2013 - %3, June

Friday Cat Blogging - 28 June 2013

| Fri Jun. 28, 2013 3:07 PM EDT

Nothing special this week. It's just Domino rolling around on the carpet and wondering what's going on in the kitchen. Note the shoes in the background for scale. Domino is bigger than a pair of shoes.

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The Supreme Court's Ruling on Prop. 8 Is a Problem, But Probably Not That Big a Problem

| Fri Jun. 28, 2013 3:04 PM EDT

The LA Times writes today that a lot of people share my concern about the Supreme Court ruling that allowed California's Proposition 8 to be overturned. The problem is that the court didn't rule on the merits of the case. They simply decided that after the governor declined to defend Prop. 8, no one else had standing to do so. This means that the district court order overturning Prop. 8 was allowed to stand by default:

Many in the state, regardless of their views on same-sex unions, shared Kennedy's sentiment, fearing that elected officials now have permission to scuttle initiatives they dislike by simply deciding not to defend them in federal court.

"The initiative process, by its nature, is designed to bypass elected officials," said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., a group named for the man who transformed California government in 1978 with Proposition 13, a ballot initiative that reined in property taxes. "Anything that vests power in those elected officials over the initiative process is a dangerous move," Coupal said.

Even Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, an early supporter of same-sex marriage when he was San Francisco's mayor and an opponent of Proposition 8, expressed such reservations. "I couldn't be more excited about" the victory for gay marriage, he said. But the justices' action raises "legitimate questions on all sides about the power of elected officials to…trump and deny the will of the voters."

I think these concerns are valid. One way or another, if the people of a state approve a ballot initiative, then they ought to be allowed to defend that initiative all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary. That's just basic judicial fairness.

That said, I do think it's worth pointing out that, in practice, this probably isn't a big issue. The problem with Prop. 8, which banned same-sex marriage, is that it was easy for gay couples challenging the law to show that they were harmed by it. This gave them standing to sue. But the defenders of the law couldn't show that they had been harmed in any concrete way by allowing gay marriage, so they didn't have standing. Thus the ruling.

In real life, this isn't likely to happen very often. Suppose this were a case about an initiative that weakened smog regulations for power plants, and the governor declined to defend the initiative because he didn't want to see those regulations weakened. It would be pretty easy to find a power plant owner to defend the initiative, and it would be pretty easy for the owner to show that overturning the law would cause him harm. In other words, it would be pretty easy to show standing.

This is most often the case. Prop. 8 really was fairly unique in this regard. Normally, someone is helped by a law and other people are hurt. It's only in a case where no one can demonstrate they've been harmed that standing becomes an issue, and that's not likely to happen very often.

I still think this is an issue that California and other states ought to address, though. Erwin Chemerinsky has some ideas here.

Student Test Scores Continue to Rise, Just As They Have For the Past 40 Years

| Fri Jun. 28, 2013 1:22 PM EDT

Bob Somerby is excited. In the Washington Post this morning, Lyndsey Layton reports on the results of the latest NAEP test scores, and she forthrightly says that they "paint a picture of steady student achievement that contradicts the popular notion that U.S. educational progress has stalled." Bob comments:

In the highlighted passages, the Washington Post has finally confessed. At long last, it is reporting the basic story that it has obscured for so long:

The nation’s students are doing better in reading and math! NAEP data “paint a picture of steady student achievement that contradicts the popular notion that U.S. educational progress has stalled.”

Let’s say that again: The actual data contradict the popular notion that educational progress has stalled.

Yep. Test scores haven't been declining. Our international rankings haven't been dropping. They just haven't. They've been rising. Rising for whites, rising for blacks, and rising for Latinos. Just plain rising. 

This doesn't mean everything is peachy; it doesn't mean there aren't pockets of unconscionably poor achievement; and it doesn't mean we're spending our educational dollars wisely. We can still argue about all that stuff, just as we can argue about charter schools, direct instruction, concentrated poverty, and much more. But the backdrop for those arguments is simple: test scores have been going up for the past four decades, and that rise has continued over the past decade. Not always steadily, but nonetheless going in the right direction. I'll even add my usual caveat for the pessimists in the audience: test scores for 17-year-olds have been mostly flat, so we still need to figure out how to keep rising test scores from washing out in later years.

Still: test scores are up! They've been going up for a long time! The basic charts are below. If you want to play around with the data for yourself, just click here.

Hassan Rohani is the Iranian Barack Obama

| Fri Jun. 28, 2013 12:43 PM EDT

Matt Duss and Lawrence Korb write today that we should be restrained about what the election of the "reformist" Hassan Rohani means for the future of U.S.-Iranian relations:

One shouldn’t have any illusions about what the election of Rohani represents. He is a dedicated member of the Iranian regime, and a strong supporter of Iran’s nuclear rights. Negotiations between the Iran and the P5+1 will not suddenly become easy. But the fact that the most moderate choice prevailed in Iran’s presidential election reveals that there is an important debate taking place amongst Iran’s ruling elite over the nature of Iran’s relations with the world. Given the level of distrust that still exists between the U.S. and Iran, there’s little the U.S. can do to empower its favored interlocutors. But, as the past has shown, there’s a lot the U.S. can do to empower those most opposed to conciliation and compromise. Given the high stakes, the U.S. should be as careful as possible to do no harm, as a heightened Congressional debate over the use of force against Iran would almost certainly do.

For obvious reasons, this inspired me to modify Duss and Korb's paragraph slightly:

One shouldn’t have any illusions about what the election of Barack Obama represents. He's a dedicated member of the bipartisan mainstream consensus on national security, and a strong supporter of America's intelligence community. Foreign military interventions will not suddenly be abandoned, nor will intrusive surveillance programs be shut down. But the fact that the most moderate choice prevailed in America’s presidential election reveals that there is an important debate taking place amongst the U.S. ruling elite over the nature of America's relations with the world.

Hassan Rohani is, more or less, the Barack Obama of Iranian politics: better than the alternatives, but not likely to represent any kind of sharp, fundamental change. Nor should that come as any suprise. People who truly represent sharp, fundamental change are very rarely elected national leaders. Not in America, and not in Iran.

We Don't Need More Capital. We Need More Labor Income.

| Fri Jun. 28, 2013 12:12 PM EDT

Advanced economies need lots of capital to operate efficiently. But is more capital always better? Longtime readers know that I have my doubts: there are diminishing returns to everything, and there's a point at which access to capital is so widespread that making access easier doesn't do much good. In fact, it might even make things worse. If increased access to capital isn't matched by an increase in labor income, then there's a mismatch: lots of capital sloshing around, but not a lot of good opportunities to invest in real-world production of goods and services. The result is a financial bubble.

Today, Brad DeLong reviews the bidding and concludes that this is probably right:

Bruce Bartlett points to Greenwood and Scharfstein, to Cechetti and Kharoubi's suggestion that financial deepening is only useful in early stages of economic development, to Orhangazi's evidence on a negative correlation between financial deepening and real investment, and to Lord Adair Turner's doubts that the flowering of sophisticated finance over the past generation has aided either growth or stability.

Four years ago....[it] seemed to me then that in a world short of risk-bearing capacity with an outsized equity premium virtually anything that induced people to commit their money to long-term risky investments by creating either the reality or the illusion that finance could, in John Maynard Keynes's words, "defeat the dark forces of time and ignorance which envelop our future".

....But the events and economic research of the past years have demonstrated three things. First, modern finance is simply too powerful in its lobbying before legislatures and regulators ....Second, the growth-financial deepening correlations on which I relied do indeed vanish when countries move beyond simple possession of a banking system, EFT, and a bond market....Third, the social returns to the U.S.'s and the North Atlantic's investment in finance as the industry of the future over the past generation has, largely, crapped out.

We still haven't come to grips with this. Dodd-Frank was a weak bill, and it's getting weaker by the day as finance lobbies scramble to gut its implementing regulations. Likewise, Basel III's capital requirements for banks are—probably—an improvement over Basel II, but they're still nowhere near adequate. At the same time, the bargaining power of labor, already weakened by deunionization, globalization, and skill biasing, is starting to be weakened even more by the slow but inexorable march of automation.

Until we deal seriously with this stuff, we're just setting ourselves up for more misery. It's practically an iron law of finance that when capital piles up because there are too few productive projects to invest in, eventually it gets stupid. The result is a frenzy of some kind or another, and then a bust. Eventually, even Wall Street and the Republican Party will have to face up to this.

Don't Count on Republicans Being Crafty Enough to Pass Immigration Reform via a Discharge Petition

| Fri Jun. 28, 2013 11:16 AM EDT

It's hard to believe, but after decades of calling the Senate the place legislation goes to die, suddenly the Senate is the place where legislation and compromise are the order of the day. It's the House where legislation goes to die, thanks to the House Republican caucus's near total takeover by its hardcore tea party wing. So does this mean that immigration reform is dead?

That's my guess. But the hot topic lately among the chattering classes is that there's actually a way to force passage: a discharge petition. Steve Benen outlines the theory for us:

As a rule, the only bills that reach the House floor for a vote are the ones House leaders allow to reach the floor. But there's an exception: if 218 members sign a discharge petition, their preferred legislation is brought up for a vote whether the majority party's leadership likes it or not.

In terms of specific numbers, there are 201 Democrats in the House caucus. If literally all of them are prepared to support the bipartisan Senate bill, they would need 17 House Republicans — just 7% of the 231 GOP House members — to join them on the discharge petition. If, say, 10 conservative "Blue Dog" Democrats from Southern states balked, they would need 27 Republicans to break party ranks.

Just last week, we were told they were as many as 40 House Republicans who consider themselves moderates, unhappy with their party's far-right direction. Is there a chance half of these alleged centrists might sign a discharge petition and get immigration reform done? Sure there is.

The odds aren't great, but don't let all the "D.O.A." talk convince you the reform fight is already over.

Hey, it worked for the Civil Rights Act! Maybe immigration reform is next.

But I'm not a believer. Here's why: it actually makes sense. If Republicans really do want to pass immigration reform just to get it over and done with, but they want to do it without getting their fingerprints all over it, the discharge petition is easily their best bet. As Steve says, all it requires is 20 or 30 Republicans in safe seats to vote for it, while the entire rest of the caucus gets to continue railing against it while secretly breathing a sigh of relief. That's totally logical.

And that's why it won't happen. Logic is simply not the GOP's strong suit these days, and frankly, neither is Machiavellian maneuvering. The only thing they know how to do is yell and scream and hold votes on endless doomed repetitions of bills designed to demonstrate their ideological purity. A different House and a different party leader might be crafty enough to see the value in a discharge petition, but not this one. They're true believers. They won't secretly agree to leave the defectors alone after the vote, which is the minimum necessary for this to work, nor will John Boehner risk telling them secretly that he won't take away their committee assignments or otherwise retaliate against them. The party leadership just doesn't have this level of craftiness in them.

Which is too bad. It's an elegant idea.

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There's Some Good News About the Future of Affirmative Action

| Fri Jun. 28, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

Affirmative Action supporters rally outside the US Supreme Court in 2012.

Although the Supreme Court's decision earlier this week in the University of Texas affirmative action case was basically a punt, the end appears to be very near for racial preferences in university admissions. The case was sent back to the Fifth Circuit Court for review, and the majority opinion said that the court could uphold affirmative action only if "no workable race-neutral alternatives would produce the educational benefits of diversity." That's a very stiff test, and one that neither UT nor any other university is likely to meet.

So if race-based affirmative action gets struck down in the near future, what's next? One alternative that liberals should probably embrace more enthusiastically is class-based affirmative action.

This isn't a perfect substitute for race-based affirmative action. In a study of elite universities, Anthony Carnevale and Stephen Rose concluded that class-based affirmative action would probably produce student bodies that were about 10 percent black and Latino, compared to 12 percent with purely race-based affirmative action. Taking wealth into consideration might boost that a bit more, as would policies that take account of whether a student lives in concentrated poverty, a partial proxy for racial housing discrimination.

Still, there's no question that in practice, even well-designed class-based policies would probably represent a net loss for minority representation. But it's a fairly modest loss, and class-based policies also have some advantages—quite aside from the fact that we might soon be forced into using them whether we like it or not. For one thing, they help poor people. That's worthwhile all by itself, since elite universities are notorious for the affluence of their student bodies. Current affirmative action programs mostly select rich and upper-middle-class minorities, something that even Barack Obama admits isn't fair. "My daughters should probably be treated by any admissions officer as folks who are pretty advantaged," he told George Stephanopoulos back in 2007, "and I think that there's nothing wrong with us taking that into account as we consider admissions policies at universities."

Class-based policies also provoke a lot less resentment from working-class whites. As Richard Kahlenberg, a tireless one-man advocate for class-based policies, points out, race-based admission policies are supported by only about a quarter of the population. Conversely, class and income-based policies are supported by upwards of two-thirds of the population. That represents a far stronger foundation for keeping diversity policies thriving over the next few decades.

And there's more. Carnevale and Rose concluded that class-based policies produce higher graduation rates than either a pure merit-based system (test scores and high school GPAs) or a traditional affirmative action program. And eliminating race-based policies would also put an end to the suspicion that continues to dog black and Latino college graduates from employers who wonder if their degrees were really fairly earned.

Would it be possible for us to adopt class-based programs? One obstacle, as I wrote a couple of years ago, is the insistence of conservatives on refusing to even admit that racism is a problem anymore. It's become practically a truism on the right that racism is a thing of the past, nothing more than a convenient whipping boy to be exploited by race hustlers like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton who prey on liberal guilt and federal largesse. This is just poisonous, and it justifiably provokes a defensive attitude on the left. There's no way that blacks or any other ethnic minority will ever take conservative complaints about affirmative action at face value if they flatly refuse to concede that there's even a problem left to be addressed.

But that shouldn't stop us. We should be forthright in conceding that class-based policies are likely to produce slightly lower minority representation at elite universities. But well-designed policies can make that loss very small, and the advantages of class-based policies go a long way toward making up for that. It's something we should face up to before we're forced into it whether we like it or not.

Why Is the Obama Administration Suddenly So Interested in African Farms?

| Fri Jun. 28, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

A Peace Corps volunteer talks about soy with farmers in Malawi.

This week, President Obama is making his first major visit to Africa since taking office. One topic that's likely high on his agenda: US investment in African agriculture.

With the global population expected to top 9 billion by 2050, the Obama administration is pushing hard to use foreign development funds to expand farming in the developing world, and especially in Africa. Since 2009, when Obama made a pledge at the G8 Summit in L'Aquila, Italy, to devote massive resources to global "food security," Congress has committed more than $3.5 billion to an agricultural development program called "Feed the Future." Congress has since renewed the initiative's funding.

"After decades in which agriculture and nutrition didn't always get the attention they deserved," Obama said in an address last year, "we put the fight against global hunger where it should be, which is at the forefront of global development."

But the US government's motivation for investing such a large sum in Feed the Future isn't entirely altruistic. Here's a look at some of the other reasons behind the sudden enthusiasm for agriculture in the developing world.

I've heard that hunger had something to do with the Arab Spring. Is that true?
Possibly. The impetus for Feed the Future goes back to the food price crisis of 2007-08, when prices for basic commodities like corn rose dramatically all over the world. Among middle-class consumers in the United States and Europe, the spike in prices went largely unnoticed. But in developing nations such as Côte d'Ivoire and Haiti, where families typically spend a large portion of their incomes on food, it led to riots. Some observers theorized that the price spike hastened the start of the Arab Spring

At a May 2008 hearing on the food price crisis, Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) predicted that shortages of food "are likely to recur frequently if the United States and the global community fail to open up agricultural trade and invest in agricultural productivity in the developing world." The damage of the food crisis, he added, "likely would have been ameliorated if more of the world's poor farmers had access to better technology, titled land, small loans, extension support, and accessible markets." 

Do US businesses stand to profit from all this new farming development in Africa?
Absolutely. Broadly speaking, the idea behind Feed the Future is to grow more food than ever before by making it easier for global agribusiness companies to invest in poor countries. As USAID head Rajiv Shah indicated at the official unveiling of Feed the Future in 2010, the agency could advocate on companies' behalf to make investment easier in partner countries. 

"If you're from the private sector, tell us what countries and donors can do to reduce constraints on business operations," he said.

The US government appears to already be doing this, as a recent analysis of dumped embassy cables found that the State Department had lobbied governments around the world to adopt policies allowing for the cultivation of genetically modified crops.

"[S]ome may see our work in Africa as philanthropy, but it's much more than that," said General Mills CEO Ken Powell at an event hosted by the World Food Prize Foundation. "It's about creating shared value, and for our African partners, it is about unlocking opportunity—business opportunity—through knowledge-sharing."

What's Feed the Future done so far?
At the end of of 2012, USAID had disbursed slightly more than $1 billion of the $3.7 billion obligated by Congress for Feed the Future. The initiative has supported a wide variety of programs: In 2011, for example, PepsiCo partnered with USAID under the Feed the Future rubric to employ farmers in Ethiopia to grow chickpeas for domestic consumption, as well as for export for use in Sabra hummus. (PepsiCo co-owns the Sabra brand with the Israeli company Strauss Group Ltd.) Similarly, Walmart received USAID funding to train farmers in Guatemala to grow tomatoes for stores in Latin America. In the words of USAID's brochure, USAID and Walmart would steer small farmers to "to more market-oriented production, based on expected consumer demand." In 2012, Powell announced that an organization co-founded by General Mills, Partners in Food Solutions, would join with USAID to make a combined $15 million investment in training for food processors in Southern and Eastern Africa.

What's so bad about that?
In theory, nothing. But similar efforts in the past haven't always turned out as well as hoped. Devlin Kuyek, a researcher for the Barcelona-based nonprofit GRAIN, pointed to one relevant example: In 2007, Swiss agribusiness giant Nestlé joined with the Gates Foundation to make a major investment in the Kenyan dairy industry. According to a statement from Nestlé, the company chose the project's Rift Valley site because of its potential for production growth. They weren't the only ones to see an opportunity: The following year, Land O'Lakes followed Nestlé to Kenya and introduced a USAID-backed program to modernize the country's dairy industry. In the words of Michael Yost, a manager for USDA's Foreign Agriculture Service, the project was part of an effort to help poor countries "participate in world trade" and "bring their agricultural economies into the 21st century."

But Kenya was self-sufficient in milk well before agribusiness came onto the scene, according to a 2003 report by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization. Moreover, the low-tech dairy industry provided income for an estimated 625,000 people. But by 2010, as production soared on the heels of new large-scale production, Kenya was overloaded with dairy. The price of milk dropped, and rather than sell their product at a loss, farmers began dumping it.

But a glut in production was not the only problem for Kenya's small milk producers. In January 2013, Kenya banned the sale of raw milk, citing both safety concerns, and the need to protect the investments of large milk processors, according to media accounts. Far from supporting an existing (and functional) dairy industry, foreign agribusiness had only helped to undermine it.

But if people are hungry, what's wrong with growing more food?
Though it may seem counterintuitive, some agricultural economists argue that you can't fix a food price spike by growing more food. During the 2007-08 crisis, many attributed the spike to changes in the weather and a slump in global production, but global food supply fell only slightly during that time. In fact, researchers for both Congress and the United Nations have attributed the problem more to a speculative bubble, with hedge funds and investment banks driving up prices by betting on basic commodities.

So is there a better way?
Wouldn't it be nice if we knew? Hans Herren, president of the Millennium Institute, argues that the world's farmers should focus less on growing more food, and more on growing higher quality food with fewer inputs, thereby enriching the soil instead of depleting it with chemicals. As Herren told my colleague Tom Philpott recently, in gross terms, the world already grows enough food today to feed the world two times over.

This article has been revised.

Short Takes: "Homegoings"

| Fri Jun. 28, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

Homegoings

POV

Linda Williams-Miller is sick and doesn't want to burden her children, so she decides to plan her own funeral. She meets with Isaiah Owens, a slow-talking mortician who eases the tension by noting the exact red of her hair dye, saying he knows she wouldn't be caught dead with the wrong color. In Homegoings, director Christine Turner offers an exquisitely composed and intimate view of African American death traditions. Shot in funeral homes in Harlem and South Carolina, the film focuses on Owens, a calming, even charming presence who brings humor in times of grief. As he describes funerals, this documentary is "a sad, good time."

This review originally appeared in our July/August issue of Mother Jones. 

Scandalmania Has Turned Out to Be Just Another Bubble

| Fri Jun. 28, 2013 1:10 AM EDT

Jon Chait makes an astute observation today: even Republicans aren't talking much about White House scandals anymore. Scandalmania—which just a few weeks ago was widely thought to mark the beginning of the end of Obama's second term—has turned out to be little more than a typical DC feeding frenzy, one that's fading away as quickly as it burst into our collective id. It still exists in the conservative fever swamps, of course, along with Obamaphones and death panels, but out in the real world Benghazi is mostly a military debacle; the IRS is just another bureaucratic screw-up; and the NSA's surveillance programs are a garden variety policy dispute. So what happened?

The whole Obama scandal episode is a classic creation of a “narrative” — the stitching together of unrelated data points into a story. What actually happened is this: House Republicans passed a twisted account of a hearing to ABC’s Jonathan Karl, who misleadingly claimed to have seen it, creating the impression that the administration was caught in a major lie. Then the IRS story broke, which we now see was Republicans demanding a one-sided audit and thus producing the impression of one-sided treatment. In that context, legitimate controversies over Obama’s civil-rights policies became the “three Obama scandals,” exposing a government panopticon, if not a Nixonian administration bent on revenge.

The collapse of the Benghazi story happened very quickly, when Jake Tapper’s reporting found that Karl had peddled a bogus story. (It’s notable that the only misconduct in both the Benghazi and the IRS stories was committed by House Republicans.) But the scandal cloud lingered through the still-extant IRS scandal, which in turn lent the scandal odor to the civil-liberties dispute. Now that the IRS scandal has turned into a Darrell Issa scandal, we’re left with ... an important dispute over domestic surveillance, which has nothing to do with scandal at all. The entire scandal narrative was an illusion.

More at the link.