Kevin Drum - December 2008

Finnish Education

| Fri Dec. 12, 2008 2:16 PM EST

FINNISH EDUCATION....Matt Yglesias, no doubt after knocking back a few shots of vodka in a Helsinki sauna during his "educational" junket to Finland, reports that teaching programs are much more competitive in Finland than in the U.S.:

It's a bit hard to say what accounts for the strong level of interest in a teaching career in Finland. Finnish teacher compensation seems about average for the US [but] the relative salary is higher because other professionals such as lawyers and doctors earn less in Finland than do their US equivalents. And the subjective quality of the job experience seems better in Finland since the kids have many fewer discipline issues.

I guess it's not so hard to say after all. This seems like a pretty adequate explanation to me, and unfortunately it also demonstrates why international comparisons are so often unhelpful. We're not going to slash the pay of lawyers and doctors, after all (though Wall Street brokers better watch their Armani-clad backs), and there's no way that teacher salaries will ever rise high enough to be competitive with current salaries in those professions. And "discipline issues," which covers a very wide territory indeed, is only partly amenable to work in the classroom itself. Inner city poverty and the bane of broken families have to be largely addressed elsewhere.

Still, it reminds me of this story from earlier in the year about a school in Washington Heights that plans to pay teachers $125,000 or more as a way of recruiting a top notch faculty and turning it loose in a poor school. I remain uncertain what this will prove, since even if it works it's not really replicable on a wide scale, but it's still interesting. Perhaps we'll create a little slice of Finland in the middle of New York City.

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Czar Update

| Fri Dec. 12, 2008 1:36 PM EST

CZAR UPDATE....It looks like Congress might not appoint a "car czar" after all, but here's an update on where this whole czar business seems to have come from in the first place.

The word has been used for a long time as a generic term of abuse for someone who acts autocratically, but the "_____ czar" usage is more recent. Mark Kleiman traces it back to 1920, when Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis was appointed the first baseball commissioner after the Black Sox scandal, and was given such wide ranging powers that he was known as the "czar of baseball." Apparently it caught on, and in 1926 the Milk Chamber of Commerce in New York appointed a "milk czar," while in 1933 New York Governer Herbert Lehman appointed New York City police commissioner Edward Mulrooney the state's "beer czar."

However, the modern day version, referring to a federal government appointee with supposedly vast powers, appears to date from World War II. In comments, Walsh provides us with this paragraph from the Washington Post in 1942:

Executive orders creating new czars to control various aspects of our wartime economy have come so thick and fast in the last week that it is difficult for the public to remember all of them. In rapid succession we have acquired a petroleum czar, a manpower czar, and a food czar. These, of course, were added to a long list of other super-executives directing war production, economic stabilization, price fixing, transportation, and so forth. So far as we can determine, the galaxy of czars is now complete, unless the President should decide to appoint a czar over the czars.

In particular, Donald Nelson was pretty well known as the "war production czar," and in 1943 Time magazine echoed the Post with this:

Czars were now a dime a dozen: the U.S. had Economic Czar James F. Byrnes, Production Czar Donald Nelson, Manpower Czar Paul McNutt, Food Czar Claude Wickard, Rubber Czar William Jeffers. But they were more like Grand Dukes than Czars: under their high-sounding titles, divided authority and lack of direction left them still snarled in invisible red tape.

Rubber Czar Jeffers, trying to do his job, had got all fouled up with the Army & Navy. Economic Czar Byrnes had stepped in to cut away the tangle — but no one was sure last week who would enforce the compromise he had laid down. Manpower Czar McNutt began stretching his muscles with a new work-or-fight order — and Congress promptly raised a howl. Czar Wickard was apparently frozen with fright at the horrible food prospects ahead.

Things then stayed relatively quiet on the czar front until 1973, when Richard Nixon appointed John Love as "energy czar," followed by William Simon in the same post. Since then, they've multiplied like flies. If Barack Obama puts a stop to it, I'm sure he'll have the thanks of a grateful nation.

November Sales

| Fri Dec. 12, 2008 12:44 PM EST

NOVEMBER SALES....Retail sales were bad last month, but not terrible:

Retail sales dropped by 1.8% last month, the Commerce Department said Friday....The 1.8% drop was mildly better than expected. Economists expected a 2.2% decline in sales during November, traditionally a busy shopping time as the holidays approach.

....Stripping away sales at gas stations, demand at all other retailers fell 0.2% in November. Sales are falling because of dropping prices for gas.

"Lower" demand for gasoline is meaningless, since it's based solely on the fact that gasoline prices are dropping like a rock. It's actually good news.

Inflation in the rest of the economy is hard to guess, but it was probably up a small amount. In real dollars, then, seasonally adjusted retail sales in November were probably still down compared to October, but perhaps only by 0.3% or so. Could be worse.

And year-over-year, of course, it was worse. Compared to this time last year, retail sales are way, way down. Everyone's credit cards are maxed out, and for the first time since records have been kept people are paying them off instead of running them up. This had to happen eventually, but it's bad news for the economy while it's going on. Bottom line: it's time for Uncle Credit Card to step up to the plate.

No Bailout

| Fri Dec. 12, 2008 2:18 AM EST

NO BAILOUT....Senate Republicans have scuttled the auto bailout bill. Apparently Democrats and the UAW had agreed to deep wage cuts and work rule changes, but it still wasn't enough:

The automakers would [] have been required to cut wages and benefits to match the average hourly wage and benefits of Nissan, Toyota and Honda employees based in the United States, and the companies would have to impose equivalent work rules.

It was over this proposal that the talks ultimately deadlocked with Republicans demanding that the automakers meet that goal by a certain date in 2009 and Democrats and the union urging that the deadline wait until 2011 when the U.A.W. contract expires.

This is nuts. If you're just flatly against the bailout, fine. Vote against it. But if the wage cuts, along with the debt-for-equity swap that was also part of the bill, were enough to bring you around, why would you cavil at the cuts happening in 2011 instead of the end of 2009? It's only about an 18 month difference, and cutting wages makes a lot more sense in 2011 than it does in the middle of a massive recession anyway.

Another shining moment in the history of the modern GOP. Ideology uber alles.

Saving Detroit

| Thu Dec. 11, 2008 9:06 PM EST

SAVING DETROIT....Earlier this morning the auto bailout bill seemed destined for failure, but later in the day Harry Reid and Sen. Bob Corker (R–Tenn.) were busy trying to patch together one final effort at compromise:

As Reid spoke, a bipartisan group of senators and representatives from Detroit's Big Three automakers and the United Auto Workers union were meeting one floor below in the ceremonial Foreign Relations Committee Room, trying to broker an 11th-hour deal to save the rescue package.

....Corker today put forward a plan that would impose far more stringent auto industry restructuring standards than the House bill. It would reduce the wages and benefits of union workers at domestic car manufacturers by requiring the total labor costs of GM and Chrysler to be "on par" with those in non-union U.S. plants of foreign automakers such as Toyota and Honda.

OK, but I have one question: Is Corker also insisting that the total labor costs of GM's white collar management staff be on on par with those of Toyota and Honda? Just curious.

Obama and Afghanistan

| Thu Dec. 11, 2008 6:03 PM EST

OBAMA AND AFGHANISTAN....Michael Crowley talks to counterinsurgency guru John Nagl after a visit to Afghanistan:

Winning in Afghanistan, he realized, would take more than "a little tweak," as he put it to me from back in Washington a few weeks later, when he was still shaking off the gritty "Kabul crud" that afflicts traveler's lungs. It would take time, money, and blood. "It's a doubling of the U.S. commitment," Nagl said. "It's a doubling of the Afghan army, maybe a tripling. It's going to require a tax increase and a bigger army."

....Nagl's rule of thumb, the one found in the counterinsurgency manual, calls for at least a 1-to-50 ratio of security forces to civilians in contested areas....By Nagl's ratio, Afghanistan's population calls for more than 600,000 security forces. Even adjusting for the relative stability of large swaths of the country, the ideal number could still total around 300,000 — more than a quadrupling of current troop levels. Eventually, Afghanistan's national army could shoulder most of that burden. But, right now, those forces number a ragtag 60,000, a figure Nagl believes will need to at least double and maybe triple.

So how's that ragtag force coming? Joe Klein reports on his visit with British Lieutenant Colonel Graeme Armour in Helmand province last week:

Almost all the recruits were illiterate. "They've had no experience at learning," Armour said. "You sit them in a room and try to teach them about police procedures — they start gabbing and knocking about. You talk to them about the rights of women, and they just laugh."

....The war in Afghanistan — the war that President-elect Barack Obama pledged to fight and win — has become an aimless absurdity....The far more serious problem is Pakistan, a flimsy state with illogical borders, nuclear weapons and a mortal religious enmity toward India, its neighbor to the south. Pakistan is where bin Laden now lives, if he lives.

This has now become conventional wisdom: the real problem is Pakistan. So far, however, in the same way that plans for rescuing General Motors rely mostly on handwaving about "restructuring," plans for solving the Pakistan problem rely mostly on handwaving about "getting tough." Unfortunately, hardnosed details on how this is actually going to work are pretty thin on the ground. If Obama wants public support for an escalation of the war in Afghanistan, his national security team better start providing those details pretty quickly.

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The Final Frontier

| Thu Dec. 11, 2008 2:20 PM EST

THE FINAL FRONTIER....Hmmm. Speaking of czars, apparently NASA administrator Mike Griffin thinks he's the space czar, one whose word is not to be questioned by meddling usurpers:

In a heated 40-minute conversation last week with Lori Garver, a former NASA associate administrator who heads [Barack Obama's] space transition team, a red-faced Griffin demanded to speak directly to Obama, according to witnesses.

In addition, Griffin is scripting NASA employees and civilian contractors on what they can tell the transition team and has warned aerospace executives not to criticize the agency's moon program, sources said.

....When team members arrived three weeks ago, they asked the agency, among other things, to quantify how much could be saved by canceling Ares I. Though they also asked what it would take to accelerate the program, the fact that the team could even consider scrapping the program was enough to spur Griffin and his supporters into action

According to industry officials, Griffin started calling heads of companies working for NASA, demanding that they either tell the Obama team that they support Constellation or refrain from talking about alternatives.

....Soon after, Garver and Griffin engaged in what witnesses said was an animated conversation...."Mike, I don't understand what the problem is. We are just trying to look under the hood," Garver said.

"If you are looking under the hood, then you are calling me a liar," Griffin replied. "Because it means you don't trust what I say is under the hood.

This whole thing is bizarre. In six weeks Obama's team will take over and they're going to be able to tear the hood to shreds and dump its contents on the floor if they feel like it. What on earth does Griffin think he's accomplishing with this kind of Mayberry Machiavelli stuff? Via Tapped.

*Czars

| Thu Dec. 11, 2008 1:56 PM EST

CZARS....Hilzoy is pleased by one of Barack Obama's recent decisions:

I was absolutely thrilled by one fact in this post: the claim that Obama and his team do not plan to use the word 'czar'.

Thank heavens. We've had drug czars, energy czars; we may yet get a car czar. I'm tired of czars. And why czars, anyways?

Hmmm. Where did this whole czar business come from, anyway? My first recollection of it is Richard Nixon appointing an "energy czar" — in response to oil production peaking in the United States, by the way, not the Arab oil embargo — but a quick glance through Nexis shows several earlier uses. The first one I found was in 1969, when New York City controller Abraham Beame apparently decided the city needed to appoint a "construction czar" to get schools built more quickly. If Nexis went back further, I'd probably find earlier examples.

The usage is pretty obvious — a czar is a ruthless, absolute monarch who can shred the bureaucracy and get things done — but when did it first pop into use to describe a political appointee of some kind? Anyone have examples from earlier than 1969?

Healthcare Day

| Thu Dec. 11, 2008 1:10 PM EST

HEALTHCARE DAY....This is sort of anticlimactic, but Barack Obama officially announced today that Tom Daschle would be both his nominee to head up Health and Human Services and his healthcare czar. Ezra Klein reports that Obama was quite clear about pushing through reform quickly:

Key words: "This year." Obviously, he doesn't mean in 2008. But that does suggest a year one commitment, which syncs with Obama's previous statement that he'd like to send a bill to Congress by March or April. Given the financial emergency, that might prove optimistic. But Obama made a point during the presser of arguing that the two are connected. "This has to be interwoven into our economic recovery program," he said "This can't be put off because we're in an emergency. This is the emergency!"

Jon Cohn agrees:

In response to the final question, the only one on health care, he said "the time is now to solve this problem. I met too many families in this campaing, even before the economic downturn, who were desperate." He then mentioned the role health care costs played in personal bankruptcies and employer struggles, and reiterated that "this has to be intimiately woven into our economic recovery program. It's not something we can put off because we're in an emergency. This is part of the emergency. We want to make sure the strategy reflects that truth."

So: good news. The only cautionary note I'd add is that it doesn't sound like Obama has made any commitments yet about what kind of reform he plans to focus on right out of the gate. If it's the full-blown plan he proposed during the campaign, that's great. If it's expansion of SCHIP and a push to automate medical records — well, that's good stuff too, but not exactly the change we've been waiting for. I'm pretty optimistic that he's talking about the former, but obviously we'll have to wait and see.

The Rest of the World

| Thu Dec. 11, 2008 12:57 PM EST

THE REST OF THE WORLD....Marc Ambinder says that Barack Obama's economics team is really, really worried about a genuine collapse of the global economy. But he wonders if they're worried enough about the collapse of individual countries:

To be sure, Pakistan is nearly broke, and U.S. policy makers seem to be aware of that; but a worldwide demand crisis could lead to social unrest in countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, Singapore, the Ukraine, Japan, Turkey or Egypt....The question: what's the administration's policy in this area? Which countries can we afford to let fail? Which unstable states would concern us the most? Is there something the U.S. can do, in advance, should do, in advance, to forestall the collapse of other economies?