Kevin Drum

California's Constitution

| Thu May 21, 2009 12:33 AM EDT

California is broken.  So what's next?

As the notion of California as ungovernable grows stronger than ever, Mr. Schwarzenegger, a Republican, has expressed support for a convention to address such things as the state’s arcane budget requirements and its process for proliferate ballot initiatives, both of which necessitated Tuesday’s statewide vote on budget matters approved months ago by state lawmakers.

“There could not be more of a tipping point,” said Jim Wunderman, chief executive of the Bay Area Council, a business group that moved forward on Wednesday with plans to push for a constitutional convention. “We think the interest is going to grow by orders of magnitude now.”

I'm actually in favor of this idea, even though it would almost certainly turn into a circus of unparalleled proportions.  Latter day Madisons and Hamiltons are thin on the ground here in the Golden State.

But — just to remind everyone: in order to even hold a constitutional convention, it has to be put on the ballot and approved by a majority of the electorate.  And how does the question get put on the ballot?  It has to be approved by two-thirds of the legislature.  But this is the problem we're trying to solve in the first place: to pass a budget or raise taxes takes a two-thirds vote of the legislature, and Republicans have enough votes to stop that from happening.  Votes that they use regularly.  So why wouldn't they also stand in the way of a constitutional convention whose main purpose would almost certainly be to remove the two-thirds requirements for passing a budget and raising taxes?

Now, maybe sheer desperation would get a few of them on board.  Maybe some kind of backroom deal could be arranged.  Who knows?  But one way or another, you have to get two-thirds of the legislature to agree to it.  That's a problem we obviously haven't solved yet.

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Chart of the Day

| Wed May 20, 2009 4:53 PM EDT

The latest MIT study of global warming has now been published in the Journal of Climate, and its conclusions are grim.  The chart on the right shows their new projections (in red) compared to previous projections (in blue).  (The heavy lines are the median projections; the lighter lines are the 5% and 95% percentiles.) In the middle latitudes, they project warming of nearly 5ºC compared to previous projections of about 2ºC.  At the poles, they project warming of 8-10ºC compared to 5-6ºC.

Why the change?  Joe Romm summarizes the technical explanation: "The carbon sinks are saturating, and the amplifying feedbacks are worse than previously thought."

Is Waxman-Markey enough to stop this?  Not even close.  Will anything we do make a difference if we don't get the rest of the world on board?  Nope.  Does that mean we should give up?  Or continue wanking away on cost-benefit studies that still assume a 2ºC rise over the next century?  Or join the GOP buffoon caucus in pretending that CO2 is harmless because otherwise they wouldn't put it in Coca-Cola?  No, no, and no.  It means we have to work even harder to strengthen Waxman-Markey and then press the rest of the world to follow suit.  The time for wanking is way past over.

Credit Report Hell

| Wed May 20, 2009 2:11 PM EDT

This morning I got an email from reader SD about a recent experience with the credit reporting industry:

Through some screwups and misunderstandings settling my father's estate, we were hit with a tax lien.  We immediately cleared it up, but a year or so later when I went to get a car loan there it was on the record.  Got a notarized proof of clearance on it, sent it to the credit reporting agency.  A few years after that, we got a home improvement loan and there it was.  My wife was visiting our daughter recently in San Diego and looking at houses and a realtor ran a credit report and there it was.

It appears that when any credit reporting agency gets some dirt on you, they immediately tell all the peer operations....who tell all that they work with, and on and on.  Not only that, but it's nearly impossible to ferret out every instance of such misinformation (which should be the credit reporting agency's responsibility to clean up), AND the chain reaction keeps going until the same piece of disinformation that you originally expunged from, say, Experian, comes BACK to them and they enter it their database against you AGAIN.

Financial organizations should not only be made liable/responsible for correcting this kind of thing, but should be responsible for making sure that all instances of it are expunged.

As it is, they love and live for dirt on you, and take no responsibility for its correctness or the integrity of their data.  And you never find out, all the while suffering under the bad credit score unknowingly until you formally take out some kind of loan....

Credit reporting agencies don't care about making sure their reports are accurate.  Why should they?  There's no penalty for screwing up someone's life.

If the tax lien automatically showed up on SD's credit report, it should just as automatically be removed when it's taken care of.  Why should SD even have to handle this in the first place?  Beyond that, there should be straightforward procedures, mandated by law, for correcting your credit report.  Likewise, there should be straightforward procedures, mandated by law, for ensuring that corrections are sent immediately to every credit reporting firm.  Anyone who doesn't correct their records within 24 hours should be liable for statutory damages.  End of story.  Do that, and guess what?  Credit reporting agencies will suddenly start caring about the accuracy of their reports.

Hiding Ida

| Wed May 20, 2009 12:01 PM EDT

A new primate fossil was unveiled yesterday.  Hooray!  But what's up with this?

Hurum and team have been studying the fossil in secret for the past two years, going to great lengths to keep the finding under wraps until they were ready to publicly announce it.

...."There have been lots of reasons for the security and secrecy surrounding this project," said Anthony Geffen, producer of the new documentary. "The scientists wanted to get on with the research, and then get to that day, which is today, which is incredibly exciting for all of us, when the find could come out."

Hmmm.  What reasons?  Maybe this is unfair, but something about this reminds me of the fantastic lengths that scholars went to for decades to keep the Dead Sea scrolls under wraps.  In that case, it seemed to be motivated by pure professional greed from a group that was determined not to let anyone else contest their interpretations or beat them to a discovery.  In this case, it's — what?  A desire to wait until a massive publicity campaign was ready?

The event, which will coincide with the publishing of a peer-reviewed article about the find, is the first stop in a coordinated, branded media event, orchestrated by the scientists and the History Channel, including a film detailing the secretive two-year study of the fossil, a book release, an exclusive arrangement with ABC News and an elaborate Web site.

“Any pop band is doing the same thing,” said Jorn H. Hurum, a scientist at the University of Oslo who acquired the fossil and assembled the team of scientists that studied it. “Any athlete is doing the same thing. We have to start thinking the same way in science.”

Scientific research isn't all done in the glare of a spotlight, and peer-reviewed research takes a while to finish.  Maybe there's nothing wrong with this group's Manhattan Project-esque secrecy.  But something about it rubs me the wrong way.  Am I off base here?

UPDATE: The general consensus in comments from knowledgeable observers is that this is fairly standard procedure with fossils.  So regardless of how you feel about the massive publicity rollout, it sounds like there was nothing dubious about this.  More here.

The Burbs Revisited

| Wed May 20, 2009 11:10 AM EDT

Education blogger Kevin Carey is unhappy with me:

As a rule I enjoy Kevin Drum's blog at Mother Jones. But his occasional forays into education generally descend into naysaying and pessimism — Kevin's one all-purpose insight on the subject is that education policy is hard and as such not worth trying to solve.

I plead mostly guilty to this.  In fact, Kevin C. is being polite.  Not only do I think that education policy is hard, I think it's an absolute cesspool with very little to show for decades of effort.  In my defense, though, I don't think that means it isn't worth trying to solve education problems.  I just think that most claims to have done so turn out on inspection to be seriously overblown.

Take the post in question.  I argued that suburban parents are basically selfish SOBs who will never allow anything more than very modest levels of integration with urban school districts and will fight like crazed weasels to protect their own leafy citadels of learning.  Kevin C. disagrees.  I think.  He suggests that even suburban parents harbor some altruistic impulses, but then immediately admits that "when asked, parents will jealously guard the resources available to their own children."  Here's his solution:

So the key thing is to not ask.  For example, back when I worked on education funding in Indiana, we created a formula that allowed local school districts to keep all of the revenue they generated through property taxes, but then distributed state funds inversely to local property wealth, equalizing the overall funding level. The effect was to redistribute hundreds of millions of dollars of sales and income tax revenue from the wealthiest school districts to the poorest. But because that transfer occured in the context of an immensely complex formula understood by less than half a dozen people and negotiated in a back room long after the official hearings had finished and the press had gone home, nobody really got upset by it, because nobody knew exactly how much money they were losing, and we were in no hurry to tell them.

The point being, sometimes too much information is detrimental to fair public policy. States that have tried to explicitly transfer local property wealth between districts have had a horrible time of it, because the extent of the redistribution was too obvious. Sometimes it's better to hide the true extent of people's contributions to the common good. Otherwise they'll start asking questions and from there it's a slippery slope all the way back to every family huddling alone in a cave and foraging for fruits and nuts.

I'm not sure a rebuttal is even necessary.  It sounds to me like Kevin C. is agreeing that suburban parents will protect their schools like crazed weasels, and the only way to overcome this is to lie to them early and often.  And he thinks I'm the pessimistic one?

UPDATE: Richard Kahlenberg is unhappy with me too.  I don't blame him, really.  But as much as I respect both of these guys, neither of their counterarguments strikes me as very persuasive.  Lying to parents just isn't a long-term strategy, and the fact that urban/suburban transfers have worked in a very small number of special cases isn't evidence that it will scale well.

Besides, there's another problem here that no one mentions.  Even if you have a great system of urban magnet schools and urban/suburban transfers, what happens to the urban non-magnet schools?  They lose all their best students either to the magnets or to open spots in the suburbs, and the suburban kids are only transferring in to the magnets.  This means that the non-magnets end up with a worse student body than before.  The net result might still be positive, but the majority of urban schools are actually worse off.

Again, I don't pretend to know what the answer is.  But I continue to think that programs like KIPP or Green Dot that are just flatly aimed at improving urban schools are a more promising bet than counting on urban/suburban partnerships.

Fantasyland

| Wed May 20, 2009 10:30 AM EDT

Well, Californians basically rejected all of yesterday's budget initiatives, and since they were mostly gimmicks I don't really blame them.  So what's next?

Beats me.  There are legal, judicial, federal, and contractual limits to how much spending can be cut, and there are political limits (i.e., the Republican rump in the legislature) to how much taxes can be raised.  The sums just don't add up.

Californians are living in a dream world.  Prop 13 slashed property taxes and nobody wants to amend it, even for commercial property.  Arnold Schwarzenegger got elected in the middle of a budget crisis by promising to cut taxes.  When that proved to be an unsurprising disaster, the voters approved billions in borrowing, making the budget situation even worse.  It's easy to blame Sacramento for this mess (and I do!), but the public has been complicit every step of the way.

Historically, California has been a high tax/high service state.  That's fine.  Some states prefer a low tax/low service model.  That's fine too.  (It's a lousy idea, I think, but fiscally it's fine.)  But over the past few decades we Californians have somehow concluded that we can be a medium tax/high service state.  It's a fantasy.  Unfortunately, I'm not sure just what it's going to take to jolt everyone out of their delusions.  Stay tuned.

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Help Me, Help You

| Wed May 20, 2009 1:14 AM EDT

Guess what, gang.  It's fundraising time!

Here's the pitch: if you read my blog you're up to speed on most of the greed, corruption and hypocrisy coming out of Wall Street and Washington. You know all about the carried interest loophole.  You've heard of universal default.  You know what a yield spread premium is.

And all for free!  Sort of.  Because I'm actually supported by Mother Jones magazine, which covers all this stuff and more — and producing the magazine is a pretty expensive enterprise.  To do it, we rely on subscriptions, advertising, and donations to the Mother Jones Investigative Fund.  And that's where you come in.

Your contributions help keep our reporters at work (including me!) on these critical stories. We’re independent, nonprofit, and not afraid to take on the big guns of the financial industry. But we can do that only when our readers deliver the financial support we need to stay on the story.  So if you can afford to part with a few dollars, click here to make a donation.  It's a quick credit card donation form, and if you contribute $35 or more you get a subscription to the magazine too.

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Bitch Slapping the Dems

| Tue May 19, 2009 6:24 PM EDT

I never expected Barack Obama to be anything other than pragmatic and center left.  Still, I confess to feeling a little in the dumps lately over just how much he seems willing to bend and compromise on some key issues.  But then I read things like this:

In an abrupt shift, Senate Democratic leaders said on Tuesday that they would not provide the $80 million that President Obama requested to close the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

....The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, seemed to ramp up the concerns of Congressional Democrats, insisting during a news conference that lawmakers would never allow the terror suspects to be released into the United States....Pressed to explain if that meant they could not be transferred to American prisons, Mr. Reid said: "We don't want is them to be put in prisons in the United States. We don't want them around the United States."

To repeat: I read things like this.  And I realize all over again just what Obama is up against.  His own party won't support him against even the most transparent and insipid demagoguery coming from the conservative noise machine.  The GOP's brain trust isn't offering even a hint of a substantive case that the U.S. Army can't safely keep a few dozen detainees behind bars in a military prison, but Dems are caving anyway.  Because they're scared.  And then they wonder why voters continue to think that a party that can be bitch slapped so easily might be viewed as weak on national security.

But that's the reality that Obama has to deal with.  Under the circumstances, I guess he's not doing so badly after all.

Credit Card Update

| Tue May 19, 2009 5:43 PM EDT

I see that Chris Dodd's credit card reform bill passed the Senate 90-5 today.  This is even better than I expected, and goes to show the agenda-setting power of being in the majority.  In the past, Republicans could have simply prevented a bill like this from coming to the floor, thus sparing themselves the political difficulty of voting against it.  Now they can't do that.  They have to vote whether they like it or not.  And since credit card reform really is a hot button issue, their sense of self-preservation got the better of them and they gave the bill a massive majority.

Which is fine, but I suspect it also means that Dodd could have played hardball a little more strenuously than he did and negotiated a better bill.  Who knows?  If Dems figure this out, maybe it will be the first legislation in history to actually be improved in conference.

Oh — and all the boo hooing from the credit card industry?  If you believe even a single word of it, you need to run not walk to your local emergency room and have them do an MRI on your brain.  There's a chunk missing.

Credit Card Hell

| Tue May 19, 2009 2:27 PM EDT

Ezra is obviously just pimping content from his new corporate overlords here, but today's Washington Post chat about the credit card industry really does make for interesting reading.  One of the things that comes through loud and clear is that people are almost universally paranoid about their credit scores.  And why not?  We live in a modern economy in which credit is essential, but your access to credit is determined by a process that's deliberately opaque, practically impossible to dispute, controlled almost entirely by credit issuers who make money when they lure you into practices that wreck your credit score, and wide open to fraud because the credit industry doesn't really care about it.

My solution?  For starters, credit scoring companies should be required by law to be far more transparent about their practices.  Beyond that, though, we need to give them an incentive to start caring about fraud: if the credit industry wrecks your credit score by allowing fraud, it's the credit industry that should pay the price, not you.  More here.