Just a quick note: Every pundit who laments the fact that President Obama didn't "do more" to get some kind of budget agreement through the supercommittee should be required to:

  • Explain exactly what Obama should have done.
  • Explain whether they think Republicans would ever, under any circumstances, have accepted a deal with a net tax increase.
  • If yes, provide details.
  • If no, explain why their hypothetical deal is any better, or more politically feasible, than the default trigger deal.

That's not so much to ask, is it? I should warn everyone ahead of time, though, that I mainly want answers to these questions so that I can laugh at you.

No More BRAC!

Stan Collender takes on one of my favorite pet peeves today, so I'll just turn the mike over to him:

For years I have been asked why we don't just set up a budget commission with rules like the base realignment and closure commissions of the past that have always been taken as the model for a successful commission. For the record, we had that here and it didn't work. Had the hardly-super committee actually recommended a deficit reduction plan, it would have used a BRAC-like process: the bill could not have been amended by Congress and would have been considered in both Houses on a simple up-or-down vote. No filibusters allowed.

BRAC was created to do something very different from the super committee: it was designed to determine which military facilities should be closed after Congress decided that some weren't needed. By contrast, the super committee had to do the equivalent of determining whether any bases should be closed at all. That was a far more open-ended and considerably more difficult task than anything any BRAC was ever asked to do.

I am so tired of BRAC I could scream. As near as I can tell, every hard problem of the past 20 years has produced suggestions that we need "something like BRAC." But guess what? The BRAC concept has only ever worked for one thing: closing military bases. If there's a silver lining to the failure of the supercommittee to do anything, maybe, just maybe, it will be the death knell of calls for another BRAC.

We don't need another BRAC. What we need is two political parties that are able to act in at least tolerably sensible ways on at least sporadic occasions. So far we only have one.

A couple of political science wonks pull out some charts today to try to predict what the Supreme Court will do about Obamacare:

As always, predictions are hard, especially about the future (see Berra v. Bohr) and especially when it isn’t clear which precedents apply or which legal doctrines are likely to dominate. Thus, any specific prediction must go beyond the model.

That said, here is ours: 6-3 or 7-2 to uphold the law.

Respect for precedent pushes Kennedy to support the law and Roberts comes along for the ride in order to keep the opinion out of Kennedy’s hands (and possibly writing an opinion that cabins the Commerce Clause more than it is now). Alito probably goes with Roberts, but seems more up for grabs. If we are wrong, expect the justices to either downplay precedent and emphasize other legal values (such as federalism) or play up the few precedents that protect state rights.

Policy motivations won’t be irrelevant, but score this one for law.

Hey, they stole that from me! But they have actual arguments to back themselves up. And a book. Check it out.

Like all right-thinking people, Felix Salmon is aghast at the austerity measures being implemented in Europe. After all, austerity won't help during a liquidity crisis, which means that in addition to hurting ordinary citizens, "it will harm the fat-cat bankers, too." But then he goes a bit beyond even right-thinking conventional wisdom:

But here’s the cunning bit: the bankers don’t really have their banks’ best interests at heart. They just want to keep on getting their coupon payments until this year’s bonuses are paid. And then, once those bonus checks are cashed, they’ll start trying to get next year’s bonus payment, too.

The bankers and technocrats know full well that the longer they manage to kick the can down the road, the worse it’ll be for everybody in the long run. But in the short run, they get very wealthy. Even as crucial government services are cut to the bone, and the risk of major social unrest increases greatly.

Are they really that cynical? Maybe so. Are they consciously that cynical? I'd guess probably not. Man is a rationalizing animal, after all. As Upton Sinclair famously said, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it." And bankers have mighty big salaries.

Dan Drezner recommends Walter Russell Mead's nickel summary of President Obama's recent whirlwind swing through Asia. I confess that the reaction to rotating a couple hundred troops through Darwin struck me as a little overblown, but decoding the sub rosa minutiae of diplomatic intrigue is tricky at the best of times, so I figured I was probably missing something. Anyway, Mead says that was the least of things:

The cascade of statements, deployments, agreements and announcements from the United States and its regional associates in the last week has to be one of the most unpleasant shocks for China’s leadership — ever. The US is moving forces to Australia, Australia is selling uranium to India, Japan is stepping up military actions and coordinating more closely with the Philippines and Vietnam in the South China Sea, Myanmar is slipping out of China’s column and seeking to reintegrate itself into the region, Indonesia and the Philippines are deepening military ties with the the US: and all that in just one week. If that wasn’t enough, a critical mass of the region’s countries have agreed to work out a new trade group that does not include China, while the US, to applause, has proposed that China’s territorial disputes with its neighbors be settled at a forum like the East Asia Summit — rather than in the bilateral talks with its smaller, weaker neighbors that China prefers.

Rarely has a great power been so provoked and affronted. Rarely have so many red lines been crossed. Rarely has so much face been lost, so fast....[I]t was as decisive a diplomatic victory as anyone is likely to see. Congratulations should go to President Obama and his national security team.

OK, then. Congratulations, Team Obama! Dan explains the background: "China's behavior in 2009 and 2010 was a giant honking invitation for the rest of the Pacific Rim to cozy up to the United States. And that's what should worry Beijing. It's not that the United States is interested in maintaining its presence in East Asia — that interest has not wavered. What has changed is the eagerness with which the countries in the region, ranging from Australia to Myanmar, have reciprocated."

Anyway, this is interesting. I haven't seen Obama get much credit for this trip, possibly because the minutiae of diplomatic intrigue is no more obvious to most reporters than it is to me. And I certainly wouldn't have expected it from Walter Russell Mead. But apparently it was quite the triumph.

And now, back to the grubby work of dealing with the Republican Party. They make the nominal communists of the People's Republic look like pushovers.

Interest rates in the United States are really, really low. This suggests two things. First, it's a great time for Uncle Sam to borrow money for free and spend it on things like infrastructure repair. Second, no matter what the budget jihadists says, the financial markets are apparently not very worried about the federal deficit. If they were, they'd be driving interest rates up.

Tyler Cowen, though, thinks we shouldn't be quite so sure of ourselves:

The “pretense of knowledge” I have seen in these discussions is staggering. Roubini forecast the Italian crisis in 2006 (bravo to him), but overall how many people on the left were so wise to be calling for such Italian spending cuts in 2005, when the country had relatively low bond yields?....The correct response to the Italian situation is: “We didn’t think it could get so bad so quickly. We will take this as a sobering lesson more generally.”

That is not the response I have been seeing. There is too much at stake for us to take comfort in our own supposed abilities to foresee the future.

I don't think the Italian situation is as clear cut as Tyler makes it out to be. Italy's budget deficit wasn't all that outrageous before 2005, and after that the EU put a lot of pressure on them to get it down. So it was hardly something that was ignored. Still, his overall point is worthwhile: Italy's bigger problem was that although its absolute debt level was high, its debt-to-GDP ratio was declining thanks to low eurozone interest rates. That took some of the pressure off, but it turned out to be a fool's paradise. Low interest rates don't necessarily stay low forever.

This is one reason not to take too much solace in low U.S. interest rates right now: just as markets can be wrong during asset bubbles, markets can be wrong on sovereign borrowing rates too. And as we all know, if and when they finally decide they've been wrong, they can change course in a blink.

There's a second reason too: our current borrowing rates are low not so much because markets think we're in terrific shape, but because they think we're the least worst option available right now. Unlike developing countries with roaring economies, U.S. bonds are stable and have modest inflation risk. And unlike eurozone bonds, they have no risk of default. So they're the only game in town.

But they might not be forever. I think the evidence strongly favors substantial fiscal stimulus right now, but if there's an argument for caution I think this is the best one. Markets can turn in a flash, and you don't always have a lot of warning when it happens. As always, then, our best bet would be higher deficits now combined with a credible plan to cut deficits in the long term. Unfortunately, there's simply no way to make the deficit math work without a substantial contribution from higher taxes. And the Republican Party flatly refuses to recognize that. It probably won't happen soon, but eventually the markets are going to react fairly badly to this state of affairs.

Sarah Kliff, obviously auditioning for killjoy of the day, says that Congress has not, in fact, declared pizza a vegetable. What they did was allow tomato paste to retain its privileged place in school lunches: for nutritional purposes, an eighth of a cup of tomato paste counts the same as half a cup of fruits and vegetables. The reason for this is obvious: it makes it easier for pizza to find a spot on school lunch menus. But suspect motivations aside, Sarah say the decision wasn't really all that outrageous on the merits:

If you stack one-eighth of a cup of tomato paste up against a half-cup of some pretty common fruits and vegetables, the paste actually doesn’t do so badly....All told, the nutrition facts look really similar. Tomato paste does do a lot worse on sodium, but it also does much better in terms of calcium and potassium content. It also slightly edges out apples on dietary fiber, with a lower amount of sugar.

Is Sarah merely a mouthpiece for Big Paste? A full-scale investigation is probably needed on that score. But her evidence is below. Read it and weep, pizza haters.

Conservative apostate David Frum describes the parallel universe in which he thinks his fellow conservatives live these days:

When I entered Republican politics, during an earlier period of malaise, in the late seventies and early eighties, the movement got most of the big questions—crime, inflation, the Cold War—right. This time, the party is getting the big questions disastrously wrong.

....The thought leaders on talk radio and Fox do more than shape opinion. Backed by their own wing of the book-publishing industry and supported by think tanks that increasingly function as public-relations agencies, conservatives have built a whole alternative knowledge system, with its own facts, its own history, its own laws of economics. Outside this alternative reality, the United States is a country dominated by a strong Christian religiosity. Within it, Christians are a persecuted minority. Outside the system, President Obama—whatever his policy errors—is a figure of imposing intellect and dignity. Within the system, he’s a pitiful nothing, unable to speak without a teleprompter, an affirmative-action phony doomed to inevitable defeat. Outside the system, social scientists worry that the U.S. is hardening into one of the most rigid class societies in the Western world, in which the children of the poor have less chance of escape than in France, Germany, or even England. Inside the system, the U.S. remains (to borrow the words of Senator Marco Rubio) “the only place in the world where it doesn’t matter who your parents were or where you came from.”

Actually, I can understand the first item. America may be just about the most Christian advanced nation on earth, but there's no question that Christians have suffered some setbacks. There are more nonbelievers today than any time in recent memory. Prayer in public school has long since been banned. Religious symbolism has mostly been removed from public functions. Liberals make fun of evangelical megachurches. So yeah: a feeling of besiegement is at least understandable.

And I understand the third item too. Hell, just about every country believes the same thing, and ruling elites for the past two centuries have all found it necessary to pretend that they're jes folks. So there's nothing mysterious about this either.

But the second item is a head scratcher. Whatever else you think of him, Obama is pretty obviously smart, savvy, and eloquent. What's more, when they're not yakking about what a callow bungler he is, conservatives spend their time insisting that he's led a shadowy socialist revolution that's practically brought America to its knees. So which is it? Is he a phenomenally successful fifth columnist or an incompetent cretin? Can he really be both?

In any case, the success of modern Republicanism isn't all that hard to understand anyway. Rich people like it for obvious reasons. Social conservatives like it for obvious reasons. And the white working class — well, they might not actually like it all that much, but they mostly dislike liberals even more. And this is no surprise. After all, we spend an awful lot of time trying to make them feel guilty. Your hunting trips? It's a slaughter of innocent animals. Your 15 mpg pickup truck? It's wrecking the planet. Your sexist jokes? It's workplace harassment. Your air conditioner? Keep it above 80, pal. That lazy family in the Section 8 housing down the street? Show a little compassion for the less fortunate, will you?

There's good reason for all this stuff, but it's also understandably irritating. Is it really any wonder that plenty of people are turned off by it? And if there's a large bloc of irritated registered voters, is it surprising that some political party somewhere is going to take advantage of this irritation by assuring them that heartland values are the real America, racism is a liberal scam, global warming is a myth, and social welfare programs do more harm than good?

It's really not, is it?

The supercommittee has apparently officially declared failure, and all Washington is in despair. But I think Atrios has the right response to this:

So there's this bipartisan group of elected officials known as "Congress" that passed $1.2 trillion in deficit reductions into law. They also designated a random group of wankers to come up with some alternative $1.2 trillion in deficit reductions as a substitute. They didn't come up with a substitute. So we have the original path to deficit reduction as opposed to the potential substitute.

Why the press has mostly taken the position that some unspecified substitute would be better, or that cuts are implicitly good…

Right. We already have a plan to cut the budget by $1.2 trillion over 10 years. So who really cares whether there's a different plan to cut $1.2 trillion from the budget? Why isn't the existing plan good enough?

In any case, this should basically be viewed as a total victory for Republicans. Any alternative plan would have included some tax increases, so failure to come up with an alternative means that we get a big deficit reduction that's 100 percent spending cuts, just like they wanted. And the 50-50 split between domestic and defense cuts was always sort of a joke. Republicans never had any intention of allowing the Pentagon's half of the cuts to materialize, and the domestic spending half of the cuts was about as big as they wanted them to be. Big talk aside, they know bigger cuts would run the risk of seriously pissing off voters.

So Republicans got domestic spending cuts that were about as big as they really wanted. They know they'll never have to implement most of the defense cuts. And there are no tax increases.

Given all that, why is anyone surprised that they were unwilling to seriously consider any alternative? Why should they when they already had what they wanted?

In my post earlier today about NAEP test score trends, I said I was pessimistic about recent educational reforms because big gains among 9-year-olds mostly seem to wash away by the time students graduate from high school. However, several commenters complained that this was unfair: high school students in 2008 had spent only a few years in the post-NCLB "reform" environment. What we really want to look at are cohort effects. How do kids who have spent their entire lives in the new environment do?

First, some background. In my initial post I used data from the NAEP long-term assessment. This has two big advantages. First, the data goes back further. Second, the long-term test has stayed more stable over time, which makes it a better standard for trend comparisons. In contrast, the main NAEP test gets rewritten every decade or so.

However, the main test still has a pretty good reputation, and it also has the advantage of providing more recent data. We don't have 2011 scores for high school students yet, but we do have 2011 reading and math scores for 4th and 8th graders. So here are test score improvements on the main test from 1992 through 2011:

As usual, keep in mind the rule of thumb that a 10-point change on NAEP scores is about equal to one grade level.

This only goes through middle school, but it's obviously more promising than the long-term data I posted earlier. The 4th grade gains in reading are considerably more modest than on the long-term assessment, but they persist through 8th grade. The gains in math are better than on the long-term assessment, and although some of the gains are lost by 8th grade, the dropoff isn't huge. Note that the 1992 cohort of 8th graders is almost entirely pre-reform, even if you count state reforms that predate NCLB, while the 2011 cohort of 8th graders began first grade in 2003, so these are kids who have spent their entire school lives in post-reform schools. That makes this a pretty good comparison group.  

Now, there are several caveats here:

  • We still don't know how high-school students are doing. We'll need to wait until 2015 before we have a cohort of 12th graders who have spent their entire lives in post-reform schools.
  • The data is from the main NAEP assessment. For longitudinal studies, I think the long-term assessment is probably superior.
  • As usual, you have to decide for yourself if you think scores on standardized tests are really a good measure of student achievement.

Still, caveats aside, this data clearly supports a fairly optimistic view of how our schools are doing. Keep it in mind whenever you read a mournful op-ed about our failing educational system.