2013 - %3, January

Federal Spending Isn't Out of Control, But It's Not Quite Stable Either

| Mon Jan. 28, 2013 1:10 PM EST

Bruce Bartlett argues that federal spending really isn't out of control:

Getting back to the chart, we see that spending for every single government program going forward is remarkably stable as a percentage of GDP. Those who complain loudest about spending and deficits nearly always base their concerns on projections of nominal spending that are unadjusted for inflation, growth of the population or growth of the economy. This is intellectually dishonest.

In fact, virtually all the growth in projected spending comes not from entitlements or giveaways to the poor and lazy, as Republicans would have us believe, but rather from interest on the debt.

And here's the chart:

Bruce is basically right, but I want to point out another way of looking at this. Suppose we raise taxes in order to flatten out interest spending. What are we left with a decade or two from now? Answer: federal spending at roughly 23 percent of GDP.

On a chart with a long timeline, that looks pretty flat. But in fact, this is what all the shouting is about. Should federal spending be limited to around 19 percent of GDP—Paul Ryan's preferred goal—or should we accept the fact that society is aging and we're eventually going to need to spend 23 percent of GDP whether we like it or not? I think the latter makes a lot more sense, but we all need to understand that this really is what the argument is about. An additional four or five percent of GDP won't bankrupt us, but it's not chickenfeed either. If that's the spending trajectory we want, we need to persuade the public that it's necessary, not pretend that it doesn't exist.  

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Goodbye Sarah, We'll Miss You. Sort of.

| Mon Jan. 28, 2013 12:24 PM EST

Paul Waldman pens a bittersweet farewell to Sarah Palin, now that she'll no longer be appearing on Fox News:

There are few political figures remotely as interesting as Palin, with her unmatched combination of crazy ideas, absolute confidence despite a level of understanding of public affairs that would embarrass an average seventh-grader, and a nearly inexplicable white-hot charisma.

....There really should be a long German word referring to the feeling liberals got whenever Palin said something even more idiotic and offensive than she had before, that combination of shock, disgust, and satisfaction that comes from getting yet more evidence that one of the other side's leading figures is such an epic nincompoop. Every time, you could almost hear a thousand conservatives plant their faces in their hands.

Palin's theme was always resentment, the acid bile of the culture war. If you ever felt that you were looked down on by Northeastern elitists, or people with too much education, or condescended to by people who think small towns are rather boring and not the only soil from which morality and patriotism can grow, or laughed at by people who find The Purpose-Driven Life to be a less than profound theological text, Sarah Palin spoke for you. She luxuriated in her grievances—against the establishment, against the media, against everyone from the mightiest politician to the lowliest teenager who happened to knock up her daughter (as Levi Johnston put it at one point, "It's almost funny, that she's like, 46 years old, and she's battling a 19-year-old, and I'm winning"). Resentment was her instrument, her tool, her vehicle and her purpose.

Sarah Palin is to modern Republicans what Richard Nixon was to Republicans of the 60s. The resentment that Nixon tapped so brilliantly reached its peak under Ronald Reagan and then degenerated steadily over time. The downward path led through Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, Roger Ailes, and freedom fries, finally reaching its debased apotheosis in Sarah Palin and the tea party. With her gone, it might be a sign that the long, twilight success of Nixonland as a political strategy is finally starting to fade. I think Rick Perlstein should write a few thousand well-chosen words on the subject.

Big Surprise: Yet Another Ed Reform Turns Out to be Bogus

| Mon Jan. 28, 2013 11:55 AM EST

Do high schools with higher standards get better performance from their students? If you require everyone to take college prep classes, will more kids go to college? The San Jose school district has long been a poster child for this notion, but guess what? It turns out it was all a crock:

San Jose Unified has quietly acknowledged that the district overstated its accomplishments. And a Times analysis of the district's record shows that its progress has not, in fact, far outpaced many other school systems'....In 2000, before the college-prep program took effect, 40% of San Jose graduates fulfilled requirements for applying to University of California and Cal State University. In 2011, the number was 40.3%.

My cynicism about the ed reform community grows by leaps and bounds every time I read a story like this. And that's pretty often. Here's my advice for what you should do whenever you read an article about a school that's shown miraculous results by applying some reform or another (or by hiring a miracle worker of some stripe or another):

  1. Don't believe it if it's based on a single school or other small sample.
  2. Don't believe it if most of the evidence comes from the school itself.
  3. Don't believe it if the reform in question was put in place only a few years ago.
  4. Don't believe it if it hasn't been replicated elsewhere.
  5. Don't believe it unless it's been rigorously tested by academics who didn't already support the idea in the first place.
  6. And even if it passes all those tests, don't believe it anyway.

The number of ed reforms that hold up when the evidence is looked at critically seems to be tiny. The number that continue to work when they're scaled up seems to be tiny. The number that continue to show results all the way through high school seems to be tiny. The number that can withstand critical scrutiny seems to be tiny. And of the ones that are left, the cost to keep them up usually appears to be prohibitive.

I understand that I'm being too cynical here. I'm probably going to get the usual batch of emails from ed reformers telling me that there are too reforms that really and truly work. And I suppose there are. But I don't think you can go too far wrong by being almost boundlessly and annoyingly skeptical about this stuff. Don't worry about seeming unsophisticated. Just keep repeating that you don't believe it until and unless the evidence becomes simply overwhelming. You won't go too far wrong with that attitude.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for January 28, 2013

Mon Jan. 28, 2013 11:35 AM EST

Troopers for D Troop, 1st Squadron, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment prepare for a Decisive Action force on force engagement during a situational training exercise with the rotational training unit located at the National Training Center, Fort Irwin. Calif. Photo by Capt. Chad Cooper, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment Public Affairs Officer.

The Education of Barack Obama, Foreign Policy Edition

| Mon Jan. 28, 2013 11:06 AM EST

New Republic owner Chris Hughes asks President Obama about how he "personally, morally" wrestles with the ongoing violence in Syria:

What I have to constantly wrestle with is where and when can the United States intervene or act in ways that advance our national interest, advance our security, and speak to our highest ideals and sense of common humanity. And as I wrestle with those decisions, I am more mindful probably than most of not only our incredible strengths and capabilities, but also our limitations.

Dan Drezner argues that this passage demonstrates that, for Obama, "national interest and security trumps liberal values every day of the week and twice on Sundays."

I don't read it that way at all. Rather, I think that over the past four years Obama has deeply internalized the practical limitations of American power. As Dan himself puts it a few paragraphs later, Obama's foreign policy views display an "increasing risk aversion to the use of force as a tool of regime change." I'd argue that this doesn't suggest so much a surrender of liberal values as it does simple common sense of the type we rarely see on either right or left.

I continue to be a bit gobsmacked about how little we seem to have learned from the past decade. The 2008 economic crash seems to have had close to no impact on how we view and regulate the financial system, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have had close to no impact on how we view interventionism. Conservatives still want us to go to war against every bad guy who's ever sneered at us, and liberals still want us to intervene in every humanitarian crisis that springs up.

Obama seems to understand that this framework is obsolete. No matter what motivates you—realpolitik, humanitarianism, nationalism, whatever—interventionism doesn't make sense if it doesn't work. And the lesson of the past decade, at the very least, is that interventionism is really, really hard to do well, even if your bar for "well" is really, really low.

The first question for any kind of action in any sphere of human behavior is, will it work? If the answer is yes, then you can move on to arguments about when, whether, and what kind of action might be appropriate. But if the answer is no, all those arguments are moot. In the case of U.S. military interventions, the answer might not quite be an unqualified no, but it sure seems to be pretty damn close. This makes the rest of the argument futile.

Retiring Senator: Congress Doesn't Work Because We Fundraise Way Too Much

| Mon Jan. 28, 2013 9:48 AM EST
Retiring Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).

After 40 years in Congress, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), a graying liberal lion, is calling it quits. He announced over the weekend that he won't seek reelection in 2016.

In an interview with the Washington Post, Harkin was asked whether US Senate was "not as fun for him as it used to be." No, it's not, Harkin offered, and he pointed to, of all things, the spiraling cost of elections as a major reason why:

It's not as much fun in that we're so consumed with other things. Here's what I mean: we used to have a Senate Dining Room that was only for senators. We'd go down there and sit around there, and Joe Biden and Fritz Hollings and Dale Bumpers and Ted Stevens and Strom Thurmond and a bunch of us—Democrats and Republicans. We'd have lunch and joke and tell stories, a great camaraderie. That dining room doesn't exist any longer because people quit going there. Why did they quit going? Well, we're not there on Monday, and we're not there on Friday. Tuesday we have our party caucuses. That leaves Wednesday and Thursday—and guess what people are doing then? They're out raising money.

The time is so consumed with raising money now, these campaigns, that you don't have the time for the kind of personal relationships that so many of us built up over time. So in that way, fun, I don't know, there needs to be more time for senators to establish personal relationships than what we are able to do at this point in time.

The emphasis is mine. Those of us who follow political money read reports and op-eds, listen to speeches and panels and testimonies, and often the criticism is that big money in elections "drowns out" the voices of everyday Americans. But rarely do we hear about the impact of all that money on members of Congress themselves and how they do their jobs (or don't). Only when lawmakers like Sen. Harkin, with an eye on the exit, pipe up do we get that insider's view of what's gained—and lost—in today's cash-soaked politics. To be clear, the disgusting amount of time lawmakers spend raising money doesn't just stymie real friendships and make the Senate less fun; when few senators get along, it makes the Senate less functional.

Harkin is not the only senator to point this out. Last year another liberal stalwart, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), memorably told Alex Blumberg of NPR's Planet Money that Americans "would be shocked—not surprised, but shocked—if they knew how much time a United States senator spends raising money." He added, "And how much time we spend talking about raising money, and thinking about raising money, and planning to raise money."

And how much time are talking about here? It varies from lawmaker to lawmaker, but here's a PowerPoint slide prepared by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee that outlined the "model daily schedule" for incoming freshmen Democrats (the presentation was first obtained by the Huffington Post):

"Call time" means fundraising time: hours spent on the phone calling up current and potential donors and asking for campaign cash. The DCCC tells its freshmen to spend more time calling donors than they spend on anything else. Ezra Klein called it "the most depressing graphic for members of Congress." I'm sure Tom Harkin would agree.

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The Senate Immigration Plan Isn't Terrible—It's Just Unworkable

| Mon Jan. 28, 2013 9:23 AM EST
Protesters rally against Arizona's SB 1070 law in Chicago in 2010.

The bipartisan Senate "Gang of Eight" released their framework for comprehensive immigration reform today. As expected, the plan includes increased enforcement and a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants already in the United States. It also contains several tripwires that, if triggered, could destroy the entire effort. The Gang of Eight includes Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.).

Citizenship

The plan includes a path to citizenship, which excludes those with criminal backgrounds and those who have committed crimes since entering the United States. Undocumented immigrants would have to register with the government and go through a background check, and would be allowed to stay under "probationary legal status," after which they would have to "go to the back of the line" before eventually qualifying for citizenship. They will not be eligible for federal benefits during their probationary legal status.

Interestingly, the plan makes the path to citizenship easier for two groups of immigrants: those eligible for the DREAM Act (young people brought to the US as children who are prepared to go to college or join the military) and agricultural workers. A cynical person might point out that in doing so, the plan goes out of its way to help the most sympathetic immigrants, and those most essential to powerful business interests. Or, as the plan puts it, workers who "who commit to the long term stability of our nation's agricultural industries." The plan also states that immigrants who have "received a Ph.D. or Master’s degree in science, technology, engineering, or math from an American university" will automatically get a green card, but doesn't state whether that applies even if the individual is undocumented.

Enforcement

The framework makes reform contingent on things that can't happen until the immigration system is reformed. While perhaps politically necessary, the plan throws more personnel and flying robots at the border, despite the fact that the US already spends more on immigration enforcement than on all other aspects of federal criminal law enforcement combined. The plan implies that undocumented immigrants can only be legalized after a commission "comprised of governors, attorneys general, and community leaders living along the Southwest border" certify that the measures have worked, which puts final legalization of the country's 11 million undocumented immigrants in the hands of Republican officials like Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, who don't want it to happen.

Beyond that, however, the fact is that enforcement can only do so much to deter illegal immigration, because those seeking a better life will brave ever more dangerous obstacles to get here. What's needed is an immigration system that allows enough people in to work so that people think they have a decent enough chance to get here that risking their life to do so isn't worth it. The framework is incredibly vague on this point, hinting at a guest worker program but never using the phrase, and simply stating that the plan will "provide businesses with the ability to hire lower-skilled workers in a timely manner when Americans are unavailable or unwilling to fill those jobs." This, not more drones at the border, is arguably the most important aspect of deterring illegal immigration, and the plan gives it short shrift.

Bottom Line

The Gang of Eight's framework isn't all terrible—it's just unworkable. It places conditions it's unlikely to meet, and then further compounds the problem by putting a veto in the hands of people who are likely to oppose the plan even if those conditions were met. Immigration reform advocates will be wary of the employment verification requirements (particularly given the error-prone nature of the current system), while the immigration restrictionist right will be completely opposed to any plan that offers undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship rather than "self-deportation."

Politically, the immediate question is whether the presence of senators like Rubio and Flake can limit the backlash on the right, since any immigration reform bill still has to get through the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. But even if the entire plan were written, passed, and signed by the president tomorrow, much of it—legalization in particular—could be prevented from ever happening.

UPDATE 1:05 PM EST: The Washington Post's Greg Sargent reports that the Democrats inolved in the plan see the Southwestern commission's recommendations will be "non-binding," which means they won't have a veto over the process. Rubio's office however, has told Sargent that "all of the enforcement mechanisms must be in place and operational before a pathway to citizenship is made accessible to undocumented immigrants. " The question remains then, is how the bill determines the security requirements have been met so that the legalization process can occur.

This article has been revised. 

New Arizona Bill Wants Hospitals Policing Immigration

| Mon Jan. 28, 2013 9:22 AM EST
The state that brought you SB 1070, perhaps the harshest immigration law in the nation, is at it again with a bill that could bring illegal immigrant-hunting into new territory: hospitals.

Proposed last week by Republican state Rep. Steve Smith, HB 2293 would require hospital workers to verify the immigration status of uninsured people seeking care. They'd have to make note of any undocumented patient, and then call the police.

Speaking outside the Arizona capitol on Thursday, Rep. Smith called it simply "a data-collection bill" to figure out how much Arizona is spending on illegal immigrant care, promising that no one would be denied treatment or deported once their status is disclosed.

Neither of these guarantees is mentioned anywhere in the bill, but co-sponsor Rep. Carl Seel told Arizona's KPHO that hospitals wouldn't deny treatment, since "we're a benevolent nation."

If enacted, the bill could scare immigrants away from getting medical attention. Nationwide, the undocumented are already far less likely to seek health care. Advocates say the low rate is partially explained by a fear that they'll be reported to authorities. This law would do little to lighten such distrust: It doesn't explain what police should or can do with the data flowing in from hospitals. When he was asked whether law enforcement would show up to hospitals when notified, Smith's response was: "We have no clue."

Ostensibly, doctors wouldn't have to juggle providing care and phoning the cops; the bill makes it clear that other hospital employees should handle the bill's requirements. Still, the state's hospitals are pushing back. Pete Wertheim, a spokesman for the Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association, says that with more than 3 million patients each year, the rules would be impossible to implement with current budgets and staffing. He also points out that if the law deterred immigrants with communicable diseases—think tuberculosis—from seeking treatment, it could endanger everyone in the state.

The bill is still in early stages, and hasn't yet made it to committee. And if precedent is any indicator, it's not likely to pass: Rep. Smith has introduced similar bills before, with little success. Laws he proposed last year that would have implemented immigration checks at schools and hospitals both failed in the Senate.

Texas Public Schools: Still Teaching Creationism

| Mon Jan. 28, 2013 6:01 AM EST

In Texas public schools, children learn that the Bible provides scientific proof that Earth is 6,000 years old, that the origins of racial diversity trace back to a curse placed on Noah's son, and that astronauts have discovered "a day missing in space" that corroborates biblical stories of the sun standing still.

These are some of the findings detailed in Reading, Writing & Religion II, a new report by the Texas Freedom Network that investigates how public schools in the Lone Star State promote religious fundamentalism under the guise of offering academic courses about the Bible. The report, written by Mark Chancey, a professor of religious studies at Southern Methodist University, found that more than half of the state's public-school Bible courses taught students to read the book from a specifically Christian theological perspective—a clear violation of rules governing the separation of church and state.

Many school districts pushed specific strains of fundamentalism in the classes:

  • "The Bible is the written word of God," proclaims a slide shown to students in suburban Houston's Klein Independent School District (ISD). Another slide adds: "The Bible is united in content because there is no contradictions [sic] in the writing. The reason for this is because the Bible is written under God's direction and inspiration."
  • A PowerPoint slide in Brenham ISD in Central Texas claims that "Christ's resurrection was an event that occurred in time and space—that is was, in reality, historical and not mythological." (emphasis in original)
  • In North Texas, Prosper ISD promotes the Rapture, claiming in course materials that "the first time the Lord gathered his people back was after the Babylonian captivity. The second time the Lord will gather his people back will be at the end of the age."

Some Bible classes in Texas public school appear to double as "science" classes, circumventing limits placed on teaching creationism. Eastland ISD, a school district outside Fort Worth, shows videos produced by the Creation Evidence Museum, which claims to possess a fossil of a dinosaur footprint atop "a pristine human footprint."

Perhaps the wackiest Bible lesson was the one presented to students at Amarillo ISD titled: "Racial Origins Traced from Noah." A chart presented in the classroom claims that it's possible to identify which of Noah's three sons begat various racial and ethnic groups. Chancey explains:

According to the chart, "Western Europeans" and "Caucasians" descend from Japeth, "African races" and Canaanites from Ham, and "Jews, Semitic people, and Oriental races" from Shem. A test question shows that the chart was taken seriously: "Shem is the father of a) most Germanic races b) the Jewish people c) all African people."

In Texas, public schools have the legal right to offer these kinds of classes—up to a point. In 2007 the state legislature passed a law allowing school districts to offer "elective courses on the Bible's Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament." The Supreme Court long ago ruled that such classes pass constitutional muster, as long as they don't advocate for a specific religious view. As Chancey points out, the state of Texas obviously needs to do a much better job of educating its teachers about what that means.

At 40, Kronos Quartet Is Still Pushing Boundaries

| Mon Jan. 28, 2013 6:01 AM EST
Kronos Quartet with David Harrington at left.

The Kronos Quartet recently played its first concert of 2013, a year that marks the group's 40th anniversary, at the Napa Valley Opera House. The night's program by this famously genre-stretching, culture-swapping string quartet pushed the boundaries of traditional and experimental music and so blew me away that I was compelled to reach out to founder David Harrington to chat about the group's origins, cross-cultural mashups, and music as activism.

Mother Jones: With the work that you do, playing new music from some unheard composers and others that are constantly innovating, I've sort of come to think of Kronos Quartet as musical activists. What do you think about that?

David Harrington: I feel honored to be called an activist. It stems from the work that I want to do and the function of being a group in our time and in our culture. To me the two violins, a viola, and a cello create an almost infinitely moldable sound. As a force in society it can tackle all sorts of issues. The other night you heard music from Syria, India, Serbia, and a lot of places that you wouldn't normally think of string quartet music necessarily coming from. I've spent my entire 39-plus years at Kronos trying to extend the reach of music and bring elements into the work that maybe hadn't been considered before.