2009 - %3, May

Hiding Ida

| Wed May. 20, 2009 10:01 AM PDT

A new primate fossil was unveiled yesterday.  Hooray!  But what's up with this?

Hurum and team have been studying the fossil in secret for the past two years, going to great lengths to keep the finding under wraps until they were ready to publicly announce it.

...."There have been lots of reasons for the security and secrecy surrounding this project," said Anthony Geffen, producer of the new documentary. "The scientists wanted to get on with the research, and then get to that day, which is today, which is incredibly exciting for all of us, when the find could come out."

Hmmm.  What reasons?  Maybe this is unfair, but something about this reminds me of the fantastic lengths that scholars went to for decades to keep the Dead Sea scrolls under wraps.  In that case, it seemed to be motivated by pure professional greed from a group that was determined not to let anyone else contest their interpretations or beat them to a discovery.  In this case, it's — what?  A desire to wait until a massive publicity campaign was ready?

The event, which will coincide with the publishing of a peer-reviewed article about the find, is the first stop in a coordinated, branded media event, orchestrated by the scientists and the History Channel, including a film detailing the secretive two-year study of the fossil, a book release, an exclusive arrangement with ABC News and an elaborate Web site.

“Any pop band is doing the same thing,” said Jorn H. Hurum, a scientist at the University of Oslo who acquired the fossil and assembled the team of scientists that studied it. “Any athlete is doing the same thing. We have to start thinking the same way in science.”

Scientific research isn't all done in the glare of a spotlight, and peer-reviewed research takes a while to finish.  Maybe there's nothing wrong with this group's Manhattan Project-esque secrecy.  But something about it rubs me the wrong way.  Am I off base here?

UPDATE: The general consensus in comments from knowledgeable observers is that this is fairly standard procedure with fossils.  So regardless of how you feel about the massive publicity rollout, it sounds like there was nothing dubious about this.  More here.

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The Burbs Revisited

| Wed May. 20, 2009 9:10 AM PDT

Education blogger Kevin Carey is unhappy with me:

As a rule I enjoy Kevin Drum's blog at Mother Jones. But his occasional forays into education generally descend into naysaying and pessimism — Kevin's one all-purpose insight on the subject is that education policy is hard and as such not worth trying to solve.

I plead mostly guilty to this.  In fact, Kevin C. is being polite.  Not only do I think that education policy is hard, I think it's an absolute cesspool with very little to show for decades of effort.  In my defense, though, I don't think that means it isn't worth trying to solve education problems.  I just think that most claims to have done so turn out on inspection to be seriously overblown.

Take the post in question.  I argued that suburban parents are basically selfish SOBs who will never allow anything more than very modest levels of integration with urban school districts and will fight like crazed weasels to protect their own leafy citadels of learning.  Kevin C. disagrees.  I think.  He suggests that even suburban parents harbor some altruistic impulses, but then immediately admits that "when asked, parents will jealously guard the resources available to their own children."  Here's his solution:

So the key thing is to not ask.  For example, back when I worked on education funding in Indiana, we created a formula that allowed local school districts to keep all of the revenue they generated through property taxes, but then distributed state funds inversely to local property wealth, equalizing the overall funding level. The effect was to redistribute hundreds of millions of dollars of sales and income tax revenue from the wealthiest school districts to the poorest. But because that transfer occured in the context of an immensely complex formula understood by less than half a dozen people and negotiated in a back room long after the official hearings had finished and the press had gone home, nobody really got upset by it, because nobody knew exactly how much money they were losing, and we were in no hurry to tell them.

The point being, sometimes too much information is detrimental to fair public policy. States that have tried to explicitly transfer local property wealth between districts have had a horrible time of it, because the extent of the redistribution was too obvious. Sometimes it's better to hide the true extent of people's contributions to the common good. Otherwise they'll start asking questions and from there it's a slippery slope all the way back to every family huddling alone in a cave and foraging for fruits and nuts.

I'm not sure a rebuttal is even necessary.  It sounds to me like Kevin C. is agreeing that suburban parents will protect their schools like crazed weasels, and the only way to overcome this is to lie to them early and often.  And he thinks I'm the pessimistic one?

UPDATE: Richard Kahlenberg is unhappy with me too.  I don't blame him, really.  But as much as I respect both of these guys, neither of their counterarguments strikes me as very persuasive.  Lying to parents just isn't a long-term strategy, and the fact that urban/suburban transfers have worked in a very small number of special cases isn't evidence that it will scale well.

Besides, there's another problem here that no one mentions.  Even if you have a great system of urban magnet schools and urban/suburban transfers, what happens to the urban non-magnet schools?  They lose all their best students either to the magnets or to open spots in the suburbs, and the suburban kids are only transferring in to the magnets.  This means that the non-magnets end up with a worse student body than before.  The net result might still be positive, but the majority of urban schools are actually worse off.

Again, I don't pretend to know what the answer is.  But I continue to think that programs like KIPP or Green Dot that are just flatly aimed at improving urban schools are a more promising bet than counting on urban/suburban partnerships.

Fantasyland

| Wed May. 20, 2009 8:30 AM PDT

Well, Californians basically rejected all of yesterday's budget initiatives, and since they were mostly gimmicks I don't really blame them.  So what's next?

Beats me.  There are legal, judicial, federal, and contractual limits to how much spending can be cut, and there are political limits (i.e., the Republican rump in the legislature) to how much taxes can be raised.  The sums just don't add up.

Californians are living in a dream world.  Prop 13 slashed property taxes and nobody wants to amend it, even for commercial property.  Arnold Schwarzenegger got elected in the middle of a budget crisis by promising to cut taxes.  When that proved to be an unsurprising disaster, the voters approved billions in borrowing, making the budget situation even worse.  It's easy to blame Sacramento for this mess (and I do!), but the public has been complicit every step of the way.

Historically, California has been a high tax/high service state.  That's fine.  Some states prefer a low tax/low service model.  That's fine too.  (It's a lousy idea, I think, but fiscally it's fine.)  But over the past few decades we Californians have somehow concluded that we can be a medium tax/high service state.  It's a fantasy.  Unfortunately, I'm not sure just what it's going to take to jolt everyone out of their delusions.  Stay tuned.

Waxman's Climate Bill Speed Reader

| Wed May. 20, 2009 8:11 AM PDT

To throw off Rep. Henry Waxman's ambitious plan to deliver a final climate change bill by Memorial Day, the House GOP suggested they might attempt a procedural stall tactic. If Waxman had the audacity to fast-track the controversial legislation through his energy and commerce committee, then committee Republicans said they might force the 900-plus page bill, along with several hundred pages of amendments, to be read aloud. But Waxman wasn't about to let some GOP obstructionism slow down the landmark legislation. Just in case his Republican colleagues attempted this ploy, Waxman hired a speed reader, according to the Wall Street Journal.

A committee spokeswoman said the speed reader—a young man who was on door duty at the hearing as he awaited a call to the microphone—was hired to help staffers. After years of practice, the panel's clerks can read at a good clip. But the speed reader is a lot faster, she said.

"Judging by the size of the amendments, I can read a page about every 34 seconds," said the newly hired staff assistant, who declined to give his name. Based on that estimate, it would take him about nine hours.

This doesn't mean Waxman will meet his self-imposed deadline. Committee Republicans, determined to hold the bill up as long as they can, have snowed the legislation under with hundreds of amendments—only a handful of which the committee was able to tackle after hours of debate on Tuesday. "We might as well plan on being here all next week,” said Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), the committee's ranking Republican member and a notorious climate change skeptic. “Bring your sleeping bags.”
 

Weak Steele

| Wed May. 20, 2009 7:36 AM PDT

On Tuesday, GOP chairman Michael Steele gave a much-watched speech in which he declared that the Republican Party was undergoing a "renaissance" and that there was no need for his party to apologize any more for its past mistakes. Such statements showed he was in denial. And he also demonstrated his buffoonery by proclaiming, "Change comes in a tea bag!" This was a reference to those over-hyped (by Fox News) anti-Obama protests held on Tax Day by anti-tax conservatives. By the way, Steele's request to speak at one of these so-called tea parties was turned down by its organizers. But Steele's fantasies appeared to have gone over well with his audience. After all, Steele was speaking to a group of GOP state leaders who were considering a resolution calling on the Democratic Party to rename itself the "Democratic Socialist Party."

Steele's speech has been roundly panned by political journalists. Which shows how bad it was. Nothing would be better for political reporters than a good strong fight between Rs and Ds. A good representation of the consensus thumb's down came from MSNBC's "First Thoughts" newsletter, which summed up Steele's big day:

Steele’s Combative Speech: Talk to those close to the RNC chair, and they'll tell you the most important takeaway from his speech to GOP state chairs yesterday was the following: The party plans to more directly confront Obama. As inviting a target as other Democrats may be (see Pelosi), Steele made the case the party won't make progress without starting to inflict political damage on the actual leader of the Democratic -- er, “Democrat-Socialist” -- Party: Barack Obama. “We aren’t going to be silent,” he said. “We are going to speak up, and we are going to show that we have the courage of our convictions.” But for those looking for something substantial, issue-wise, Steele's speech was lacking. It had one too many clichés, and didn't seem to get into exactly what the Republican Party stands for. But remember who Steele’s audience was yesterday: members of the RNC. And the chairman is still trying to win over the trust of these folks. So he needed to throw them some red meat and didn't need to get into the weeds. Steele's goal yesterday was assert himself as leader of the party, and he probably took a step forward with these party insiders. Still, it raises an interesting question for all Republican leaders: Just what does the party stand for? It seemed to be a struggle for Steele yesterday.
Move Along, Folks, Nothing To See Here: Also in his speech yesterday, Steele boldly declared that the Republican Party has turned the corner. “The time for trying to fix or focus on the past has ended…The introspection is now over. The corner has been turned.” But when Steele and other Republicans cite spending and the ways of Washington as the only reasons why they find themselves out of power and at all-time lows in polls, we're not so sure they've learned the lessons from 2006 and 2008 -- which also included Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, the U.S. attorneys scandal, Harriet Miers, and Terri Schiavo. What do those things have in common? Ideology and favoritism trumped competence and governance; confrontation was more important than compromise. And Republican leaders often stood by and didn’t raise objections. To win elections, you have to win the middle, and right now the middle is breaking Obama’s way, with Arlen Specter joining the Democrats and Jon Huntsman about to work for the administration. One other thing: As Adam Nagourney recently wrote, tone matters in politics. Are RNC members really going to pass a resolution today calling the Democratic Party the “Democrat-Socialist Party”?

The basic GOP problem is that Republican red meat is not in much demand...beyond RNC meetings. Sure, Steele can bolster his tentative standing in the party by going crazy on Obama and the Ds, but until the party is in the hands of savvy political strategists who know how to win elections, the Democrats can worry more about their own actions than those of the opposition.

Help Me, Help You

| Tue May. 19, 2009 11:14 PM PDT

Guess what, gang.  It's fundraising time!

Here's the pitch: if you read my blog you're up to speed on most of the greed, corruption and hypocrisy coming out of Wall Street and Washington. You know all about the carried interest loophole.  You've heard of universal default.  You know what a yield spread premium is.

And all for free!  Sort of.  Because I'm actually supported by Mother Jones magazine, which covers all this stuff and more — and producing the magazine is a pretty expensive enterprise.  To do it, we rely on subscriptions, advertising, and donations to the Mother Jones Investigative Fund.  And that's where you come in.

Your contributions help keep our reporters at work (including me!) on these critical stories. We’re independent, nonprofit, and not afraid to take on the big guns of the financial industry. But we can do that only when our readers deliver the financial support we need to stay on the story.  So if you can afford to part with a few dollars, click here to make a donation.  It's a quick credit card donation form, and if you contribute $35 or more you get a subscription to the magazine too.

Thanks!  And the cats thank you too, since they think I get paid in cans of cat food.  (Your donation, however, needs to be in dollars.)

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Corn on "Hardball": Is Hillary Playing Obama?

| Tue May. 19, 2009 6:10 PM PDT

Is Hillary Clinton playing Barack Obama? Does she have a secret political plan? Are the Clintons up to anything? We discussed this all on Tuesday night on Hardball:

Bitch Slapping the Dems

| Tue May. 19, 2009 4:24 PM PDT

I never expected Barack Obama to be anything other than pragmatic and center left.  Still, I confess to feeling a little in the dumps lately over just how much he seems willing to bend and compromise on some key issues.  But then I read things like this:

In an abrupt shift, Senate Democratic leaders said on Tuesday that they would not provide the $80 million that President Obama requested to close the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

....The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, seemed to ramp up the concerns of Congressional Democrats, insisting during a news conference that lawmakers would never allow the terror suspects to be released into the United States....Pressed to explain if that meant they could not be transferred to American prisons, Mr. Reid said: "We don't want is them to be put in prisons in the United States. We don't want them around the United States."

To repeat: I read things like this.  And I realize all over again just what Obama is up against.  His own party won't support him against even the most transparent and insipid demagoguery coming from the conservative noise machine.  The GOP's brain trust isn't offering even a hint of a substantive case that the U.S. Army can't safely keep a few dozen detainees behind bars in a military prison, but Dems are caving anyway.  Because they're scared.  And then they wonder why voters continue to think that a party that can be bitch slapped so easily might be viewed as weak on national security.

But that's the reality that Obama has to deal with.  Under the circumstances, I guess he's not doing so badly after all.

Credit Card Update

| Tue May. 19, 2009 3:43 PM PDT

I see that Chris Dodd's credit card reform bill passed the Senate 90-5 today.  This is even better than I expected, and goes to show the agenda-setting power of being in the majority.  In the past, Republicans could have simply prevented a bill like this from coming to the floor, thus sparing themselves the political difficulty of voting against it.  Now they can't do that.  They have to vote whether they like it or not.  And since credit card reform really is a hot button issue, their sense of self-preservation got the better of them and they gave the bill a massive majority.

Which is fine, but I suspect it also means that Dodd could have played hardball a little more strenuously than he did and negotiated a better bill.  Who knows?  If Dems figure this out, maybe it will be the first legislation in history to actually be improved in conference.

Oh — and all the boo hooing from the credit card industry?  If you believe even a single word of it, you need to run not walk to your local emergency room and have them do an MRI on your brain.  There's a chunk missing.

Clara Jeffery Debates Debra Saunders

| Tue May. 19, 2009 2:50 PM PDT

MoJo editor Clara Jeffery and conservative San Francisco Chronicle columnist Debra Saunders went head to head yesterday on KQED's ForumCould Pelosi have prevented detainee torture? Are small cars safer than big ones? Does the Gallup poll finding that more Americans are pro-life than pro-choice signify a real change?

Listen to these leading journalists do battle over these questions and more, here: