Kevin Drum

Is it Time to Replace the Cult of Finland With the Cult of New Jersey?

| Wed Apr. 2, 2014 5:04 PM PDT

Vikram Bath takes on the cult of Finland today. What's that? You didn't realize Finland had a cult? Well, it does in the education community, where Finland's consistently high scores on the international PISA test make it the go-to destination for education writers looking for agreeable junkets they can turn into long-form thumbsuckers about how American schools are doing everything wrong.

But Bath points out that Finland isn't actually the world's top performer on the PISA test. Shanghai does better. So does Hong Kong. Now, maybe those are cherry-picked examples that owe their success to government authorities who game the tests, and therefore deserve to be ignored. But Japan does better too. And South Korea. And Taiwan. So why have they fallen out of vogue lately in the popular press? Why do we hear endless tributes to Finland instead? Bath suggests the reason we like Finland is fairly obvious:

“Be like Shanghai” is for the Wall Street Journal crowd. Shanghai is rote memorization and beating your kids and no bathroom breaks and pretending you aren’t numbed by classical music. Finland is culture and castles and liking classical music because you’d be a better person and maybe windmills.

Fine. Asian countries are culturally different. Maybe it makes sense to look instead at countries that are more similar to America. The problem is, Finland isn't really much like America either. It's ethnically pretty homogeneous and has extremely low rates of poverty. Obviously tackling poverty would be great, but facts are facts: we're not likely to reduce our poverty rate to 3 percent anytime soon. So does that mean we're stuck with no place to aspire to at all?

No. There is still a much, much better non-Asian model. It’s Massachusetts.

14% of children in Massachusetts live in relative poverty. That’s still below the US average, but much more American-like than Finland.

Unlike Finland, Massachusetts has already figured out how to deal with all the existing regulations imposed by the US government.

Unlike Finland, Massachusetts has figured out how to cooperate productively with US teachers unions.

Unlike Finland, Massachusetts has demonstrated how to get results from US-trained teachers rather than masters holders from Finnish research schools, of which the world only has so many.

Unlike Finland, Massachusetts has experienced success teaching real American students who go home every day to be subjected to American parenting styles.

I'd add a fairly large caveat to this: When you disaggregate scores, Massachusetts still does well, but not spectacularly well. Judging from the latest NAEP scores for eighth graders, Massachusetts does a great job with its white students, a good job with its black students, and a fairly mediocre job with its Hispanic students. Overall, they perform pretty well, but part of that is due to the fact that Massachusetts has a very high proportion of white students and apparently does a superb job of teaching them.

Nevertheless, Bath's point is well taken. But you might want to choose a different state: New Jersey, which has a high composite score not because it's mostly white (it's about 60 percent white), but because it does an outstanding job of teaching kids of all colors. Judging by NAEP scores, it ranks among the top four states in both math and reading for whites, blacks, and Hispanics.

Of course, New Jersey's poverty rate is pretty low, and we know that poverty is a prime cause of poor educational outcomes. This helps account for New Jersey's high scores, and also acts as an object lesson in not fetishizing particular countries, states, or programs. This stuff is complicated, and there's no point in just substituting one simplistic analysis for another. That said, I'd say Bath is worth listening to. We should take good ideas from wherever we can find them, but there's not much reason to go haring around the world looking for educational lodestars to emulate. We have 51 laboratories of democracy right here at home, all of which are more culturally similar to each other than any foreign country is. And some of them do pretty well, already working within the framework of American culture, American laws, American ethnic makeup, and American parents. Why not study them instead?

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How Democrats Plan to Address the Midterm Blues

| Wed Apr. 2, 2014 10:36 AM PDT

How big is the midterm penalty for Democrats? Eric McGhee tells us in handy chart form. Given President Obama's current approval rating, his model says Democrats would have a 75 percent chance of holding the Senate if this were a presidential election year. But in a midterm, Dems have only a 10 percent chance:

Ed Kilgore writes about this a lot, and warns Democrats not to get too mired in fruitless efforts to attack the "enthusiasm gap." After all, the kind of people affected by enthusiasm are the kind of people who are likely to vote anyway. A loud populist message might thrill them, but it won't do much to affect turnout among minorities and the young, who typically have more tenuous connections to politics. Instead, Democrats should focus on old-fashioned efforts to get out the vote. Or, more accurately, brand new rocket science efforts to get out the vote:

There’s plenty of evidence that turnout can be more reliably affected by direct efforts to identify favorable concentrations of voters and simply get them to the polls, with or without a great deal of “messaging” or for that matter enthusiasm (no one takes your temperature before you cast a ballot). Such get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts are the meat-and-potatoes of American politics, even if they invariably get little attention from horse-race pundits. Neighborhood-intensive “knock-and-drag” GOTV campaigns used to be a Democratic speciality thanks to the superior concentration of Democratic (especially minority) voters, though geographical polarization has created more and more equally ripe Republican areas.

....If that’s accurate, then the most important news for Democrats going into November is that the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee is planning to spend $60 million on data-driven GOTV efforts specially focused on reducing the “midterm falloff” factor. The extraordinary success of Terry McAuliffe’s 2013 Virginia gubernatorial campaign in boosting African-American turnout for an off-year election will likely be a model.

Messaging matters. But in midterm elections, shoe leather matters more, even if it's mostly digital shoe leather these days.

How Many of the Uninsured Have Been Helped By Obamacare?

| Wed Apr. 2, 2014 9:21 AM PDT

So how is Obamacare doing? By the metric of signups, pretty well. Charles Gaba estimates that about 6.5 million people have signed up for Medicaid, and Obama announced yesterday that 7.1 million have signed up for coverage under the exchanges. The Medicaid number will probably continue to rise throughout the year, and the exchange number will likely end up around 7 million once late applicants are counted and non-payers are removed from the rolls. Overall, Obamacare is very much on target to meet the CBO forecast of 14 million signups by the end of 2014.

But Chris Conover points out a genuine soft spot in these numbers: a lot of them were previously insured folks who have simply switched to different coverage (either private or Medicaid). So the question is: How many of the uninsured have been helped by Obamacare? There are two ways of trying to measure this.

The first is raw numbers. The CBO estimated earlier this year that Obamacare would reduce the ranks of the uninsured by 13 million, and Conover figures that the actual number is around 7 million or so—about half the target. Without going deep into the weeds, which I'll leave to others, I think he's probably being overly pessimistic. My horseback guess is that the real number will end up around 10 million or so by the time the year is finished (5 million via Medicaid, 3 million via the exchanges, and 2 million via sub-26ers on their parents' plans).

The second way of measuring this is via percentages. The CBO also forecast that the ranks of the uninsured would decline by 5 percentage points, from 21 percent to 16 percent. The actual numbers can be gotten by surveys, and Rand estimates a decline so far of about 4 percentage points (from 20.9 percent to 16.6 percent). Gallup, by contrast, showed a decline of about 1.5 percentage points through February and will show a further decline in March. These two surveys use different methodologies, so we have to be careful with them. Still, if we split the difference and extrapolate to the end of the year, we end up with a figure between 3-4 percent. That's the equivalent of about 10 million.

This is all very rough, and there's inevitably quite a bit of guesswork involved. We just don't have firm numbers or final survey results yet, and what's more, the year isn't over. Still, if I had to guess, I'd guess that we end up around 10 million previously uninsured who will get coverage via Obamacare this year. That's no catastrophe, but it's worse than we'd hoped for. As always, Obamacare remains a work in progress and a good first step. But there's still plenty left to be done.

Yet Another Campaign Finance Domino Falls Today

| Wed Apr. 2, 2014 8:25 AM PDT

Four years ago, in the Citizens United case, the Supreme Court struck down limits on independent campaign contributions from corporations and unions. Since then, spending by super PACs and shadowy 501c(4) groups has exploded. Today, the Supreme Court continued toward its goal of gutting virtually every existing limit on campaign spending:

[Citizens United] did nothing to disturb the other main form of campaign finance regulation: caps on direct contributions to candidates and political parties. Wednesday’s decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, No. 12-536, addressed that second kind of regulation.

It did not disturb familiar base limits on contributions from individuals to candidates, currently $2,600 per candidate in primary and general elections. But it said that overall limits of $48,600 every two years for contributions to all federal candidates violated the First Amendment, as did separate aggregate limits on contributions to political party committees, currently $74,600.

There are still some limits left. Direct contributions from individuals to specific candidates are still capped, and direct contributions to candidates from corporations are still banned.

The effect of this decision is unclear. Will billionaires start giving enormous sums of soft money to political parties? That would presumably require parties to set up lots of different committees that are putatively for different purposes, which in turn would probably give rise to yet more legal challenges. But if the past is any indication, the bright boys and girls who run these things will figure out a way.

I suppose it might even be a good thing, if you believe that parties have gotten too weak compared to billionaire donors these days. This could give them a way of rebuilding their influence and providing more central control over messaging and candidate selection. But I doubt that. The cringe-inducing spectacle of Republicans trekking to Las Vegas this weekend to kiss Sheldon Adelson's ring in hopes of becoming his fair-haired child and sole recipient of his millions, shows that the horse is truly out of the barn on the role of the super-rich in political campaigns. It's possible that McCutcheon will strengthen party machinery and provide a slight counterweight, but more likely it will simply give billionaires even more control over the electoral process. I guess the best we can hope for is that they continue to be as stupid in their political spending as they've been so far. Unfortunately, as the Koch brothers are showing, my sense is that they're finally getting a little better and a little more disciplined about this stuff. Billionaire politics is here to stay.

This is not a good turn of events for popular democracy.

You're Probably Paying Less in Overdraft Fees Than You Used To

| Tue Apr. 1, 2014 6:36 PM PDT

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting short piece about overdraft fees today, including some facts and figures I haven't seen before. Here are the trends between 2009 and 2013:

  • Average number of overdrafts per year: down from 9.8 to 7.1
  • Total overdraft revenue: down from $37.1 billion to $31.9 billion
  • Average overdraft charge: up from $27.50 to $30 (in 2013 dollars)

That's a decrease of nearly a third in the annual number of overdrafts per checking account. This is likely because of new regulations, and banks have responded by raising the average fee in order to recoup some of their lost revenue.

Overall, this is a net benefit. The reduction in the number of overdrafts per year can probably be attributed to legal and regulatory actions that have reined in or flatly banned some of the worst abuses: clearing large payments first, refusing to let customers opt out of overdraft protection, slowing down payment credits, and so forth. These were the most outrageous fees, and eliminating them has helped consumers even if banks have partially made up for it with higher fees. In inflation-adjusted terms, the average person is now paying $213 in overdraft fees each year, compared to $269 in 2009. It's a start.

S&P 500 Sets Yet Another Fake Record This Year

| Tue Apr. 1, 2014 2:16 PM PDT

From the Wall Street Journal:

U.S. stocks kicked off the second quarter with broad gains Tuesday, propelling the S&P 500 index to a seventh record close of the year.

I'll cop to being sort of pedantic here, but no, the S&P 500 didn't set a record today, let alone its seventh of the year. Time series like this only make sense if you adjust for inflation, and if you do that the S&P closed 10 percent below its August 2000 peak. Granted, the S&P 500 has more than doubled since 2008, an immensely more impressive performance than, say, median income or the unemployment rate, but it's still not in record territory.

If you're curious to see what the real S&P 500 looks like, it's in the chart below.

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An Important Question About April Fools['] Day

| Tue Apr. 1, 2014 11:36 AM PDT

Let's take a break to discuss something important: Is it April Fools or Aprils Fools'? According to the AP style guide, it's April Fools'. However, Google's Ngram Viewer, which counts occurrences of phrases in books, tells a different, more nuanced story:

  • April Fools has been more common than April Fools' for the entire past century.
  • However, April Fools' Day has been far more common than April Fools Day.

So there you have it. Basically, you can probably punctuate it any way you want. Either way, though, I have some bad news for you: the usage of both terms has skyrocketed since 1960, increasing about 3x relative to everything else. This suggests, sadly, that we've all gotten way more obsessed with stupid April Fools jokes in recent years.

But there's also some good news: usage peaked around 2000 and has gone down over the past decade. Unless this is an artifact of Google's algorithm (which it might be), perhaps it means that we're finally getting tired of the whole thing. That's a nice thought, though I quail at the prospect of what's probably replacing it in our collective id.

BY THE WAY: The increasing popularity of trying to outfox April Fools-savvy readers by playing jokes on March 31 is no longer clever. Knock it off. If you really think you have something good enough to fool people in an amusing way, it should be good enough to work on April 1.

This Weekend, Yet Another "60 Minutes" Screw-Up

| Tue Apr. 1, 2014 9:58 AM PDT

On Sunday I watched 60 Minutes and caught their segment about the Tesla Model S. They had some footage of the car zipping along the road, and I was surprised by the throaty rumble it made while it was accelerating. It's an electric car, after all. It shouldn't sound like a Corvette.

Please note: I am, at best, a minor league car guy. I know very little about cars. But the sound of the Tesla S immediately drew my attention. Yesterday, 60 Minutes said it was all a mistake:

Our video editor made an audio editing error in our report about Elon Musk and Tesla last night. We regret the error and it is being corrected online.

This is not really believable. If I noticed this, then a minimum of dozens of people who worked on this segment would have noticed it. Besides, where did the V8-audio come from? Did the video editor just "accidentally" pull some off the shelf and mix it in? Repeatedly?

WTF is going on with 60 Minutes these days?

It's Groundhog Day for Paul Ryan, As He Unveils Yet Another Plan to Slash Spending on the Poor

| Tue Apr. 1, 2014 9:45 AM PDT

Another year, another Paul Ryan budget. I'll be honest: I didn't have the energy to do more than flip through the FY2015 version. It's not as if anything changes much from year to year, and even Ryan seemed a little tired of the kabuki show this time around. Apparently this year's big innovation is to finally embrace dynamic scoring, aka magical thinking. You see, last year the CBO reduced its forecast of economic growth, which means that Ryan's budget would no longer be balanced unless he did something different. Raising taxes was obviously out of the question, and since Ryan has been trying to position himself as a compassionate defender of the poor lately, it would hardly do to slash safety net programs even further than he usually does. So he simply assumed that all his budget cutting would supercharge the economy and thus bring in more tax revenue and rebalance the budget. Mission accomplished!

Anyway, here's the bottom line from the Ryan blueprint:

Let's analyze this. Changes to Social Security and Medicare are minuscule. (Until after 2024, when Ryan eliminates traditional Medicare and replaces it with a version of his usual premium support plan.) The military has virtually no mandatory spending, so those cuts are all on the domestic side. A quick look at his section on national defense makes it clear that he plans no cuts to Pentagon discretionary spending, and Table S-5 shows that he actually wants to increase defense outlays compared to the current BCA caps. This means that the discretionary cuts are entirely on the domestic side. And there are no cuts to spending on the Global War on Terrorism.

So that leaves big cuts to Medicaid, Obamacare, and domestic spending. It would be unfair to say that all of Ryan's domestic cuts are to programs for the poor, but he sure lays out those particular cuts in unusually loving detail. So let's give him a break and assume that only two-thirds of the domestic cuts (the line items labeled "Other mandatory" and "Discretionary") are to safety net programs.

Outside of interest payments, then, the grand total of cuts for the non-poor amounts to $129 + $322 + $153 = $604 billion over ten years. The grand total of cuts to programs for the poor and working class amounts to $732 + $2,066 + $644 + $307 = $3,749.

So out of total non-interest cuts of $4,352, it looks like about 86 percent of them are targeted at programs for those with low-incomes. Ryan will doubtlessly deny this, as he always does, since his blueprint doesn't spell out all his cuts in detail. But the numbers are nevertheless clear. Maybe it's not 86 percent. Maybe it's 85 percent. Or 80 percent. The exact percentage doesn't matter. No matter how you slice it, Ryan is balancing the budget almost entirely by slashing spending on the poor.

Inside the Sloppy, Shadowy World of Debt Collectors

| Tue Apr. 1, 2014 8:33 AM PDT

In yet another story that ought to be an April Fools joke but isn't, David Dayen reports on the sordid, shadowy world of debt collectors:

Last month, Amrit Singh, an adjunct professor at Hostos Community College in the South Bronx, received a letter from the New York City Marshal, advising him that he owed $10,000, due within 20 days....Singh called the Marshal’s office, and they told him Atlantic Credit, a debt collection agency, secured a judgment against him for the $10,000....He was also told that the original debt came from HSBC Bank, for accumulated fees and interest on an account dating back to 2008. “This was more suspicious, because I had never opened an account with HSBC, neither me nor my wife,” Singh said. His credit report showed no record of him owing money to the bank, or any other credit incident matching this level of debt.

A colleague of Singh’s, hearing the story, had a theory. “He said, they probably told an intern, ‘Amrit Singh owes this money, go look up a name.’ And the intern found me.”

....“Creditors provide debt buyers with almost no data, no original contract, no backup information,” said Ira Rheingold, executive director of the National Association of Consumer Attorneys....Debt collectors pay miniscule amounts—between four and seven cents on the dollar—for the vague information they get, so they have little incentive to ask for a more legitimate product that might cost more. They simply turn around and try to collect, making guesses based on the names and account numbers given. “We see everything. They go after people with similar names, the same name, fathers and sons getting called on each other’s debts,” said Carolyn Coffey, a Supervising Attorney at MFY Legal Services, a non-profit law firm in New York City. “They figure they bought this for so cheap, as long as they get a few positive hits, they’re going to make money.”

In Singh's case, he was easily able to get the judgment tossed out. That's what usually happens if someone actually shows up in court to contest the debt. But that doesn't mean his misery is over. In many case, the debt collector just shrugs and sells the data to another debt collector and the whole nightmare starts all over. As for clearing up the black mark on his credit record—well, you can probably guess how likely a debt collector is to help with that process after fingering the wrong person.

Is there any hope for reform? Click the link to find out.