2012 - %3, July

Congress is Dysfunctional, Education Edition

| Fri Jul. 6, 2012 12:36 PM EDT

This may seem like a story about education policy, but I think it's actually a story about the breakdown of Congress:

In just five months, the Obama administration has freed schools in more than half the nation from central provisions of the No Child Left Behind education law, raising the question of whether the decade-old federal program has been essentially nullified.

On Friday, the Department of Education plans to announce that it has granted waivers releasing two more states, Washington and Wisconsin, from some of the most onerous conditions of the signature Bush-era legislation. With this latest round, 26 states are now relieved from meeting the lofty — and controversial — goal of making all students proficient in reading and mathematics by 2014.

....House Republicans have repeatedly protested the Obama administration’s use of waivers as an end-run around Congress.

My understanding is this: when NCLB was being debated in 2001, everyone understood that its goals were unattainable. Here in the real world, no matter how brilliant your teachers are and how solid your curriculum is, you'll never get 100% of your kids to pass a standardized test. NCLB set that 100% goal anyway because (a) "No Child" sounded a lot better in the bill's title than "No More Than a Few Children," and (b) everyone assumed that when the law was reauthorized after its first five years, Congress would lower the 100% number to something more reasonable.

But guess what? Reauthorization didn't happen in 2007. Then we had an election year. Then we had a financial crisis. Then Republicans decided to blindly oppose anything that President Obama favored. And the politics of the whole thing were gruesome. Just as no single party wants to be the one to cut Social Security benefits on its own, what party wants to be the one to lower educational standards on its own? If there's bipartisan cover, that's one thing, but if there's not, you're just opening yourself to obvious demagoguery. Which children do you want to leave behind, Senator Smith? Let's hear their names.

These days, of course, there's no such thing as bipartisan cover, and that means there's no real chance of rationalizing NCLB. At the same time, it's not realistic to declare 100% of America's schools as failures, which is what will happen in 2014 without any waivers. So waivers it is. But it's not because Arne Duncan is exercising tyrannical executive powers to nullify a law he doesn't like. It's because Congress is no longer able to do its job.

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After the Storm: The Haves and the Have-Nots

| Fri Jul. 6, 2012 12:13 PM EDT

The wild storm that hit the mid-Atlantic last weekend is still creating hardship for many, as nearly half a million people remain without power and temperatures are still hovering around 100 degrees. There's nothing like a disaster to bring class disparity into stark relief, as an email I received on Thursday morning shows. 

Rhonda Bush, 31, lives in Rainelle, West Virginia, about 30 miles northwest of where the Greenbrier Classic tournament is currently underway at a luxury golf resort despite the storm. She noted that while the resort was up and running in time for the event, which featured golf luminaries like Tiger Woods, average residents on the other side of the county were feeling "ignored and neglected." (Greenbrier owner Jim Justice responded to criticism for continuing the tournament earlier this week, offering to donate resources to people in need.)

Here's part of the 1,009-word missive that Bush tapped out on her cell phone:

Over the last 4 and a half days, I've seen families struggle over what to eat when most of the food has spoiled. I've personally had to wait in line for gas, praying they wouldn't run out before I got my fill. I've taken cold showers because there is no hot water. I've gone hunting for elusive ice that has become worth more than gold, and not found any. I've seen fights break out over basic necessaries, because nerves are becoming frayed from the stress of the heat and lack of water.
While my family has been lucky enough to even HAVE water, most people don't because they live in rural areas that use well pumps that don't work without electricity. Yet those first few days, even we worried our water would be cut off. I've seen grown men cry when they've received water, because they'd gone without and their families needed it desperately.
We pray for rain to come relieve the heat, then when it finally comes, we pray it won't leave us worse off than we already are. We pick at our food during the day because it's too hot to eat, then gorge at night and suffer for it because our bodies aren't used to food, or worse: because the food has turned and we ate it anyway because that's all we have and we're hungry.
We've learned to make do with little because no one cares about us. All anyone cares about is a golf game that ultimately is meaningless and rich people who never suffered a day in their life. Senator Joe Manchin visited us yesterday and we talked his ears off because he was the FIRST and ONLY person in power to come check on us. I don't agree with his politics, but he won my respect for that.
When AEP trucks finally arrived in town yesterday, we cheered because while we knew power wouldn't be restored that night, we knew it would be soon.

Bush did write back again later in the day to report that her power came back at 4:30 Thursday afternoon.

Her email got me thinking about climate change and extreme weather. A number of press accounts have noted that while it's difficult to say whether and to what extent climate change played a role in creating this high-power storm, what's clear is that we can expect more of this type of extreme event as the world gets hotter. The same is true for the wildfires raging in Colorado. To me what's most interesting is not the question of whether there will be more of these events—since there surely will be—but whether we'll be ready when they come. It raises serious questions about societal preparedness, how we decide to allocate our limited resources, and how we treat each other. 

Romney Hearts Vacation Mandate?

| Fri Jul. 6, 2012 11:57 AM EDT

Mitt Romney took a break from his vacation in New Hampshire on Friday to hold a presser in response to the latest jobs report. A reporter asked the Republican candidate about whether his vacation was "somewhat hypocritical" given the bad economic news and his own previous criticism of President Obama's vacations.

Romeny responded that he's "delighted to be able to take a vacation" with his family. He continued:

I think all Americans appreciate the memories that they have with their children and their grandchildren. I hope that more Americans are able to take vacations. And if I'm president of the United States, I'm going to work very hard to make sure we have good jobs for all Americans who want good jobs. And part of a good job is the capacity to take a vacation now and then with their loved ones.

It's worth pointing out, however, that the United States is the only advanced country with no national policy guaranteeing paid vacation time. Here's a graph from the European Trade Union Institute's recent paper on the "No-vacation Nation USA," via The Atlantic:

ETUI-REHS

ETUI-REHS 

I'm sure that Romney didn't intend for his remarks to be interpreted as a policy stance. Rather, it was meant as an aspirational goal—as in, "Hopefully some day more Americans have jobs that actually give them vacation time." But it's worth pointing out that we could guarantee more Americans can take vacations by putting policies in place that allow that.  

Quote of the Day: "Religious" Does Not Equal "Christian"

| Fri Jul. 6, 2012 11:43 AM EDT

From the Livingston Parish News, reporting on Rep. Valarie Hodges' sudden U-turn on Gov. Bobby Jindal’s voucher program for private schools in Louisiana:

Hodges mistakenly assumed that 'religious' meant 'Christian.'

Hodges, it turns out, thought the voucher program was just fine when it meant that state money would be going to Christian schools that deny evolution and sprinkle their lessons with lots of Bible verses. Then she found out that our pesky Constitution treats Islam as a religion too, which meant that Islamic schools would also qualify for vouchers.

Oops. But not to worry. I have little doubt that School Superintendent John White will figure out a way to "muddy the waters" so that Islamic schools somehow never quite seem to qualify.

Chart of the Day: Net New Jobs in June

| Fri Jul. 6, 2012 10:51 AM EDT

I'm not trying to ruin your day or anything, but here's our usual monthly jobs chart, adjusted for population growth to show actual net job creation. For the third month in a row, it's slightly negative. Job growth is just about keeping up with population growth, but we're not making any progress. Basically, we're treading water.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for July 6, 2012

Fri Jul. 6, 2012 10:34 AM EDT

Members of the 2nd Battalion Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry from Shilo, Manitoba, and 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, practice the Fast Rope Insertion Extraction System with a CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter, at Marine Corps Air Station Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii. Twenty-two nations, more than 40 ships and submarines, more than 200 aircraft and 25,000 personnel are participating in the biennial Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise from June 29 to Aug. 3, in and around the Hawaiian Islands. RIMPAC 2012 is the 23rd exercise in the series that began in 1971. Canadian Forces photo by Master Cpl. Marc-Andre Gaudreault.

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A Dismal Jobs Report: What's Obama to Do?

| Fri Jul. 6, 2012 9:36 AM EDT

Summers stink for Barack Obama. Last July, the jobs report noted that only 18,000 jobs had been created the previous month. The summer of 2010 saw a dramatic decline in job creation. Today, the news is that the economy only birthed 80,000 jobs last month—far below the expected (or desired) level.

For Obama and White House aides—and the rest of us—it's been like Groundhog Day. Every year (with the exception of 2009) seems to start with whiffs of economic promise, and the president's economic advisers come to believe that the economy will finally—finally!—get a real lift. But by springtime, hopes are dashed—often partly because of European economic woes. And the rest of the year is spent explaining (which didn't work too well in 2010) and exhorting Republicans in Congress to act by not blocking action (which worked only marginally in 2011).

So what's the president's game plan now? A month ago, he held a press conference about the not-great jobs report of that moment and slipped up with his doing-fine remark about the private sector. But, more important, he spent much of that press conference in his most professorial mode discussing European financial troubles, while issuing a far from full-throated cry for the GOPers to pass the leftover portions of the jobs bill he had proposed the previous September. There was nothing rousing in his remarks and not a lot to give an anxious voter reason to believe in Obama's ability to juice up the economy.

With this dismal report, the instant conventional wisdom is that Obama will have to dial up the attacks on Mitt Romney in order to render Romney an unacceptable choice for voters who might otherwise select him as a way to vent their anger or disappointment with Obama and the economy. That's probably right. But it wouldn't hurt if Obama displayed more signs of fierce economic leadership. Reminding voters that he saved Detroit and perhaps the whole frickin' economy may not be enough. Obama likely needs to present vigorously a forceful create-jobs-now plan.

It's easy to throw advice at a president. Obama and the folks running his campaign are pretty darn smart. But it's clear they're not going to get much help this campaign season from external economic conditions. They will have to maximize all lines of argument: what's wrong with Romney, what Obama has achieved, and what Obama can do for the country if granted four more years. This jobs report is a reminder that the president needs to step it up on the latter.

GOP Aims to Sink Navy's "Great Green Fleet"

| Fri Jul. 6, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Fuel speed ahead: The fleet goes green US Navy/Declan BarnesFuel speed ahead: The fleet goes green US Navy/Declan BarnesCongressional Republicans just got their battleship sunk. Even though House conservatives fought in May to prevent the Navy from spending any money on biofuel, the service last Friday launched its "Great Green Fleet"—the first-ever US flotilla to get underway with mostly nonconventional fuel. But election year jockeying may mean an epic battle over biofuel in Washington this fall.

The fleet—technically, an aircraft carrier strike group—is cruising its way to a naval exercise on more than half biofuel, which derives its brew from sustainable biomasses. It's taking place against a major backdrop: The exercise, known as RIMPAC, is a biennial tradition for 22 nations with big-time seapower. It's like a global Boy Scout jamboree for sailors with nuke subs and cruise-missile-laden warships instead of merit badges and pocketknives. "The reason we're doing this is that we simply buy too many fossil fuels from either actually or potentially volatile places on earth," Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said last month. Mabus plans for the Navy to fulfill half of its energy needs using biofuel by 2020.

Ayn Rand in Space

| Fri Jul. 6, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
Ayn Rand in space (artist's rendering)

At the Atlas Summit, a conference for libertarian devotees of Ayn Rand, the question is inescapable. It is scrawled in black magic marker on the plain white T-shirt of the white-haired man I pass on the way into the ballroom. It is printed on the green button on the corduroy blazer of the man who wants to share his thoughts on "the envy-driven wizards at NASA." It is emblazoned on the limited-edition gold coins advertised in the special three-ring binder given to all attendees. It is hanging, really, over the heads of all of us who have convened at the Renaissance Hotel in downtown DC in early July to celebrate Ayn Rand's sacred scroll of objectivism. The question, parroting the catchphrase of Atlas Shrugged, is "Who is John Galt?"

The answer, apparently, is Elon Musk, the billionaire cofounder of the California-based galactic transport company SpaceX.

I've dropped by the Atlas Summit on a Sunday morning on a whim. I had a couple of hours to kill before the Euro Cup Final, and I wanted to learn about perhaps the single most out-there—and intriguing—policy proposal to emerge from the 2012 Republican presidential primary: reviving manned space flight. I had no intention of sticking around for the 3:45 panel, "The Law and Morality of Insider Trading." And, unfortunately, the Q&A with the filmmakers behind Atlas Shrugged: Part 2 had come and gone.

"SpaceX and the future of space flight," though, had promise. It wasn't a panel, really—more of a 45-minute presentation on why SpaceX, Musk's newest and most ambitious project yet, was the greatest fucking thing to hit humankind since the three-field system. And in the true fashion of Rand's hero, John Galt, Musk, the 41-year-old founder of PayPal and Tesla Motors isn't there. According to Elon's Twitter feed, he's somewhere in Hawaii. Instead, attendees are treated to an emissary: Steve Davis, SpaceX employee #14.

This has been a good decade for the private space industry. In late May, SpaceX, the rocket company founded by Musk in 2002 with the goal of making mankind "multi-planetary," became the first nongovernmental entity to ferry cargo to the international space station and back. (It also became the first entity to ever apply for an atmospheric reentry permit from the FAA.) This came four years after the company's first major breakthrough: Falcon 1, the first privately-funded rocket to orbit the Earth. Thanks to companies like Virgin Galactic, space tourism is now officially a thing. And start-ups like Planetary Resources and Moon Express (the badass sci-fi names will presumably come later) are advertising their intentions to strip-mine space. For the first time since the 1970s, America is looking to the stars, and for the first time ever, that effort is being led by the private sector. The Randites love this.

Davis was a directionless graduate student at Stanford in 2002 when he got a call from Musk. Musk had just cashed out out of PayPal, the company he'd helped found in 1998 with Peter Thiel. (Thiel is now bankrolling the Seasteading Institute, which aims to create libertarian city-states on the high seas.) Musk was looking for young engineers with no families and enough energy to put in 100-hour weeks. Davis signed up the next day.

The audience of about 50 treats Davis like a rock star. He recounts the history of the company and draws the most applause when discussing its business model. The space industry doesn't suffer for lack of ideas; the main problem is transportation costs. "If the entire moon was made of solid gold, it would be unprofitable for any company on Earth to go mine it and bring it back," he says. "If the entire moon was made of heroin, it would still be unprofitable." SpaceX's goal, which Davis analogizes to that of solar cell and personal computer manufacturers, is to drive down the cost exponentially. It will do this primarily by cutting back on waste at every level and taking one big technological leap: creating rockets that can be used over and over again.

The company's selling point is just that—they set a price and they hit it. If a project comes in over budget, SpaceX eats the difference. As a result, it is able to deliver prices that would be unheard of in the public sector. "If you want to pay us $54* million, we will give you a Falcoln 9," he says, to rapturous applause. A rocket ship, yours, for less than the price of a super-PAC! The entire presentation is a running summary of different projects that Davis and SpaceX have completed under budget, each greeted with the same ovation. One way they saved money was by making rockets that work in two stages, as opposed to NASA's six. "I think Elon probably took a day to make that decision," Davis says. Another device, used to steer the rocket, was selling on the market for $250,000. Elon thought that it didn't seem much different than a garage-door opener and set a budget of $5,000. Davis' alternative device, designed in-house, checked in at $1,800.

"From my perspective, you guys are heroic beings," says the college-age kid in the designer polo.

Davis isn't pitching his company, so much as he's hawking an ethic—one shared by the gathering of objectivists and embodied by Elon: Don't wait for someone else to solve a problem because they probably won't. Winners set benchmarks and take the initiative; bureaucracies take your money and run.

When it's over, the floor is opened to questions. They're variations on a theme—either scientific queries (how much of a risk is solar radiation?) or bureaucratic. "Obviously, I'm here so you probably know my thoughts," Davis tells the woman who asks about red tape. The sixth questioner doesn't have a question, just a comment: "I just want to say, I wish Ayn Rand could have seen this—Isaac Asimov, too." A few rows back someone pipes up: "Ayn, mine!" (Ayn as in "mine"—this is the pronunciation guide, I kid you not, offered up by none other than the Ayn Rand Institute.)

A college-age kid in the designer polo shirt and cargo shorts takes the mic next. "From my perspective, you guys are heroic beings," he says. Applause. His question: "Is Elon familiar with objectivism and Ayn Rand? What has he read? Does he like it?"

"I don't know the answer, but I'll use an example from the book to answer that," Davis says. "I know the book well. One of my favorite lines from the book is when Danagger, after he disappears and Rearden is taking advantage, says something like 'Get me that delivery, Rearden!' That's not the right quote—does anyone remember the actual quote?"

"Look here, Rearden!" someone shouts.

Davis nods. "And that was the most political thing you ever heard from him. That's been my relationship with Elon—'Look here, Davis, get this done!' And so I don't think we've ever gone beyond that. But I know he's read the book."

When it's over, the crowd swarms around Davis, peppering him with questions: How about a buy—eight seats get the ninth free deal? How do you deal with space debris? Will you sign my notes?

Finally, as the room begins to clear out, I get a chance to ask mine: Is Newt Gingrich good or bad for the space industry?

Davis draws a blank. "I know nothing about politics," he says. "I know that he's a politician. I don't know anything about it. I'm sorry."

He's reluctant, too, to discuss his personal vision of what a space colony would look like. That, Davis says, "is for the Elons of the world. I just want to see [the rocket] go up." Making it to Mars is Elon Musk's dream, and, as evidenced by questions and adulation of the people in the room, it's the dream of many of the folks attending this Ayn-as-in-mine conference. They may not know quite what to do once they get there, but they know this: building a rocket and inventing a propulsion landing system that allows you to set up shop on another planet is the ultimate Going Galt.

Correction: This article originally misstated the cost of a Falcoln 9 rocket.

This Week in Dark Money

| Fri Jul. 6, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

A quick look at the week that was in the world of political dark money...

the money shot

 

 

 

 


quote of the week

"If we had a Karl Rove of our own out there, we wouldn’t have had to do this."
—An Obama campaign official speaking to the New York Times' Robert Draper, expressing frustration that the campaign had to buy TV airtime to respond to an attack ad from Karl Rove's American Crossroads super-PAC. But as a Crossroads spokesman told Draper, "Outside money tends to flow toward the party out of power, and to causes to stop things rather than to promote things."

 

stat of the week

$7.2 million: The amount pro-Mitt Romney super-PAC Restore Our Future says it plans to spend on ads in 11 swing states during the summer Olympics. The campaign gives Restore Our Future the opportunity to praise Romney for his role in managing the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. The ad buy also would outpace the $6.5 million that the Obama campaign is planning during the games.



chart of the week

While super-PACs get a lot of attention, campaign fundraising is outpacing that of the primary super-PACs supporting President Obama and Mitt Romney. The Center for Responsive Politics breaks down various kinds of money supporting the presidential campaigns.



more mojo dark money coverage

Is Rick Santorum's New Dark-Money Group Breaking the Law?: Patriot Voices says its "first priority" is defeating Obama. Tax experts say that could land Santorum in hot water with the IRS.
America's Most Patriotic Super-PACs: In honor of the Fourth of July, a salute to seven groups that vaguely embody what makes us great.
An Interactive Map of the Dark-Money Universe: Have you checked out our guide to 2Red giants, blue dwarfs, and cash-sucking black holes?



more must-reads

• How nine super-PACs that poured money into state races temporarily hid their donors. OpenSecrets.org
• Broadcasters push back against a federal order that political ad info be posted online. Sunlight Foundation
• Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) ends official relationship with his Senate Conservatives Fund so that it can become a super-PAC. Politico
• Obamacare opponents spent more on ads against the law than Obama spent on campaign spots in 2008. Republic Report
 Former pro-Newt Gingrich super-PAC official says that attacking Mitt Romney's Bain Capital record "could still be toxic." Slate