Obama's Speech

I've been under the weather for the past few days, so I missed Obama's big Libya speech yesterday. I meant to watch it, but then I fell asleep on the couch and by the time I woke up it was over. But I've since read the text of the speech, and I basically agree with Fred Kaplan: it was "about as shrewd and sensible as any such address could have been." A little messy, perhaps, but we live in a messy world:

Obama's main point was this: When, as he put it, "our interests and values are at stake," and when taking military action a) carries few risks, b) costs little, and c) may reap huge benefits, both political and humanitarian, then such action is worth taking even if the interests involved aren't quite vital.

This formulation is unsatisfying, both to the Realists (who shy from using force except in pursuit of vital interests and, even then, only when the outcome is fairly certain and preponderant force is mustered) and to the neoconservatives (who leap to use force anywhere and everywhere in the cause of universal moral values). But it reflects a sense of realism with a small r.

Clive Crook seems to find this likewise a bit unsatisfying, but suggests that, like democracy, Obama's approach produced the worst possible policy except for all the others:

If you doubt it, don't just list the policy's all too obvious dangers: test it against the alternatives — something I have not seen Obama's critics do. One option would have been to do nothing. In other words, abstain with China and Russia on the UNSC resolution. What a splendid message to the world that would have sent. Or maybe vote for the resolution, then commit no resources to enforcing it--the usual European approach to global leadership. Thankfully, the US is better than that. Alternatively, go all in, make regime change the goal, and target Gaddafi--but now without international backing. That would have been a heavier burden and an even bigger gamble. The course of action Obama chose is risky, to be sure, but when you think them through the alternatives look worse.

In the end, Obama will be judged on whether his approach works. If U.S. involvement really stays limited; if Qaddafi finds himself out of a job within a few weeks; and if the aftermath of the war isn't too disastrous, then Obama will be vindicated, congressional approval or not. If any of these things doesn't happen — and I'd pay particular attention to the last of them — he'll be in trouble. As with all things, success justifies nearly anything.

Avoiding the Conservative Rabbit Hole

Mike Konczal says that by now he understands pretty much all of the pro and con arguments related to the financial reform bill:

But at this point I simply no longer understand the hysterical, off-reality, arguments conservatives, especially the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, are making about the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Again, if they wanted to argue the meta-level, bring it on. If they think the problem is, a la Phil Gramm, predatory borrowers, say it. If they are freaked out about cost of capital going higher, make that case. I’ve written that the previous attempts to make that case are quite amateur, but I’d love to hear new ones. Anything, really, and I’ll give it a fair listen.

Don't hold your breath, Mike. The CFPB is opposed by banks because it will probably make them slightly less profitable, and conservatives, in turn, oppose it because banks oppose it. Looking any further is just a fool's errand.

Taking Aim at the Poor

This is an oddly fascinating quote from a GOP staffer:

Republicans are poised to reject a White House offer, TPM has learned, that would cut over $30 billion in current spending because of disagreements over whether the package should include cuts to mandatory spending programs. Democrats are pushing for such cuts, which include the big entitlement programs, though the specific cuts they're proposing remain unclear. In an ironic twist, Republicans oppose those cuts and want to limit the negotiations to non-defense discretionary spending, a smaller subset of the federal budget.

....Asked about the offer the White House has floated, a top Republican aide says, "This debate has always been about discretionary spending — not autopilot 'mandatory' spending or tax hikes."

This isn't a big surprise or anything, but I've never seen it put quite so baldly. This guy is literally saying that Republicans don't want to cut spending, they only want to cut nondefense discretionary spending. That's it. This, of course, is the one part of the budget that's (a) too small to really matter much, and (b) includes social welfare spending for poor people. Again, no big surprise, but at least it clears up what Republicans really care about cutting. And it's not the deficit.

Several years ago Arizona passed a clean elections law that provides state subsidies for candidates who follow certain rules. One provision of the law states that if a subsidized candidate is running against a self-funded candidate, and the self-funded candidate spends more than the subsidized candidate, then the subsidies increase. This is meant to prevent zillionaires from massively outspending everyone else, and needless to say, zillionaires and their allies don't like this much. Over at SCOTUSblog, Lyle Denniston summarizes the zillionaire side of the argument like this:

The only ways a self-financed candidate could prevent the state from helping to put out the message of the subsidized candidate — a “windfall” — would be to reduce the volume of his or her own speech, or at least to rearrange the timing of the speech, with negative effect. Either of those restraints, the petitions argued, would impose the campaigning burden that the Supreme Court had found unconstitutional in the Davis case.

The Davis case is Davis v. Federal Election Commission, in which Samuel Alito ruled against the "Millionaire's Amendment" of the 2002 campaign finance law. That amendment created different rules for candidates who abided by spending limits vs. those who didn't, and Alito ruled that Congress had no right to do that. Paul Waldman disagrees:

What is the "right" at issue here? It's not the right to free speech, since the self-financed candidate still can speak as much as he likes. It's the "right" to have the loudest voice if you have the most money, to drown out every other voice.

Which isn't a right at all. It's a privilege: the privilege of those with money to bend the political system to their will, to have the biggest megaphone, to make sure that their money gives them the ability to put a thumb on the electoral scale.

So how is the Court going to rule? If the Roberts Court has a guiding principle, it's that those with power should prevail. But as in all cases like this, the decision will likely come down to one man, Justice Anthony Kennedy. No one doubts that John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas will rule in favor of the candidates who want to gut the public-financing system so that those with the most money will always have the advantage. The four liberals on the Court will probably disagree. And Kennedy will decide, most likely in favor of the plaintiffs.

The Arizona law is now before the Supreme Court (in McComish v. Bennett), which heard oral arguments today. My guess is that Paul is right: the court will strike down the Arizona law, and this in turn will be the death knell for campaign finance reform. The Arizona law, and others like it, were very carefully crafted to remain within constitutional limits, and if a key provision is struck down it's difficult to envision any kind of effective limits on campaign financing that the court would uphold. It's taken them several decades, but combined with last year's ruling in Citizens United the zillionaires are on the brink of an almost complete victory. Not only does money talk, but soon it won't have to worry about anyone talking back either.

Our War in Libya

From the New York Times:

As rebel forces backed by allied warplanes pushed toward one of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s most crucial bastions of support, the American military warned on Monday that the insurgents’ rapid advances could quickly be reversed without continued coalition air support.

“The regime still vastly overmatches opposition forces militarily,” Gen. Carter F. Ham, the ranking American in the coalition operation, warned in an email message on Monday. “The regime possesses the capability to roll them back very quickly. Coalition air power is the major reason that has not happened.”

In case it wasn't already clear, the Western coalition is now providing close air support to one side in a civil war. I'm OK with that — though I'd be more OK if I knew more about the rebels we were supporting — but this is a very far cry from merely enforcing a no-fly zone. We're fighting a war in Libya, and anyone who tries to pretend otherwise is just trying to distract you from the truth.

Chart of the Day: Finance is Back!

Via Matt Yglesias, Kathleen Madigan reports that finance industry profits have recovered from their late unpleasantness and now account for over 30% of all corporate profits once again. Life is grand if you're a plutocrat, isn't it?

Have DC Schools Really Improved?

The DC school system under Michelle Rhee famously produced substantial gains on standardized test scores. But USA Today reports that one of the district's star performers, the Crosby S. Noyes Education Campus, may have cheated its way to success:

A USA TODAY investigation, based on documents and data secured under D.C.'s Freedom of Information Act, found that for the past three school years most of Noyes' classrooms had extraordinarily high numbers of erasures on standardized tests. The consistent pattern was that wrong answers were erased and changed to right ones.

....On the 2009 reading test, for example, seventh-graders in one Noyes classroom averaged 12.7 wrong-to-right erasures per student on answer sheets; the average for seventh-graders in all D.C. schools on that test was less than 1. The odds are better for winning the Powerball grand prize than having that many erasures by chance, according to statisticians consulted by USA TODAY.

....At Noyes, USA TODAY found several grades with wide swings in their proficiency rates from one year to the next. In 2008, 84% of fourth-grade math students were listed as proficient or advanced, up from 22% for the previous fourth-grade class.

Wow. Going from 22% to 84% in one year is suspiciously impressive. And it's not just Noyes:

In 2008, the office of the State Superintendent of Education recommended that the scores of many schools be investigated because of unusually high gains, but top D.C. public school officials balked and the recommendation was dropped.

After the 2009 tests, the school district hired an outside investigator to look at eight D.C. public schools — one of them was Noyes, USA TODAY learned — and to interview some teachers.

....School district officials would not release the reports Caveon compiled. Caveon has been hired again to investigate the results of 2010 tests in which 41 DCPS schools, including Noyes, had at least one classroom flagged for high erasure rates. USA TODAY could not determine which schools are being scrutinized

It's impossible to prove malfeasance based just on erasure rates. As the story notes, there are sometimes legitimate reasons for lots of erasures.1 But the pattern here sure seems to follow a pattern we've seen in other school districts that have reported startling test gains and later had to recant them for one reason or another. For more, read the whole piece, which is long but worth plowing through.

1For example, kids might be trained to carefully review their answers after they've finished the test. The problem here is that conventional wisdom in the ed community recommends that you never change an answer on a multiple choice test unless you're absolutely sure you got it wrong. More often than not, your first answer is the right one. So even with a careful review, it would be very unusual to see a high number of wrong-to-right erasures.

Friday Cat Blogging - 25 March 2011

On the left, we have a cat and his shadow. On the right, we have a cat and her garden. Who do you think has the better deal?

The Return of John Lott

Hey, John Lott is back in the news! Remember him? Chris Brown of Media Matters catches him retroactively changing a blog post and then complaining that he was misquoted. Luckily, Chris kept a screen shot of the original, always a useful precaution when dealing with Lott.

For what it's worth, Lott is famous in the blogosphere for conducting a gun survey that nobody else could duplicate and then claiming that literally every trace of evidence that he'd actually conducted the survey was missing. He's also famous for using a sock puppet named Mary Rosh, who popped up in discussion threads and lavishly praised Lott whenever he was criticized.

But for my money, his biggest sin came in 2003, when he surreptitiously made retroactive changes to a dataset to make it look as if the modified version was the one he'd been using all along. I summarized all this in EZ-to-follow bullet points here. Chris Mooney talked to Lott for Mother Jones here. It's a nice trip down memory lane. Making changes and then backdating them is an old MO for Lott, so his latest antics come as no surprise.

Obama's Gamble in Libya

Jonah Goldberg is dumbfounded at Barack Obama's desire for the United States to let others take the lead in the Libya operation. But that's not what really ticks him off:

What’s most infuriating is that if this ends “well” — say Qaddafi is killed by one of his own men in the next couple days or the rebels manage to assassinate him, or he flees to Venezuela, whatever — you know that Obama will take credit for leading this successful mission and he will be praised for his “leadership” by many of the same people who are now pretending they believe this fiction that NATO has taken over.

Actually, it seems like this would be fair enough, since Goldberg and his copartisans are equally ready to trash Obama regardless of how everything turns out. Still, I think this is a telling comment. It's no surprise that conservatives are upset that Obama is taking the back seat in a military operation — even rhetorically — and allowing our allies to take the lead. Given their peculiar worldview in which America is required to assert its superiority at all times and in all places, this is plainly intolerable regardless of whether or not it makes sense. Goldberg, in fact, views it as almost self-evidently impossible for someone else to be in charge.

But as bad as this is, what's even worse is the possibility that it might work: it's entirely possible that Qaddafi will leave or be defeated and that the rebels will win a victory that's not viewed as merely another case of American imperialism run amuck. That would genuinely be a victory for American foreign policy, and Obama would deserve tremendous credit for it.

If it works, that is — something that's obviously still up in the air. I'm not thrilled with this operation, and I'm not thrilled with the seeming disarray over who's controlling it and what we're trying to accomplish. Still, this isn't Vietnam or Iraq: Obama is taking the risk that a limited military operation in Libya can succeed in the short term if American arms are brought to bear, and can also succeed in the long term as long as American arms and American interests aren't viewed by the Arab world as the prime motivation for action. Oddly, even after decades of experience with blowback, conservatives still don't seem to get the second half of this equation.

In the end, Obama might be wrong. We might not be able to topple Qaddafi with France and Britain driving things, and even if we do it might not turn out to make much difference in how the Arab world views us. That's the risk Obama is taking. But if it does work, he'll deserve all the credit he gets for it.