2011 - %3, February

Teaching Art

| Sat Feb. 19, 2011 11:58 AM EST

Michael O'Hare weighs in today on the value of public funding for the arts, and although I think we're still talking past each other to some extent, he concludes with a passage that I thoroughly endorse:

Probably the most costly program of government support for the arts, and in my view the most important and the one whose ongoing collapse is the most pernicious, is arts education in the schools. Parental introduction to the arts is the largest correlate of lifetime consumption, but government obviously isn’t in that business. Engagement in school is next. Hands-on and historical education in the arts — both are important — is critical to lifetime access to the cultural patrimony of a country or the whole world, and it’s another real market failure, information asymmetry.

People who can enjoy different, challenging experiences that make them smarter instead of dumber and alert instead of bored, have better lives than people who don’t. But the arts require some investment (though they tend to be beneficially addictive if you just step on the escalator) and pay off richly for accumulated experience. “I’m glad I don’t like opera, because if I did, I’d listen to it, and I hate the stuff!” is the suboptimal stable state a society can help its citizens get out of, and school is the place where it can happen.

I don't know how deeply arts education has been slashed in our public schools, but anecdotal evidence suggests it's been slashed pretty deeply on the twin altars of budget cuts and high-stakes testing. This is, I think, a tremendous loss for society, and it's a loss regardless of whether government agencies should overtly subsidize any particular medium or form of art in the adult sphere. If kids don't learn to appreciate art, then art will inevitably decline, and that makes us all poorer. After all, who wants to live in a world without art?

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House Votes to Block EPA Climate Regs

| Fri Feb. 18, 2011 6:28 PM EST
Photo by eutrophication&hypoxia, via Flickr

The House officially voted Friday afternoon to bar the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gas emissions. From the Associated Press:

The 249-177 vote added the regulation ban to a sweeping spending bill that would fund the government through Sept. 30. The restriction is opposed by the Obama administration, which is using its regulatory powers to curb greenhouse gases after global warming legislation collapsed last year. The administration also says the ban would cost thousands of construction jobs.

It has been pretty clear for a while now that this was going to pass. It's probably most interesting for what it says about the bigger strategy of the GOP budget. This particular inclusion isn't about cutting spending in the least; it's ideological, and it's part of the wider anti-environment bent to the government funding bill (which you should know by now is called a "continuing resolution," or "CR" in DC-speak). The CR as written includes a massive cut to the EPA's budget, and as Jaeah Lee reported here on Thursday, Republicans have rolled out a loooong list of environmental programs they'd like to see cut. Their wish list includes defunding the White House Council on Environmental Quality entirely, stopping the EPA from regulating toxic air pollutants, and ending NASA's climate program. The question coming out of this will be how many of these programs Senate Democrats and the administration will go to the mat for when it comes down to preventing a government shut-down.

The House will vote on more amendments to the continuing resolution tonight. It's not yet clear when they'll pass the full CR, however.

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week [3]

| Fri Feb. 18, 2011 6:04 PM EST

Mother Jones guest blogger Mark Armstrong is the founder of Longreads, a site devoted to uncovering the best long-form nonfiction articles available online. And what better time to curl up with a great read than over the weekend? Below, a hand-picked bouquet of five interesting stories, including word count and approximate reading time. (Readers can also subscribe to The Top 5 Longreads of the Week by clicking here.)

1. The Hard Luck and Beautiful Life of Liam Neeson | Tom Chiarella | Esquire | Feb. 15, 2011 | 21 minutes (5,192 words)

Standout celebrity profile. Neeson speaks for the first time about the 2009 death of his wife, Natasha Richardson—while wondering when, if ever, is the right time to open up to a reporter about a personal tragedy. He still has reservations about walking Richardson's dog in public, for fear of the "drama" and sadness that paparazzi photos could create.

"Liam Neeson and I last spoke a week before I wrote this sentence. At that time, I asked him what he remembered about the interview I'd done with him at a restaurant in New York almost three weeks before that. He said, 'I remember you told me that story about your accident, and that was pretty hard for you. I remember that you made me draw that picture of my house, and I remember that we talked about Natasha. I started to worry: Why would I tell him that? Why did I speak about the hospital? And then I thought, No, he's a man. This is not some newspaper story. So I wasn't sorry. Except about your accident. That was bloody awful.'

"Then Liam Neeson asked me what I remembered about the interview. I echoed him: 'You told me about your accident. You told me about your wife's accident. That was hard for you. You were upset. You got very quiet. So I traded stories. I told you something bad that happened to me. I have the picture of your house right here. I remember that your hand was shaking.'

"'You have to be careful,' he told me, 'in how you describe it.' I told him that was my job, to be careful with descriptions."

Eat More Anchovies, Herring and Sardines To Save the Ocean's Fish Stocks

| Fri Feb. 18, 2011 5:42 PM EST

This post first appeared on the Guardian website.

Cut back on tuna and salmon and load your plate instead with herring and sardines if you want to help save the world's fish. So says the scientist who led the most comprehensive analysis ever carried out of fish stocks in the world's oceans and how they have changed over the past century.

The study by Villy Christensen of the University of British Columbia's Fisheries Centre confirmed some previous indications that populations of predator fish at the top of the food chain, such as cod, tuna and groupers, have suffered huge declines, shrinking by around two-thirds in the past 100 years. More than half that decline occurred in the past 40 years.

Christensen found that the total stock of "forage fish", such as sardines, anchovy and capelin, has more than doubled over the past century. These are fish that are normally eaten by the top predators. "You remove the predator, you get more prey fish," said Christensen. "That has not been demonstrated before because people don't measure the number, they don't go out and count them."

826 Valencia's Spelling Bee for Cheaters

| Fri Feb. 18, 2011 3:30 PM EST
Judge Jay Reiss helps Mythbusters' co-host Adam Savage pronounce a word

The atmosphere at San Francisco's Herbst Theater on Thursday night felt more like a high school auditorium than its usual elegant performance space. Hundreds had come to observe the Spelling Bee for Cheaters, a fundraiser for literary nonprofit and tutoring center 826 Valencia, and the air bubbled with the sounds of peppy teams cheering on their spellers. A team of librarians near stage right quietly practiced snarky rhyming chants, and teens dressed in bee costumes flitted around the orchestra seats. As the lights dimmed, the "Black Swan" team near the front row turned on their twinkling electric crowns, stood up, and in unison did a ballerina spin in support of their tutu-clad teammate on stage.

Friday Cat Blogging - 18 February 2011

| Fri Feb. 18, 2011 3:03 PM EST

I'd like to be able to say that Inkblot and Domino are firm supporters of the labor action currently unfolding in Wisconsin, but I'm afraid that would be a bit of a stretch. As you can see, they've already negotiated a pretty good deal for themselves, and collective action isn't really in their nature. So we humans are on our own.

But speaking of cats, I'm pleased to report that 10 Downing Street once again has an official cat. Why? Because, it turns out, 10 Downing Street also has a few official rats. So they brought in Larry. Picture and story here.

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Wisconsin and the Bigger Picture

| Fri Feb. 18, 2011 2:28 PM EST

Speaking of my upcoming piece for the magazine, one of its major themes is the postwar decline of private-sector unions in America, culminating in the annus horribilis of 1978, which one business historian called "Waterloo" for organized labor. (Why? You'll have to read the story to learn more! It'll be online Tuesday and it comes with lots of nifty charts and illustrations, like the one on the right.) Today, Greg Sargent says 2011 could be much the same for public sector unions:

As I laid out here yesterday, this is only one of many national proposals being pushed by state governments across the country designed to achieve similarly transformative changes in that relationship between public workers and government.

Pro-labor and anti-labor people I've spoken with in recent days both agree that a defeat in Wisconsin could make it easier for other similar initiatives to advance. One anti-union activist I spoke to yesterday made it clear that if labor loses here, anti-union forces will point to the defeat to stiffen the spines of other GOP-controlled governments who are eyeing similarly transformative efforts but might be wary of a battle on the scale of the one unfolding in Wisconsin. This is just the beginning.

I won't pretend to be the world's most full-throated defender of public sector unions. If I could trade ten points of union density in the private sector for ten points in the public sector, I'd take the trade in a heartbeat. But that is, obviously, not the trade on offer. Nor is what's happening in Wisconsin merely hard bargaining during tough economic times. That would be understandable. Rather, it's an effort to destroy one of the few institutions left that fights relentlessly for the economic interests of the middle class. That's why conservatives oppose unions of all kinds, both public and private, and regardless of their faults, that's why they deserve our support.

Keeping it Short

| Fri Feb. 18, 2011 1:58 PM EST

Paul Krugman writes today about one of the difficulties of being a columnist:

One of the hardest things about writing the column, as opposed to blogging, is the length constraint. It’s really, really hard to say something meaningful in a limited space. And yet, that constraint has its virtues: it forces you to be concise, to figure out what you really need to say and skip the rest, to find turns of phrase that are shorter and usually plainer. And my experience is that the process of doing all that almost always makes the thing read better.

If I had my way, we’d require students to write 800-word essays, just for writing and reasoning practice. And at the risk of sounding like an old fuddy-duddy, this is something we’ll lose when dead-tree newspapers go the way of vinyl records.

Maybe. But keep in mind that for most high school kids, 800 words is a lot. For someone like Krugman, who has a tremendous store of knowledge, the challenge is picking and choosing what to say, and then figuring out how to say it cogently in a small space. For most students, whose store of knowledge is small, it would be just the opposite: tell them to write 800 words and the challenge would be padding it enough to fill up the space.

When I write for the magazine, I routinely underestimate how much space I need. Back in December, I told my editor that I planned for my piece in the upcoming issue to be about 2,000 words, "not some sort of long, definitive take on things." And it wasn't! But it still ran 4,000 words or so because I couldn't shut myself up. But back when I was in high school, 4,000 words would have been a pretty massive undertaking. With a 2,000 word target I probably would have ended up at 1,500 words, desperately searching around for something extra to toss in to bring it up to snuff.

On the other hand, maybe you could solve this by having kids write about stuff they know a tremendous amount about. If the assignment were to write about "Call of Duty" strategies, maybe boiling things down to 800 words really would be a challenge.

SD Rep. Who Authored Abortion Bill Nixes Sharia Ban

| Fri Feb. 18, 2011 1:38 PM EST

On Tuesday, MoJo's Kate Sheppard broke the news about a controversial new bill in front of the South Dakota legislature that would (in some instances) classify murder in defense of an unborn child "justifiable homicide." After initially defending the language, the bill's sponsor, Rep. Phil Jensen, caved, and legislators scrapped the bill on Wednesday. Now he's backed down from another piece of controversial legislation which, according to legal experts, could have had similarly drastic consequences.

As Adam Serwer noted when the news first broke, Jensen was also the the author of HJR 1004, a proposed constitutional amendment that would ban the use of "international law, the law of any foreign nation or any foreign religious or moral code" in state courts. Sharia, in other words. Jensen couldn't just write that, because so explicitly targeting a religious tradition would, as Oklahomans learned, pretty much make the law DOA in the event of a lawsuit. So Jensen used the vaguest language possible—and it turns out, that can backfire too.

According to Roger Baron, a professor of family law at the University of South Dakota, the ammendment's prohibition on foreign laws would remove the state from a number of agreements concerning child custody and child abduction. Because those agreements hinge on reciprocity, "foreign countries will not enforce our custody decrees," he warned in a letter to policymakers in Pierre, which he provided to Mother Jones. "The result will be that a disappointed custody litigant will have every motivation to improperly take the child to a foreign country and remain beyond the reach of international law."

Manufacturing a Crisis

| Fri Feb. 18, 2011 1:23 PM EST

Regardless of what you think about public sector unions, it's important to understand what's really going on in Wisconsin right now. Were they facing an unsustainable, existential budget crisis when Gov. Scott Walker took office earlier this year? No. Are they facing an unsustainable, existential budget crisis now? No. They're facing a genuine budget problem, but it's one that was made even worse by Walker's own actions:

In English: The governor called a special session of the legislature and signed two business tax breaks and a conservative health-care policy experiment that lowers overall tax revenues (among other things). The new legislation was not offset, and it turned a surplus into a deficit. [See update below.] As Brian Beutler writes, "public workers are being asked to pick up the tab for this agenda."

That's from fellow California native Ezra Klein, and this brings back painful memories. In 2003, pissed off at Gov. Gray Davis over an energy crisis that we later learned had been deliberately manufactured by Enron and wasn't his fault at all, we followed Rep. Darrell Issa down a rabbit hole and recalled Davis. He was, famously, replaced by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who campaigned specifically on a promise to "end the crazy deficit spending." So what did he do once he was in office? He reduced the vehicle license fee, costing the state about $4 billion per year, and then made up for it by passing a $15 billion bond issue. Together, those two things produced a hole in the budget of about $7 billion per year once the bond money had been spent and annual payments started up. That hole accounted for a huge chunk of California's later fiscal crisis, and it was neither inherited from his predecessor nor was it the inevitable result of public policy. It was created.

Walker, like Schwarzenegger, has deliberately aggravated a crisis so he could take advantage of it to attack his political enemies:

That's how you keep a crisis from going to waste: You take a complicated problem that requires the apparent need for bold action and use it to achieve a longtime ideological objective. In this case, permanently weakening public-employee unions, a group much-loathed by Republicans in general and by the Republican legislators who have to battle them in elections in particular.

....If all Walker was doing was reforming public employee benefits, I'd have little problem with it....But that's not what Walker is doing. He's attacking the right to bargain collectively — which is to say, he's attacking the very foundation of labor unions, and of worker power — and using an economic crisis unions didn't cause, and a budget reversal that Walker himself helped create, to justify it.

This is, in a way, not unexpected. Republicans hate public sector unions. The Koch brothers and their allies, who contributed mountains of money to Walker and the Wisconsin GOP, hate public sector unions. Of course Walker and his fellow Republicans would like to dismantle public sector unions. But deliberately exacerbating a budget crisis to help them do it? Even by movement conservative standards that's outlandishly reckless and cynical. And yet, that's what's happening.

UPDATE: Actually, Walker's special session tax cuts didn't affect Wisconsin's budget for the current year. They affect the budget over the next two years. More details here.