Kevin Drum - 2013

In Los Angeles Mall, Santas of All Types and Colors

| Sat Dec. 14, 2013 11:26 AM EST

The LA Times reports today about Langston Patterson, a black man who's played Santa at Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza since 2004:

Patterson's place in the Christmas traditions of black families seems only to have increased as the African American population of Los Angeles continues to decline amid waves of Latino immigration. The Crenshaw mall now has both a black Santa and a Spanish-speaking Latino Santa, a nod to the demographic shift. "We make a point to stay in tune with our community," said Rachel Erickson, the mall's marketing director.

The Times reports that Patterson is very popular with the local community, which is thrilled that their kids grow up knowing that Santa can be black as well as white. But Patterson is a rarity. A local Santa trainer says he's had three black pupils out of 2,200 in the past decade.

And the best part of the whole story? It's just a story. It doesn't mention Megyn Kelly even in passing.

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Friday Cat Blogging - 13 December 2013

| Fri Dec. 13, 2013 3:00 PM EST

Gizmodo tells us today that squirrels were first introduced into urban parks by Philadelphia in 1847. Everyone loved it and the idea soon spread:

Central Park led the way in the second wave of squirrels introduced into American cities....Feeding the squirrels became a past time during these years, and was eventually seen by naturalists and conservationists as a way to help humans learn how to better treat animals....So next time you see a squirrel in the park, drink it in. These little critters were put there for your entertainment. But perhaps more importantly, they were put there to remind us of how man and nature must get along, even if it takes a little effort.

The little critters are everywhere now. One in particular has taken up residence in my backyard for some reason. I don't think there's anything to eat there, so I'm not sure what's going on. Is he burying acorns there or something? It would be a pretty good spot, I suppose, since Domino doesn't go outside much anymore and wouldn't know what to do with a squirrel if she saw one. Especially in the winter, she much prefers burrowing under a nice, warm quilt. Speaking of which, today's sample is another double Irish chain design, twin-sized, machine pieced and machine quilted. It nursed me back to health earlier this week when I headed downstairs during a bout of insomnia, so perhaps it has wonderful medicinal qualities too. Who knows?

Democrats Plan to Fight For Unemployment Benefits in January

| Fri Dec. 13, 2013 2:47 PM EST

Greg Sargent reports on the latest Democratic plan to get Republicans to agree to extend unemployment benefits:

Dems who are pushing for an extension have hatched a new plan to do just that: Once Congress returns, they will refuse to support the reauthorization of the farm bill — which will almost certainly need Dem support to pass the House — unless Republicans agree to restart unemployment benefits with the farm bill’s savings.

“Under no circumstances should we support the farm bill unless Republicans agree to use the savings from it to extend unemployment insurance,” Dem Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a top party strategist, told me today. “This is a potential pressure point. We’re going to have to resolve differences in the farm bill because otherwise milk prices will spike. If past is prologue, they are going to need a good chunk of Democrats to pass the farm bill.”

Good. In normal times, of course, all the usual arguments against extending benefits would be pretty compelling. It really would provide a disincentive to go out and find work. But today, when there are three or four job seekers for every job available, that's just not an issue. People aren't unemployed for long periods because they're lazy. They're unemployed because they can't find a job. Lots of them are married and college educated. As AEI's Michael Strain points out, "Someone who has been unemployed for 30 or 35 or 40 weeks, and is in their prime earning years with kids and education ... It strikes me as implausible that this person is engaged in a half-hearted job search."

Even lots of conservatives agree that we should continue to extend unemployment benefits as long as the job market remains anemic. This really shouldn't be a partisan issue.

M. Night Shyamalan Steps Into the Education Wars

| Fri Dec. 13, 2013 1:42 PM EST

This is kind of weird. M. Night Shyamalan has apparently gotten a little bored with making movies, and has instead spent the past year or so writing a book. About education. And unlike other folks who parachute into the ed debates with the usual silver bullets (more charter schools! higher standards! fewer teachers unions!), he actually diagnoses the problem correctly:

You know how everyone says America is behind in education, compared to all the countries? Technically, right now, we're a little bit behind Poland and a little bit ahead of Liechtenstein, right? So that's where we land in the list, right? So that's actually not the truth. The truth is actually bizarrely black and white, literally, which is, if you pulled out the inner-city schools — just pull out the inner-city, low-income schools, just pull that group out of the United States, put them to the side — and just took every other public school in the United States, we lead the world in public-school education by a lot.

And what's interesting is, we always think about Finland, right? Well, Finland, obviously, is mainly white kids, right? They teach their white kids really well. But guess what, we teach our white kids even better. We beat everyone. Our white kids are getting taught the best public-school education on the planet. Those are the facts.

This is true. If you compare American white kids to, say, Finnish or Polish or German white kids, we do just as well. But we do an execrable job of teaching our black and Hispanic kids. In ed conversations, this usually gets referred to as the "achievement gap"—a deliberately watery term that Shyamalan has no use for. He calls it "education apartheid," and what it means is that our schools qua schools are basically fine. It's mostly our inner city schools with big low-income black and Hispanic populations that fail us:

So what are Shyamalan's solutions? He's got five:

  • Get rid of the bottom 2-3 percent of truly terrible teachers.
  • Make the principal the chief academic and head coach. Let another person handle school operations.
  • Constant feedback to teachers and students.
  • Small schools (not small classes).
  • Increased instructional time. Extend the school day and do away with summer vacation.

I don't want to pretend that Shyamalan has all the answers here, or that his five interventions are themselves silver bullets. But I'll say this: based on my sense of the literature and the endless number of n-point plans I've read over the years, Shyamalan's sounds pretty reasonable. At the very least, his book is a welcome addition to the debate.

PolitiFact's "Lie of the Year" Once Again Greeted by Scorn

| Fri Dec. 13, 2013 12:29 PM EST

My Twitter feed was consumed with scorn last night for PolitiFact's choice of Lie of the Year. The winner, by a wide margin in their annual poll, was President Obama's now infamous promise, "If you like your health care plan, you can keep it."

But I have to cut PolitiFact some slack here. Take a look at the list of finalists. The runners-up were a piffle from Sen. Ted Cruz about Congress being exempt from Obamacare; a routine example of idiocy from Michele Bachmann; some random drivel in a column by Ann Coulter; and a bit of chain-mail nonsense about the UN taking away our guns. With competition like that, is there really any doubt that a very big, very public, very broken promise from the president of the United States would end up the winner?

If you ask me, the real takeaway from this list is that 2013 was a pretty good year for lies. Seriously. Obama's promise about keeping your health care plan actually has a lot of truth to it. In the end, probably no more than 1 percent of American adults will end up being forced to switch to a health care plan that's either more expensive or provides less coverage than their current plan. Obama was obviously more unequivocal than he should have been, but really, this has never been much of a lie.

But it was apparently the biggest of the year. I don't know if American politicians made up for that by telling an unusually large number of little lies, but it sure looks like we had a pretty good year for avoiding whoppers.

POSTSCRIPT: Here's an interesting tidbit: this is the fourth time in five years that PolitiFact's Lie of the Year has involved health care (one for a Medicare lie and three times for Obamacare lies). That's a pretty good indication of what subject has gotten us all the most hot and bothered during the Obama era.

After the Sequester, the Pentagon Gets a Reprieve

| Fri Dec. 13, 2013 11:48 AM EST

Yesterday's budget deal doesn't spare the Pentagon from the full impact of the sequester cuts, but it sure eases the impact considerably. As things stand now, the inflation-adjusted defense budget is still bigger than it was in 2001, before the 9/11 buildup, and shows no signs of ever coming back down to that level. The chart below tells the story:

This is part of "Can't Touch This," a detailed look at the Pentagon budget from our upcoming print edition. The story it tells is pretty simple: the defense budget skyrocketed after 9/11 and never fully returned to its pre-war level. The base budget (which doesn't count the cost of Iraq and Afghanistan) ran to about $1,400 per person in 2001, and by the end of this decade, nearly 20 years after 9/11, it will still be over $1,600 per person.

In past wars, we usually got a peace dividend afterward as spending returned to its old level. It happened after Vietnam and it happened after the Cold War. But this time it's stalled. Spending is down a bit from its Bush-era peak, but only a bit. The war on terror, apparently, really is a forever war.

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No Civilian Leadership for NSA After All

| Fri Dec. 13, 2013 10:56 AM EST

Last night I reported that, among other things, the president might be ready to change the leadership of the NSA. Going forward, it would get a civilian leader separate from the military leader of the Pentagon's Cyber Command. By the time I woke up this morning, that idea was dead:

The Obama administration has decided to preserve a controversial arrangement by which a single military official is permitted to direct both the National Security Agency and the military’s cyberwarfare command, U.S. officials said.

The decision by President Obama comes amid signs that the White House is not inclined to impose significant new restraints on the NSA’s activities — especially its collection of data on virtually every phone call Americans make — although it is likely to impose additional privacy protection measures.

....“The big picture is there’s not going to be that much [additional] constraint,” said one U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. “They’re really not hurting [the NSA] that much.”

It's starting to look like the only part I got right last night might be this: "In the end, I suspect that most of this will amount to very little."

Panel Set to Recommend Modest Changes to NSA Surveillance Programs

| Fri Dec. 13, 2013 1:16 AM EST

I've been wondering recently whatever happened to that task force on surveillance activities, and today brings news that they're just about to release their recommendations. First up is this:

The proposal likely to gain the most attention would revamp the NSA phone records program....The proposal to have that data held by a phone company or a third party would effectively end the controversial NSA practice known as bulk collection. NSA could collect data only after meeting a new higher standard of proof.

That would be a step in the right direction. If the phone record program continues, there's no reason the data can't be held by a separate agency, available to the NSA only after they obtain a particularized subpoena for it. Done properly, this would provide access to all the information they need and is unlikely to slow them down in any serious way. There's also this:

Another likely recommendation, officials say, is the creation of an organization of legal advocates who, like public defenders, would argue against lawyers for the N.S.A. and other government organizations in front of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the nation’s secret court that oversees the collection of telephone and Internet “metadata” and of wiretapping aimed at terrorism and espionage suspects. Mr. Obama has already hinted that he objects to the absence of any adversarial procedures in front of the court’s judges.

That's also a good step. It's absurd that the FISA court works without anyone arguing against the government's position. Other expected recommendations include:

  • Civilian leadership for the NSA.
  • Splitting the NSA's code making group away from the rest of the agency.
  • Presidential approval for spying on foreign leaders.
  • Codifying and announcing stricter standards to protect the privacy of foreign citizens.

In the end, I suspect that most of this will amount to very little. But it's better than nothing. Thanks, Edward Snowden.

The Tea Party Takes One On the Chin

| Thu Dec. 12, 2013 8:08 PM EST

We have a budget:

In their final action of the year, the House approved the budget 332 to 94, with 169 Republicans and 163 Democrats voting in favor....

Not bad! I guessed "at least 150 Republican votes," and we got 169. And with that, I shall retire from the vote-counting game. This is likely to be my high point.

So is this the beginning of the end for the tea party, as their frothing charges of treason earned them nothing but a dressing down from John Boehner and the rest of the House leadership? Or does crossing the tea party just make Boehner and Ryan and the rest more vulnerable to future shakedowns? Stay tuned.

Being Smart Isn't Always Enough to Make it in America

| Thu Dec. 12, 2013 5:52 PM EST

Via James Pethokoukis, here's an interesting tidbit of income mobility data from a new Brookings report. The chart below is a little tricky to read, but basically it shows how likely you are to make more money than your parents. You'd naturally expect smart kids to do better than dimmer kids, so it tracks that too.

Take a look at the green column on the far left. It's for kids who grow up in the very poorest families. If you have high cognitive ability, you have a 24 percent chance of becoming a high earner as an adult. That's not too bad.

But if you come from a high-income family, you have a 45 percent chance of becoming a high earner as an adult. Same smarts, different outcome.

No society will ever get this perfect. Still, there's a huge difference between 24 percent and 45 percent. Better schools, more extracurricular opportunities, different skin color, bigger networks of connected friends, higher odds of going to college, and the simple ability to get in the door all give richer kids a huge leg up that poor kids don't have. We obviously have a ways to go before everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed in America.