Kevin Drum - August 2010

Republicans Split on the Mosque?

| Wed Aug. 18, 2010 10:43 AM EDT

Today's front page hed in the LA Times declares:

New York mosque debate splits GOP

I laughed when I read that. What's the score? Joe Scarborough in favor of the mosque and every other Republican in the country opposed? I guess that's technically "split," but you'd need Superman's microscopic vision to suss it out.

But it was better than I thought. There's Joe, of course, but also Grover Norquist. And Chris Christie — sort of. And Michael Gerson. And some congressional wannabe named Chris Gibson. And Kathleen Parker. It's true that Norquist has a Muslim wife and Christie hedged absurdly and Gerson is mostly concerned about tactical electoral issues. Still, that's politics. And half a dozen conservatives is better than none. Who knows? Maybe there's a small campaign for decency forming on the right. Perhaps it will give a few others the courage to speak out too.

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Iraq Update

| Wed Aug. 18, 2010 12:02 AM EDT

Anthony Shadid of the New York Times reports that American officials are finally getting worried about the long impasse that's prevented the formation of an Iraqi government five months after parliamentary elections were held. However:

In the end, many officials expect an eventual agreement on some sort of consensus government so inclusive as to be woefully weak, unable to assert itself and beset by stalemate over the laws necessary to shape post-American Iraq.

Smells like victory!

The gist of the article is that American planners never had a clue about what they were doing, Iraqi politicians have been feckless and conniving, and regional politics is relentless at turning everything into a quagmire. In other words, the entire venture was fubar from the beginning. But you probably already knew that, didn't you?

Healthcare Back in the Day

| Tue Aug. 17, 2010 7:34 PM EDT

Recently I've been inventorying a bunch of old Golden Age comics that I inherited from my father, and last night I happened to run across an ad for Tootsie Rolls from a 1941 issue of Feature Comics. So for your amusement, ladies and gentlemen, I present "Healthcare in the 40s." Enjoy.

Rating LA's Teachers

| Tue Aug. 17, 2010 4:31 PM EDT

Later this month, the Los Angeles Times plans to publish a database of teacher performance in the LAUSD. Their metric is something called "value added," which projects a student's performance based on past tests and then compares it to actual results at the end of the year. It's designed to control for things like poverty levels, the quality of the students, social factors, and so forth. The initial database will include only third through fifth grades and only teachers who have taught 60 or more students.

Over at Democracy in America, Roger McShane acknowledges that test scores are an imperfect way of evaluating teachers, but he's still pretty unimpressed with the appeal from A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, to boycott the Times over their decision:

Mr Duffy's reaction fits with a broader resistance to more formal evaluation methods by teachers unions across the country. And that has coincided with extensive union efforts to defend teachers who are obviously failing our students. If the education-reform debate has come to seem like an attack on teachers, it is in large part because of the unions' misdirected passion and priorities.

There is no perfect way to evaluate teachers, but that is true of many jobs. (Should The Economist judge me on how much traffic this post gets? How much ad money it generates? How sharp the analysis is? Can that even be measured? How should each be weighted?) The problem is that the big teachers unions have not been credible participants in the conversation about reform, resisting efforts to incorporate test scores in the evaluation process, and fighting the consequences that must accompany bad evaluations. For its part, the Times plans to publish an online database with ratings for more than 6,000 elementary-school teachers based on test-score data. That is not fair to the teachers, who deserve a more comprehensive evaluation. But who is to blame for the absence of one?

Is this a fair reaction? I don't live in Los Angeles and don't follow its affairs closely, but there's at least one thing I can say about this: every single person I know who does follow LA politics, both liberal and conservative, thinks the LAUSD is a complete disaster. Obviously some of this is simply because LA has all the usual pathologies of urban school districts: it's huge, it's heavily poverty-ridden, it's fantastically expensive to build new schools, and virtually all the middle class parents who normally drive concerns over quality have long since abandoned it for private schools. Still, even beyond that LA seems to be almost uniquely bad.

So should the Times be doing this? Regardless of LA's specific problems, I think so. The data is public, and either you believe that the press should disseminate public data or you don't. I do — despite the fact that I know I'd be pretty unhappy to be one of the teachers included in this project.

In any case, I'll be curious to see what the reaction is. Obviously you're going to get a bell curve of performance. So the question is: how far down the bell curve do you have to get before you think a teacher ought to be dismissed? I suspect that most people have pretty unrealistic notions here. In the white collar private sector I'd guess that maybe one in twenty people is ever let go for performance reasons, but parents who look at the Times database are probably going to be disturbed by any teacher in the bottom quarter or so. But what do you do about that? Somebody's kids have to be taught by below-average teachers, and that's all a teacher at the 25th percentile is: below average, not an incompetent dullard.

Unfortunately, there's one likely reaction to the Times project that will be entirely non-positive: the most active, engaged parents will aggressively use the database to make sure their kids get the best teachers possible while the poorest, most distracted parents will barely even know it exists. The former already have the smarts (and the income) to shop around for the best schools, and now they'll have the tools to shop for the best teachers within each school. As long as they get those teachers, they won't care much about all the other classes, and primary education in LA will become even more stratified than it is now.

That might not happen. I'm just guessing here. But one way or the other I hope the LAUSD is prepared for this. Once this data is out, the fight to get the best teachers will be in full swing with a new school year just weeks away. It might not be a pretty sight.

How Uncertainty is Crippling Recovery

| Tue Aug. 17, 2010 2:08 PM EDT

Hooray! I finally found some evidence for the idea that regulatory uncertainty is hindering investment and economic recovery in the U.S. So I stand totally corrected on this:

Alternative energy investment prospects have shriveled in the United States after the U.S. Senate was unable to break a deadlock over tackling global warming, a Deutsche Bank official said. "You just throw your hands up and say ... we're going to take our money elsewhere," said Kevin Parker in an interview with Reuters.

....Parker, who is global head of the Frankfurt-based bank's Deutsche Asset Management Division, oversees nearly $700 billion in funds that devote $6 billion to $7 billion to climate change products. Amid so much political uncertainty in the United States, Parker said Deutsche Bank will focus its "green" investment dollars more and more on opportunities in China and Western Europe, where it sees governments providing a more positive environment.

Oh wait. This is regulatory uncertainty caused by Republicans. And it's investment by foreigners. So it probably doesn't count. Forget I said anything.

Polling the GZM

| Tue Aug. 17, 2010 1:34 PM EDT

Has anybody done a split poll where half of the respondents are asked these two questions?

  • Do you oppose construction of the Ground Zero mosque?
  • Do you oppose construction of a Muslim community center and mosque in lower Manhattan a couple of blocks away from the World Trade Center site?

(I use "oppose," rather than "support or oppose" advisedly. I don't really care whether people actively support the Park51 project, only whether they actively oppose it.)

Anyway, this is a genuine question. Has anyone done a poll like this? The very first time I heard about the "Ground Zero mosque" I thought it was literally a plan to build a mosque as part of the memorial at the rebuilt WTC site. I wonder how many people still think that?

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A Walk Down Memory Lane

| Tue Aug. 17, 2010 12:43 PM EDT

Dave Weigel provides a blast from the past this morning: the Dubai Ports World controversy. Remember that? DPW, owned by the government of Dubai, wanted to buy the port operations of P&O, which would have given them control over portions of several U.S. ports. George Bush was in favor of the deal, Chuck Schumer went ballistic at the thought of a bunch of Arabs controlling the docks at some U.S. ports (including New York's), and the general liberal reaction seemed to be that it was about time Bush got a taste of his own medicine. And maybe it was. But I didn't buy it:

Encouraging the xenophobic jingoism that's driving this controversy is a little too much for me. Unless there are serious substantive reasons to oppose this deal, I'm not willing to jump on the bandwagon solely because it's an opportunity for some righteous Bush bashing....I'd prefer to walk the liberal internationalism walk instead of jumping ship for short term political gain. I've said before that engaging seriously with the Arab world is the best way of fighting terrorism, and I meant it. This is a chance to do exactly that.

....UPDATE 2: The whole thing feeds on a mindless anti-Arab jingoism that's genuinely dangerous, and that's why I'm not joining the fun unless I hear some really good reasons for doing so. As liberals, we're either serious about engaging with the Muslim world in a sensible, non-hysterical way or we're not. Which is it?

The parallels with the mosque controversy are eerie.  Both involved proximity to Ground Zero (the World Trade Center was owned by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the DPW deal included some port operations in New York harbor). Both elicited no controversy at first and the DPW deal was initially welcomed by the port authorities in the affected cities. Both involved the Muslim community. Both were vaulted into public consciousness by politicians seeking partisan advantage during an election year. And both, needless to say, appealed mostly to mindless xenophopia and "war of civilizations" nonsense.

The DPW brawl was a mistake for liberals. The Ground Zero mosque brawl is a mistake for conservatives. It's time for everyone to grow up.

POSTSCRIPT: By the way, do you wonder what ever happened to the DPW deal? Well, P&O's deal with DPW went through, but the blowback in the U.S. forced DPW to dispose of its American subsidiary. (No other country had a problem with them.) And who did they dispose of it to? Well, after a bit of shopping around they finally sold their U.S. port operations to — wait for it — AIG. So now those port operations are essentially owned by the United States government — i.e., you. It actually might be a nice asset to sell in order to raise money to pay back taxpayers for AIG's 2008 bailout, but who'd want to buy it now? The fuss in 2006 probably scared everyone off.

Travel to Cuba

| Tue Aug. 17, 2010 11:49 AM EDT

This isn't much, but it's progress:

The Obama administration is planning to expand opportunities for Americans to travel to Cuba, the latest step aimed at encouraging more contact between people in both countries, while leaving intact the decades-old embargo against the island’s Communist government, according to Congressional and administration officials. [They] said it was meant to loosen restrictions on academic, religious and cultural groups that were adopted under President George W. Bush, and return to the “people to people” policies followed under President Bill Clinton.

Policy analysts said the intended changes would mark a significant shift in Cuba policy. In early 2009, President Obama lifted restrictions on travel and remittances only for Americans with relatives on the island. Congressional aides cautioned that some administration officials still saw the proposals as too politically volatile to announce until after the coming midterm elections, and they said revisions could still be made.

I'm opposed to the Cuba embargo because I think it's foolish policy. But I'm really, really opposed to travel restrictions to Cuba. If the Cuban government wants to keep us out of Cuba, that's one thing. Cuba is a dictatorship, after all. But the United States isn't, and my government has no right to restrict where I go. Period. The travel embargo is a policy that fits the old Soviet Union better than it does the United States. America is a free country and American citizens should be allowed to travel anywhere they want.

How Dangerous is a Haircut?

| Tue Aug. 17, 2010 11:29 AM EDT

Matt Yglesias doesn't think barbers need to be licensed:

Regulation of this sort seems totally unnecessary. People don’t die of bad haircuts, and since hairstyle is a quintessential matter of taste there’s absolutely no reason to think consumers can’t figure out for themselves who has a decent reputation as a cutter of hair. You can cut your own hair perfectly safely in your own house, and if you screw it up all that happens is you need to find a real professional to fix it. But what’s more, even if regulation were somehow a good idea, the composition of the board couldn’t possibly serve a legitimate consumer protection function. It’s overwhelmingly composed of people from the industry whose incentive is to limit competition and raise prices.

You'll be unsurprised to know that I don't have a lot to add on this subject. But I did get into a conversation about this with my haircutter once, and she pointed out that there's more to this business than you might think. It's true that clipping hair — which is the only side of the business that Matt and I ever see — isn't especially dangerous. But for more complicated jobs, hair professionals handle a lot of dangerous chemicals and they need to know how to use these properly to insure that they don't do some serious damage to their customers. That, apparently, is part of what they teach you at cosmetology school.

That's what she said, anyway. Alternatively, maybe it's all just a big scam. After all, plenty of women give themselves home perms and seem to survive the experience. Hair professionals should feel free to school us in comments.

UPDATE: Alex Massie adds some genuine data to this burning controversy: hairdressers in Britain, it turns out, don't require any kind of licensing at all. "Somehow," he says, "the country has survived an unregulated hairdressing and barber-shop industry all these years and may yet, with god's providence, do so in the future."

Well fine. Be that way. But just remember the story of the telephone sanitizers.

Confused About Taxes

| Tue Aug. 17, 2010 1:46 AM EDT

The Wall Street Journal has a piece tonight on the federal deficit, and it comes to the unsurprising conclusion that although most people say they're strongly in favor of reducing the deficit, when it comes to nuts and bolts they're only in favor of raising taxes on other people and cutting programs they themselves don't use.  What's more, you also get responses like these:

So 32% of respondents favor a VAT that would raise taxes on all Americans, but only 20% favor increasing taxes on all Americans. It looks like 12% of the country is mighty confused.