• Building Better Kids, Vocabulary Edition

    Over at City Journal, E.D. Hirsch argues that the most important function of education is vocabulary development:

    There’s a positive correlation between a student’s vocabulary size in grade 12, the likelihood that she will graduate from college, and her future level of income. The reason is clear: vocabulary size is a convenient proxy for a whole range of educational attainments and abilities—not just skill in reading, writing, listening, and speaking but also general knowledge of science, history, and the arts. If we want to reduce economic inequality in America, a good place to start is the language-arts classroom.

    ….Why should vocabulary size be related to achieved intelligence and real-world competence? Though the intricate details of cognitive abilities are under constant study and refinement, it’s possible to give a rough answer. The space where we solve our problems is called “working memory.” For everyone, even geniuses, it’s a small space that can hold only a few items in suspension for only a few seconds. If one doesn’t make the right connections within that space, one has to start over again. Hence, one method for coping and problem solving is to reduce the number of items that one has to make sense of at any moment. The psychologist George A. Miller called that process “chunking.”

    ….Words are fantastically effective chunking devices. Suppose you put a single item into your working memory—say, “Pasteur.” So long as you hold in your long-term memory a lot of associations with that name, you don’t need to dredge them up and try to cram them into your working memory. The name serves as a brief proxy for whatever aspects will turn out to be needed to cope with your problem. The more readily available such proxies are for you, the better you will be at dealing with various problems.

    I don’t actually have an independent opinion about this, but my mother, the former fourth-grade teacher turned ESL teacher, has become convinced that vocabulary is indeed the single most important key to learning. So I’m linking to this article for her. If Mom says vocabulary development is key, then by God, I’m going to make you all read about it.

    So how do we go about building vocabulary? Hirsch has a bunch of suggestions, but here’s one that leapt out at me:

    Nearly every child in France attends a free public preschool—an école maternelle—and some attend for three years, starting at age two. The preschools are academically oriented from the start. Each grade has a set curriculum and definite academic goals, and the teachers, selected from a pool of highly qualified applicants, have been carefully trained.

    In the 1970s and 1980s, the French conducted an experiment with 2,000 students to determine whether sending children to preschool at age two was worth the public expense. The results were remarkable. After seven years of elementary school, disadvantaged students who had started preschool at age two had fully caught up with their more advantaged peers, while those who had started at three didn’t do quite as well, and those who had started at four trailed still further behind. A good preschool, it turned out, had highly egalitarian effects. A very early start, followed by systematic elementary schooling, can erase much of the achievement gap, though the payoff isn’t fully apparent until the later grades—a delayed effect that is to be expected, given the slowness and cumulativeness of word-learning.

    Well. This certainly appeals to my biases. No, wait. Let’s say that in a more sophisticated way. My Bayesian priors suggest that these aren’t just spurious correlations, but plausibly causal agents. Vocabulary, baby!

    (But seriously. There really is a lot of evidence that learning during our very early years is crucially important. See Jon Cohn’s “The 2-Year Window” for more.)

    The whole piece is interesting. As I said, I don’t have a deep understanding of this subject, and I’m not asking you to buy into everything Hirsch says. But it’s worth a read. Via Sullivan.

  • Raw Data: Do You Pay Higher Taxes Than You Did 50 Years Ago?

    In my post this morning about government intrusion into our lives, I casually mentioned that we pay higher taxes than we did 50 years ago. I got some pushback on this, so I figured I should check my facts. That turned out to be surprisingly hard.

    First off: federal taxes. We all know that top marginal rates have gone down. They were about 90 percent in 1960, compared to 39.6 percent today. At the same time, payroll taxes have gone up. The Medicare tax, for example, didn’t even exist in 1960. So what does the median look like? The best I could find was a table from the Tax Policy Center that shows combined federal taxes for a family of four with a few specific assumptions. The chart on the right shows federal taxes for a median family of four over the past 50 years.

    Next: state taxes. I can’t really find anything reasonable here. The best I can do is the chart on the right, which shows total state and local spending as a percent of total income. Since states are generally required to run balanced budgets, this should correspond reasonably well to tax rates. What’s more, since state and local taxes tend to be either flat or regressive, this probably represents median tax payments fairly well too. Still, take it for a very rough guess, not gospel.

    If you put these two charts together, they suggest that the average tea partier does, in fact, pay higher taxes than she did 50 years ago: a little more in federal taxes and substantially more in state and local taxes. Overall, the combined median tax burden has increased from about 20 percent to 28 percent.

    If I can find a better estimate somewhere, I’ll let you know. For now, this provides a rough-and-ready tax picture of the past half century.

    UPDATE: In the original version of this post I mixed apples and oranges by using federal tax rates and state spending as a percent of GDP. The state figures should be percentages of income. I’ve corrected the text and the bottom chart.

  • (Almost) Nobody Is Serious About the Deficit

    Michael Kinsley writes today that deficit hawk Pete Peterson and deficit dove Paul Krugman actually agree with each other: we need more spending now, while the economy is weak, but in the long term we need to rein in the deficit.

    They just approach this solution from opposite directions. Peterson wants a balanced budget and only grudgingly acknowledges the need for stimulus. Krugman wants the stimulus and only grudgingly acknowledges that there are limits: You can’t borrow forever. Nevertheless, the two men — representing opposite ends of the spectrum in this debate — agree on how we should proceed.

    Kinsley is exaggerating for rhetorical effect here, but there’s a kernel of truth to this. So if we (almost) all agree that the long-term deficit needs to be controlled, why is there such a massive difference of opinion about whether we should start now vs. putting off the hard decisions until the economy is fully recovered? Neil Irwin takes on this question with a short guide to “why the economics crowd isn’t as nervous about deficits and debt as the Washington punditocracy.” Then he follows this up with the flip side: the best arguments the political class has for being more nervous about debt than the economics crowd.

    It’s worth a read, but I’d like to add two bullet points about why the political class is really more nervous about debt than the economists are:

    • For conservatives: They aren’t. They just don’t like spending lots of money on poor people. Their real desire is to cut welfare spending, and deficit hawkery is a handy excuse for this.
    • For centrists/lefties: They accept the economic argument in theory, but are more attuned to practical politics than economists are. The idea that we can safely ease the pressure for action on the debt today, but still count on politicians to virtuously cut borrowing in the future, strikes them as laughable. We’re humans, not Vulcans.

    I’m not much of a deficit hawk. But I cop to taking the long-term deficit seriously, and I doubt very much that it will ever get reined in without applying enormous, sustained pressure to the political class. My biggest problem, then, isn’t so much that this pressure is being applied, but that it’s being applied to the wrong place. There’s nothing much we can (or should) do about the aging of America: we just need to pay for it, whether we like it or not. And discretionary spending isn’t on an upward trajectory, so it shouldn’t be sucking up so much of our attention. It’s all healthcare, baby. If all of the pressure on the deficit were being applied to serious proposals for reining in healthcare spending, in an effort to get U.S. spending levels down to those prevailing in socialist Europe, I’d probably applaud. Unfortunately, virtually none of it is. We got a few new cost-containment initiatives in Obamacare, which might or might not work, complemented by some absurd hack-and-slash proposals from the Paul Ryan crowd, and that’s about it. This is pretty much the exact opposite of serious.

  • The Human Cost of Refusing to Expand Medicaid

    HHS has announced an exemption to Obamacare’s individual mandate:

    As the Obama administration took new steps Wednesday to implement the healthcare law’s individual mandate, it clarified an exemption for people whose governors don’t take part in the expanded Medicaid program….Notably, HHS clarified that the mandate doesn’t apply to people who are eligible for Medicaid but live in states that don’t take part in the law’s Medicaid expansion.

    Right. If you’re so poor that you qualify for Medicaid, but your state’s Republican governor refuses to allow you to have Medicaid coverage, the federal government won’t demand that you pay for private coverage instead. This is mere common sense, since such people don’t have the money in the first place. Ed Kilgore puts this in human terms:

    By my rough back-of-the-envelope calculation from Kaiser Family Foundation numbers, there are about 4 million of such unlucky duckies in the 10 states that are pretty clearly not going to participate in the Medicaid expansion, a number that could jump to well over 5 million if Rick Scott manages to keep Florida out as well….So what do they care about the injustice of this coverage hole? Not a thing, clearly.

    Nope, not a thing.

  • Freedom Now vs. Freedom in the Past

    This is apropos of nothing in particular, but I happened to be thinking about the question of whether we’re more or less free than we used to be, say, 50 years ago or so. The usual answer, of course, is that government at all levels now intrudes into every facet of daily life, which makes us less free. And yet, speaking for myself, I very rarely find myself prohibited from doing something I want to do. In practice, I’m pretty damn free.

    So which is it? Less free, more free, or no real difference? First, I want to make a few stipulations:

    • If you’re black, or gay, or disabled, or female, you’re a helluva lot freer than you were 50 years ago. Let’s acknowledge that and put civil rights to the side for now.
    • I think it’s unquestionably more onerous to start up and run a business than in the past. We can argue about whether that’s good or bad, but again, let’s put that to the side. I want to focus on personal freedom.
    • I’m not interested in whether 2013 is “better” than 1963. Obviously we’re freer to send text messages and ship packages overnight in 2013 because, you know, that stuff was impossible 50 years ago.

    So the focus here is on regulatory freedom, things the government makes harder or easier on individuals. Here are some examples to give you an idea of what I’m thinking about:

    Ways in which you were less free 50 years ago:

    • Most shops were closed on Sunday, thanks to blue laws.
    • You stood a good chance of being drafted into the military.
    • X-rated movies were illegal, and movies in general were more heavily censored.
    • Travel to foreign countries was more onerous (getting visas and other travel documents was a huge pain).
    • It was harder to procure birth control, and abortion was illegal.
    • Owning gold was illegal.
    • Casino gambling was banned nearly everywhere.
    • It was harder to buy and smoke marijuana.
    • You could not bank across state lines or get more than 5¼ percent interest on your savings.

    Ways in which you are less free today:

    • There are lots of places where you can’t smoke a cigarette.
    • Boarding an airplane is more hassle, and just generally, there are more security-related restrictions on our daily lives.
    • You can’t dump hazardous crap anywhere you want.
    • The permitting process for building on your property is generally harder. (If you live on the coast in California, it’s way harder.)
    • Buying a gun requires a background check and, sometimes, a waiting period.
    • You have to wear a seat belt when you drive.
    • Your taxes are higher.
    • It’s harder to buy raw milk.
    • As of next January, you will be required to buy health insurance.

    I hope this gives the flavor of what I’m looking for: legal and regulatory hurdles that affect us in our daily lives. What else have you got along these lines?

  • Quote of the Day: There Are Lots of Lies About Weight Loss Out There

    From David B. Allison, director of the Nutrition Obesity Research Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, in an article published today in the New England Journal of Medicine:

    False and scientifically unsupported beliefs about obesity are pervasive in both scientific literature and the popular press.

    Roger that. More here. In a nutshell: pretty much nothing works. The odds are strong that you will never lose weight other than temporarily. I am the poster child for the truth of this.

  • Chart of the Decade: Corporations are Pessimistic About Future Growth

    Ezra Klein posted this chart today showing the steady accumulation of corporate cash and reserves over the past 15 years. I’d like to nominate it for chart of the decade or something. “Why corporations are holding so much more cash is an interesting mystery,” says Ezra, but I think it’s the key mystery of the past couple of decades. Total liquid assets held by nonfinancial corporations have increased from 7.7 percent of GDP to 11.3 percent of GDP.

    Why? Why are corporations increasingly unable to find anything interesting to do with their cash in the real world? Why are they implicitly so pessimistic about opportunities for future growth? Is this the financial smoking gun for Tyler Cowen’s “great stagnation” thesis?

    I’m not sure. But for 15 years the people with money to bet have been betting that they’ll get better returns investing in financial instruments than they will by investing in expansion of existing products and the invention of new ones. Until we figure out why, we’re going to be stuck with a combination of sluggish growth and financial bubbles as far as the eye can see.

  • Is the Conservative Fever Starting to Break?

    Andrew Sullivan thinks there’s been a tectonic shift since Barack Obama’s reelection:

    It’s not just the return to Clinton tax rates for the very wealthy; it’s a real cultural shift as well. In the last week, we have seen the Boy Scouts back off a national policy of excluding openly gay scouts and scout-masters (which means the Mormon hierarchy must have not made too big a fuss); we have Tom Tancredo almost smoking a joint in public (don’t make a bet with him on anything in the future); we have Sean Hannity’s ratings plummeting; we see gay couples included in the president’s comprehensive immigration reform; we have Limbaugh edging ever-so-slightly toward Rubio on immigration.

    That chart does surprise me. Not because Obama’s favorables are up five points. That seems like fairly standard inaugural honeymoon stuff. But his unfavorables are down ten points. Some of that is honeymoon stuff too, and it will wash out soon enough. Still, it’s a big drop, and it suggests that maybe a bit of the fever has broken on the right. Maybe.

    In any case, this is why immigration reform needs to happen soon if it’s going to happen at all. And as near as I can tell, it’s all in Marco Rubio’s hands now. If he can persuade enough Republicans to take a deep breath and support a compromise measure—and if he can keep the conservative punditocracy from flipping out over it—it has a good chance of passing both Senate and House. If not, probably not. I don’t think McCain and Graham can do it on their own.

  • It’s OK to Torture, But Not OK to Talk About Torture

    James Pohl, the Army colonel running the trial of accused 9/11-conspirator Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, is not pleased. Someone—it’s not clear who, but it sure isn’t Pohl—is turning the audio feed of the hearing on and off. The feed was cut off yesterday when defense attorney David Nevin mentioned that portions of the hearing would be held in secret, and it wasn’t immediately obvious who had done it:

    There was one thing that Pohl was clear about: what Nevin had been saying when he was cut off was not secret at all. That someone apparently thought it should be is likely due to its proximity to the question of torture—a subject that has distorted the proceedings profoundly, the white noise reverberating through it all, cutting off a moral as well as legal conversation.

    Welcome to military commission hearings in the world’s greatest democracy, now all but impossible to hold fairly because of our history of torturing suspects. Do you feel ill yet?

  • Lindsey Graham Continues His Temper Tantrum Over Benghazi

    ThinkProgress reports that Sen. Lindsey Graham has decided to continue his spectacular temper tantrum over Benghazi, telling Fox News last night, “I haven’t forgotten about Benghazi. Hillary Clinton got away with murder, in my view.” He’s not using this in its idiomatic meaning, either. He literally seems to think that Hillary Clinton has cleverly wriggled out from under a Murder One conviction via some kind of Machiavellian trickery.

    Next up in Graham’s Benghazi crosshairs is defense secretary Leon Panetta. Graham has now decided that he won’t rest until Panetta testifies too, and to make sure that happens he’s going to block Chuck Hagel’s SecDef nomination until he’s got Panetta sweating under the klieg lights. “Why would we not want to understand what happened during the attack itself?” he asked Greta Van Susteren rhetorically. “How could our secretary — what happened for seven hours? Why were there no military assets available on September the 11th?”

    This is very close to literal insanity. Graham knows perfectly well that these questions have been answered, and he knows perfectly well that Panetta won’t tell him anything he doesn’t already know. So why is he putting on this performance? My theory is simple: Graham likes being a maverick, but voters in South Carolina don’t really want a maverick as their senator. They want a 100 percent ACU-certified hard-right conservative. Since Graham doesn’t want to give them that, he has to compensate for it with periodic high-profile eruptions that demonstrate the kind of spittle-flecked hatred of Barack Obama his constituents want. It makes up for his occasional apostasy over climate change or immigration, and shows that he’s really one of them even if he does have a few peculiar pet causes they don’t understand.

    Either that or he really is crazy. I guess I’m not entirely sure which.

  • Can Charter Schools Improve Over Time?

    A new study from Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes concludes that charter schools “post superior results with historically disadvantaged student subgroups.” Via Twitter, Neerav Kingsland asks, “can you run this study through your skepticism wringer?”

    The full study is a couple hundred pages long, so the answer is no. What’s more, the main conclusion of the study is actually about the consistency of charter school results over time, not charter performance among minorities. Their primary takeaway is simple: charters that start out strong stay strong, and charters that start out weak stay weak. They don’t get better over time as they “work out the kinks.”

    I actually find that reasonably plausible. Nonetheless, although I don’t have time to read the full report right now, I can read the executive summary and point out a few issues:

    Short time frame: “Using the broad range of data that CREDO has developed in partnership with 25 state education agencies, we follow student-level performance in schools from their opening through their fifth year.”

    Small sample size: “While the available data does not extend into the past, far enough to observe the birth of all [charter management organizations], a limited number of CMO ‘births’ are evident in the data window at our disposal and it is possible to observe their flagship school’s performance before and after replication.”

    Confirms own biases: “Interviews with school staff along with our own observations of school activities and operations have formed the impression that the ‘rules’ of a school get set early on in the life of the school….If our admittedly limited, qualitatively-based conjecture is true and more generally supported, we conjectured that it should be possible to observe the phenomenon quantitatively and test the hypothesis statistically.”

    These are reasons to treat CREDO’s conclusions with caution. Nonetheless, it’s worth pointing out that some of CREDO’s results aren’t super friendly toward the charter movement. Lousy charters stay lousy over time, for example, and that’s especially true for middle and high schools. Charter performance, on average, is pretty average. There are very few observable attributes that serve as signals of charter quality. So while their study confirms the bias they took into it—something that seems to be an absolute scourge in the ed reform field—it wasn’t all just confirmation bias. A few of their results were challenging for the charter school movement.

    Overall, I don’t have a big issue with this study. It seems to be fairly modest in its claims, and its main policy recommendation is that since charters display a wide range of performance, they should be monitored closely and shut down early if they perform poorly. I’m generally in favor of lots of ruthless experimentation, so I guess this appeals to my biases.

    As for whether charters really are especially strong among minority and low-income populations, that’s been the subject of dozens of studies, not just this one. The CREDO study seems to confirm that it’s possible for a charter to do especially well among these groups, but we still don’t how easy it is, how scalable it is, how replicable it is, or how expensive it is. The jury is still out.

  • Economic Performance in Q4 is….Hard to Get a Handle On

    Economic growth turned negative last quarter, with GDP dropping 0.1 percent:

    The drop was driven by a plunge in military spending, as well as fewer exports and a steep slowdown in the buildup of inventories by businesses. Anxieties about the fiscal impasse in Washington also contributed to the slowdown….The 22.2 percent drop in military spending — the sharpest quarterly drop in more than four decades — along with the drop in inventories and exports overwhelmed more positive indicators in the private sector, he said.

    That’s both odd and normal at the same time. It’s odd because there’s no real-world reason for military spending to jump around so much. A few percent from month-to-month, sure. But 22 percent in one quarter?

    But it’s also normal, because every quarter there’s something like this when you dive into the internals of the GDP report. Final inventories rose or fell unexpectedly. State spending spiked or plummeted. Airplane sales or timber or durable goods or something showed an unusually big change.

    So I guess my inclination is to simply take the headline number at face value: the economy was weak in Q4. Still, I’d temper that a bit. The military spending thing really is odd, and other economic indicators (employment, income growth, etc.) were reasonably strong last quarter. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see some upward revisions to this.

    On a political note, it would be nice if this report persuaded some people that government spending really does affect economic growth. Unfortunately, the kind of people who refuse to believe this seem to have a weird, walled-off section in the brains that makes an exception for military expenditures. Higher spending on bombs and aircraft carriers is good for the economy, but higher spending on bridges and electrical grids merely saps business from the private sector. I don’t know if the anti-Keynesians really believe this or are only pretending to believe it, but it works out the same either way. A report like this won’t change their peculiar views one whit.

  • It’s True: The Fed Really Can Print All the Money It Wants To

    Over the past few years, the Fed has been hugely profitable, sending more than $50 billion annually to the Treasury. The Wall Street Journal reports today that this gravy train may come to an end a few years from now, but don’t shed too many tears for the folks in the Eccles building:

    If the Fed were to record a loss, it could print its own money to cover its expenses—at no cost to the Treasury. The Fed would record a loss as a deferred asset, which would represent how much money the Fed would need to make up before it started sending profits to the Treasury again.

    How great is that to be an agency that can just twiddle a few bits in its computer system whenever it needs to cover its budget? Sure, you knew already that the Fed could print money, but this makes it all a little bit more concrete, doesn’t it?

  • Amazon Defies Gravity For Yet Another Quarter

    Amazon announced higher revenue today but sharply lower profits. Investors don’t seem to care much: Amazon shares closed down a bit on the news, but as I write this they’ve already made up all of the loss and then some in after-hours trading. Matt Yglesias is amazed:

    Amazon, as best I can tell, is a charitable organization being run by elements of the investment community for the benefit of consumers. The shareholders put up the equity, and instead of owning a claim on a steady stream of fat profits, they get a claim on a mighty engine of consumer surplus. Amazon sells things to people at prices that seem impossible because it actually is impossible to make money that way. And the competitive pressure of needing to square off against Amazon cuts profit margins at other companies, thus benefiting people who don’t even buy anything from Amazon.

    It’s a marvel, all right. The general idea, as near as I can tell, is that Amazon will build up lots of brand loyalty and will eventually be able to raise prices a bit without losing its customers. Maybe. I suppose I’d probably be willing to pay a slight premium to buy something on Amazon if my only alternative were an outfit I didn’t know anything about. (Or if I’d gotten some Amazon gift cards for Christmas, which I did.) So maybe they’ll eventually be able to pull this off. The problem is that, increasingly, their competition won’t be small e-retailers I’ve never heard of, but a handful of fellow giants who all have good reputations, good service, low prices, and easy checkout. That’s a tough space to make a profit in.

    I suppose it’s also possible that selling actual stuff will merely be a loss leader for the Amazon services that make money in the future: remote storage, cloud computing, rakeoffs from Amazon affiliates, etc. Maybe maybe maybe. Still, my daddy taught me that a P/E of 3,479 was just a wee bit optimistic. I think I’ll stick to the craps tables in Vegas. The odds are better.

  • Immigration Reform and the English Language

    Matt Yglesias, after reviewing the evidence about the effect that immigration has on wages—very little, probably—says correctly that “we’re stuck in a mostly phony argument about wages that does nothing to ease people’s real fears about nationalism and identity.” Paul Waldman goes a step further and isolates the real problem: language. “Make them learn English” may be entirely unnecessary, since Mexican immigrants appear to follow exactly the same language path as every other immigrant group, but in political terms “it could be the key to passing immigration reform”:

    As a group, Americans have contradictory feelings about immigration….Most Americans acknowledge that we’re all descended from immigrants of one kind or another….They also appreciate that immigration gives our country vitality, and that immigrants are exactly the kind of hard-working, ambitious strivers that drive our economy and culture forward. But at the same time, many feel threatened when they see the character of their towns and cities change, and nothing embodies that change more than language. When people walk into a store and hear a language being spoken that they don’t understand, they suddenly feel like foreigners in their own neighborhood, alienated and insecure. I’m not putting a value judgment on that feeling, but it’s undeniable.

    So imagine an individual citizen/voter who has those two contradictory feelings. He sincerely wants his country to welcome immigrants, and he thinks that cultural diversity is basically a good thing, but he got a little freaked out last week when he went down to the drug store and felt like he just got transported to Mexico City. He doesn’t like feeling alienated, but he also doesn’t like that tiny voice inside him that says “Send them back where they came from!” He knows that voice isn’t right, but when he sees signs in other languages or hears other languages spoken, that voice gets a little stronger.

    What the “make them learn English” provision says to him is: Don’t worry, it’s going to be OK. We’re going to make sure that this wave of immigrants is woven into the American tapestry just like the prior waves of Irish and Italian and Chinese immigrants. They won’t take America over. They’ll become American.

    This is exactly right, and I think we’re less than honest if we don’t acknowledge that plenty of us lefties feel a bit of this sometimes too. It’s human nature. And that gives me an excuse (again!) to link to my second-favorite Chris Hayes piece ever. It’s about John Tanton, the founder of FAIR, the nation’s oldest and most influential immigration restriction group. For years, Tanton tried to preach an anti-immigration message based on economic and conservation grounds. But it didn’t work. Chris tells us what did work:

    Crisscrossing the country, Tanton found little interest in his conservation-based arguments for reduced immigration, but kept hearing the same complaint. “‘I tell you what pisses me off,’” Tanton recalls people saying. “‘It’s going into a ballot box and finding a ballot in a language I can’t read.’ So it became clear that the language question had a lot more emotional power than the immigration question.”

    Tanton tried to persuade FAIR to harness this “emotional power,” but the board declined. So in 1983, Tanton sent out a fundraising letter on behalf of a new group he created called U.S. English. Typically, Tanton says, direct mail garners a contribution from around 1 percent of recipients. “The very first mailing we ever did for U.S. English got almost a 10 percent return,” he says. “That’s unheard of.” John Tanton had discovered the power of the culture war.

    The success of U.S. English taught Tanton a crucial lesson. If the immigration restriction movement was to succeed, it would have to be rooted in an emotional appeal to those who felt that their country, their language, their very identity was under assault. “Feelings,” Tanton says in a tone reminiscent of Spock sharing some hard-won insight on human behavior, “trump facts.”

    Cultural insecurity and language angst are the key issues here. It doesn’t matter if they’re rational or not. Anything we can do to relieve those anxieties helps the cause of comprehensive immigration reform.

  • Quote of the Day: How Not to Be a Jackass

    From the Hispanic Leadership Network, a conservative group offering advice to Republicans on how to use “tonally sensitive” language when talking about immigration reform:

    Don’t use phrases like ‘send them all back,’ ‘electric fence,’ ‘build a wall along the entire border’….Don’t use the word ‘illegals’ or ‘aliens.’ Don’t use the term ‘anchor baby’….Don’t characterize all Hispanics as undocumented and all undocumented as Hispanics.

    Good advice! (Via Steve Benen.)

  • Bring Back Earmarks!

    Atrios wants to bring back earmarks:

    Giving members of Congress a few nice things (sometimes corrupt, sometimes not) for their districts is a way actually get things done. There’s nothing wrong with members trying to bring the pork back to their districts. We should stop seeing this as inherently problematic.

    I agree. Political horsetrading may be distasteful in the abstract, but in reality it’s the way compromises get forged, human nature being what it is in our sadly fallen state. So if you want to get things done, you need trading chits like earmarks.

    But there’s more to it than that. The truth is that, within reason, legislators should have the power to direct money to their districts. They’re supposedly the ones who know their districts best, after all. The key thing to keep in mind is that sometimes there are projects that are really important to locals that just aren’t ever going to pass muster with DC bureaucrats who, for good and appropriate reasons, score spending requests largely via formula. This leads to understandable frustration with how tax dollars are being spent. Earmarks are a relief valve, a way of giving a bit of local control over federal spending to locals themselves, who can spend it as they see fit. It might not be the way you or I would spend it, but that’s OK.

    I think there was a justified sense during the aughts that earmarks had gotten out of control. Unfortunately, we overreacted. They probably needed to be scaled back, but they shouldn’t have been eliminated. Earmarks represent a bit of local control over tax dollars that’s basically salutary in modest doses.

    Oh, and they don’t have any effect on overall spending, either. Earmarks redirect spending, they don’t increase it.

  • Imaginary Columns, Imaginary Wars

    Today brings two very peculiar columns. First up is Jonah Goldberg, with this mighty odd way of framing his distaste for allowing women to serve in combat roles:

    What if, during the presidential campaign, Mitt Romney had accused President Obama of wanting to let servicewomen serve in combat? After all, Obama had hinted as much in 2008. What would Obama’s response have been? My hunch is that he would have accused Romney of practicing the “politics of division” or some such and denied it.

    Really? The hook for the whole column is Obama’s imaginary response to an imaginary question from Mitt Romney? That’s the best he could do? My hunch is that Romney didn’t mention this because he was in enough trouble with women already, and my further hunch is that if he had, Obama would have said it was under review but that he was generally in favor of equal opportunity etc. etc.

    Next, Ed Kilgore draws my attention to a lengthy tirade by Kirsten Powers about President Obama’s war on Fox News. I guess that’s fine. After all, it’s no secret that Fox isn’t his favorite network. But what is it that set her off? Apparently it was the answer Obama gave when Chris Hughes asked him if it was possible to establish better relationships with Republicans:

    One of the biggest factors is going to be how the media shapes debates. If a Republican member of Congress is not punished on Fox News or by Rush Limbaugh for working with a Democrat on a bill of common interest, then you’ll see more of them doing it.

    That seems….unexceptionable. How did that turn into the latest evidence of a nuclear war on Fox? Beats me.

    I dunno. Something in the water today?

  • Washington DC’s Final Glass Ceiling

    I don’t pay a lot of attention to Los Angeles city politics, but I was intrigued by Jim Newton’s rundown of the three main contenders for the mayoralty and their likely choices for chief of staff:

    Greuel’s chief deputy controller is Claire Bartels, a veteran of City Hall….Bartels’ counterpart in Garcetti’s camp is Ana Guerrero, the daughter of migrant farmworkers and a seasoned community organizer….Perry employs a chief of staff who is a former critical-care nurse, Kathy Godfrey.

    All women. Interesting. There’s never been a woman as chief of staff in the White House, has there? Let’s check. Nope. Not a one. Along with treasury secretary and defense secretary, I guess this is the final frontier for the glass ceiling in DC.

  • Republicans Still Hellbent on Cutting Taxes on the Rich

    Stymied at the national level, Republicans have spent the past couple of years focusing a lot of their energy at the state level. And they’ve had considerable success. Hundreds of abortion restrictions have been passed. Voter ID laws were enacted all over the country. Just recently half a dozen Republican-controlled states have started efforts to game the Electoral College in preparation for the 2016 election.

    So what’s next? Apparently state sales taxes. CBPP’s Elizabeth McNichol reports:

    In an alarming trend, governors in Louisiana, Nebraska, and North Carolina have proposed eliminating their state’s personal and corporate income taxes and raising the sales tax to offset the lost revenue….Proponents claim that eliminating income taxes and expanding the sales tax would make tax systems simpler, fairer, and more business-friendly, with no net revenue loss. In reality, they would tilt state taxes against middle- and lower-income households and likely undercut the state’s ability to maintain public services. Specifically they would:

    • Raise taxes on the middle class.
    • Require huge sales tax hikes.
    • Levy those new, higher rates on a much larger number of transactions.
    • Create an unsustainable spiral of rising rates and widening exemptions.
    • Fail to boost state economies.
    • Make state revenues much less stable.

    There’s more detail at the link. But the bottom line is pretty simple: This is a transparent effort to reduce taxes on the rich and increase taxes on the poor and the middle class. No matter how flowery their speech, Republicans remain hellbent on cutting taxes on the rich no matter what the consequences. Given how well the rich have done recently and how poorly the middle class is doing, this is nothing less than jaw dropping.