Kevin Drum - October 2010

California Propositions

| Fri Oct. 15, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

I know that only a small slice of my readers live in California, so I hope the rest of you will indulge me while I go through my periodic review of California ballot initiatives today. There are nine of them up for a vote next month, so this is going to be a bit of a long post.

As longtime readers know, I'm generally unhappy with the entire initiative process (reasons here), so keep this bias in mind as you continue reading. This doesn't mean I oppose everything, but it does mean that even things I basically approve of have to pass a pretty high hurdle before I'll vote for them. (With this in mind, if you'd like to see a more conventional take on this year's ballot from a liberal perspective, check out the Courage Campaign's ballot guide here.)

  1. Marijuana Legalization: MAYBE. Let's be honest: nobody needs my help with this one. If you're in favor of legalizing pot, vote Yes. If not, vote No. I'm a little embarrassed to admit this, but I probably won't make up my mind about Prop 19 until I'm actually in the voting booth and ready to push the button.

    On the merits, the big problem with Prop 19 is that it puts California squarely in opposition to federal law. However, this strikes me as a feature, not a bug, since I think it might just be time for a few fireworks. Prop 19 also shares one of the drawbacks of all initiatives, namely that it sets its rules in stone and allows the legislature very little scope to change them if things don't work out. And there's no question that allowing every county in California to write its own marijuana laws could create a fair amount of chaos. What's more, there's also the fact that legalizing marijuana won't just create more casual marijuana users, it will almost certainly also create more heavy users. That's not a good thing.

    So there really are a few things to be careful about here. On the other hand marijuana is, overall, basically a pretty damn safe drug, and the dangers of increased use are modest enough that there's really not much excuse for the state prohibiting grown men and women from using it if they want to. What's more, a perfect legalization measure is unlikely to ever come along, and the California legislature won't work up the stones to deal with this any time soon either. As initiatives go, this one isn't bad.

  2. Redistricting Reform: YES. Two years ago we passed Proposition 11, which took redistricting of state districts out of the hands of the legislature and put it in the hands of a "citizen commission." There were two modest downsides to this: (a) the way the commission was set up is a little bit squirrelly, and (b) there's a lot of evidence that redistricting reform is unlikely to have a big effect.

    Still, I recommended a Yes vote on Prop 11 and I recommend extending it this year to congressional districts. Having legislatures draw their own boundaries is crazy, and we've passed up a bunch of opportunities in the past to fix this. This one isn't bad — the "citizen commission" may be a little squirrelly but it's not obviously biased in favor of either party — and even if it makes only a small difference, small is better than nothing.

    (Also note that this is the kind of thing the initiative process is actually designed for. It's not ballot box budgeting, it's not something trivial that doesn't belong in the constitution, and it's not something the legislature is likely to tackle on its own.)

  3. Park Surcharge: NO. This initiative increases the vehicle license fee by $18 and applies the revenue to maintaining state parks. It's a hard one to vote against since it's fully self-funding and fiscally defensible, but we just can't keep doing stuff like this. Every year we pass ever more initiatives that set up special funds or earmark revenue for special purposes or demand that the legislature allocate spending in a certain way. Then we complain that the budget is a mess. We really have to stop doing this, even in a good cause.

  4. Prohibit State Raids of Local Funds: NO. This one is a little hard to vote against too. It's yet another long-term domino effect of Proposition 13, which not only lowered property taxes but essentially made Sacramento the final arbiter of how to allocate them. As a result, sometimes the state allocates money in ways that local communities resent, like giving more money to schools or using transportation money to pay off state transportation bonds. I sympathize. But you know what? Them's the breaks. Voters wanted lower property taxes in 1978, and one of the results is that local communities lost a big chunk of their funding and gave up a lot of fiscal control to Sacramento. I think that was a bad trade, but if voters ever decide to agree with me the answer is a full-scale overhaul of Prop 13, not constant piecemeal attempts to tie the legislature's hands and continue our collective fantasy that tax cuts have no consequences.

  5. Eliminate Greenhouse Gas Limits: NO. This is a no-brainer. The legislature passed AB 32, the Global Warming Act, four years ago, and it mandates a range of measure to cut greenhouse gases and encourage the use of renewable energy sources. It's extremely popular, as it should be, except with a few big oil refiners who are trying to buy themselves an initiative that would, in practice, repeal it forever. It's a bad idea.

  6. Repeal Business Tax Cut: NO. Another tough vote. These tax cuts were unnecessary, we can't afford them, and they were passed only as part of horsetrading with Republicans in order to enact a budget a couple of years ago. But look: ugly or not, these are the kinds of deals legislatures need to be able to make.

    But I'd be lying if I didn't admit that I might vote Yes once I actually get into the privacy of the voting booth. Special interest tax cuts like these are pretty indefensible in a state with a $19 billion budget hole.

  7. Pass Budgets With a Simple Majority: YES. It is almost clinically insane that California requires a two-thirds vote to pass our annual budget. The whole point of a supermajority requirement is that it be reserved for only a few specific matters of special concern. The annual budget is the exact opposite of that. For good or ill, of course it should only require a simple majority.

  8. Require Two-Thirds Vote To Increase Local Fees: NO. Proposition 13 is most famous for lowering property taxes, but it also established a two-thirds vote requirement for future tax increases of any kind. But what about fees? Those can be raised with only a majority vote, and both the state and local communities often use fees to charge businesses for safety and cleanup programs — for example, levies on beverage containers to pay for recycling programs or fees for cleaning up oil spills and fighting air pollution. Needless to say, oil, tobacco, and alcohol companies don't much care for this, and Prop 26 is their way to put a stop to it. But even if they have a point about the fuzzy boundary between taxes and fees, flatly eliminating the ability to charge corporations for the damage they incur goes too far. (I say "flatly eliminate" because in practice no fee increase can ever get a two-thirds vote and they know it.) The last thing we need is another initiative from rich special interests that effectively ropes off yet another budget area from legislative control. It's madness.

  9. Eliminate Redistricting Reform: NO. This would undo redistricting reform completely. Obviously I'm against that.

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Quote of the Day: Impeachment!

| Fri Oct. 15, 2010 12:07 AM EDT

From Thoreau:

What are your predictions? I’m tempted to say “Serious predictions only”, but it’s not clear what the actual line between fantasy and reality is here...

The topic here is, "What excuse will some insane tea party faction in the House use to bring impeachment charges against Barack Obama?"

Since we're going for style points here, I'm putting my money on a scenario in which South Carolina decides to nullify the healthcare reform law and prohibit its enforcement. Obama nevertheless directs the IRS office in Charleston to dispatch tax delinquency notices to uninsured residents. Governor Nikki Haley instructs the state police to barricade the IRS in order to prevent it from delivering outgoing mail, at which point Obama sends in Army troops to reopen the office. This is taken as a tyrannical abuse of federal power, and Rep. Joe Wilson files immediate impeachment charges. The impeachment bill passes with 220 votes — 201 from the Tea Party, 18 from the rump Republican Party, plus Bobby Bright — and is sent to the Senate. Chief Justice John Roberts presides, wearing robes decorated with the scales of justice stitched in gold lame, but Tea Partiers and Republicans eventually rally only eight Democratic supporters and the charges fail by a single vote. Mary Landrieu, who spends the entire trial vacillating loudly and publicly about the weight of history, eventually provides the one-vote margin of victory and immediately commissions a book about her experience, Keeping Faith: How One Woman Made a Difference in Trying Times.

Or something like that.

School Testing Followup

| Thu Oct. 14, 2010 5:05 PM EDT

Yesterday I wrote a gloomy post about education, suggesting that despite decades of punditry that identify heroes and villains with abandon, "You can go down the list of every ed reform ever touted, and they either can't scale up, turn out to have ambiguous results when proper studies are done, or simply wash out over time." I've been meaning for a while to post something else on this subject, because Bob Somerby has been beating this drum for a while. Here's Bob:

NAEP scores for black kids and Hispanic kids are way up, in reading and math, in the past dozen years....But so what? Everyone agrees to avoid discussing these large score gains, even as we wring our hands about school reform and savage America’s teachers, along with their infernal unions. We think we understand Kevin’s view of this matter; a few months ago, he said those score gains don’t mean all that much because they haven’t been matched in NAEP testing at the 17-year-old level. (In that sense, they might be said to “wash out over time,” although the kids recording the higher scores haven’t turned 17 yet.) That said, the score gains at earlier ages are very large — and yet, we all agree to ignore them, seeming to find them unworthy of exploration.

NAEP scores are widely considered pretty reliable, and we've been conducting NAEP tests for several decades. So what do they show about gains among black kids? The basic chart is on the right. The data comes from this report, which provides both reading and math scores for black, white, and Hispanic kids at three different age levels since 1971.

I don't really want to spin this any particular way. I just want everyone to see the basic data so we're working from similar baselines. Roughly speaking, there were substantial gains at all grade levels between 1971 and 1988. After that, there was a decade of stagnation.

Then, after that, there was a decade of qualified progress. I say "qualified" because it's hard to draw any firm conclusions from it. Since the late-nineties, 9-year-old black kids have improved their reading scores 18 points. Ten points on the NAEP is roughly a grade level, so that's pretty impressive. 13-year olds improved nine points. 17-year olds improved two points.

What does that mean? I just don't know. The gains among 9-year-olds are genuinely extraordinary (white kids also improved during this period, but only by seven points). Two grade levels is a huge difference. But half the improvement washed out in just the next four years. And in the four years after that the rest of it washed out. Reading scores among 17-year-old black kids have been flat for two decades. Ditto for white and Hispanic kids.

Now, this doesn't mean that whatever happened in 1999 doesn't matter. School reforms generally start at the elementary level and work their way up. So maybe we just haven't had time for the reforms of the past decade to show up among 17-year-olds. It's also true that dropout rates confound the data gathering at higher age levels.

But I'd be lying if I didn't say that I'm skeptical. It's true that there's some evidence in the data that the gains of the 70s and 80s were staggered: age 9 first, then age 13, then age 17. But only partly. Generally speaking, all three cohorts progressed at the same time. This time around we aren't seeing it. 9-year-old black kids improved their reading scores by a stunning 14 points in the single period between 1999 and 2004. These are the 13-year-olds of the next testing period, but 13-year-olds only gained three points between 2004 and 2008.

So.....I'm not sure where to go from here. Bob is right that test scores1 among 9-year-old black kids have made impressive progress over the past decade, and this gets largely ignored by a media that seems interested only in dramatic tales of heroic reformers and evil teacher's unions. On the other hand, none of this progress matters much unless those improvements are persistent. If the gains all wash out by the time kids graduate from high school, they haven't done any good.

So that's the data. It shows what it shows, and the story is partly encouraging and partly not. It's also unfinished (data always is), and in any case, I don't know of anyone who's adequately explained why we've seen such impressive elementary school gains over the past decade. Without that, we hardly know what our next steps ought to be. Caveat emptor.

1Math scores have shown similar patterns: big gains at age 9, smaller gains at age 13, and very small gains at age 17.

UPDATE: Chart corrected to show the time series data more accurately. Thanks to Chad Orzel for the Excel lesson.

Politics as Entertainment

| Thu Oct. 14, 2010 2:18 PM EDT

James Fallows watched the O'Donnell-Coons debate on TV and concluded that Christine O'Donnell is a true creature of the 21st century:

Sarah Palin was wounded by Katie Couric and Charlie Gibson in their 2008 interviews because she seemed at some level aware of what she didn't know.....[But] in this debate tonight, O'Donnell has not seemed uncomfortable for one second — even in her most obvious dodge, about whether she really thinks evolution is a "myth." The difference is, she is a talk show regular. Among the many things wrong with talking-head gab shows, which have proliferated/ metastasized in the past generation — they're cheap to produce, they fill air time, they make journalists into celebrities, they suit the increasing political niche-ization of cable networks — is that they reward an affect of breezy confidence on all topics and penalize admissions of complexity, of ignorance on a specific topic, or of the need for time to think.

Paul Waldman pleads for the media to fight back:

One of the simple tactics I used was to ask my opposing number to get specific about whatever sweeping claim they were making. Simply saying, "Can you tell us what exactly you're talking about?" was often enough to win the argument, because as often as not there really wasn't anything in particular....Christine O'Donnell got stumped on a question like this at a debate yesterday when she was asked what Supreme Court decisions she disagreed with, which presumably came because she had given the standard Republican line about the tyranny of liberal judicial activists.

This isn't just a plea for campaigns to be more focused on policy. Every candidate makes choices about what he or she believes the important issues are, and focuses the campaign on those issues. They regularly get away with making vague yet wildly overstated claims about them, and they ought to tell voters just what they're talking about.

But Paul, details are boring! And elitist. And besides, if you start asking about them then people won't come on your show anymore. Politics has always been as much entertainment as anything else, and today the entertainment comes in glorious, 24/7, high-def color. Why would anyone want to interfere with that?

Quote of the Day: Secret Corporate Donors

| Thu Oct. 14, 2010 1:28 PM EDT

From Chamber of Commerce lobbyist Bruce Josten, explaining why they keep the names of their donors secret:

Corporations, as I said, have employees, vendors, suppliers, and shareholders of all political stripes. They’re not trying to alienate anybody. They’re looking for representative organizations, such as mine and thousands of others, to be an express organization to advocate for them on their behalf.

Whatever else you can say about the flap over the Chamber's funding sources, this is a notably unpersuasive argument. Josten is essentially saying that rich corporations want the ability to hound and attack anyone in the political sphere they don't like, but want to be protected from being hounded and attacked by others. That's nice work if you can get it, but I don't think most Americans will be sympathetic. If you want to be in the arena, then you need to be in the arena. Being a corporation doesn't — and shouldn't — endow you with a special exemption from being attacked if you take controversial political views.

UPDATE: Chamber CEO Tom Donohue, as usual, puts things more bluntly: "I want to give them all the deniability they need," he says. And he does.

Obama After Two Years

| Thu Oct. 14, 2010 12:25 PM EDT

Peter Baker has a big story in the New York Times this week about Barack Obama's first two years in office, complete with lots of navel gazing about what Team Obama has done wrong. David Corn is unimpressed:

The White House with this article (well executed by Baker) has demonstrated a sense of lousy political timing. There are not many days left before voters hit the polls for the critical midterm elections. Now is not the moment for a high-profile "We blew the politics" admission. The White House ought to be in full attack mode. Yet this intriguing tale of presidential second-thoughts, made possible by White House cooperation, is ready-made for endless regurgitation within the media.

My guess is that this is mostly an example of the Bob Woodward syndrome: the article was going to be written whether Obama liked it or not, so his choice was either to cooperate, and at least get his side of the story on the record, or not cooperate and have the whole thing end up one-sided and hostile. So he cooperated.

Beyond that, I think my reaction to Baker's piece was the opposite of David's: I was surprised at how boring it was. Baker is a pro, and the prose was fine, but there was hardly anything new or interesting in the piece at all. Obama is disappointed at the depth of Republican obstructionism. Obama thinks the media is obsessed with trivialities. Obama thinks his substantive record is pretty good. Obama and his staff are cogitating over what they'll do for the next two years. Conservatives think Obama is too liberal and liberals think he's not liberal enough. (For some reason, Baker calls this "confusing and deeply contradictory.") Etc. In fact, the only paragraph in the piece that I thought was enlightening was this one:

“Given how much stuff was coming at us,” Obama told me, “we probably spent much more time trying to get the policy right than trying to get the politics right. There is probably a perverse pride in my administration — and I take responsibility for this; this was blowing from the top — that we were going to do the right thing, even if short-term it was unpopular. And I think anybody who’s occupied this office has to remember that success is determined by an intersection in policy and politics and that you can’t be neglecting of marketing and P.R. and public opinion.”

Italics mine. Obama does seem to take a perverse pride in ostentatiously showing that he doesn't care much about his own political base — something that's really pretty odd coming from a former community organizer — and it's interesting to see that his self-reflection extends to being honest even about this. But I wonder if this means he seriously plans to do better on this front over the next couple of years? Or if he just thinks that he needs to fine tune his speeches a little?

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No Compromise

| Thu Oct. 14, 2010 11:18 AM EDT

The LA Times has a front page story today about Ann Quinn, an ordinary Pennsylvania wife and mother who's tired of all the fighting in Washington DC. It's fine, really. But since my blogger's license would be revoked if I didn't kvetch about something, there were a couple of things in the piece that bugged me. First, we're told that only 23% of voters describe themselves as "angry":

As for the rest, many of them are not terribly partisan, though they may lean toward one party over the other. Immigration, earmarks, same-sex marriage, those things that exercise activists, are of little interest. Mainly what they want is for lawmakers to stop bickering and address the problems they deal with on a daily basis, "putting food on the table, gas in their car and ... getting the kids through college," said Democratic pollster Margie Omero.

Once and for all, no, it's not right to say that "as for the rest, many of them are not terribly partisan." Leaners, as any first year political science student can tell you, tend to be just as partisan as people who actually identify themselves as partisan. Probably no more than 10% of the country is genuinely unpredictable in their voting habits. I wish we could all get this straight. Then there's this about Ann and her husband, John:

In 15 years of marriage they have never agreed on anything political. When she put a John Kerry sign on the lawn in 2004, he ran out and got a George W. Bush sign to plant right next to it. But when it comes to the important things — Patrick, improvements to their two-story Dutch colonial house, which car to buy — they put their differences aside and did what needed to be done. If they can figure out how to make it work, why can't Washington?

Eh. If Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner only needed to agree on a maintenance schedule for the Capitol Dome or how big the House motor pool needed to be, they'd get along fine too. But Ann Quinn and her husband, in 15 years of marriage, still don't agree on anything political even though they love each other and live a wonderful life together. Shouldn't that tell us something? If 200 Anns and 200 Johns had to decide whether to raise taxes, they wouldn't do any better at it than Pelosi and Boehner.

Kvetching over. Other than that, it's not actually a bad profile. You won't learn anything new from it, but I think it captures the mood of a certain slice of the electorate pretty well.

The Foreclosure Mess

| Thu Oct. 14, 2010 10:35 AM EDT

I haven't been blogging about the foreclosure debacle in detail, so here's a quickie catch-up on what it could all mean:

Beyond sloppy documents, the foreclosure debacle has exposed one of Wall Street's little-known practices: For more than a decade, big lenders sold millions of mortgages around the globe at lightning speed without properly transferring the physical documents that prove who legally owned the loans.

Now, some of the pension systems, hedge funds and other investors that took big losses on the loans are seeking to use this flaw to force banks to compensate them or even invalidate the mortgage trades themselves. Their collective actions, if successful, could blow a hole through the balance sheets of big banks and raise fundamental questions about the financial system, financial analysts and a lawmaker said.

....Local laws in most states dictate that each time a mortgage changes hands, the transaction needs to be recorded in courts or county offices. But the speed with which the loans were being generated during the housing boom and then pooled together and passed around Wall Street meant that big financial firms took shortcuts, consumer lawyers said.

Italics mine. I was at dinner last night with a longtime reader, and we naturally ended up talking a bit about the economy. My biggest worry, I said, continues to be an "event." Maybe China crashes. Or Iran decides to embargo oil for some reason. Or Ireland collapses, sending the Euro into a tailspin. Or maybe something like this foreclosure mess, which blows a hole in bank balance sheets yet again and turns into a replay of September 2008. I don't know how likely this is, but the fact that Geithner & Co. are so obviously eager to keep the foreclosure machinery humming suggests to me that they have similar worries.

Now, maybe I'm just a worrywart. If I start hawking gold on the blog, that'll be a sign that weird economic conspiracies have finally seized hold of my mind and I can be safely ignored. But a "lost decade" of slow growth and stagnant income, bad as it is, isn't the worst thing that could happen to us. My sense is that although banks are much stronger now than they were two years ago, they're still not strong enough. Another meltdown is still possible given the right event to set it off.

UPDATE: Details of the worst case scenario here.

Eric Cantor on Earmarks

| Wed Oct. 13, 2010 4:19 PM EDT

Eric Cantor explains today why he's obsessed with earmark reform even though it wouldn't have the slightest impact on federal spending:

If we hope to preserve Social Security and Medicare for seniors, younger workers and our children, we must begin the conversation about common-sense ways to reform both programs.

These are big things — and there is little question that turning trillion-dollar deficits into surpluses, while starting to pay down our national debt, is an enormous mountain to climb. Yet the long climb to fiscal responsibility must begin with a few smaller, but necessary, steps.

Hmmm. I think Cantor has failed to explain his position clearly. Allow me to make a few small edits. Don't worry, I'm a professional:

If we hope to preserve Social Security and Medicare for seniors, younger workers and our children, we must begin the conversation about common-sense ways to reform both programs.

These are big things — but proposing cuts to these program would be an electoral disaster. If Republicans proposed real federal spending reductions we'd get our hats handed to us in November. So we're not going to do it. We're just not. And we're not going to do anything serious about cutting spending after the election either. Instead we're going to distract the rubes with some chatter about a problem that even I admit is trifling. They'll eat it up. I might be pandering here, but that's sure better than the alternative.

All fixed. Any questions?

Lunch at the White House

| Wed Oct. 13, 2010 3:35 PM EDT

 I just saw this picture on the New York Times front page:

Seriously? Obama and Biden eat lunch with each other at opposite ends of a long table? I've seen that used as a joke in movies, but never in real life. Is there some kind of weird White House etiquette that prevents them from sitting right next to each other?