2012 - %3, March

We Need Both Plumbers and English Majors

| Thu Mar. 8, 2012 3:16 PM EST

Rick Perlstein writes today that Rick Santorum was right when he said "Not all folks are gifted in the same way. Some people have incredible gifts with their hands ... and want to work out there making things":

Santorum’s claim that Obama wants everyone to go to college to become Marxist deconstructionists was wrong. In fact, it was so wrong that it didn't even survive Fox News, where, presented with evidence that Obama, like him, favored all kinds of educational opportunities, including but not limited to college, Santorum replied, sheepishly, "Maybe I was reading some things" that gave him the wrong impression, and "if it was an error, then I agree with the president."

But wait. Stick to your guns, Rick! The thing is, you exposed a poetic truth: While Obama might not push college education exclusively, like most Democrats he does oversell it, and does shortchange the alternatives. And millions of young Americans pay the price.

...."The administration has done a good job of talking about, and even funding, career training for high-school graduates," says education expert Dana Goldstein of the New America Foundation. "What they will not do very much is talk about or fund career training for teens, even though there is good evidence that if you don't offer career and technical training via the public schools, you may lose people forever." A democracy of the heart that acknowledges there are simply some people who will never step into an academic classroom post-high school, and that this is alright, seems a bridge-to-the-twentieth-century too far for our schooling-mad politicians these days.

None of this is an accident, of course. American high schools used to be big suppliers of vocational education. But in the 70s and 80s, the practice of "tracking" — placing the smart kids in chemistry classes and the not-so-smart kids in shop classes — came under withering assault. There was pretty good reason for it, too, since tracking really did have some pernicious effects. Tom Loveless glosses the arguments of the critics here, including those in Jeanne Oakes’s influential 1985 book, Keeping Track:

They pointed out that poor, non-English speaking, and minority youngsters were disproportionately assigned to low tracks and wealthier, white students to high tracks—and concluded that this was not a coincidence. Oakes's book helped ignite a firestorm of anti-tracking activity. Tracking was blamed for unfairly categorizing students, stigmatizing struggling learners, and consigning them to a fate over which neither they nor their parents had control. The indictment spread from scholarly journals to the popular press. A 1988 article in Better Homes and Gardens asked, "Is Your Child Being Tracked for Failure?" In 1989, Psychology Today ran "Tracked to Fail" and U.S News and World Report published "The Label That Sticks." Although the anti-tracking movement’s left-leaning political base conflicted with that of the movement for rigorous academic standards, parental choice, and other grassroots proposals that gained popularity in the late 1980s, it managed to hitch its wagon to growing public demand for excellence in the public schools.

The detracking movement did a lot to undermine vocational education, and people like Bill Gates and others have since been influential boosters of the idea that everyone should go to college. But I'm with Dana and the Ricks: not everyone either can or wants to go to college. We never needed to destroy the village in order to save it, and there are ways of addressing the ills of tracking without losing its benefits at the same time. American high schools ought to be as good at turning out plumbers as they are at turning out future English majors.

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Being in Congress Sucks These Days

| Thu Mar. 8, 2012 2:19 PM EST

From Politico:

For members of Congress, the thrill is gone.

They don’t make national policy anymore. They can’t earmark money for communities back home. The public hates them. And perks little and big, from private jet travel to a little free nosh now and then, have been locked down by ethics rules.

I wouldn't have expected this, but I actually do feel a little sorry for them. Just a little, mind you, but still. I'll bet it does kind of suck these days for a lot of people. If you're a true believer, then you love being in the fight regardless of anything else. But if you're someone who actually wants to get things done, there's not much left. Just an endless grind of fundraising and nothing much to make it all worthwhile.

This is also why, within reason, I actually support earmarks. Members of Congress should be important people in their districts. They should be able to get things done for their constituents. They should have some say — based on their ideology and their local knowledge — over what kinds of projects get built and which ones don't. That's what they were elected for. If their constituents don't like the way they handle this, they can vote 'em out.

Earmarks should be transparent, and they should be limited. But they shouldn't have been banned. They're part of the job, and they're part of the culture of dealmaking that helps get things done. There's really nothing wrong with them in limited quantities.

HSR Opponents Working Hard to Turn Me Into a Supporter

| Thu Mar. 8, 2012 1:07 PM EST

Regular readers know that I'm not a fan of the proposed LA-San Francisco high-speed rail project, and as the projected costs have ballooned I've become even less of a fan. But lord almighty, stuff like this could change my mind:

The fast trains connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco would create new communities of high-density apartments and small homes around stations, reducing the suburbanization of California, rail advocates say. That new lifestyle would mean fewer cars and less gasoline consumption, lowering California's contribution to global warming.

....Opponents, most of whom are political conservatives, regard the ambitious project as a classic government overreach that will require taxpayer subsidies. But they also see something more sinister: an agenda to push people into European or Asian models of dense cities, tight apartments and reliance on state-provided transportation.

...."It is a real movement in California of controlling the masses, controlling land use, deciding where people should live," said Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare). "I oppose that absolutely, because it is a form of left-wing social engineering."

...."It has nothing to do with transportation. This is entirely social policy," said Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Granite Bay). "It is all about the far left's fever dream to get mother Earth back to a pristine condition by elbowing us into these dense urban cores."

So who spilled the beans, anyway? Now the whole world knows that we lefties are drooling over the prospect of taking away everyone's homes and engineering a forced march into modern-day high-rise concentration camps where the cable companies don't offer Fox News. All the better to control you with, my sweeties.

Yeesh. But that's the mindset we're up against. Not we're giving people more lifestyle choices but your lifestyle choice is inherently insulting to the one I prefer. And sweet reason will do little to change this. As Matt Yglesias, one of our most vocal proponents of denser lifestyles, says, "A lot of the time there's genuinely no substitute for changing people's minds."

Looking Ahead to 2016

| Thu Mar. 8, 2012 11:43 AM EST

Can this possibly be for real?

A true-sounding aside from Alex Pareene: "Rick Santorum is the 2016 GOP nomination frontrunner." It's true because the runner-up of the last Republican primary always starts off with an advantage. McCain 2008. Dole 1996. Bush 1988. Reagan 1976. Romney looked like the candidate most likely to break the trend, but no longer.

Maybe! This is why I sort-of-but-not-really-but-then-again-maybe-seriously want Rick Santorum to win the nomination this year. The only hope for the future of the Republican Party is to finally nominate the conservative of their dreams and then go down to an epic, ego-shattering defeat. It would, perhaps, pound some sense into them and finally give the party's moderates the backbone they need to wrest control away from the Limbaugh/Fox/Dobson/Norquist brigade. But if they nominate Romney and lose? Then, once again, it will be because they denied the one true faith. And that could, I suppose, make Santorum the frontrunner for 2016. Buckle up.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for March 8, 2012

Thu Mar. 8, 2012 11:21 AM EST

Senior Airman Daniel Stehley, of the 20th Equipment Maintenance Squadron munitions flight, spray paints build codes on inert guided bomb units after helping assemble each weapon at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., February 27, 2012. The weapons were assembled in preparation for an upcoming Operational Readiness Exercise. (US Air Force photo/Senior Airman Kenny Holston)

Targeted Ads Are the Least of Our Online Worries

| Thu Mar. 8, 2012 11:19 AM EST

Katherine Mangu-Ward thinks people are freaking out way too much over Google's plan to aggregate personal information about its users across all its platforms:

As it happens, we know how much people value their privacy: They'll sell information about every prescription they fill at CVS — or every pint of Haagen Dazs at Safeway — in exchange for a steady infusion of $1 coupons. They'll hand off information about the timing of their daily commute in exchange for a couple of minutes saved at a toll booth every day. They'll let Amazon track their diaper and book purchases because they would rather not re-enter their credit card number every time they want to buy something.

This is totally true. I happen to think that most people don't take this seriously enough, but who cares what I think? If you're willing to sell information about your buying habits to the highest bidder, there's no reason I should be able to stop you. She's also right about this:

But if you're more skeeved than pleased, consider letting your brain overpower your gut here. This is a fact you cannot change: All the free stuff on the Internet is possible because you slap your eyeballs on some ads from time to time. If Google and other retailers can't scrape and sort your data to offer a few well targeted ads, there are two other viable choices: 1) Less of the free stuff you like. Like this blog. It might stop being free. For instance. 2) More ads in the throw-spaghetti-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks school. Think: those annoying dancing silhouette gals selling cheap mortgages.

In fact, because of the fundamental failure of the online advertising model, more and more of the web is inaccessible all the time. Archives are unavailable, news sites are behind paywalls, etc. That's a pain in the ass for someone like me.

So, yeah, maybe some targeted ads are a small price to pay for all this stuff being collected. And if targeted ads were the only thing to be worried about, I wouldn't be worried. But I don't think you need to have a very active imagination to figure out that both the public and private sectors can eventually do a whole lot more with this stuff than learn what brand of ice cream you like. Just as they can use it to offer you services, they can also use it to deny you services. They can use it to discriminate in subtle ways that are putatively based on data mining, not race/sex/ethnicity. They can use it to make decisions about who should and shouldn't be allowed to fly on airplanes. They can sell it to marketers somewhat less scrupulous than Procter & Gamble. They can subpoena it in divorce cases. They can make it a part of massive NSA-run surveillance programs.

It's not the targeted ads I mind. It's everything that comes after targeted ads that I mind. I'd suggest that the rest of us ought to mind it a little more too.

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Insane Sex Laws Inspired by Republicans

| Thu Mar. 8, 2012 7:00 AM EST

As Republican lawmakers have pushed ever more intrusive and expansive uterus-related legislation, some of their colleagues across the aisle have fired back with intentionally and equally ridiculous counterproposals. From mandatory rectal exams for guys seeking Viagra to prohibitions on sperm-stifling vasectomies, most of these male-only provisions have, unsurprisingly, flopped. But they've scored big as symbolic gestures, spotlighting the inherent sexism of laws that regulate only lady parts.

Some of the tongue-in-cheek ideas introduced across the country:

Delaware: By an 8 to 4 vote, the Wilmington, Delaware, city council recognized the personhood of semen because "each 'egg person' and each 'sperm person' should be deemed equal in the eyes of the government."

Virginia: As the state Senate debated requiring transvaginal ultrasounds for women seeking abortions, Sen. Janet Howell proposed mandating rectal exams and cardiac stress tests for men seeking erectile dysfunction meds. Her amendment failed by just two votes.

Georgia: Responding to a Georgia house bill banning abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, Rep. Yasmin Neal wrote a bill outlawing most vasectomies because they leave "thousands of children…deprived of birth."

Ohio: A bill introduced by state Sen. Nina Turner would compel men to get psychological screenings before getting prescriptions for impotence meds. "We must advocate for the traditional family," Turner said, "and ensure that all men using PDE-5 inhibitors are healthy, stable, and educated about their options—including celibacy as a viable life choice."

Illinois: State Rep. Kelly Cassidy proposed requiring men seeking Viagra to watch a video showing the treatment for persistent erections, an occasional side effect of the little blue pill. As she explained, "It's not a pretty procedure to watch."

Missouri: Protesting the legislature's vote to reject Obama's contraception coverage mandate, nine female lawmakers cosponsored a bill restricting access to vasectomies except for men risking death or serious bodily harm. "In determining whether a vasectomy is necessary," the bill reads, "no regard shall be made to the desire of a man to father children, his economic situation, his age, the number of children he is currently responsible for, or any danger to his wife or partner in the event a child is conceived."

Oklahoma: When a zygote-personhood bill came before the state Senate, Sen. Constance Johnson penned an amendment declaring that ejaculating anywhere outside a woman's vagina constitutes "an action against an unborn child." Bonus: Johnson also suggested that any man who impregnates a woman without her permission should pay a $25,000 fine, support the child until age 21, and get a vasectomy, "in the spirit of shared responsibility." In response to the same bill, state Sen. Jim Wilson proposed an amendment requiring the father of an unborn child to be financially responsible for its mother's health care, housing, transportation, and nourishment during pregnancy.

Texas: Contesting a bill mandating sonograms before abortions, Rep. Harold Dutton unsuccessfully offered three amendments in a row. The first would have required the state to pay the college tuition of children born to women who decide against an abortion after seeing a required ultrasound image. The second would have subsidized the children's health care costs until age 18. When that failed, he lowered the age to 6. That didn't fly, either.

Book Review: House of Stone

| Thu Mar. 8, 2012 7:00 AM EST

House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East

By Anthony Shadid

HOUGHTON MIFFLIN HARCOURT

In his New York Times dispatches from across the Middle East, Anthony Shadid—a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner—cuts a swashbuckling figure. In the last year alone, he braved tear gas and live fire in Egypt, was kidnapped by Qaddafi's thugs in Libya, and secretly traversed Syria's killing fields by motorcycle. House of Stone casts the correspondent in a softer light, recalling his 2007 return to his ancestral village in southern Lebanon to rebuild his great-grandfather's abandoned home—and perhaps piece together his own wayward life in the process. At once outsider and native son, Shadid elegantly reflects on the violent splintering of the once-vibrant Levant and its uphill struggle to reclaim its dwindling notions of regional identity.

Editor's Note: Anthony Shadid died of an asthma attack in February while reporting for the New York Times inside Syria. Shortly before his death, he spoke with Mother Jones about House of Stone, Syria's future, and the high cost of getting the story in a war zone. You can read Shadid's interview with Mother Jones here.

Pot Legalization Foe Getting Rich off the Drug War

| Thu Mar. 8, 2012 4:01 AM EST

The lobbyist who helped kill California's Proposition 19, the 2010 ballot measure that would have legalized recreational marijuana, has constructed an entire business model around keeping pot illegal. While fighting against the proposed law, lobbyist John Lovell accepted nearly $400,000 from a wide array of police unions, some of which he also represented in attempting to steer millions of federal dollars toward California's marijuana suppression programs.

The revelation, reported yesterday by the Republic Report's Lee Fang, illustrates how Prop. 19 threatened the paychecks of some of its biggest foes. Police departments stood to lose lucrative federal grants like a $550,000 payment in 2010 to police departments in three Northern California counties that covered 666 hours of police overtime spent eradicating marijuana. And Lovell would have presumably lost a job as a guy who helped land those kinds of grants. Here's a copy of a notice sent to a police department in Lassen County, California:

Police unions and their lobbyists weren't the only economic interests with a stake in Prop. 19. The alcohol industry and prison guards also contributed money to fight the measure. And on the other side, the passage of Prop. 19 would have given thousands of "hempreneurs" behind the state's $1.3 billion medical marijuana industry a stimulus stronger than a vaporized bowl of Hindu Kush. The likely side effects—a decline in budget-busting law-enforcement costs and millions of dollars in tax revenue for the state of California—don't seem all that bad compared to what we got stuck with: A war on drugs that makes people like John Lovell even richer.

Also read: Tony D'Souza's "The New Dealers," a tale of recession-strapped Americans who turned to dope dealing to make ends meet.

Bachmann: Obama Could Mandate One-Child Policy

| Thu Mar. 8, 2012 1:32 AM EST

Before you read this, I want to remind you that only a few months ago Michele Bachmann was considered a serious contender for the Republican nomination for president. Hard to believe, I know, but it's true. With that thought firmly in mind, here is Bachmann last night:

Kathleen Sebelius, the Health and Human Services secretary, she said that it's important that we have contraceptives because that prevents pregnancy, and pregnancy is more expensive to the federal government. Going with that logic, according to our own Health and Human Services secretary, it isn't farfetched to think that the president of the United States could say, we need to save healthcare expenses, the federal government will only pay for one baby to be born in the hospital per family, or two babies to be born per family. That could happen. You think it couldn't?

This was in an interview over at The Blaze, Glenn Beck's website, and even the Blaze folks were sort of aghast that Bachmann could suggest something like this. But it's comforting in a way. This is old school Bachmann.

But as long as we're on the subject, here's a wee bit of factmongering for you. Did you know that lots of women have no health insurance, and the only reason they have any maternity coverage at all is because of federal programs like Medicaid and CHIP? It's true! It turns out that about 40% of all births in the United States are paid for by these programs.

And even women who are insured don't always have maternity coverage. Lots of them do, thanks to the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) of 1978, which conservatives and the business community hated at the time. But there are still gaps: small businesses are exempt, and most individual insurance plans don't cover maternity expenses. Obamacare will take care of that shortly, but of course, conservatives and the business community consider that an act of unprecedented tyranny.

Your garden variety hospital delivery — not counting prenatal and postnatal care — will set you back about ten grand or so these days. Most people would have a hard time affording that, but thanks to Medicaid, CHIP, the PDA, and Obamacare, most women are either covered or soon will be. In other words, the only reason most women can afford modern childbirth in modern hospitals at all is because of various federal laws that either mandate it in the private sector or pay for it out of public funds. If it weren't for that, most families couldn't even have one baby born in the hospital, let alone two. That's some pretty pro-family policy from us liberals, no?

(Via an equally dumbfounded Ed Kilgore.)