Kevin Drum - August 2010

A Bidding War For Bloggers?

| Mon Aug. 23, 2010 1:16 PM EDT

From the Daily Caller:

“It’s standard operating procedure” to pay bloggers for favorable coverage, says one Republican campaign operative. A GOP blogger-for-hire estimates that “at least half the bloggers that are out there” on the Republican side “are getting remuneration in some way beyond ad sales.”

In California, where former eBay executive Meg Whitman beat businessman Steve Poizner in a bitterly fought primary battle in the campaign for governor, it sometimes seemed as if there was a bidding war for bloggers.

This comes via Conor Friedersdorf, who says "there isn't anything earth-shattering in the piece," and he's right. Basically, they have one example of a blogger taking money from the Steve Poizner campaign and getting fired from the site he wrote for. And it's not even clear if he got fired for taking money, or merely fired for taking money from the wrong side.

More please! If there really was a "bidding war" for conservative bloggers in California this year, I want to hear about it. Sounds juicy.

UPDATE: Just to be clear: The piece does have some other examples of bloggers taking campaign cash (though not many). However, there's only one related to California's supposed bidding war. That's what I want to hear more about.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

The Rich and Their Discontents

| Mon Aug. 23, 2010 12:27 PM EDT

Paul Krugman on the Republican jihad to extend the portion of the Bush tax cuts that affect the rich:

This has nothing to do with sound economic policy. Instead, as I said, it’s about a dysfunctional and corrupt political culture, in which Congress won’t take action to revive the economy, pleads poverty when it comes to protecting the jobs of schoolteachers and firefighters, but declares cost no object when it comes to sparing the already wealthy even the slightest financial inconvenience.

So far, the Obama administration is standing firm against this outrage. Let’s hope that it prevails in its fight. Otherwise, it will be hard not to lose all faith in America’s future.

What really gets me about this whole thing is that conservatives are barely even trying to defend their position. As Krugman says, they talk a bit about the impact on small business owners, but this is so transparently flimsy you can almost sense their embarrassment when they bring it up. And then there's sort of a pro forma insistence that raising taxes a few percentage points on the wealthy would stall the economic recovery, but there's virtually no evidence for this. In fact, just the opposite. A small tax increase on the rich would probably have the smallest economic effect of practically any revenue-raising policy you can imagine. It would barely be measurable.

There really is, literally, no reason to favor extending Bush tax cuts for the rich except purely as a gift to the rich. As the Tax Policy Center chart below shows, the million-dollar crowd would get a 3.3% income boost and the ten-million-dollar crowd would get a 5.8% boost in their incomes. And the deficit would increase by the better part of a trillion dollars. That's it. That's all that would happen if the top end cuts were extended.

I sure wish there were a political movement that cared as much about the $50,000 crowd as the conservative movement does about the million-plus crowd. I wonder what we'd call it?

Karen Hughes and the Mosque

| Mon Aug. 23, 2010 11:55 AM EDT

Over the weekend, former Bush aide (and longtime pal) Karen Hughes wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post suggesting that although Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf has the right to build a community center and mosque anywhere he wants, she thinks he would be wise to voluntarily choose a different location that's farther away from Ground Zero:

I recognize that I am asking the imam and his congregation to show a respect that has not always been accorded to them. But what a powerful example that decision would be. Many people worry that this debate threatens to deepen resentments and divisions in America; by choosing a different course, Rauf could provide a path toward the peaceful relationships that he and his fellow Muslims strive to achieve. And this gesture of goodwill could lead us to a more thoughtful conversation to address some of the ugliness this controversy has engendered.

This all sounds very calm and reasonable. Sometimes discretion is the better part of valor. But I think Hughes has skipped at least a couple of bases here.

First, this isn't a matter of asking Rauf to take into account a spontaneous wave of pain and raw feelings generated by his project. If it were, Hughes' proposal would at least be understandable. But the Park51 project produced no reaction when Rauf first announced it. Opinion leaders thought it was fine, ordinary citizens thought it was fine, and planning commissions thought it was fine. But months later a lunatic bigot named Pam Geller managed to get the attention of a few columnists, and then Fox News and Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich weighed in and suddenly it was a massive affront to dignity and a sign of Muslim triumphalism on hallowed ground. Responding to real emotion is one thing, regardless of whether the emotion is justified. Anybody with a heart at least gives it consideration. But responding to a wholly ginned up controversy that's driven by ideologues and partisan politics? That's just capitulation to the mob.

Second, would it be a powerful example? I don't see how. I wonder what Hughes thinks the reaction of the mosque opponents would be if Rauf took her advice? Would they all calmly praise Rauf for his statesmanlike stance and lead their flocks in demonstrations of support and interfaith harmony? Or would they scream war whoops and declare a historic victory over the infidel hordes at the metaphorical gates of Vienna? Do I even need to ask?

The mosque controversy is no grass roots movement. It's a cynical political ploy, and giving in to it merely provides strength to the next one that the right decides to gin up. It's a bad idea. Better to simply stand up for what's right and ask the cynics to stand down instead.

Bad Mood Blogging

| Sun Aug. 22, 2010 10:26 PM EDT

Well, I fell off the bottom rung of a stepladder a couple of hours ago and bent my ankle about 30 or 40 degrees further than nature intended. The good news is that it turned out not to be broken. (Bonus good news: the emergency room was quiet tonight and they got right to me.) The bad news is that it hurts like hell and I'm going to be on crutches for the next week. Needless, to say, this puts me in a terrible mood.

Which shouldn't go to waste! By Monday morning I should be in a nice, foul temper indeed, ready to vent righteously on anybody or anything that crosses my path. So go ahead and leave your requests in comments. Who or what would you like me to skewer?

Friday Cat Blogging - 20 August 2010

| Fri Aug. 20, 2010 1:52 PM EDT

I had my camera set to macro, the cats showed up, so I started clicking. And here's what we get: closeups of cats. It was around dinnertime when I took these pictures, and Domino is obviously looking longingly toward the kitchen while Inkblot is hoping that the evil eye will prompt me to quit fooling around and open a can of cat food now now now. So I did. Have a good weekend, all.

The News Fire Hose

| Fri Aug. 20, 2010 12:25 PM EDT

Ezra Klein bemoans the life of the modern infovore today. But since all the rest of us are frenzied infovores too, here's the telegraphic version:

Like a lot of people I know, I spend a fair amount of time on Twitter....It's like an instant-pleasure button....I'm reliant on RSS feeds. Full RSS feeds, to be more specific. My information consumption is overwhelmingly biased toward outlets I can read fully in Google Reader....[This] biases me in favor of blogs and against newspaper articles, magazines and so forth.....You lose a lot in this trade-off: Blogs make for quick reading, but — with some exceptions — less deep understanding. But they're easier to read, and updated constantly, and so it's almost always easier to scroll through some blogs then pick up a book. That's particularly true during the workday, when I need to find grist for my next post now....And let's not even get into how often I uselessly click over to Gmail while doing other things. My mental commentary is almost goldfishlike: "Hey look: an e-mail! Hey look: an e-mail! Hey look: an e-mail..."

You get the idea. In fact, this kind of lament has practically become a genre in its own right these days. But I keep thinking: are things really that different? Especially for someone in Ezra's profession?

I don't want to make a maximal case here, but think for a minute about what life was like for reporters in, say, the 60s and 70s. There was no Twitter, no email, and no blogs, obviously. But there were televisions in every newsroom. There was obsessive checking of the two or three or four wire service machines clattering away in the corner. There was the phone ringing off the hook. There was reading all your competitors — newspapers and magazines — which might have been a little less frantic back then but actually sucked up more time. There were endless newsletters and tout sheets to keep up with. There was the same round of face-to-face interviews on Capitol Hill or Wall Street or wherever your beat was that we have today. There was mail — you know, the kind written on paper — to read and possibly respond to. Deadlines were still deadlines, and the technology of the time made meeting them every bit as stress-inducing as it is today.

Things are more frenetic today. But I have a feeling we all overplay just how much more frenetic they are for people in the news business. A couple of weeks ago I read My Paper Chase, a memoir by former London Sunday Times editor Harold Evans, and his blow-by-blow description of working on a breaking news story at an ordinary small town daily outside Manchester in 1952 (it's on pages 153-59 if you're interested) is, if anything, more harrowing than the information firehose we put up with today. I don't think journalism was any better for your blood pressure then than it is today.

Again: I'm not trying to make a maximal case here. We surely have a bigger, faster flood of information at our fingertips than we did 40 years ago. On the other hand, we also have pretty awesome tools for classifying it, skimming it, and verifying it. I can use Google to check a fact in 30 seconds that would have taken minutes or hours just a couple of decades ago.1 And that RSS feed that shovels so much stuff at me also allows me to ingest it and search it and outline it and save it with just a few keystrokes.

And books? Yeah, it's hard to find the time. But seriously, does anyone think the ink-stained wretches of fifty years ago spent luxurious hours perusing the latest policy tomes from the UC Press and then thinking deep thoughts about them? Nah. They glanced at them between phone calls and tried to pick out interesting tidbits here and there, just like we do. The species of stress we endure may have changed over the years, and it's probably increased, but I don't think the change is quite as dramatic as we sometimes make it out to be. News is news, and it's always had a fire hose quality to it.

1In fact, I just did. That breaking news story from Evans' book? The Harrow and Wealdstone rail crash, October 8, 1952. It took ten seconds to find. That kind of capability is an underappreciated stress reducer.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Obama's Record

| Fri Aug. 20, 2010 10:38 AM EDT

There's a land office business these days explaining why Barack Obama sucks. Aaron David Miller takes to the pages of the LA Times today and, after a long bit of throat clearing about the greatness of Washington, Lincoln, and FDR, he proposes this explanation for Obama's lack thereof:

First, he was convinced that the country was so badly served by his Republican predecessor that most Americans understood the need for sweeping change and were prepared to support it. Second, he misread his crisis: the recession....Finally, unlike some of his predecessors who grounded change in values that many Americans found familiar and functional, Obama hasn't found a unifying message situated in an American experience that is universally shared.

....Obama may have had no choice but to introduce a large stimulus bill to stop the economic bleeding, but healthcare reform (and the way it was done) represented an overreach and stressed a political system that was already dysfunctional. It also convinced many, however unfairly, that he was a man of the left and a big-spending liberal to boot.

....Americans aren't so much looking for great presidents, big ideas or historic transformations. They want satisfaction on mundane matters such as prosperity, keeping Americans safe from terrorist attacks and an end to the roller-coaster ride of partisanship, name-calling and celebrity politics that is Washington today.

Is this such a sophisticated argument that I don't get it? Or just plain dumb? In order to attain greatness, Obama needed to understand that the country wasn't in the mood for greatness and just wanted him to focus on mundane matters? WTF?

Look: Obama passed a huge stimulus package, a historic healthcare bill, a pretty serviceable financial reform bill, has withdrawn 100,000 troops from Iraq, negotiated the New START treaty with Russia, made some decent progress on education reform and Pentagon procurement, and appears to be on track to repeal DADT. A terrible economy has hurt his fortunes, but let's face facts: Republicans and centrist Democrats wouldn't have allowed him to do anything more about this even if he'd wanted to. And in any case, as plenty of people have pointed out, Obama's popularity is actually nearly identical to that of most other modern presidents at this point in their presidencies:

I don't really understand where this general strain of writing comes from. Obviously Obama came into office with high expectations, but were there really a lot of people who expected him to be the second coming of FDR? If there were, I sure wasn't reading them. The plain, boring fact is that Obama, like all presidents, is constrained by circumstances and by Congress, and he just hasn't had the Congress to do much more than he's done. FDR and LBJ won landslide victories and enjoyed enormous congressional majorities. By contrast, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton won solid victories and had sizeable congressional majorities (though only in the Senate for Reagan). That's who Obama should be compared to, and on that score he shapes up pretty well: clearly better than Carter and Clinton and quite possibly the equal of Reagan. (We'll know for sure in another six years.)

There are plenty of things I wish Obama had done differently. I wish he'd pushed harder for transformative financial reform. I wish he hadn't escalated the war in Afghanistan. I wish he hadn't reappointed Ben Bernanke. I wish his record on civil liberties were better. I wish he'd use his undeniable rhetorical gifts to really sell a liberal vision to the American public, the way Reagan sold a conservative one.1 But this is real life, and no president does everything his supporters want him to do. By any measure aside from having your face sculpted on Mount Rushmore, Obama's had a pretty good run so far. It's crazy to pretend otherwise.

1I wish he'd pushed harder for a climate change bill too, but honestly, I don't blame him much for this. Congressional support just flatly wasn't there for anything even remotely ambitious, and there's not much point in banging your head against a brick wall. For now, I'll judge him by what the EPA ends up doing.

Revenge of the Show Runner

| Fri Aug. 20, 2010 9:54 AM EDT

The Wall Street Journal reports on the tendency of TV writers to get revenge on their real-life enemies by eviscerating them on their shows:

After several seasons of disappointing reviews, writers on the USA network's mystery series "Psych" decided to get revenge. They crafted an episode involving a psychotic killer doctor. The deranged murderer's name? Ken Tucker, who in real life is the mild-mannered, 57-year-old TV critic for Entertainment Weekly magazine.

"It was never 'Dr. Tucker' or just 'Ken.' It was always 'Did Ken Tucker eviscerate the body?'" says USA original programming chief Jeff Wachtel.

....When the lead detective wants to discuss a serious matter with his partner in the drama "Detroit 1-8-7," which premieres on ABC Sept. 21, he will only talk via cellphone, even when the two men are in the same car or sitting together at a coffee shop. "That's a reference to a passive-aggressive Hollywood producer who will go unnamed," says executive producer Jason Richman, referring to a power player who goes to great lengths to avoid face-to-face confrontations.

Some gestures are more casual. Before he created "Mad Men," Matthew Weiner worked as a writer on "The Sopranos," where he put the name of a former employer who had wronged him on a gravestone in the background of a cemetery scene.

This is pretty disappointing. I think it would be kind of cool to be eviscerated on a TV show, and I figured my only real problem is that no one dislikes me quite enough to bother. I could always work on that, though. But why bother, if "evisceration" just means having one of my quirks silently mocked or my name showing up on a gravestone in the background of a single scene? Hell, without Tivo I might miss that it even happened. Is this really the best that TV writers can do?

Iran and the Bomb

| Fri Aug. 20, 2010 9:29 AM EDT

When I read this headline in the New York Times — "U.S. Assures Israel That Iran Threat Is Not Imminent" — I was relieved. Then I read the story itself:

The Obama administration, citing evidence of continued troubles inside Iran’s nuclear program, has persuaded Israel that it would take roughly a year — and perhaps longer — for Iran to complete what one senior official called a “dash” for a nuclear weapon, according to American officials.

....The current draft of the intelligence report also describes considerable division in Iran about whether the goal of the nuclear program should be to walk right up to the threshold of building an actual bomb — which would mean having highly enriched uranium on hand, along with a workable weapons design — or simply to keep enough low-enriched uranium on hand to preserve Tehran’s options for building a weapon later.

Two things. First, a year isn't really a very long time. Second, the tone of this article suggests that the Obama administration takes for granted that Iran is, in fact, working on building a bomb. They might or might not do it, but that would be strictly a tactical decision, not an operational one. This doesn't surprise me, but a lot of people still seem to be skeptical about Iran's intentions, and this story suggests that this skepticism isn't shared by anyone in the Obama administration.

In any case, the point of the piece is that inspectors "would detect an Iranian move toward breakout within weeks," which leaves plenty of time to react. That doesn't actually sound like much time to me, though, and if this is an effort to get critics to calm down it seems unlikely to work. The Bill Kristol brigade is going to milk this for everything it's worth.

How Kids Really Learn

| Fri Aug. 20, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

Several years ago I was visiting with some friends and happened to get into a conversation with their four-year-old daughter. I don't remember why, but we got to talking about numbers, and as adults will do, I started quizzing her. Do you know what two plus two is? She did. How about four plus three. No problem. Six plus five? Nine plus four? Eight plus seven? Yes, yes, and yes. That was about as far as she could go, but I was pretty impressed. That's not bad for a four-year-old, is it?

A year later she was in kindergarten and I was visiting again. And I was curious about how her mathematical prowess had progressed. Answer: it hadn't. She couldn't even answer the questions she had gotten correct the year before.

Now, this happened over two decades ago (the daughter in question graduated from college a couple of years ago) and I've long wondered if it even actually happened. I clearly remember it, and yet it all seems so unlikely. Did I just imagine the whole thing?

Maybe not. A few days ago I wrote about a Los Angeles Times project to post an online database that measures the performance of LAUSD teachers based on how their kids do on standardized tests. I approved: "Either you believe that the press should disseminate public data or you don't," I said, but there were some unspoken words in that sentence. What I really meant was, "Either you believe that the press should disseminate meaningful public data or you don't" — since, needless to say, nobody believes the press should randomly disseminate useless and misleading data, public or otherwise.

So do standardized tests provide meaningful data? Millions of barrels of ink have been spilled on this question, but here's an interesting take on the question from a study done a few years ago. Paul Camp, a physics professor at Spelman College, in the course of investigating how students learn Newtonian concepts, came across an interesting result: they don't learn in a straight line. They learn things, then they get confused, and then they learn them again for good. Learning, in other words, follows a U-shaped pattern, and not just for university level physics:

U-shaped developmental patterns appear to be a general feature of human cognition....Competencies, once learned, do not disappear but they are unusually fragile while understanding reorganizes into a more mature form, and this fragility is reflected by variability in performance.... In short, achieving a new state of organization requires passage through a state of apparent disorganization.

....The existence of U-shaped development [] has important implications for student evaluation. It directly implies that single point assessments are unfair and inaccurate.

There's evidence that this U-shaped pattern is common (this paper, for example, compares 7-year-olds and 9-year-olds on certain kinds of math problems and finds that 7-year-olds do better). So is this what happened with my four-year-old friend? Did she learn simple arithmetic, then get confused about it during kindergarten, and then learn it for good in first grade? Maybe. Maybe I didn't imagine the whole episode after all.

If this is true, it obviously has disturbing implications for the use of standardized tests in primary schools to evaluate teacher performance. If students routinely go through U-shaped learning curves, it means that a terrific third grade teacher might produce mediocre test scores if her kids tend to be in the trough of the U at year-end, while the fourth grade teacher who gets the kids the following year reaps the benefits.

I don't have anywhere near the chops to evaluate this evidence, and it's certainly not the end of the story. What's more, I remain in favor of the Times project: standardized tests clearly aren't the be-all-end-all of teacher evaluation, but if we're going to use them at all we need to take them seriously. And for now, we're using them. So let's shine some sunlight on them.

Besides, if the tests really are poor indicators of short-term student performance, perhaps this project will make that clear. Parents, principals, and fellow teachers probably have a pretty good sense already of who the good and bad teachers are, and if the value-added testing metric used by the Times turns out to be wildly at variance with this sense, it should provoke a serious rethink. Either way, then, it's likely to have a net positive effect. It's worth a try.