Kevin Drum - November 2011

Obama's Overseas Triumph

| Mon Nov. 21, 2011 1:51 PM EST

Dan Drezner recommends Walter Russell Mead's nickel summary of President Obama's recent whirlwind swing through Asia. I confess that the reaction to rotating a couple hundred troops through Darwin struck me as a little overblown, but decoding the sub rosa minutiae of diplomatic intrigue is tricky at the best of times, so I figured I was probably missing something. Anyway, Mead says that was the least of things:

The cascade of statements, deployments, agreements and announcements from the United States and its regional associates in the last week has to be one of the most unpleasant shocks for China’s leadership — ever. The US is moving forces to Australia, Australia is selling uranium to India, Japan is stepping up military actions and coordinating more closely with the Philippines and Vietnam in the South China Sea, Myanmar is slipping out of China’s column and seeking to reintegrate itself into the region, Indonesia and the Philippines are deepening military ties with the the US: and all that in just one week. If that wasn’t enough, a critical mass of the region’s countries have agreed to work out a new trade group that does not include China, while the US, to applause, has proposed that China’s territorial disputes with its neighbors be settled at a forum like the East Asia Summit — rather than in the bilateral talks with its smaller, weaker neighbors that China prefers.

Rarely has a great power been so provoked and affronted. Rarely have so many red lines been crossed. Rarely has so much face been lost, so fast....[I]t was as decisive a diplomatic victory as anyone is likely to see. Congratulations should go to President Obama and his national security team.

OK, then. Congratulations, Team Obama! Dan explains the background: "China's behavior in 2009 and 2010 was a giant honking invitation for the rest of the Pacific Rim to cozy up to the United States. And that's what should worry Beijing. It's not that the United States is interested in maintaining its presence in East Asia — that interest has not wavered. What has changed is the eagerness with which the countries in the region, ranging from Australia to Myanmar, have reciprocated."

Anyway, this is interesting. I haven't seen Obama get much credit for this trip, possibly because the minutiae of diplomatic intrigue is no more obvious to most reporters than it is to me. And I certainly wouldn't have expected it from Walter Russell Mead. But apparently it was quite the triumph.

And now, back to the grubby work of dealing with the Republican Party. They make the nominal communists of the People's Republic look like pushovers.

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The Problem With Low Interest Rates

| Mon Nov. 21, 2011 12:18 PM EST

Interest rates in the United States are really, really low. This suggests two things. First, it's a great time for Uncle Sam to borrow money for free and spend it on things like infrastructure repair. Second, no matter what the budget jihadists says, the financial markets are apparently not very worried about the federal deficit. If they were, they'd be driving interest rates up.

Tyler Cowen, though, thinks we shouldn't be quite so sure of ourselves:

The “pretense of knowledge” I have seen in these discussions is staggering. Roubini forecast the Italian crisis in 2006 (bravo to him), but overall how many people on the left were so wise to be calling for such Italian spending cuts in 2005, when the country had relatively low bond yields?....The correct response to the Italian situation is: “We didn’t think it could get so bad so quickly. We will take this as a sobering lesson more generally.”

That is not the response I have been seeing. There is too much at stake for us to take comfort in our own supposed abilities to foresee the future.

I don't think the Italian situation is as clear cut as Tyler makes it out to be. Italy's budget deficit wasn't all that outrageous before 2005, and after that the EU put a lot of pressure on them to get it down. So it was hardly something that was ignored. Still, his overall point is worthwhile: Italy's bigger problem was that although its absolute debt level was high, its debt-to-GDP ratio was declining thanks to low eurozone interest rates. That took some of the pressure off, but it turned out to be a fool's paradise. Low interest rates don't necessarily stay low forever.

This is one reason not to take too much solace in low U.S. interest rates right now: just as markets can be wrong during asset bubbles, markets can be wrong on sovereign borrowing rates too. And as we all know, if and when they finally decide they've been wrong, they can change course in a blink.

There's a second reason too: our current borrowing rates are low not so much because markets think we're in terrific shape, but because they think we're the least worst option available right now. Unlike developing countries with roaring economies, U.S. bonds are stable and have modest inflation risk. And unlike eurozone bonds, they have no risk of default. So they're the only game in town.

But they might not be forever. I think the evidence strongly favors substantial fiscal stimulus right now, but if there's an argument for caution I think this is the best one. Markets can turn in a flash, and you don't always have a lot of warning when it happens. As always, then, our best bet would be higher deficits now combined with a credible plan to cut deficits in the long term. Unfortunately, there's simply no way to make the deficit math work without a substantial contribution from higher taxes. And the Republican Party flatly refuses to recognize that. It probably won't happen soon, but eventually the markets are going to react fairly badly to this state of affairs.

An Ounce of Tomato Paste a Day Keeps the Doctor Away

| Mon Nov. 21, 2011 11:45 AM EST

Sarah Kliff, obviously auditioning for killjoy of the day, says that Congress has not, in fact, declared pizza a vegetable. What they did was allow tomato paste to retain its privileged place in school lunches: for nutritional purposes, an eighth of a cup of tomato paste counts the same as half a cup of fruits and vegetables. The reason for this is obvious: it makes it easier for pizza to find a spot on school lunch menus. But suspect motivations aside, Sarah say the decision wasn't really all that outrageous on the merits:

If you stack one-eighth of a cup of tomato paste up against a half-cup of some pretty common fruits and vegetables, the paste actually doesn’t do so badly....All told, the nutrition facts look really similar. Tomato paste does do a lot worse on sodium, but it also does much better in terms of calcium and potassium content. It also slightly edges out apples on dietary fiber, with a lower amount of sugar.

Is Sarah merely a mouthpiece for Big Paste? A full-scale investigation is probably needed on that score. But her evidence is below. Read it and weep, pizza haters.

Deconstructing the Right-Wing Alternate Reality

| Mon Nov. 21, 2011 10:22 AM EST

Conservative apostate David Frum describes the parallel universe in which he thinks his fellow conservatives live these days:

When I entered Republican politics, during an earlier period of malaise, in the late seventies and early eighties, the movement got most of the big questions—crime, inflation, the Cold War—right. This time, the party is getting the big questions disastrously wrong.

....The thought leaders on talk radio and Fox do more than shape opinion. Backed by their own wing of the book-publishing industry and supported by think tanks that increasingly function as public-relations agencies, conservatives have built a whole alternative knowledge system, with its own facts, its own history, its own laws of economics. Outside this alternative reality, the United States is a country dominated by a strong Christian religiosity. Within it, Christians are a persecuted minority. Outside the system, President Obama—whatever his policy errors—is a figure of imposing intellect and dignity. Within the system, he’s a pitiful nothing, unable to speak without a teleprompter, an affirmative-action phony doomed to inevitable defeat. Outside the system, social scientists worry that the U.S. is hardening into one of the most rigid class societies in the Western world, in which the children of the poor have less chance of escape than in France, Germany, or even England. Inside the system, the U.S. remains (to borrow the words of Senator Marco Rubio) “the only place in the world where it doesn’t matter who your parents were or where you came from.”

Actually, I can understand the first item. America may be just about the most Christian advanced nation on earth, but there's no question that Christians have suffered some setbacks. There are more nonbelievers today than any time in recent memory. Prayer in public school has long since been banned. Religious symbolism has mostly been removed from public functions. Liberals make fun of evangelical megachurches. So yeah: a feeling of besiegement is at least understandable.

And I understand the third item too. Hell, just about every country believes the same thing, and ruling elites for the past two centuries have all found it necessary to pretend that they're jes folks. So there's nothing mysterious about this either.

But the second item is a head scratcher. Whatever else you think of him, Obama is pretty obviously smart, savvy, and eloquent. What's more, when they're not yakking about what a callow bungler he is, conservatives spend their time insisting that he's led a shadowy socialist revolution that's practically brought America to its knees. So which is it? Is he a phenomenally successful fifth columnist or an incompetent cretin? Can he really be both?

In any case, the success of modern Republicanism isn't all that hard to understand anyway. Rich people like it for obvious reasons. Social conservatives like it for obvious reasons. And the white working class — well, they might not actually like it all that much, but they mostly dislike liberals even more. And this is no surprise. After all, we spend an awful lot of time trying to make them feel guilty. Your hunting trips? It's a slaughter of innocent animals. Your 15 mpg pickup truck? It's wrecking the planet. Your sexist jokes? It's workplace harassment. Your air conditioner? Keep it above 80, pal. That lazy family in the Section 8 housing down the street? Show a little compassion for the less fortunate, will you?

There's good reason for all this stuff, but it's also understandably irritating. Is it really any wonder that plenty of people are turned off by it? And if there's a large bloc of irritated registered voters, is it surprising that some political party somewhere is going to take advantage of this irritation by assuring them that heartland values are the real America, racism is a liberal scam, global warming is a myth, and social welfare programs do more harm than good?

It's really not, is it?

Why the Supercommittee Was Actually a Dazzling Success

| Sun Nov. 20, 2011 11:50 PM EST

The supercommittee has apparently officially declared failure, and all Washington is in despair. But I think Atrios has the right response to this:

So there's this bipartisan group of elected officials known as "Congress" that passed $1.2 trillion in deficit reductions into law. They also designated a random group of wankers to come up with some alternative $1.2 trillion in deficit reductions as a substitute. They didn't come up with a substitute. So we have the original path to deficit reduction as opposed to the potential substitute.

Why the press has mostly taken the position that some unspecified substitute would be better, or that cuts are implicitly good…

Right. We already have a plan to cut the budget by $1.2 trillion over 10 years. So who really cares whether there's a different plan to cut $1.2 trillion from the budget? Why isn't the existing plan good enough?

In any case, this should basically be viewed as a total victory for Republicans. Any alternative plan would have included some tax increases, so failure to come up with an alternative means that we get a big deficit reduction that's 100 percent spending cuts, just like they wanted. And the 50-50 split between domestic and defense cuts was always sort of a joke. Republicans never had any intention of allowing the Pentagon's half of the cuts to materialize, and the domestic spending half of the cuts was about as big as they wanted them to be. Big talk aside, they know bigger cuts would run the risk of seriously pissing off voters.

So Republicans got domestic spending cuts that were about as big as they really wanted. They know they'll never have to implement most of the defense cuts. And there are no tax increases.

Given all that, why is anyone surprised that they were unwilling to seriously consider any alternative? Why should they when they already had what they wanted?

Raw Data II: Student Achievement Over the Past 20 Years

| Sun Nov. 20, 2011 6:41 PM EST

In my post earlier today about NAEP test score trends, I said I was pessimistic about recent educational reforms because big gains among 9-year-olds mostly seem to wash away by the time students graduate from high school. However, several commenters complained that this was unfair: high school students in 2008 had spent only a few years in the post-NCLB "reform" environment. What we really want to look at are cohort effects. How do kids who have spent their entire lives in the new environment do?

First, some background. In my initial post I used data from the NAEP long-term assessment. This has two big advantages. First, the data goes back further. Second, the long-term test has stayed more stable over time, which makes it a better standard for trend comparisons. In contrast, the main NAEP test gets rewritten every decade or so.

However, the main test still has a pretty good reputation, and it also has the advantage of providing more recent data. We don't have 2011 scores for high school students yet, but we do have 2011 reading and math scores for 4th and 8th graders. So here are test score improvements on the main test from 1992 through 2011:

As usual, keep in mind the rule of thumb that a 10-point change on NAEP scores is about equal to one grade level.

This only goes through middle school, but it's obviously more promising than the long-term data I posted earlier. The 4th grade gains in reading are considerably more modest than on the long-term assessment, but they persist through 8th grade. The gains in math are better than on the long-term assessment, and although some of the gains are lost by 8th grade, the dropoff isn't huge. Note that the 1992 cohort of 8th graders is almost entirely pre-reform, even if you count state reforms that predate NCLB, while the 2011 cohort of 8th graders began first grade in 2003, so these are kids who have spent their entire school lives in post-reform schools. That makes this a pretty good comparison group.  

Now, there are several caveats here:

  • We still don't know how high-school students are doing. We'll need to wait until 2015 before we have a cohort of 12th graders who have spent their entire lives in post-reform schools.
  • The data is from the main NAEP assessment. For longitudinal studies, I think the long-term assessment is probably superior.
  • As usual, you have to decide for yourself if you think scores on standardized tests are really a good measure of student achievement.

Still, caveats aside, this data clearly supports a fairly optimistic view of how our schools are doing. Keep it in mind whenever you read a mournful op-ed about our failing educational system.

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Are You Left-Eared or Right-Eared?

| Sun Nov. 20, 2011 2:57 PM EST

Here is today's weird question. When I talk on the telephone, I always hold the handpiece up to my left ear. I do this because it sounds better that way.

A few minutes ago I was on the phone, and because my arm was sore I switched over to my right ear. I haven't done this for years, but this time I got curious and started switching back and forth, trying to isolate just what it was that was different. Conclusion: when I'm listening through my left ear, the sound is pretty well modulated. When I listen through my right ear, (a) the overall sound quality seems tinnier and (b) louder sounds — just slightly louder, still perfectly normal for spoken voice — seem distorted and unpleasant.

This seems sort of odd. Obviously the telephone speaker is the same all the time, and sounds are either distorted or they're not. If they are, why don't I hear the distortion through my left ear? And if they're not, why do I think I hear distortion in my right ear? What's going on?

UPDATE: Via Twitter, Hassan Khan passes along a Wired article about a research study showing that Italians in dance clubs are more likely to give you a cigarette if you ask them in their right ear:

It’s the latest in a series of studies that show that sound from both human ears is processed differently within the brain. Researchers have noted that humans tend to have a preference for listening to verbal input with their right ears and that given stimulus in both ears, they’ll privilege the syllables that went into the right ear. Brain scientists hypothesize that the right ear auditory stream receives precedence in the left hemisphere of the brain, where the bulk of linguistic processing is carried out.

I don't know which ear I'm most likely to respond to, only that I much prefer the quality of telephonic voices in my left ear. One way or another, though, apparently there's some kind of cognitively linked difference between your left and right ears.

All told, I'm right-handed, right-footed, left-eyed, and left-eared. I haven't checked my nostrils lately.

Democracy in Europe Not Dead Yet

| Sun Nov. 20, 2011 1:06 PM EST

As Europe's financial crisis reaches its climax, Ross Douthat mourns the inexorable rise of the technocrats:

For the inhabitants of Italy and Greece, who have just watched democratically elected governments toppled by pressure from financiers, European Union bureaucrats and foreign heads of state, it evokes the cold reality of 21st-century politics. Democracy may be nice in theory, but in a time of crisis it’s the technocrats who really get to call the shots.

Brad DeLong disagrees. The duly elected leaders of Greece and Italy, he says, chose new prime ministers "because they wanted their countries to borrow money--and the people who they wanted to borrow money from were very unwilling to lend it to governments headed by Papandreou and Berlusconi but willing to lend it to governments headed by Papademos and Monti."

Unlike Brad, I don't really have a problem with calling either the EU's panjandrums or Papademos and Monti technocrats, though it's true that in the financial world "technocrat" isn't really a name for someone dedicated to serried columns of facts and figures as much as it's a name for someone with a particular ideological disposition: pro-creditor, pro-austerity, and anti-inflation. Love it or hate it, it's the ideology of Germany, it's the ideology of the ECB, it's the ideology of the IMF, and it's the ideology of the dominant political class in the United States.

But here's something to make Ross feel better: this is hardly the cold reality of only 21st-century politics. The same dynamic that led to the fall of the Greek and Italian governments — pressure from creditors on countries that couldn't pay their mounting debts — is pretty much the same dynamic that led to the fall of the Iron Curtain. It's not anything new, it's not necessarily bad, and it's not even necessarily anti-democratic. Millions of people in Eastern Europe live in more democracy today than they did in 1989 thanks to pressure from creditors on their governments to pay their bills.

I'm not happy with the way financial technocrats are handling Europe's current mess, but whether they're ultimately good or bad for democracy is too early to say. After all, Berlusconi-style corporatists aren't exactly tribunes of the people either once you scratch an inch below their glad-handing surfaces, nor is the toxic combination of civil servants and the rich that's ruled Greece for the past couple of decades. I wouldn't sound the death knell for European democracy quite yet.

Raw Data: Student Achievement Over the Past 20 Years

| Sun Nov. 20, 2011 10:12 AM EST

Gene Lyons wrote a recent column noting that students have been making steady progress on standardized tests over the past few decades. Bob Somerby wishes people would listen:

Over and over, people are told that test scores are lower. Commenters quickly started bruiting this claim in response to the Lyons piece. In most cases, these commenters didn't seem to have understood the basic things Lyons had said.

They didn't dispute his factual statements. They simply skipped right past them.

Our “career liberal” leaders are worse than useless. Our “educational experts” are anything but. Everyone praises the NAEP test scores—but no one reports what those test scores show!

I'd like to see a bit less panic over our failing schools too. Still, I think the picture is a little less clear than Bob makes it out to be. He points out correctly that looking at raw averages is sometimes misleading: Blacks and Hispanics have always scored lower than whites on standardized tests, and as their population increases that lowers the overall average even if all three groups are actually doing better. To see what's really happening, you have to look at test scores for all three groups separately.

So here they are. The chart below shows test score improvements over the past 20 years on the NAEP reading and math tests, widely considered the "gold standard" of national testing. The source material is here. (Note that for the 1990 starting point I used an average of the 1988/90/92 scores for reading and an average of the 1990/92 scores for math.)

The usual rule of thumb on the NAEP test is that ten points equals one grade level. So what lesson can we draw from this data?

Answer: it's mixed. Nine-year-olds in all three groups have indeed made huge advances in both reading and math, ranging from 10 to 20 points. But things start to slide when you move up to middle school. Improvement among 13-year-olds in math is more modest than among 9-year-olds, though still quite respectable, but reading scores are up only a few points. And when you get to high school things really go to hell. Reading scores for 17-year-olds have gone down and math scores have improved only a bit.

This is all just raw data. You can decide for yourself whether standardized test scores are a good measure of student achievement. You can also decide for yourself which age groups matter the most. My own take is twofold: (1) Our students aren't doing any worse than they did in the past. Panic isn't really justified. (2) Improvements in reading and math scores that wash out by the end of high school aren't that impressive. Until we see substantial improvements among 17-year-olds, I don't think you can say our students are doing much better either.

Are there reasonable arguments against this position? Sure. Maybe the real issue is how we compare internationally. Unfortunately, that data doesn't go back very far and can be tricky to interpret. I've seen significantly different results on different tests. What's more, I'd argue that at an international level, production of advanced degrees is a lot more important than modest differences in primary and secondary education.

It's also true that relying on data for 17-year-olds can be misleading thanks to changes in dropout rates over time. However, the trends for just the top-scoring students are about the same as the overall averages, and that's not affected much by dropout rates. So I suspect this is a minor issue.

I think ed reformers would also argue that most of the reforms of the past 20 years have been focused on the primary grades, so it's not fair to judge those reforms by looking at stagnant 17-year-old scores. We need to see reforms widely adopted in high schools before we can do that. I guess I buy this to an extent, but it's an argument that's getting a little stale. At some point we have to fish or cut bait. Until we see improvements in the final product, so to speak, improvements in the intermediate steps don't really mean very much.

UPDATE: Wait a second! Several commenters pointed out that it's cohort effects that we really want to look at. High school kids in 2008 have spent only a few years in the post-NCLB reform environment, so it's hardly surprising that they don't show big improvements. But how about kids who have spent their entire lives in that environment?

Excellent question. To fully answer it we'll have to wait for the 2015 crop of high school students to be tested, and even to partially answer it we'll have to look at a different dataset. I do that here. Nickel summary: there are some caveats, but the overall picture is more promising than the one I presented here. There are indeed reasons to think that our schools are getting better and our kids are learning more.

Republicans Hate Compromise, Part XVII

| Sat Nov. 19, 2011 1:31 PM EST

This won't come as surprising news to anyone who reads this blog regularly, but if you can't flog a hobbyhorse on a blog, where can you flog it? So here it is: Pew Research is the latest to survey Americans and find that the Republican base really, really doesn't like compromise:

Among those who have heard at least a little about the super committee, there is broad support for compromise: 65% say lawmakers who share their views on the budget deficit should be willing to compromise, even if it results in a deal they disagree with....[But] there continue to be wide partisan differences in views of compromise. Among those who have heard at least a little about the super committee, 74% of Democrats and 67% of independents support compromise, compared with 52% of Republicans.

Once again, then: this explains most of what you need to know about modern American politics. Republican politicians refuse to compromise because that's what their base rewards them for. Conversely, Democratic politicians support compromise because that's what their base rewards them for.

Always keep this in mind when you're tearing your hair out trying to make sense of what's going on in Washington DC. Sometimes politicians aren't quite as mysterious or bumbling as you think. They're just reacting to their incentives, the same as the rest of us.