As Europe's financial crisis reaches its climax, Ross Douthat mourns the inexorable rise of the technocrats:

For the inhabitants of Italy and Greece, who have just watched democratically elected governments toppled by pressure from financiers, European Union bureaucrats and foreign heads of state, it evokes the cold reality of 21st-century politics. Democracy may be nice in theory, but in a time of crisis it’s the technocrats who really get to call the shots.

Brad DeLong disagrees. The duly elected leaders of Greece and Italy, he says, chose new prime ministers "because they wanted their countries to borrow money--and the people who they wanted to borrow money from were very unwilling to lend it to governments headed by Papandreou and Berlusconi but willing to lend it to governments headed by Papademos and Monti."

Unlike Brad, I don't really have a problem with calling either the EU's panjandrums or Papademos and Monti technocrats, though it's true that in the financial world "technocrat" isn't really a name for someone dedicated to serried columns of facts and figures as much as it's a name for someone with a particular ideological disposition: pro-creditor, pro-austerity, and anti-inflation. Love it or hate it, it's the ideology of Germany, it's the ideology of the ECB, it's the ideology of the IMF, and it's the ideology of the dominant political class in the United States.

But here's something to make Ross feel better: this is hardly the cold reality of only 21st-century politics. The same dynamic that led to the fall of the Greek and Italian governments — pressure from creditors on countries that couldn't pay their mounting debts — is pretty much the same dynamic that led to the fall of the Iron Curtain. It's not anything new, it's not necessarily bad, and it's not even necessarily anti-democratic. Millions of people in Eastern Europe live in more democracy today than they did in 1989 thanks to pressure from creditors on their governments to pay their bills.

I'm not happy with the way financial technocrats are handling Europe's current mess, but whether they're ultimately good or bad for democracy is too early to say. After all, Berlusconi-style corporatists aren't exactly tribunes of the people either once you scratch an inch below their glad-handing surfaces, nor is the toxic combination of civil servants and the rich that's ruled Greece for the past couple of decades. I wouldn't sound the death knell for European democracy quite yet.

Gene Lyons wrote a recent column noting that students have been making steady progress on standardized tests over the past few decades. Bob Somerby wishes people would listen:

Over and over, people are told that test scores are lower. Commenters quickly started bruiting this claim in response to the Lyons piece. In most cases, these commenters didn't seem to have understood the basic things Lyons had said.

They didn't dispute his factual statements. They simply skipped right past them.

Our “career liberal” leaders are worse than useless. Our “educational experts” are anything but. Everyone praises the NAEP test scores—but no one reports what those test scores show!

I'd like to see a bit less panic over our failing schools too. Still, I think the picture is a little less clear than Bob makes it out to be. He points out correctly that looking at raw averages is sometimes misleading: Blacks and Hispanics have always scored lower than whites on standardized tests, and as their population increases that lowers the overall average even if all three groups are actually doing better. To see what's really happening, you have to look at test scores for all three groups separately.

So here they are. The chart below shows test score improvements over the past 20 years on the NAEP reading and math tests, widely considered the "gold standard" of national testing. The source material is here. (Note that for the 1990 starting point I used an average of the 1988/90/92 scores for reading and an average of the 1990/92 scores for math.)

The usual rule of thumb on the NAEP test is that ten points equals one grade level. So what lesson can we draw from this data?

Answer: it's mixed. Nine-year-olds in all three groups have indeed made huge advances in both reading and math, ranging from 10 to 20 points. But things start to slide when you move up to middle school. Improvement among 13-year-olds in math is more modest than among 9-year-olds, though still quite respectable, but reading scores are up only a few points. And when you get to high school things really go to hell. Reading scores for 17-year-olds have gone down and math scores have improved only a bit.

This is all just raw data. You can decide for yourself whether standardized test scores are a good measure of student achievement. You can also decide for yourself which age groups matter the most. My own take is twofold: (1) Our students aren't doing any worse than they did in the past. Panic isn't really justified. (2) Improvements in reading and math scores that wash out by the end of high school aren't that impressive. Until we see substantial improvements among 17-year-olds, I don't think you can say our students are doing much better either.

Are there reasonable arguments against this position? Sure. Maybe the real issue is how we compare internationally. Unfortunately, that data doesn't go back very far and can be tricky to interpret. I've seen significantly different results on different tests. What's more, I'd argue that at an international level, production of advanced degrees is a lot more important than modest differences in primary and secondary education.

It's also true that relying on data for 17-year-olds can be misleading thanks to changes in dropout rates over time. However, the trends for just the top-scoring students are about the same as the overall averages, and that's not affected much by dropout rates. So I suspect this is a minor issue.

I think ed reformers would also argue that most of the reforms of the past 20 years have been focused on the primary grades, so it's not fair to judge those reforms by looking at stagnant 17-year-old scores. We need to see reforms widely adopted in high schools before we can do that. I guess I buy this to an extent, but it's an argument that's getting a little stale. At some point we have to fish or cut bait. Until we see improvements in the final product, so to speak, improvements in the intermediate steps don't really mean very much.

UPDATE: Wait a second! Several commenters pointed out that it's cohort effects that we really want to look at. High school kids in 2008 have spent only a few years in the post-NCLB reform environment, so it's hardly surprising that they don't show big improvements. But how about kids who have spent their entire lives in that environment?

Excellent question. To fully answer it we'll have to wait for the 2015 crop of high school students to be tested, and even to partially answer it we'll have to look at a different dataset. I do that here. Nickel summary: there are some caveats, but the overall picture is more promising than the one I presented here. There are indeed reasons to think that our schools are getting better and our kids are learning more.

Newt Gingrich.

The Thanksgiving Family Forum on Saturday wasn't really a debate per se; it was more of a "Jesus is even better than Ronald Reagan" powwow hosted by noted pollster Frank Luntz.

For instance, Herman Cain said that people of faith "have been too passive" and that "we haven't fought back" enough for the right to "express [our] faith in any setting." He also inserted an applause line that took a swipe at the "political correctness police" who have allegedly kneecaped religious liberty in the country. That basically set the tone for the rest of the Republican candidate get-together (sans Mormons Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney).

Family values paragon Newt Gingrich followed-up with his patented critique of effete, soulless secularism, putting his background as a historian to good use:

"None of the Founding Fathers would have said education without character is useful; they would have said it was in fact dangerous," Gingrich said. He went on to assert that "what we have now [in American society] is an outgrowth of the French Revolution," which the former House Speaker defines as the wholesale "rejection of the larger world in favor of secularism." This is the same anti-faith decadence that pollutes the US court system, Hollywood, public education, and so on, Gingrich insisted.

Gingrich's effort to breathe new life into the so-called culture wars has been ongoing for quite some time now. His professed fear of America devolving into a "secular atheist country" was his go-to rhetoric since the beginning of the Obama era, and the book title To Save America: Stopping Obama's Secular-Socialist Machine doesn't leave much to the imagination regarding where he stands on "values."

It's still worth noting that the latest supposed front-runner in the GOP 2012 field continues to claim that school teachers, activist judges, and George Clooney are all dragging American society right back into the dark ages of the Reign of Terror.

Perhaps all the comparisons to Nazi Germany and Stalin's Russia were finally wearing a tad thin.

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.)

At Saturday's GOP presidential forum in Iowa, newly minted frontrunner Newt Gingrich tore into the Occupy Wall Street movement, pointing to it as a symbol of exactly what's wrong with America. "All the Occupy movement starts with the premise that we all owe them everything," he explained. "That is a pretty good symptom of how much the left has collapsed as a moral system in this country, and why you need to reassert something as simple as saying to them, 'Go get a job, right after you take a bath'":

Take that, hippies! Gingrich's zinger is part of an age-old argument on the right, which feebly insists that unemployment is actually caused by systematic laziness on the part of the unemployed rather than structural problems. Which isn't to say OWS went entirely unrepresented at the Thanksgiving Family Forum in Des Moines. Prior to the debate, GOP moderator Frank Luntz turned the floor over briefly to an OWS protester and gave him two minutes to explain his grievances. The protester turned out to be a fairly run-of-the-mill Ron Paul supporter, and spent his time railing against the Federal Reserve. America!

h/t Right Wing Watch.

This won't come as surprising news to anyone who reads this blog regularly, but if you can't flog a hobbyhorse on a blog, where can you flog it? So here it is: Pew Research is the latest to survey Americans and find that the Republican base really, really doesn't like compromise:

Among those who have heard at least a little about the super committee, there is broad support for compromise: 65% say lawmakers who share their views on the budget deficit should be willing to compromise, even if it results in a deal they disagree with....[But] there continue to be wide partisan differences in views of compromise. Among those who have heard at least a little about the super committee, 74% of Democrats and 67% of independents support compromise, compared with 52% of Republicans.

Once again, then: this explains most of what you need to know about modern American politics. Republican politicians refuse to compromise because that's what their base rewards them for. Conversely, Democratic politicians support compromise because that's what their base rewards them for.

Always keep this in mind when you're tearing your hair out trying to make sense of what's going on in Washington DC. Sometimes politicians aren't quite as mysterious or bumbling as you think. They're just reacting to their incentives, the same as the rest of us.

Nate Silver has compiled a truly spectacular list of every economic variable that might possibly affect a presidential election and then ranked them by how effectively they actually predict presidential elections. (Since 1948, anyway.) The top ten are below, but click the link for the full list of 43 indicators and a bunch of explanations of what it all means.

The descriptors in the list are a little confusing, but as near as I can tell they're almost all changes, not absolute levels. The exceptions are the various indexes (like the #1 indicator), unemployment, inflation, and a few others. But #6, for example, which is labeled "Real gross domestic product," is actually the change in real GDP, which makes sense. It's the growth rate that usually matters in these things.

The top indicators mostly aren't too surprising. I wouldn't have guessed that the ISM manufacturing index was so great, but change in payroll, change in unemployment, and change in GDP all make a lot of sense. This is one reason that I think President Obama has a good chance to win next year despite presiding over a lousy economy. It's quite possible that GDP will be growing and that unemployment, though high, will be improving too. Combine that with the fact that (a) incumbents usually get reelected and (b) Republicans seem to have taken up permanent residence in crazy town, and he has a pretty good shot at winning even if unemployment is still over 8%.

A few months ago, Matt Taibbi suggested that gaffes from conservative candidates didn't hurt them. "When you laugh at Michele Bachmann for going on MSNBC and blurting out that the moon is made of red communist cheese," he wrote, "these people don't learn that she is wrong. What they learn is that you're a dick, that they hate you more than ever, and that they're even more determined now to support anyone who promises not to laugh at their own visions and fantasies."

Dave Weigel says events have emphatically debunked this idea:

That's clearly not true, is it? Bachmann, Cain, and Perry have engendered the exact same reaction to their screw-ups. There's a wave of media-bashing from the base, collect-a-quotes from Tea Party leaders who say the media is unfair. And then the lights go elsewhere, and there's a slow, quiet, walk-away from the damaged candidates. In today's NH Journal poll of the Granite State, all three of the candidates I mentioned are deep, deep underwater on favorability. It's almost like Republican voters still pay attention to the media.

Hold on a minute, pardner. Let's roll the tape on this:

  • Michele Bachmann was riding high in the polls through June and early July. Then, on July 16, the Des Moines Register asked Rick Perry if he was going to run and he replied that he was "getting more and more comfortable every day that this is what I’ve been called to do." Bachmann started plateauing in the polls. On August 8 it was widely reported that Perry would formally announce his candidacy the following weekend, and the next day Bachmann's poll numbers tanked for good.
  • Rick Perry began his meteoric rise at the same time and kept on rising through the first week of September. Then, on September 12, Bachmann laid into him for mandating HPV vaccinations for "innocent little 12-year-old girls." Perry immediately began sliding in the polls. On September 22 he suggested that if you opposed in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants, "I don't think you have a heart." Within a week his poll numbers began to plunge.
  • Herman Cain was the beneficiary of Perry's fall, rising in the polls during the entire month of October. On October 30 Politico reported that two former employees had lodged sexual harassment charges against him and received payouts from the National Restaurant Association. After a week of wildly fluctuating explanations, Sharon Bialek held a televised press conference on November 7 to say that Cain groped her in a car and asked, "You want a job, right?" Within days Cain's poll numbers began falling.

I don't doubt for a second that erratic debate performances and public gaffes have played a role in damaging all three candidates. But that's mainly because conservative voters already had something substantive to hang their concerns on. Bachmann fell because Perry entered the race; Perry fell because conservatives didn't like his Gardasil and immigration policies; and Cain fell because of sexual harassment charges. That's the main thing that damaged them. Acting like idiots was just the cherry on top.

This post courtesy BBC Earth. For more wildlife news, find BBC Earth on Facebook and Posterous.

Our world may be very big, but sometimes it is the smallest stories that teach us the most about this planet. BBC Earth brings you three incredible videos where the innovative use of technology has helped our team capture nature's true magic.

For example: Did you know you can see colonies of grass cutter ants from space? Below, producer Rupert Barrington explains how he managed to get within unprecedented proximity of a nest of up to five million grass cutter ants:

This isn't the only example of innovation in natural history. In the following clip, executive producer Mike Gunton shares fascinating insight into the imagination of the male Vogelkop bowerbird:

Developing technology to capture the minuscule and the marvelous is one thing. But what happens when what you're trying to film is located underneath eight feet of solid ice? Below, producer Neil Lucas talks about the incredibly rewarding but painstaking task of filming in these challenging conditions:

Armed with a passion for the natural world and the desire to communicate its incredible stories, BBC Earth filmmakers will continue to surprise and delight us for years to come.

Here's your blood pressure raiser of the day: Campus police casually pepper spray a group of Occupy Davis students who are sitting on the ground in protest after refusing to remove their tents from the quad. It's not Kent State or anything, but it's sure as hell an outrageous overreaction. Don't watch unless you have a fairly strong stomach for casual brutality.

Front page image: Louise Macabitas

As if to prove Kevin Drum's point that we are fast approaching peak Newt, Fox News reports that the former House speaker is the candidate that Republican voters overwhelmingly trust to have his finger on the nuclear button. Dave Weigel at Slate flags the results:








Maybe they misunderstood the question and thought Fox was asking: "Which Republican presidential candidate would you most expect to survive a nuclear explosion?" We are, after all, talking about a guy whose political career looked like "The Day After" back in 1998.

In any case, the most important aspect of this poll is that it gave me an excuse to play with Photoshop. Happy pre-Thanksgiving weekend, everyone!