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.

Here is today's weird question. When I talk on the telephone, I always hold the handpiece up to my left ear. I do this because it sounds better that way.

A few minutes ago I was on the phone, and because my arm was sore I switched over to my right ear. I haven't done this for years, but this time I got curious and started switching back and forth, trying to isolate just what it was that was different. Conclusion: when I'm listening through my left ear, the sound is pretty well modulated. When I listen through my right ear, (a) the overall sound quality seems tinnier and (b) louder sounds — just slightly louder, still perfectly normal for spoken voice — seem distorted and unpleasant.

This seems sort of odd. Obviously the telephone speaker is the same all the time, and sounds are either distorted or they're not. If they are, why don't I hear the distortion through my left ear? And if they're not, why do I think I hear distortion in my right ear? What's going on?

UPDATE: Via Twitter, Hassan Khan passes along a Wired article about a research study showing that Italians in dance clubs are more likely to give you a cigarette if you ask them in their right ear:

It’s the latest in a series of studies that show that sound from both human ears is processed differently within the brain. Researchers have noted that humans tend to have a preference for listening to verbal input with their right ears and that given stimulus in both ears, they’ll privilege the syllables that went into the right ear. Brain scientists hypothesize that the right ear auditory stream receives precedence in the left hemisphere of the brain, where the bulk of linguistic processing is carried out.

I don't know which ear I'm most likely to respond to, only that I much prefer the quality of telephonic voices in my left ear. One way or another, though, apparently there's some kind of cognitively linked difference between your left and right ears.

All told, I'm right-handed, right-footed, left-eyed, and left-eared. I haven't checked my nostrils lately.

As Europe's financial crisis reaches its climax, Ross Douthat mourns the inexorable rise of the technocrats:

For the inhabitants of Italy and Greece, who have just watched democratically elected governments toppled by pressure from financiers, European Union bureaucrats and foreign heads of state, it evokes the cold reality of 21st-century politics. Democracy may be nice in theory, but in a time of crisis it’s the technocrats who really get to call the shots.

Brad DeLong disagrees. The duly elected leaders of Greece and Italy, he says, chose new prime ministers "because they wanted their countries to borrow money--and the people who they wanted to borrow money from were very unwilling to lend it to governments headed by Papandreou and Berlusconi but willing to lend it to governments headed by Papademos and Monti."

Unlike Brad, I don't really have a problem with calling either the EU's panjandrums or Papademos and Monti technocrats, though it's true that in the financial world "technocrat" isn't really a name for someone dedicated to serried columns of facts and figures as much as it's a name for someone with a particular ideological disposition: pro-creditor, pro-austerity, and anti-inflation. Love it or hate it, it's the ideology of Germany, it's the ideology of the ECB, it's the ideology of the IMF, and it's the ideology of the dominant political class in the United States.

But here's something to make Ross feel better: this is hardly the cold reality of only 21st-century politics. The same dynamic that led to the fall of the Greek and Italian governments — pressure from creditors on countries that couldn't pay their mounting debts — is pretty much the same dynamic that led to the fall of the Iron Curtain. It's not anything new, it's not necessarily bad, and it's not even necessarily anti-democratic. Millions of people in Eastern Europe live in more democracy today than they did in 1989 thanks to pressure from creditors on their governments to pay their bills.

I'm not happy with the way financial technocrats are handling Europe's current mess, but whether they're ultimately good or bad for democracy is too early to say. After all, Berlusconi-style corporatists aren't exactly tribunes of the people either once you scratch an inch below their glad-handing surfaces, nor is the toxic combination of civil servants and the rich that's ruled Greece for the past couple of decades. I wouldn't sound the death knell for European democracy quite yet.

Gene Lyons wrote a recent column noting that students have been making steady progress on standardized tests over the past few decades. Bob Somerby wishes people would listen:

Over and over, people are told that test scores are lower. Commenters quickly started bruiting this claim in response to the Lyons piece. In most cases, these commenters didn't seem to have understood the basic things Lyons had said.

They didn't dispute his factual statements. They simply skipped right past them.

Our “career liberal” leaders are worse than useless. Our “educational experts” are anything but. Everyone praises the NAEP test scores—but no one reports what those test scores show!

I'd like to see a bit less panic over our failing schools too. Still, I think the picture is a little less clear than Bob makes it out to be. He points out correctly that looking at raw averages is sometimes misleading: Blacks and Hispanics have always scored lower than whites on standardized tests, and as their population increases that lowers the overall average even if all three groups are actually doing better. To see what's really happening, you have to look at test scores for all three groups separately.

So here they are. The chart below shows test score improvements over the past 20 years on the NAEP reading and math tests, widely considered the "gold standard" of national testing. The source material is here. (Note that for the 1990 starting point I used an average of the 1988/90/92 scores for reading and an average of the 1990/92 scores for math.)

The usual rule of thumb on the NAEP test is that ten points equals one grade level. So what lesson can we draw from this data?

Answer: it's mixed. Nine-year-olds in all three groups have indeed made huge advances in both reading and math, ranging from 10 to 20 points. But things start to slide when you move up to middle school. Improvement among 13-year-olds in math is more modest than among 9-year-olds, though still quite respectable, but reading scores are up only a few points. And when you get to high school things really go to hell. Reading scores for 17-year-olds have gone down and math scores have improved only a bit.

This is all just raw data. You can decide for yourself whether standardized test scores are a good measure of student achievement. You can also decide for yourself which age groups matter the most. My own take is twofold: (1) Our students aren't doing any worse than they did in the past. Panic isn't really justified. (2) Improvements in reading and math scores that wash out by the end of high school aren't that impressive. Until we see substantial improvements among 17-year-olds, I don't think you can say our students are doing much better either.

Are there reasonable arguments against this position? Sure. Maybe the real issue is how we compare internationally. Unfortunately, that data doesn't go back very far and can be tricky to interpret. I've seen significantly different results on different tests. What's more, I'd argue that at an international level, production of advanced degrees is a lot more important than modest differences in primary and secondary education.

It's also true that relying on data for 17-year-olds can be misleading thanks to changes in dropout rates over time. However, the trends for just the top-scoring students are about the same as the overall averages, and that's not affected much by dropout rates. So I suspect this is a minor issue.

I think ed reformers would also argue that most of the reforms of the past 20 years have been focused on the primary grades, so it's not fair to judge those reforms by looking at stagnant 17-year-old scores. We need to see reforms widely adopted in high schools before we can do that. I guess I buy this to an extent, but it's an argument that's getting a little stale. At some point we have to fish or cut bait. Until we see improvements in the final product, so to speak, improvements in the intermediate steps don't really mean very much.

UPDATE: Wait a second! Several commenters pointed out that it's cohort effects that we really want to look at. High school kids in 2008 have spent only a few years in the post-NCLB reform environment, so it's hardly surprising that they don't show big improvements. But how about kids who have spent their entire lives in that environment?

Excellent question. To fully answer it we'll have to wait for the 2015 crop of high school students to be tested, and even to partially answer it we'll have to look at a different dataset. I do that here. Nickel summary: there are some caveats, but the overall picture is more promising than the one I presented here. There are indeed reasons to think that our schools are getting better and our kids are learning more.

This won't come as surprising news to anyone who reads this blog regularly, but if you can't flog a hobbyhorse on a blog, where can you flog it? So here it is: Pew Research is the latest to survey Americans and find that the Republican base really, really doesn't like compromise:

Among those who have heard at least a little about the super committee, there is broad support for compromise: 65% say lawmakers who share their views on the budget deficit should be willing to compromise, even if it results in a deal they disagree with....[But] there continue to be wide partisan differences in views of compromise. Among those who have heard at least a little about the super committee, 74% of Democrats and 67% of independents support compromise, compared with 52% of Republicans.

Once again, then: this explains most of what you need to know about modern American politics. Republican politicians refuse to compromise because that's what their base rewards them for. Conversely, Democratic politicians support compromise because that's what their base rewards them for.

Always keep this in mind when you're tearing your hair out trying to make sense of what's going on in Washington DC. Sometimes politicians aren't quite as mysterious or bumbling as you think. They're just reacting to their incentives, the same as the rest of us.

Nate Silver has compiled a truly spectacular list of every economic variable that might possibly affect a presidential election and then ranked them by how effectively they actually predict presidential elections. (Since 1948, anyway.) The top ten are below, but click the link for the full list of 43 indicators and a bunch of explanations of what it all means.

The descriptors in the list are a little confusing, but as near as I can tell they're almost all changes, not absolute levels. The exceptions are the various indexes (like the #1 indicator), unemployment, inflation, and a few others. But #6, for example, which is labeled "Real gross domestic product," is actually the change in real GDP, which makes sense. It's the growth rate that usually matters in these things.

The top indicators mostly aren't too surprising. I wouldn't have guessed that the ISM manufacturing index was so great, but change in payroll, change in unemployment, and change in GDP all make a lot of sense. This is one reason that I think President Obama has a good chance to win next year despite presiding over a lousy economy. It's quite possible that GDP will be growing and that unemployment, though high, will be improving too. Combine that with the fact that (a) incumbents usually get reelected and (b) Republicans seem to have taken up permanent residence in crazy town, and he has a pretty good shot at winning even if unemployment is still over 8%.

A few months ago, Matt Taibbi suggested that gaffes from conservative candidates didn't hurt them. "When you laugh at Michele Bachmann for going on MSNBC and blurting out that the moon is made of red communist cheese," he wrote, "these people don't learn that she is wrong. What they learn is that you're a dick, that they hate you more than ever, and that they're even more determined now to support anyone who promises not to laugh at their own visions and fantasies."

Dave Weigel says events have emphatically debunked this idea:

That's clearly not true, is it? Bachmann, Cain, and Perry have engendered the exact same reaction to their screw-ups. There's a wave of media-bashing from the base, collect-a-quotes from Tea Party leaders who say the media is unfair. And then the lights go elsewhere, and there's a slow, quiet, walk-away from the damaged candidates. In today's NH Journal poll of the Granite State, all three of the candidates I mentioned are deep, deep underwater on favorability. It's almost like Republican voters still pay attention to the media.

Hold on a minute, pardner. Let's roll the tape on this:

  • Michele Bachmann was riding high in the polls through June and early July. Then, on July 16, the Des Moines Register asked Rick Perry if he was going to run and he replied that he was "getting more and more comfortable every day that this is what I’ve been called to do." Bachmann started plateauing in the polls. On August 8 it was widely reported that Perry would formally announce his candidacy the following weekend, and the next day Bachmann's poll numbers tanked for good.
  • Rick Perry began his meteoric rise at the same time and kept on rising through the first week of September. Then, on September 12, Bachmann laid into him for mandating HPV vaccinations for "innocent little 12-year-old girls." Perry immediately began sliding in the polls. On September 22 he suggested that if you opposed in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants, "I don't think you have a heart." Within a week his poll numbers began to plunge.
  • Herman Cain was the beneficiary of Perry's fall, rising in the polls during the entire month of October. On October 30 Politico reported that two former employees had lodged sexual harassment charges against him and received payouts from the National Restaurant Association. After a week of wildly fluctuating explanations, Sharon Bialek held a televised press conference on November 7 to say that Cain groped her in a car and asked, "You want a job, right?" Within days Cain's poll numbers began falling.

I don't doubt for a second that erratic debate performances and public gaffes have played a role in damaging all three candidates. But that's mainly because conservative voters already had something substantive to hang their concerns on. Bachmann fell because Perry entered the race; Perry fell because conservatives didn't like his Gardasil and immigration policies; and Cain fell because of sexual harassment charges. That's the main thing that damaged them. Acting like idiots was just the cherry on top.

Here's your blood pressure raiser of the day: Campus police casually pepper spray a group of Occupy Davis students who are sitting on the ground in protest after refusing to remove their tents from the quad. It's not Kent State or anything, but it's sure as hell an outrageous overreaction. Don't watch unless you have a fairly strong stomach for casual brutality.

Front page image: Louise Macabitas

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