2009 - %3, May

NY Times Photobloggin' and Danny Wilcox-Frazier

| Tue May 19, 2009 2:03 PM EDT


 

The New York Times unveiled LENS last Friday, their brand-new photoblog. Taking advantage of the wealth of often awesome photography at their disposal, LENS showcases a range of work—from the traffic-driving staple "Photo of the Day" feature, to Stephen Crowley taking viewers inside a media/photo spray with President Obama, to Fred Conrad's large format photography.

Just a few days out of the gate and they're serving up an impressive batch of photos, presented in a smart, easy-to-navigate format. The images may not be as giant as on the Boston Globe's Big Picture photoblog, but the Times does a knockout job of pushing the range of work presented on a newspaper's photoblog. Or any photoblog for that matter.

And speaking of the Times photoblog, Mother Jones contributing photographer Danny Wilcox-Frazier gets the full treatment today. Sixteen images from his Driftless work, an intimate look at life in rural Iowa, are showcased on LENS. The work may look familiar. It first ran here in Mother Jones, in the March/April 2008 issue and won the 2007 Honickman/Duke First Book Prize in Photography.

Danny also just finished working with MediaStorm on a six-part, multimedia version of Driftless. The focus on the farm is nice, but Danny really excels at getting in with the locals. The spots on the Town Bar and the Jumping Rock really get under the skin of life in rural Iowa.

 

 

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Are Obama's Fuel Efficiency Standards Strict Enough?

| Tue May 19, 2009 1:52 PM EDT

President Obama really is a nice guy. When he announced Tuesday that federal and state governments and environmental groups had come to a "historic agreement" with the auto industry to increase average fuel economy to 35.5 MPG by 2016, he granted the automakers a huge PR favor: The industry has been fighting these rules for years; they only capitulated now because they had a gun to their heads.

"The new administration was in a position to say [to the auto companies] 'you have to accept this,'" Dan Becker of the Safe Climate Campaign told me. "They realized that and they caved. This is auto mechanics, not rocket science, and they can do that."

Even as the news leaked that Obama would announce tougher fuel efficiency standards, the auto industry was still embroiled in lawsuits, most notably with the State of California, over states' efforts to cut greenhouse gasses. But these days, Detroit doesn't have the same political sway in Washington that it used to, even compared to just a few years ago, when the Bush administration denied California's attempt to implement its strict MPG rules.

Obama's new rules effectively end that litigation, and are a "huge stick in the eye to polluters, who "did everything they could to stop this from happening," says Greenpeace's Kert Davies. The auto industry had argued that individual states like California do not have the power to govern fuel economy, but Obama mooted that argument by directing the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Transportation to write regulations, which they will have the power to enforce.

Becker told me the rules themselves don't go far enough, but are "a good first step" and leave an opportunity for improvement in 2017, when they are set to expire. (Becker also says he expects officials in California to take the lead on drafting post-2016 standards and release their plan within a year.) By then, the White House says we will have saved 900 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere—the equivalent of "taking 177 million cars off the road."

Davies says hasn't yet run any calculations accounting for the new 35.5 MPG standard, but he told me he thinks "we're still behind the curve" in comparison to other nations when it comes to curbing tailpipe emissions: "Even China has better fuel economy targets than we do."

The Burbs

| Tue May 19, 2009 1:27 PM EDT

Dana Goldstein suggests that we should fund more magnet schools in urban cores as a way of attracting suburban kids into the city and opening up slots for city kids in the suburbs.  Matt Yglesias says this would probably have limited effectiveness, but still:

One way or the other, I can’t think of any good reason for a governor who’s genuinely interested in improving opportunities for poor kids not to be trying something along these lines.

Well, I can think of a good reason: because suburban parents in this governor's state would go absolutely batshit insane over the idea.  It would probably spell the end of his political career.

One of the great third rails of education policy debates is acknowledging the fact that suburban parents will flatly never go along with anything like this — at least not on a scale that makes any difference.  For the most part they don't want to ship their kids to urban schools, even if they are magnets, and they really really don't want urban schools shipping a bunch of stoners and gangbangers to their nice suburban schools.  And make no mistake: that is how they think of it, and all the research in the world showing that urban-suburban transfers don't affect educational outcomes won't budge them an inch.

I don't know what to do about this.  But to some extent education is a zero-sum game.  If we invest more money in inner-city schools, it means less for the suburbs.  If we try to attract the best teachers to urban schools, it means that suburbs get weaker teachers.  If we do it anyway, suburban parents will start sending their kids to private schools.  And the point at which public support for No Child Left Behind evaporates is the point at which suburban schools start "failing" in large numbers.  That isn't something suburban parents will tolerate, and they'll simply vote out of office anyone who tries to make them.

Even on a purely voluntary basis, I suspect that fostering "regional partnerships between urban and suburban districts" will never have more than a tiny impact.  Suburban parents just can't be talked into it, and when it comes to educational policy suburban parents rule.  Programs like the Harlem Children's Zone or the KIPP schools may have mixed track records, but at least they're both promising and feasible on a large scale.  My guess is that they're both better prospects for long-term change than trying to merge city and suburb.  I'm happy to be talked out of this, though.

GAO: Schools Abuse Disabled Kids

| Tue May 19, 2009 1:07 PM EDT

A new GAO report shows that the Judge Rotenberg Center in Massachusetts isn't the only place where developmentally disabled and emotionally troubled kids have been physically punished and restrained. The report, which came out today, details cases at public and private schools across the nation where children as young as five have been sat on, lashed to chairs, isolated for hours, starved, and humiliated as punishment for actions like "slouching and hand waving." In dozens of cases, these punitive measures resulted in students' deaths.

Though much of the report details specific cases of abuse, there is also some revealing analysis. For example, the GAO found "no federal laws restricting the use of seclusion and restraints in public and private schools and widely divergent laws at the state level." In addition to the lack of legal guidance, teachers and aides are often insufficiently trained in how to apply restraints to children. Many of the student deaths occurred because staff were sitting on them, restraining them face-down, or putting them in a "stranglehold" and didn't notice when the child became unresponsive or ignored children's pleas that they couldn't breathe.

While the government obviously cannot monitor every use of child restraint, the GAO found that it could, at least, gather information. "GAO could not find a single Web site, federal agency, or other entity that collects information on the use of these methods or the extent of their alleged abuse," the report said.

The private Judge Rotenberg Center, which we investigated in 2007, may be the only school that uses electric shocks to discipline children. But sadly, as this new report graphically illustrates, it's far from being alone in using severe physical punishment on its special needs students.

 

Will Congress Torpedo Defense Reform?

| Tue May 19, 2009 12:28 PM EDT

Wasteful spending at the Pentagon is one of the most overanalyzed problems in Washington. The past thirty years have seen dozens of special taskforces and blue-ribbon commissions and congressional panels devoted to eliminating fraud and budget blowouts, and yet nothing ever seems to change. If Obama wants to prevent his own attempt at Pentagon reform from being relegated to the historical dumpster, he should be nervous about the acquisition legislation moving through Congress right now.

Both the House and Senate have passed acquisition reform bills unanimously, already an ominous sign. The bills contain some sensible ideas, such as ensuring that technology is fully developed before it's put into production, and requiring independent cost estimates for weapons systems. But like so many previous "reforms," these changes will only make a difference if the Pentagon and Congress opt to enforce them. Some of the more promising measures in the Senate bill—including the independent cost assessments—have already been watered down.

Quote of the Day - 5.19.09

| Tue May 19, 2009 12:24 PM EDT

From Richard Posner, who is decidedly unimpressed with Ben Bernanke's reputation as a great crisis manager:

He is like a general who having been defeated in battle because of his errors manages the retreat of his army competently. He does not thereby escape blame for the defeat, and should not be permitted to shift blame to the soldiers under his command who gave way under attack.

There are plenty of things that I think a reasonable person might have missed about the dangers of the Bush-era credit boom.  But I'll go to my grave not understanding how so many people missed the housing bubble.  What were they all smoking?

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Punching Your Ticket

| Tue May 19, 2009 12:17 PM EDT

Lane Wallace explains why you should go to college, even if you major in something dumb like semiotics:

I figured out the true value of a college degree not in the lofty halls of Brown University, but in a corrugated cardboard factory in New Zealand. I'd taken a "leave of absence" as they call it, after my sophomore year, to figure out if I really wanted to pay all that money learn things that seemed, well ... a tad non-essential, at best. I packed a backpack and took off for the romantic frontier-land of New Zealand with nothing but $500 and a working visa in my pocket. The six months I spent there were a far cry from what I thought the adventure would be, but it was educational. Culminating in my job at the cardboard factory — where I was surrounded by people who hated their jobs but had no other viable option.

In a flash, I grasped the true value of a college degree. It didn't matter what I majored in. It didn't even matter all that much what my grades were. What mattered was that I got that rectangular piece of paper that said, "Lane Wallace never has to work in a corrugated cardboard factory again."

Cubicle rats take note.  No matter how put upon you think you are, there are lots and lots of people worse off than you.

Truthiness

| Tue May 19, 2009 11:57 AM EDT

The CIA sure does suck at keeping even marginally accurate meeting notes, don't they?  If you're the suspicious type, you might wonder if this is deliberate.  If you're the institutional type, you might wonder what else they suck at.  And if you're the political type you might be thinking that putting together a Truth Commission to get to the bottom of this is sounding a lot better than it used to.

Financial Innovation

| Tue May 19, 2009 11:26 AM EDT

Niall Ferguson thinks that if deregulation is to blame for our recent financial collapse, then financial deregulation should also get the credit for the preceding 27 years of economic growth.  Matt Yglesias takes a look at income growth over that period and isn't so sure:

For the top one percent, that’s a pretty impressive period. For the next 19 percent, there’s something happening. But for the bottom 80 percent, there’s just very little going on in terms of real income growth. There was, however, pretty robust consumption growth fueled by the credit boom and declining savings rates. The current downturn is now threatening that and calling into question the sustainability and worth of the overall growth throughout the period.

This is a kissing cousin to the question everyone is raising these days about financial innovation.  It goes like this: the basic benefit of all the financial innovation we've seen over the past few decades has been to make credit more easily available, and that clearly had something to do with the credit boom and subsequent bust.  This in turn begs the obvious question: was it really a good idea to make credit so easily available?  If the answer is no — if the only result was to mask stagnant wages and produce a fake consumption boom — then maybe all that innovation wasn't such a hot idea in the first place.

This is rapidly becoming conventional wisdom, and Matt's point deserves more attention as part of it.  For good or ill, the modern economy is driven by middle-class consumption.  If middle class wages are rising, everything is fine.  They'll consume more, debt will stay tolerable, and rich people will benefit from the growing economy.  But if middle class wages are stagnant, then vast pools of money are increasingly directed toward the rich, who have a limited ability to spend it.  So they end up loaning it back to the middle class, collecting economic rents along the way, and the middle class laps it up, figuring that their wage stagnation is just temporary and they'll eventually pay all the money back.

But they don't, of course, because today's rich have no intention of ever allowing wage growth among the middle class.  The result, eventually, is disaster.

I realize that most economists will never believe this until someone says the same thing accompanied by several dozen pages of equations with lots of Greek characters.  So can someone please get cracking on that?

Newt Saddles Up with Cantor

| Tue May 19, 2009 11:15 AM EDT

I recently pegged Newt Gingrich as the lead ideas-man in the GOP. And on Tuesday, House minority whip leader Eric Cantor announced that Gingrich was joining his National Council for a New America. Cantor set up the NCNA so congressional Republicans can "listen" to the American people, cook up fresh notions for the GOP, and repair the image of the Republican Party. As Cantor put it, "The NCNA will be a dynamic, forward-looking organization that will amplify the common-sense and wisdom of our fellow citizens through a grassroots dialogue with Republican leaders."

But on the same day as Gingrich saddled up with Cantor, Michael Steele, the GOP chairman, said it was time for the GOP to turn the page and look ahead. But isn't Gingrich another one of those GOPers of the past? The former House speaker does spew a lot of ideas. As his onetime aide Rich Galen told me, Gingrich can come up with 15 ideas a day, realizing that only one is any good and that "over the course of a month, maybe one of them is actionable and you can build a project on it. The biggest sin in Newt-world is the sin of inaction."

So perhaps Gingrich can indeed assist Cantor with his "listening" project. But he sure doesn't help Cantor when it comes to putting a fresh face on an old and discredited party.

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