up: devoting $100 million for business training for 10,000 women in these nations. Goldman Sachs, via a foundation it operates, went for the idea and eventually asked Sperling to implement it. On the advice of friends, he requested that he be paid what the investment firm might pay a top lawyer or dealmaker: $70,000 a month. And that's what he earned for a year or so. He did no commercial work for the investment bank.

....Dean Baker, of the liberal Center for Economic and Policy Research, chimes in: "I don't think it's a question of outright corruption. It's a question of orientation. Most people hear you got almost a million dollars for a part-time job, and they think there's a problem there. But people on Wall Street say, a million bucks is chicken feed."

The whole piece is worth reading, but the passage above is really the takeaway. In the world of Wall Street banking, getting paid a million dollars in a year simply isn't anything to fuss about. As Baker says, it's chicken feed. And if that kind of money is available, what kind of person would turn it down, especially if it's being offered for doing such obviously worthy work? Would you?

I don't know anything about Sperling myself aside from his basic biography. My guess, though, is that I doubt we're likely to get anyone to replace Summers with less connection to Wall Street than Sperling. The worlds of Wall Street and the West Wing are so intertwined these days that pretty much everyone with any serious experience at all with economic policymaking is hopelessly marinated in high finance. Given the immense pools of money at stake, the finance industry is simply the highest bidder by far for their services. Like it or not, I don't think the revolving door will ever come close to shutting down until Wall Street becomes a lot less profitable than it is now. Which, needless to say, it shows absolutely no signs of doing.

Quote of the Day: Bufferbloat

| Thu Jan. 6, 2011 1:39 PM EST

From Robert X. Cringely, on the evolution of the internet:

In terms of latency, the Internet was faster 20 years ago than it is today — in many cases vastly faster. And it is getting slower every day. Unchecked, bufferbloat will eventually make the Internet unusable for some data-intensive activities.

Shazbot! I didn't know that. Or, rather, I kind of suspected it but figured it was just because my cable company sucks or something. But apparently not. Read the whole thing to learn what bufferbloat is and why OS X and Windows 7 are making it worse.

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Batman Submits to Sharia, Gotham Freaks Out

| Thu Jan. 6, 2011 1:20 PM EST

Image courtesy of DC ComicsImage courtesy of DC ComicsHelp us, Phoenix Jones! You're our only hope.

One day after conservative icon Grover Norquist was outed as a Jihadi stooge (the beard was a tipoff), AFP reports that the anti-sharia blogosphere is up in arms over the latest, greatest threat to Western Civilization: Bruce Wayne. Wait, what?

Per AFP:

In the December issues of DC Comics Detective Comics Annual and Batman Annual, the caped crusader has set up Batman Incorporated and wants to install a superhero in cities around the world to fight crime.*

The hero he picks in France is called Nightrunner, the alter ego of a 22-year-old from Clichy-sous-Bois, a tough Paris suburb where urban unrest sparked riots in immigrant districts across France in 2005.

Nightrunner, known to his family and tax collector as "Bilal Asselah," is an expert in parkour, which is awesome. He's also a Muslim who hails from Algeria, which seems to be what conservatives are really upset about. Big Hollywood's Warner Todd Huston, for instance, called the comic, "PCism at its worst." He added: "France is a proud nation. Yet DC Comics has made a foreigner the 'French savior.' This will not sit well with many Frenchmen, for sure."

For sure. Frenchmen (and Frenchwomen) would never embrace a Algerian Muslim as a national savior. But there's more:

US comic book creator Bosch Fawstin, who wrote on his blog that "DC Comics has submitted to Islam," is coming up with his own antidote.

"If you're as sick and tired of this IslamiCrap as I am, be on the lookout for my upcoming graphic novel, The Infidel, which features Pigman, an ex-Muslim superhero who is the jihadist's worst nightmare," he blogged.

Pigmen aside, I'd just add that Nightrunner's debut is actually the second Muslim superhero controversy in the last year: Last fall, the New York Post slammed President Obama for praising a cartoon featuring 99 Muslim  superheroes who each embody a virtue of Allah**. Looks like Captain Planet is finally off the hook.

Gene Sperling and the Revolving Door

| Thu Jan. 6, 2011 1:15 PM EST

Earlier today, I posted a piece that looked at the criticism that Gene Sperling, who seems likely to be named Lawrence Summers' replacement at the White House, is a Wall Street insider. My verdict: he ain't. I reported on how he came to make a boatload of money working on a $100 million charitable project for Goldman Sachs' foundation. In that piece, I noted that Reuters blogger Felix Salmon was one of Sperling's critics, and he's quasi-responded in a post assailing "the revolving door" between Washington and Wall Steet. He writes:

It's fascinating to see how Corn reports on the institutionalization of the revolving door between Wall Street and Washington, to the point where taking $887,727 from Goldman Sachs is positively self-abnegatory.

Given our age difference, I'd wager I have spent far more years decrying this revolving door than Salmon. My point was not to discount the problem of the revolving door; it was to show that Sperling was not a good example of it. Yes, he was paid much by the Goldman Sachs foundation to implement a project to provide business education to 10,000 women in developing nations. But as my story made clear, Sperling had consciously chosen not to spin through the revolving door after leaving the Clinton administration. But it should come as no surprise to Salmon that Sperling was routinely told by the poobahs in his world that he ought to trade on his government service and do Wall Street's bidding to earn millions annually. That's what many do. He didn't take the advice, and, instead, spent years engaged in nonprofit work to advance the cause of universal education in developing nations. For a much better case study of the revolving door, check out the new White House chief of staff, William Daley, most recently of JPMorgan Chase.

Salmon notes, "If the revolving door is really as institutionalized as Corn says that it is, that’s a very serious problem." Agreed. And it's been that way for decades. Sperling's tale, though, shows that a fellow can leave the White House and avoid racing through that oh-so-tempting portal to cash in.

The Future of WikiLeaks

| Thu Jan. 6, 2011 12:38 PM EST

Sarah Ellison has a fascinating piece in Vanity Fair this month about the collaboration between WikiLeaks and the Guardian that resulted in the publication of all those diplomatic cables. After reading it, Henry Farrell draws two conclusions:

First — that Wikileaks-type organizations need strong connections with more traditional media if they are to succeed....Wikileaks is like the blogosphere before it became partially integrated with traditional media. There was a lot of interesting — and newsworthy — material that used to float about on blogs, but unless it was picked up by traditional media, it had little or no political impact.

....Second — that Wikileaks type operations need some kind of organizational infrastructure to work properly. The article discusses at several points Wikileaks’ perpetual need for money, and difficulty in doing what it wanted to do with its material because of lack of money and organizational resources. Taken together, these suggest that Wikileaks-type phenomena are nowhere near as invulnerable to concerted state action as some of the more glib commentators have suggested.

I don't know if this is already common knowledge and I just haven't been following the story closely enough, but it turns out that Julian Assange kept very tight control over what could be released and what couldn't. But shortly before publication started, the Guardian got hold of a second copy of the database of diplomatic cables ("package three") from, ironically, a leaker within WikiLeaks:

In October, while The Guardian was preparing to publish the Iraq War Logs and working on package three, Heather Brooke, a British freelance journalist who had written a book on freedom of information, had a copy of the package-three database leaked to her by a former WikiLeaks volunteer. [Guardian investigations editor David] Leigh shrewdly invited Brooke to join the Guardian team. He did not want her taking the story to another paper. Furthermore, by securing the same database from a source other than Assange, The Guardian might then be free of its promise to wait for Assange’s green light to publish. Leigh got the documents from Brooke, and the paper distributed them to Der Spiegel and The New York Times. The three news organizations were poised to publish the material on November 8.

Assange didn't take this well and threatened to sue. Eventually, an agreement was reached to begin releasing the material on November 29.

In any case, the entire piece is worth a read, as are Henry's observations. My own guess is that he's overestimating the difficulty of running a WikiLeaks-style organization: after the success of the current document release, I suspect that other organizations with access to big databases of leaked material will have little trouble finding media partners to help them publicize it. In time, it might even become a pretty standard way of doing business. And while funding will remain an issue, I imagine that organizations dedicated to leaking will, over time, develop both an infrastructure and a way of doing business that works pretty well. WikiLeaks may be in trouble right now, but others will learn from their mistakes.

The Hole in State Budgets

| Thu Jan. 6, 2011 11:40 AM EST

The Census Bureau reports on state finances:

The recession blew a huge hole in the already shaky finances of state governments, causing them to lose nearly one-third of their revenue in 2009, according to a Census Bureau report released Wednesday....Overall, total state government revenue dropped 30.8 percent, to $1.1 trillion, between fiscal 2008 and 2009, according to the report.

Is it any wonder that pension funds look bad when revenue drops 30% in a single year? States have a problem, but contra conservative rhetoric, it's a tax problem, not a spending problem.