American Taliban Not So Talibanish After All?

Over at the American Prospect, Jamelle Bouie goes to town on Markos Moulitsas's new book, American Taliban: How War, Sex, Sin, and Power Bind Jihadists and the Radical Right. His review starts off like this:

Given the subject matter and his own influence, Moulitsas is sure to find a large audience for American Taliban. This wouldn't be a problem if the book were a careful comparison of populist nationalist movements, highlighting similarities, underscoring differences, and generally documenting points of congruence between the U.S. conservative movement and populist nationalist groups around the world. But it isn't.

Like [Jonah Goldberg's] Liberal Fascism, American Taliban is another entry in the tired genre of "my political opponents are monsters." Indeed, Moulitsas begins the book with the Goldbergian declaration that "in their tactics and on the issues, our homegrown American Taliban are almost indistinguishable from the Afghan Taliban." And he fills the remaining 200-plus pages with similar accusations.

I haven't read American Taliban and don't plan to. I figure I already dislike the American right wing enough, so there's little need to dump another load of fuel onto my own personal mental bonfire. But here's what's interesting: this review isn't on a fringe blog site. It's not from a reviewer for the DLC. It's not written by some apostate liberal like Mickey Kaus. It's written by a mainstream liberal writing in one of America's premier mainstream liberal publications. Did Liberal Fascism get any similarly incendiary reviews from mainstream conservatives writing in any of America's premier mainstream conservative publications?

Genuine question here. Maybe I missed the bad reviews from fellow conservatives. But the only one I remember on the way to Liberal Fascism becoming both a huge bestseller and a conservative bellwether was a gentle, academic scolding from fascism scholar Michael Ledeen. Does anyone remember any others?

McConnell's Mush

Over at Outside the Beltway, Dodd is unhappy with the mushy brand of campaigning he's seen so far from the Republican leadership:

Assuming (as I do) that the GOP will take at least the House, and possibly the Senate, the party must run on specific proposals in order to garner the leverage necessary to roll back the last few years of Democratic excesses. If they stick to their current (apparent) game plan and just run on not being Democrats, they will have neither a mandate to repeal Obamacare, et al, nor the will.

Unfortunately, despite a series of “Establishment” Republicans being sent packing by the base, all the signs so far indicate that McConnell and Co. just want to get their power back, not to actually do anything with it. Boehner’s been better, but the resistance to campaigning on a theme of, say, Paul Ryan’s Roadmap is unmistakable. The party need not endorse the specifics of Ryan’s plan in every particular to set forth a plan of action along those lines.

Well, yes, except for one thing: if they did that, they'd lose. The public doesn't want to hear about spending cuts except in the most general, stemwinding terms, and a concrete plan of action "along those lines" would be massively unpopular with the electorate. McConnell and Boehner know this perfectly well. So instead they serve up mush.

“You got the Belgians running Europe?”

Tony Blair on George Bush:

One of the most ludicrous caricatures of George is that he was a dumb idiot who stumbled into the presidency. No one stumbles into that job, and the history of American presidential campaigns is littered with the corpses of those who were supposed to be brilliant but who nonetheless failed because brilliance is not enough....

To succeed in US politics, of that of the UK, you have to be more than clever. You have to be able to connect and you have to be able to articulate that connection in plain language. The plainness of the language then leads people to look past the brainpower involved. Reagan was clever. Thatcher was clever. And sometimes the very plainness touches something else: a simplicity that is the product of a decisive nature.

And then there are the other times:

In his new book, A Journey, Mr Blair writes that the former US president was confused by the presence of Guy Verhofstadt at the 2001 G8 summit in Genoa.

“He didn’t know or recognise Guy, whose advice he listened to with considerable astonishment,” Mr Blair writes. “He then turned to me and whispered, ‘Who is this guy?’ ‘He is the prime minister of Belgium,’ I said.

Belgium? George said, clearly aghast at the possible full extent of his stupidity. ‘Belgium is not part of the G8’.”

Mr Blair explained to Mr Bush that Mr Verhofstadt was there as “president of Europe”. Belgium held the presidency of the EU council at the time.

Mr Bush responded: “You got the Belgians running Europe?” before shaking his head, “now aghast at our stupidity”, Mr Blair writes.

OK, fine. This doesn't mean Bush was dumb. Just....what's the right word to describe this? Uninformed? Incurious? Provincial? "A simplicity that is the product of a decisive nature"?1 I mean, I know the guy was good at recognizing people, so it's not that. I guess he just didn't give a damn.

But I admit that this is mostly just an excuse to have fun taking a potshot at Bush. I kinda miss that. Sarah Palin is too easy a target.

1Really, you have to give Blair credit for this phrase. I wonder how many alternatives he had to cross out before he came up with it? What it means, obviously, is that Bush was a shallow idler who was allergic to learning any actual facts that might get in the way of doing whatever he wanted to do in the first place. But Blair's formulation sounds so much better, doesn't it?

Breaking Down Unemployment

Is our current sky-high unemployment structural or cyclical? Roughly speaking, cyclical unemployment just means the economy sucks and everyone is doing badly. Structural unemployment means that certain industries are doing badly, and the economy needs time to adjust as people leave declining industries and get retrained to work in healthier ones. Policywise, the difference is simple: we think we know how to attack cyclical unemployment: looser monetary policy, more federal stimulus spending, and so forth. But structural unemployment is a tougher nut. There are things you can do to address it, but not much. Mostly, you just have to gut it out.

So which do we have now? I think Annie Lowrey has the right take:

The problem seems to me to be both: The unemployment is cyclical and structural. Most sectors have suffered from the turndown, but job losses are concentrated in some industries: In residential construction, they are down 38 percent since 2006. (Between Aug. 2007 and Dec. 2009, unemployment in construction quintupled from about 5 percent to about 25 percent.) In health care and education, however, jobs are up.

Here is a chart I made from Bureau of Labor Statistics data that shows the phenomenon. (The chart shows total jobs in major sectors since 2005.) Most sectors — retail trade, business services, wholesale trade, finance — have had moderate job losses one could reasonably chalk up to an economy-wide lack of demand. Let’s think of those as sectors characterized mostly by cyclical job loss. Then, there is manufacturing and construction. Jobs there have taken a nose dive, and the problem seems to be structural. Moreover, the job gains in education and health might thought to be structural as well.

The "normal" unemployment level is about five points less than it is today. I wouldn't be surprised if perhaps three of those points are cyclical and two are structural. Unfortunately, too many people look at the structural component and throw up their hands. There's nothing we can do about that! But we can do something about the part that's cyclical. And even if we can't get back to normal immediately, isn't it worth it to get from 9.5% unemployment to 7% unemployment while we wait for the construction industry to rebound — or for all its excess workers to eventually find new lines of work? Of course it is. So what are we waiting for?

Obama's Speech Recap: Winding Down in Iraq

First things first: did Obama mention the surge in tonight's speech? Huh huh, did he? No he didn't. Gretchen Carlson is going to go ballistic. (Again.)

OK then. Glad we got that cleared up. What else? Well, I was struck by his mention of his call with George Bush earlier today. The White House obviously played up this call before the fact, and I assume that Obama was hoping to get some kind of bipartisan mileage out of it. But in the end, all he said about it was this: "No one could doubt President Bush's support for our troops, or his love of country and commitment to our security." I can't help but think that if this is the most he could say, the phone call must have been a bit of a bust.

I was also struck by what he said about the success of the troop drawdown: "This was my pledge to the American people as a candidate for this office. Last February, I announced a plan that would bring our combat brigades out of Iraq, while redoubling our efforts to strengthen Iraq’s Security Forces and support its government and people. That is what we have done." This is, technically, true, but it ignores the fact that Obama's plan was a fairly modest variation on the Status of Forces Agreement negotiated by Bush in late 2008. But why ignore that? If you're looking for some kind of conciliatory message to conservatives without going as far as congratulating George Bush for the surge, why not mention this? "It is time to turn the page," Obama said, and framing his withdrawal as a continuation of Bush's policy seems like it would have been a good way to help that happen.

Beyond that, the most striking part of the speech was more in Obama's attitude than in his words —though it was in his words too. It was, I thought, crystal clear that Obama still thinks the Iraq war was a dumb war; that he fully intends to keep drawing down forces there; that he fully intends to draw down forces in Afghanistan on schedule; and that going forward he has no intention of projecting further American force abroad if he can possibly help it. That all seemed pretty palpable from the way he talked about both the Iraq war (which he credited with no positive purpose at all) and the Afghanistan war (where he did acknowledge a purpose, but proposed only tightly limited goals with an emphasis on withdrawal starting next year). And then this:

Our nation’s strength and influence abroad must be firmly anchored in our prosperity at home. And the bedrock of that prosperity must be a growing middle class.

Unfortunately, over the last decade, we have not done what is necessary to shore up the foundation of our own prosperity. We have spent over a trillion dollars at war, often financed by borrowing from overseas. This, in turn, has short-changed investments in our own people, and contributed to record deficits. For too long, we have put off tough decisions on everything from our manufacturing base to our energy policy to education reform. As a result, too many middle class families find themselves working harder for less, while our nation’s long-term competitiveness is put at risk.

And so at this moment, as we wind down the war in Iraq, we must tackle those challenges at home with as much energy, and grit, and sense of common purpose as our men and women in uniform who have served abroad.

Those are the words of a man who wants to stop spending blood and treasure on war and start spending it at home. I would have appreciated hearing a little bit of detail to back this up — just a little! — but no dice. I suspect that would have inevitably taken him into partisan territory, and he was obviously avoiding that, as he usually does. His comment that "over the last decade we have not done what is necessary to shore up the foundation of our own prosperity" was about the closest he got to any kind of partisan shot taking.

In the end, then, a perfectly good speech. The final few minutes didn't do much for me, but these kinds of valedictories rarely do. It probably worked better for other viewers. And while conservatives obviously won't like the fact that Obama is so plainly non-thrilled with the exercise of military power, I liked it just fine. And I thought Obama also struck a good overall tone: composed and deliberate, not bombastic or triumphant. We go to war when we have to, but it really is a last resort. I feel more confident about the ultimate withdrawal of troops from both Iraq and Afghanistan now than I did yesterday, and that's a message I really wanted to hear.

Glenn Beck's Melodrama

Since Glenn Beck is in the news thanks to his trillion-person rally this weekend, it's as good a time as any to ask a naive and unanswerable question. But here it is anyway: When did our taste in populist rabble-rousers decline so badly? Or has it? I don't watch Beck very often, but I catch his act every once in a while, and the thing that always strikes me is how obviously phony it is. This isn't a subtle thing, either. Every inflection is so plainly calculated that it's like watching an old-time silent melodrama. 

Of course, my experience with populist rabble-rousers is slim. Maybe William Jennings Bryan sounded the same way. Ditto for Billy Sunday and Father Coughlin and Joe McCarthy.

But I still don't quite get it. I know that conservatives used to have similar complaints about Bill Clinton's shows of emotion, which they considered phony. But whether they were or not, he at least made them seem genuine. Beck almost seems to deliberately go out of his way to make his emotions obviously artificial.

I dunno. Is this just the standard veneer of revivalist preachers, which I have no experience with? Are there conventions to this kind of thing, the way that opera singers emote conventionally and everybody knows how to interpret it? Or what? I just don't get who it is who buys this stuff. To me, Beck practically seems to be openly mocking his audience.

The Worst Possible Greenhouse Gas Regulation

Jon Chait notes a recent poll showing strong public support for EPA regulation of greenhouse gases:

The paradox of climate policy is that the most popular policy responses are those that hide costs from consumers. Cap and trade is more popular than a carbon tax, and regulation is more popular than [cap and trade]. But cap and trade is more efficient than regulation, and a carbon tax is more efficient than cap and trade.1

Well, yeah. The masses are easily fooled, aren't they? That's why credit card companies hide their fees, telephone companies charge you for an unlisted number, and airlines are willing to do almost anything to raise revenue other than increase the headline price of flying from one city to another.

In any case, Jon takes this as an example of where American democracy ought to work: sure, the masses are ill-informed, but elites know better, and Congress should respond to those elites and end up substituting a carbon tax for EPA regulation.

Maybe. But it depends on your definition of "elite," doesn't it? In the case of carbon regulation, the only elites who really matter are big corporations, and I think they've made the tactical calculation that EPA regs are less bad than either a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system. They might change their minds at some point, but EPA is the devil they know, and its reach has known boundaries. Start mucking around with cap-and-trade and you've created an entirely new monster that you might not be able to control. So my guess is that Congress is responding to elites just fine. Unfortunately, as they usually do, they're responding to the elites that actually matter, not the chattering classes that Jon is thinking of.

1As longtime readers know, I'm not actually convinced of this. In a real-world comparison, I think cap-and-trade might actually be a better, more efficient choice than a straight tax. But I'll leave that aside for the moment.

What Makes a Great Teacher Great?

The LA Times has provoked the wrath of local teachers by posting a database of teacher performance based on a metric called "value added," a measurement that supposedly controls for the quality of incoming students, English proficiency, individual behavior problems, and so forth. (Q&A here.) But a new EPI report says that value-added sucks anyway:

One study found that across five large urban districts, among teachers who were ranked in the top 20% of effectiveness in the first year, fewer than a third were in that top group the next year, and another third moved all the way down to the bottom 40%. Another found that teachers’ effectiveness ratings in one year could only predict from 4% to 16% of the variation in such ratings in the following year. Thus, a teacher who appears to be very ineffective in one year might have a dramatically different result the following year. The same dramatic fluctuations were found for teachers ranked at the bottom in the first year of analysis.

Education expert Kevin Carey agrees that value-added is a lousy metric:

But, and this is an enormous caveat, everything else we currently use is worse. A teacher’s years of experience, their education credentials, their certification status, the prestige of their college or their college GPA, even in-class observations. None of these measures does as good of a job at predicting a student’s academic growth as a teacher’s value-added score. Yet, we continue to use these poor proxies for quality at the same we have such passionate fights about measures of actual performance.

Still, it remains true that virtually everyone agrees that value added is "not all that great" (Carey's conclusion). So what should we do instead? Carey says we just don't know. We have lots of minimum standards for teaching quality (no uncertified teachers, no violence, no classroom drunks, no overuse of mimeographed worksheets, etc.) but we don't know much about what makes a teacher stellar:

What kind of teaching is as good as mimeographed worksheets are bad? We don’t really know. The qualifications-and-competence mindset doesn’t allow us to know. We can’t see it, and so gradually we allow policies and institutions and organizational cultures to evolve that pretend it doesn’t exist.

....There’s a natural tendency to proceed from here to the conclusion that we need to intensively study [great teachers like LA's Zenaida Tan] so we can help others be more like them. And we should, this will be valuable research. But we ought not expect it will produce a new list of qualifications and competencies to which every teacher must adhere. Just as there are many different kinds of great writers and lawyers and artists, so too does great teaching come in all manner of variations. This should be seen as entirely positive for the teaching profession. The jobs worth having — and worth paying for — are those that can’t be wholly reduced to definable rules.

Yet the union that purports to represent Tan has done nothing but oppose the creation of the only measures that accurately identify her value as a professional. In doing so, it helps depress the public understanding of all teachers as professionals. If the LA Times hadn’t performed these value-added calculations and published them, who would have? How long do great teachers have to wait to be recognized? How long are they going to be held hostage to a mindset that pretends they don’t exist?

This is no surprise, I guess, since we have so little idea of what makes someone great at any profession. What makes a product manager great? Or a CEO? Or a magazine editor? Or a blogger? No one knows. If you go to the business section of your local Barnes & Noble you can find a hundred books with a hundred different vague and unhelpful answers based on little more than the author's instincts. Talk to business professors and you'll get some different answers, but probably not ones that are an awful lot more reliable.

But the problem with teachers is that assessing their performance isn't just hard, it's even harder than any of those other professions. Product managers interact closely with a huge number of people who can all provide input about how good they are. CEOs have to produce sales and earnings. Magazine editors and bloggers need readers.

But teachers, by definition, work alone in a classroom, and they're usually observed only briefly and by one person. And their output — well-educated students — is almost impossible to measure. If I had to invent a profession where performance would be hard to measure with any accuracy or reliability, it would end up looking a lot like teaching.

So this means we end up using things like value-added, even though we know they're not very good. What other choice do we have, after all? Sara Mead recommends greater reliance on "validated and reliable observational tools, such as the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS), that look at teacher classroom behaviors and measure the extent to which teachers are implementing behaviors linked to improved student outcomes," and that sounds like a good idea to me. But even if this works, it will take years or decades to produce usable results. What do we do in the meantime?

The criticisms of value-added seem compelling. At the same time, if a teacher scores poorly (or well) year after year, surely that tells us something? At some point, we either have to use this data or else give up on standardized testing completely. It just doesn't make sense to keep using it if we don't bother taking the results seriously.

Obama and the Surge

Marc Ambinder comments on Barack Obama's primetime Iraq speech tonight:

Now then: will he take the bait dangling from Republican hooks and give President Bush credit for the surge? He will telephone President Bush earlier in the day, presumably to thank the president for his judgment in a way that does not acknowledge that his own opposition to the surge was (in retrospect) incorrect. Officials make the argument that people read a lot into the surge, and that a number of different factors, some of them independent of the surge, contributed to the taming of the insurgency. Obama won't get into those arguments there, but it will be interesting to see how he deals with the historical narrative that has President Bush mistakenly choosing to go to war in Iraq and then supporting a strategy that brought about its close more quickly.

Since it's a slow news day, let's mull this over. First take: can you imagine anything that would piss off the liberal base more than acknowledging that the surge worked? You'd be able to hear the steam coming out of lefty ears from sea to shining sea. Second take: Even if he decided to do it anyway, would it be worthwhile? If he wants to be honest, Obama would have to at least mention all those other factors that Ambinder mentions, namely that the reduction in violence in 2007 was quite clearly the result of 4 S's: Surge, Sadr ceasefire, Sectarian cleansing, and Sunni Awakening. But is this too much to talk about? And would it seem churlish to acknowledge the surge and then immediately try to take some of the credit away from it?

Third take: Forget it. Not only would mentioning the surge piss off liberals, but it would also imply some kind of "victory" in Iraq, and surely Obama can't be dimwitted enough to come within a light year of claiming that, can he? Of course not. Not with sporadic violence back in the news and Iraqi leaders still stalemated on forming a government five months after the March elections.

So I'll predict no direct mention of the surge. And since I'm usually wrong about this kind of stuff, I suppose you should try to lay down some money right away on Obama mentioning the surge tonight. But I still don't think he'll do it.

POSTSCRIPT: And now for a usage question. What's the right way to refer to four things that start with the letter S? Should it be 4 Esses? 4 Ses? 4 S's? Or what? They all seem pretty awkward to me.

The Unlisted Phone Number Scam

David Lazarus complains about one of his favorite bugaboos today, and since it's one of mine too I'll quote him:

This month, Time Warner Cable more than doubled its fee for an unlisted number to a whopping $1.99 a month, or nearly $24 a year....That's a recurring fee — now one of the highest of its type in the telecom industry — for something Time Warner isn't doing for customers.

....Time Warner's fee is all the more remarkable because the company doesn't produce its own phone book. It pays Sprint to compile all its customers' names and numbers, and to then pass them along to whichever phone company dominates a particular market for inclusion in that firm's directory. Just to be clear: That's $1.99 a month not to be in a phone book that Time Warner doesn't even publish.

AT&T's and Verizon's fees are a little more understandable. After all, they make extra cash selling ads in their phone books. The more people who choose not to be listed, the less valuable the directory becomes to advertisers, so the phone company wants to discourage people from leaving.

But Time Warner isn't in the phone book business. Its recurring fee for unlisted numbers is a money grab, pure and simple.

This is one of my pet peeves not because I have to pay this fee — my phone number isn't unlisted — but because it's symptomatic of the looking glass way that we treat privacy in this country. Lazarus points out that the cost of unlisting a phone number is basically zero since it's just a matter of flipping a flag in a database, and that the only reason Time Warner gets away with charging so much is because that's what the market will bear. People who want unlisted phone numbers are willing to pay $24 per year in protection money to get one.

For fly-by-night operators, this is annoying but fine. They have the right to collect information and publish it, whether it annoys me or not. But phone companies are regulated monopolies. If I want phone service, I have no choice but to contract with a tiny number of suppliers who then have privileged information about me. Should I also pay them protection money for withholding my Social Security number or my date of birth from their phone books? After all, their access to that data is all due to their privileged position too.

As a society, we value privacy. We shouldn't allow regulated utilities to decide who gets it and who doesn't. Let the phone companies make money by selling services, not protection.

(Also worth noting: as cell phones and Skype and Google Phone become more popular, the only people who will have to pay for unlisting their phone numbers are increasingly likely to be the old and poor. Do we really want to endorse what's basically a $24/year tax on the most vulnerable segments of the population?)