Kevin Drum - August 2010

Obama's Speech Recap: Winding Down in Iraq

| Tue Aug. 31, 2010 8:42 PM EDT

First things first: did Obama mention the surge in tonight's speech? Huh huh, did he? No he didn't. Gretchen Carlson is going to go ballistic. (Again.)

OK then. Glad we got that cleared up. What else? Well, I was struck by his mention of his call with George Bush earlier today. The White House obviously played up this call before the fact, and I assume that Obama was hoping to get some kind of bipartisan mileage out of it. But in the end, all he said about it was this: "No one could doubt President Bush's support for our troops, or his love of country and commitment to our security." I can't help but think that if this is the most he could say, the phone call must have been a bit of a bust.

I was also struck by what he said about the success of the troop drawdown: "This was my pledge to the American people as a candidate for this office. Last February, I announced a plan that would bring our combat brigades out of Iraq, while redoubling our efforts to strengthen Iraq’s Security Forces and support its government and people. That is what we have done." This is, technically, true, but it ignores the fact that Obama's plan was a fairly modest variation on the Status of Forces Agreement negotiated by Bush in late 2008. But why ignore that? If you're looking for some kind of conciliatory message to conservatives without going as far as congratulating George Bush for the surge, why not mention this? "It is time to turn the page," Obama said, and framing his withdrawal as a continuation of Bush's policy seems like it would have been a good way to help that happen.

Beyond that, the most striking part of the speech was more in Obama's attitude than in his words —though it was in his words too. It was, I thought, crystal clear that Obama still thinks the Iraq war was a dumb war; that he fully intends to keep drawing down forces there; that he fully intends to draw down forces in Afghanistan on schedule; and that going forward he has no intention of projecting further American force abroad if he can possibly help it. That all seemed pretty palpable from the way he talked about both the Iraq war (which he credited with no positive purpose at all) and the Afghanistan war (where he did acknowledge a purpose, but proposed only tightly limited goals with an emphasis on withdrawal starting next year). And then this:

Our nation’s strength and influence abroad must be firmly anchored in our prosperity at home. And the bedrock of that prosperity must be a growing middle class.

Unfortunately, over the last decade, we have not done what is necessary to shore up the foundation of our own prosperity. We have spent over a trillion dollars at war, often financed by borrowing from overseas. This, in turn, has short-changed investments in our own people, and contributed to record deficits. For too long, we have put off tough decisions on everything from our manufacturing base to our energy policy to education reform. As a result, too many middle class families find themselves working harder for less, while our nation’s long-term competitiveness is put at risk.

And so at this moment, as we wind down the war in Iraq, we must tackle those challenges at home with as much energy, and grit, and sense of common purpose as our men and women in uniform who have served abroad.

Those are the words of a man who wants to stop spending blood and treasure on war and start spending it at home. I would have appreciated hearing a little bit of detail to back this up — just a little! — but no dice. I suspect that would have inevitably taken him into partisan territory, and he was obviously avoiding that, as he usually does. His comment that "over the last decade we have not done what is necessary to shore up the foundation of our own prosperity" was about the closest he got to any kind of partisan shot taking.

In the end, then, a perfectly good speech. The final few minutes didn't do much for me, but these kinds of valedictories rarely do. It probably worked better for other viewers. And while conservatives obviously won't like the fact that Obama is so plainly non-thrilled with the exercise of military power, I liked it just fine. And I thought Obama also struck a good overall tone: composed and deliberate, not bombastic or triumphant. We go to war when we have to, but it really is a last resort. I feel more confident about the ultimate withdrawal of troops from both Iraq and Afghanistan now than I did yesterday, and that's a message I really wanted to hear.

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Glenn Beck's Melodrama

| Tue Aug. 31, 2010 5:07 PM EDT

Since Glenn Beck is in the news thanks to his trillion-person rally this weekend, it's as good a time as any to ask a naive and unanswerable question. But here it is anyway: When did our taste in populist rabble-rousers decline so badly? Or has it? I don't watch Beck very often, but I catch his act every once in a while, and the thing that always strikes me is how obviously phony it is. This isn't a subtle thing, either. Every inflection is so plainly calculated that it's like watching an old-time silent melodrama. 

Of course, my experience with populist rabble-rousers is slim. Maybe William Jennings Bryan sounded the same way. Ditto for Billy Sunday and Father Coughlin and Joe McCarthy.

But I still don't quite get it. I know that conservatives used to have similar complaints about Bill Clinton's shows of emotion, which they considered phony. But whether they were or not, he at least made them seem genuine. Beck almost seems to deliberately go out of his way to make his emotions obviously artificial.

I dunno. Is this just the standard veneer of revivalist preachers, which I have no experience with? Are there conventions to this kind of thing, the way that opera singers emote conventionally and everybody knows how to interpret it? Or what? I just don't get who it is who buys this stuff. To me, Beck practically seems to be openly mocking his audience.

The Worst Possible Greenhouse Gas Regulation

| Tue Aug. 31, 2010 1:16 PM EDT

Jon Chait notes a recent poll showing strong public support for EPA regulation of greenhouse gases:

The paradox of climate policy is that the most popular policy responses are those that hide costs from consumers. Cap and trade is more popular than a carbon tax, and regulation is more popular than [cap and trade]. But cap and trade is more efficient than regulation, and a carbon tax is more efficient than cap and trade.1

Well, yeah. The masses are easily fooled, aren't they? That's why credit card companies hide their fees, telephone companies charge you for an unlisted number, and airlines are willing to do almost anything to raise revenue other than increase the headline price of flying from one city to another.

In any case, Jon takes this as an example of where American democracy ought to work: sure, the masses are ill-informed, but elites know better, and Congress should respond to those elites and end up substituting a carbon tax for EPA regulation.

Maybe. But it depends on your definition of "elite," doesn't it? In the case of carbon regulation, the only elites who really matter are big corporations, and I think they've made the tactical calculation that EPA regs are less bad than either a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system. They might change their minds at some point, but EPA is the devil they know, and its reach has known boundaries. Start mucking around with cap-and-trade and you've created an entirely new monster that you might not be able to control. So my guess is that Congress is responding to elites just fine. Unfortunately, as they usually do, they're responding to the elites that actually matter, not the chattering classes that Jon is thinking of.

1As longtime readers know, I'm not actually convinced of this. In a real-world comparison, I think cap-and-trade might actually be a better, more efficient choice than a straight tax. But I'll leave that aside for the moment.

What Makes a Great Teacher Great?

| Tue Aug. 31, 2010 12:14 PM EDT

The LA Times has provoked the wrath of local teachers by posting a database of teacher performance based on a metric called "value added," a measurement that supposedly controls for the quality of incoming students, English proficiency, individual behavior problems, and so forth. (Q&A here.) But a new EPI report says that value-added sucks anyway:

One study found that across five large urban districts, among teachers who were ranked in the top 20% of effectiveness in the first year, fewer than a third were in that top group the next year, and another third moved all the way down to the bottom 40%. Another found that teachers’ effectiveness ratings in one year could only predict from 4% to 16% of the variation in such ratings in the following year. Thus, a teacher who appears to be very ineffective in one year might have a dramatically different result the following year. The same dramatic fluctuations were found for teachers ranked at the bottom in the first year of analysis.

Education expert Kevin Carey agrees that value-added is a lousy metric:

But, and this is an enormous caveat, everything else we currently use is worse. A teacher’s years of experience, their education credentials, their certification status, the prestige of their college or their college GPA, even in-class observations. None of these measures does as good of a job at predicting a student’s academic growth as a teacher’s value-added score. Yet, we continue to use these poor proxies for quality at the same we have such passionate fights about measures of actual performance.

Still, it remains true that virtually everyone agrees that value added is "not all that great" (Carey's conclusion). So what should we do instead? Carey says we just don't know. We have lots of minimum standards for teaching quality (no uncertified teachers, no violence, no classroom drunks, no overuse of mimeographed worksheets, etc.) but we don't know much about what makes a teacher stellar:

What kind of teaching is as good as mimeographed worksheets are bad? We don’t really know. The qualifications-and-competence mindset doesn’t allow us to know. We can’t see it, and so gradually we allow policies and institutions and organizational cultures to evolve that pretend it doesn’t exist.

....There’s a natural tendency to proceed from here to the conclusion that we need to intensively study [great teachers like LA's Zenaida Tan] so we can help others be more like them. And we should, this will be valuable research. But we ought not expect it will produce a new list of qualifications and competencies to which every teacher must adhere. Just as there are many different kinds of great writers and lawyers and artists, so too does great teaching come in all manner of variations. This should be seen as entirely positive for the teaching profession. The jobs worth having — and worth paying for — are those that can’t be wholly reduced to definable rules.

Yet the union that purports to represent Tan has done nothing but oppose the creation of the only measures that accurately identify her value as a professional. In doing so, it helps depress the public understanding of all teachers as professionals. If the LA Times hadn’t performed these value-added calculations and published them, who would have? How long do great teachers have to wait to be recognized? How long are they going to be held hostage to a mindset that pretends they don’t exist?

This is no surprise, I guess, since we have so little idea of what makes someone great at any profession. What makes a product manager great? Or a CEO? Or a magazine editor? Or a blogger? No one knows. If you go to the business section of your local Barnes & Noble you can find a hundred books with a hundred different vague and unhelpful answers based on little more than the author's instincts. Talk to business professors and you'll get some different answers, but probably not ones that are an awful lot more reliable.

But the problem with teachers is that assessing their performance isn't just hard, it's even harder than any of those other professions. Product managers interact closely with a huge number of people who can all provide input about how good they are. CEOs have to produce sales and earnings. Magazine editors and bloggers need readers.

But teachers, by definition, work alone in a classroom, and they're usually observed only briefly and by one person. And their output — well-educated students — is almost impossible to measure. If I had to invent a profession where performance would be hard to measure with any accuracy or reliability, it would end up looking a lot like teaching.

So this means we end up using things like value-added, even though we know they're not very good. What other choice do we have, after all? Sara Mead recommends greater reliance on "validated and reliable observational tools, such as the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS), that look at teacher classroom behaviors and measure the extent to which teachers are implementing behaviors linked to improved student outcomes," and that sounds like a good idea to me. But even if this works, it will take years or decades to produce usable results. What do we do in the meantime?

The criticisms of value-added seem compelling. At the same time, if a teacher scores poorly (or well) year after year, surely that tells us something? At some point, we either have to use this data or else give up on standardized testing completely. It just doesn't make sense to keep using it if we don't bother taking the results seriously.

Obama and the Surge

| Tue Aug. 31, 2010 11:19 AM EDT

Marc Ambinder comments on Barack Obama's primetime Iraq speech tonight:

Now then: will he take the bait dangling from Republican hooks and give President Bush credit for the surge? He will telephone President Bush earlier in the day, presumably to thank the president for his judgment in a way that does not acknowledge that his own opposition to the surge was (in retrospect) incorrect. Officials make the argument that people read a lot into the surge, and that a number of different factors, some of them independent of the surge, contributed to the taming of the insurgency. Obama won't get into those arguments there, but it will be interesting to see how he deals with the historical narrative that has President Bush mistakenly choosing to go to war in Iraq and then supporting a strategy that brought about its close more quickly.

Since it's a slow news day, let's mull this over. First take: can you imagine anything that would piss off the liberal base more than acknowledging that the surge worked? You'd be able to hear the steam coming out of lefty ears from sea to shining sea. Second take: Even if he decided to do it anyway, would it be worthwhile? If he wants to be honest, Obama would have to at least mention all those other factors that Ambinder mentions, namely that the reduction in violence in 2007 was quite clearly the result of 4 S's: Surge, Sadr ceasefire, Sectarian cleansing, and Sunni Awakening. But is this too much to talk about? And would it seem churlish to acknowledge the surge and then immediately try to take some of the credit away from it?

Third take: Forget it. Not only would mentioning the surge piss off liberals, but it would also imply some kind of "victory" in Iraq, and surely Obama can't be dimwitted enough to come within a light year of claiming that, can he? Of course not. Not with sporadic violence back in the news and Iraqi leaders still stalemated on forming a government five months after the March elections.

So I'll predict no direct mention of the surge. And since I'm usually wrong about this kind of stuff, I suppose you should try to lay down some money right away on Obama mentioning the surge tonight. But I still don't think he'll do it.

POSTSCRIPT: And now for a usage question. What's the right way to refer to four things that start with the letter S? Should it be 4 Esses? 4 Ses? 4 S's? Or what? They all seem pretty awkward to me.

The Unlisted Phone Number Scam

| Tue Aug. 31, 2010 10:44 AM EDT

David Lazarus complains about one of his favorite bugaboos today, and since it's one of mine too I'll quote him:

This month, Time Warner Cable more than doubled its fee for an unlisted number to a whopping $1.99 a month, or nearly $24 a year....That's a recurring fee — now one of the highest of its type in the telecom industry — for something Time Warner isn't doing for customers.

....Time Warner's fee is all the more remarkable because the company doesn't produce its own phone book. It pays Sprint to compile all its customers' names and numbers, and to then pass them along to whichever phone company dominates a particular market for inclusion in that firm's directory. Just to be clear: That's $1.99 a month not to be in a phone book that Time Warner doesn't even publish.

AT&T's and Verizon's fees are a little more understandable. After all, they make extra cash selling ads in their phone books. The more people who choose not to be listed, the less valuable the directory becomes to advertisers, so the phone company wants to discourage people from leaving.

But Time Warner isn't in the phone book business. Its recurring fee for unlisted numbers is a money grab, pure and simple.

This is one of my pet peeves not because I have to pay this fee — my phone number isn't unlisted — but because it's symptomatic of the looking glass way that we treat privacy in this country. Lazarus points out that the cost of unlisting a phone number is basically zero since it's just a matter of flipping a flag in a database, and that the only reason Time Warner gets away with charging so much is because that's what the market will bear. People who want unlisted phone numbers are willing to pay $24 per year in protection money to get one.

For fly-by-night operators, this is annoying but fine. They have the right to collect information and publish it, whether it annoys me or not. But phone companies are regulated monopolies. If I want phone service, I have no choice but to contract with a tiny number of suppliers who then have privileged information about me. Should I also pay them protection money for withholding my Social Security number or my date of birth from their phone books? After all, their access to that data is all due to their privileged position too.

As a society, we value privacy. We shouldn't allow regulated utilities to decide who gets it and who doesn't. Let the phone companies make money by selling services, not protection.

(Also worth noting: as cell phones and Skype and Google Phone become more popular, the only people who will have to pay for unlisting their phone numbers are increasingly likely to be the old and poor. Do we really want to endorse what's basically a $24/year tax on the most vulnerable segments of the population?)

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What Happens When Summer is Over?

| Tue Aug. 31, 2010 12:18 AM EDT

Gallup got a lot of attention today for a news release reporting that the Republican lead over Democrats in the generic congressional poll had blown out from three points last week to ten points this week. It's only one poll, but it was a pretty dramatic result.

So I went over to Pollster.com to see what their latest poll aggregation showed. It's on the right, with the period from June through August highlighted in pink for both 2009 and 2010. It's not instantly obvious to the eye, but it turns out that pretty much the same thing happened both last year and this. During the three months of summer in 2009, Republicans went from -2 to +1, a change of three points. This year they went from +1 to +5, a change of four points.

So what does the recent change mean? I don't know, but if I had to guess I'd say it shows that conservative hysteria during a slow news season is a pretty effective attention getter, at least in the short term. Last year it was death panels and frenzied town hall meetings. This year it's the Ground Zero mosque and a Glenn Beck rally on the Mall.

So will they lose some of this lead as summer winds down and there's a little more real news to report, as they did last year? Beats me. But I wouldn't be surprised. This is shaping up to be a bad year for Democrats, but once August is over, everyone goes back to work, and the real campaigning begins, things might tighten back up a bit.

How Immigration Boosts Your Pay

| Mon Aug. 30, 2010 8:45 PM EDT

Felix Salmon points to a new research note from the San Francisco Fed about the effects of immigration on U.S. employment and productivity. The bottom line results are interesting: the author says that immigration has no effect on employment ("the economy absorbs immigrants by expanding job opportunities rather than by displacing workers born in the United States"); it has a strong upward effect on average income ("total immigration to the United States from 1990 to 2007 was associated with [...] an increase of about $5,100 in the yearly income of the average U.S. worker"); and immigration improves an economy's total factor productivity dramatically.

Like I said: pretty interesting. But what I thought was even more interesting was the explanation that followed. Why does immigration increase average income? How does it increase productivity and efficiency? Here's the scoop:

The analysis begins with the well-documented phenomenon that U.S.-born workers and immigrants tend to take different occupations....Because those born in the United States have relatively better English language skills, they tend to specialize in communication tasks. Immigrants tend to specialize in other tasks, such as manual labor. Just as in the standard concept of comparative advantage, this results in specialization and improved production efficiency.

If these patterns are driving the differences across states, then in states where immigration has been heavy, U.S.-born workers with less education should have shifted toward more communication-intensive jobs. Figure 3 shows exactly this....In states with a heavy concentration of less-educated immigrants, U.S.-born workers have migrated toward more communication-intensive occupations. Those jobs pay higher wages than manual jobs, so such a mechanism has stimulated the productivity of workers born in the United States and generated new employment opportunities.

What's really striking about this is that the very mechanism that provides the productivity boost — the fact that immigrants don't speak English well and therefore push native workers out of manual labor and into higher-paying jobs — is precisely the thing that most provokes the immigrant skeptics. They all want immigrants to assimilate faster and speak English better, but if they did then they'd just start competing for the higher paying jobs that natives now monopolize.

The usual caveats apply here. This is only one study. (Well, two actually, but still.) And in order to generate useful results the authors have to control for a whole menagerie of variables that can muck things up. There's always a chance that some important variable got missed or that another one got controlled for incorrectly. So don't take this as the last word. It does, however, join a growing literature that suggests immigration has no negative effect on wages and might actually have a positive effect. Interesting stuff.

Papers, Please

| Mon Aug. 30, 2010 3:56 PM EDT

Megan McArdle writes about the loan paperwork she had to fill out before buying a home recently:

The underwriting standards have been very tight, in terms of the paperwork I have had to produce — in order to use money that we received as wedding gifts as part of our downpayment, for example, I needed to produce a copy of our license, an invitation, and the announcement from the Times.

Say what? Just the fact that you have money in a bank account isn't good enough? And what would have happened if the Times had declined to print an announcement?

End the FDIC!

| Mon Aug. 30, 2010 3:40 PM EDT

Mike Konczal dips into 15 years worth of financial regulation advice from the Cato Institute and is impressed with their consistency:

With one exception [], there are no new ideas on financial market regulation as a result of the financial crisis. None....You would have no idea that we’ve just experienced the most major financial crisis since the Great Depression by reading their high-level policy suggestions. How cool is that?

The only change is that in 2009 they aren’t calling for abolishing FDIC insurance....They do that every year except their latest version. I wonder why they’ve backed off that all of a sudden? Did the financial crisis show a lack of panic in the commercial banking system, and they suddenly support FDIC insurance? Or are they biting their tongues and sitting it out for a half decade or so before calling for it to be dismantled again?

I'm guessing the latter. Still, I'm disappointed that they've turned out to be so craven on this vital issue of libertarian principle.