Kevin Drum

Ravitch on Charters

| Tue Aug. 11, 2009 8:57 AM PDT

Educational historian Diane Ravitch has had doubts about the charter school movement for a while, but lately the evidence appears to have turned her firmly against the idea.  In the Los Angeles Times today, she warns the LAUSD to think twice before allowing new schools to be run by private companies:

Because of a brilliant media campaign by charter school organizations, there is a widespread impression that any charter school is better than any public school. This is not true....A recent Stanford University study, which compared half the nation's charter schools with a neighboring public school, concluded that 46% were no better, 37% were significantly worse and only 17% were significantly better than the public school.

....The L.A. proposal for the 50 new schools has been likened to New York City's approach. But Los Angeles should be aware of two points. First, under N.Y. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, spending on education has increased from $12.5 billion annually to $21 billion, or nearly $20,000 per child. Is L.A. willing to match that?

Second, New York City's new high schools started small and were allowed to limit the admission of special-education students and students with limited English proficiency for the first two years. The remaining high schools were left with a disproportionate share of the neediest students. A study this year of the new schools found that, over time, when their enrollment became similar to traditional public schools, their attendance rates and graduation rates declined.

Needless to say, the LAUSD is in a tough spot.  The research evidence on charters hasn't been very favorable lately, but then, it's not as if LAUSD's public schools are burning up the academic track either.  And no, a 50% increase in the education budget isn't in the offing either way.

I've been modestly favorable towards charter schools for a while, and I still think they're worth trying.  It might take more than a few years to get the formula right, after all, and most of the research suggests only that charters don't outperform public schools, not that they're actively worse.  (The Stanford study showed mixed results, with better results for charters in grade school and middle school but worse results in high school.)  Still, time is running out.  If charters can't start demonstrating systematically better results soon, the experiment is going to run aground.

UPDATE: Matt Yglesias responds:

On average the charters are about the same as public schools, but there’s a range of outcomes within the charter sector. We need to get more aggressive about shutting down the low-performing charters, more aggressive about allowing successful charters to expand or replicate, and committed to always permitting space for people to try something new.

....There’s no “charter magic” that makes schools good, but the greater openness and flexibility of the charter sector lets us experiment and discover which things work. What we need to do is take that to step two where we act on the basis of that knowledge.

I agree entirely.  But we need to find out if step two is feasible in practical and political terms, and then we need to start the pruning to see if the good charters stay good once they start growing.  And it needs to happen soon.  If it doesn't, public support for the charter experiment simply won't stay strong enough to beat off its entrenched opposition.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Another Question for Goldman Sachs

| Mon Aug. 10, 2009 12:27 PM PDT

In the New York Times this morning, Gretchen Morgenson and Don Van Natta raised eyebrows by getting hold of Henry Paulson's phone records for the week of the AIG bailout and reporting that Paulson — the former CEO of Goldman Sachs — spoke more than two dozen times that week with the current CEO of Goldman Sachs.  This, they say, was "far more frequently" than he talked with other Wall Street executives.

But Matt Taibbi has a different take.  He's curious not about why Goldman was consulted more than any other bank, but about why Goldman was consulted at all:

The main players involved in the AIG bailout that weekend were AIG (obviously), JP Morgan, Morgan Stanley, and Goldman Sachs....Now, we know why AIG was there, obviously. Morgan Stanley was there representing the Treasury (it had been hired to advise the Treasury on the bailouts by Paulson during the Fannie/Freddie mess [...]). JP Morgan we know was there because AIG had hired them weeks before to come in and try to clean up its messes. Only Goldman Sachs did not have an official role at these proceedings.

So why was Goldman there?....The ostensible explanation that most people seem to accept is that Goldman naturally was there because it was such a large counterparty to AIG. But I suspect we’re going to find that Paulson was not on the phone two dozen times with executives from Deutsche Bank or Societe Generale or Barclays or Calyon, all of whom were significant counterparties to AIG as well.

No, I'll bet he wasn't. So why Goldman?

Quote of the Day

| Mon Aug. 10, 2009 11:04 AM PDT

From an editorial in Investors Business Daily about the pitfalls of healthcare reform:

People such as scientist Stephen Hawking wouldn’t have a chance in the U.K., where the National Health Service would say the life of this brilliant man, because of his physical handicaps, is essentially worthless.

Ditto for the Prince of Wales, no doubt. Via Bookman/TPM/Atrios.

The Crazy Base

| Mon Aug. 10, 2009 10:52 AM PDT

Ramesh Ponnuru at The Corner:

If you were a Democratic leader who wanted to lay the groundwork to cut Republicans and moderate Democrats out of the legislative process, wouldn't you be portraying the critics of your health-care legislation as unreasonable racist nuts right about now? In September you could say that you really wanted to work with Republicans but unfortunately they are all being intimidated out of working for the common good by their crazy base. All the more reason for Republicans to do what they should be doing anyway: to make the case against the legislation in as measured, civil, and sensible a way as we can.

Well, it's a nice thought.  A little late, though.  I can't wait to see if any of Ponnuru's fellow Cornerites take the bait.

The Financialization of America

| Mon Aug. 10, 2009 10:42 AM PDT

Matt Yglesias says it's unlikely we can effectively rein in stratospheric compensation levels in the finance industry.  The guys who work on Wall Street are just too smart: "You don’t get to be an important person in the world of finance without being really, really, really good at figuring out ways to pay yourself a lot of money. That’s what the field is all about."  Then this:

That said, we compensation reform aside, we actually have a well-established method of taking market distributions of income and trying to transmogrify it into a more just, useful, and welfare-enhancing deployment of social resources — taxes and public services....It strikes me as ultimately unlikely that the political process will be able to micromanage high finance in a way that strikes people as meeting the claims of justice. But the political process very much can collect tax revenues and use that revenue to finance things that we currently “can’t afford” like more widespread provision of health care services, better rail transportation, cleaner streets, more police officers, more and better pre-kindergarten, etc.

There's something to this, and since the share of national income hoovered up by the super-rich is about three times higher today than it was 30 years ago, I don't have a big problem with taxing that income at a higher rate.  But there's a limit to how effective that can be.  For a whole bunch of reasons, marginal tax rates higher than 50% or so are pretty unlikely, and effective tax rates at that level are probably impossible.  After all, those Wall Street guys are pretty good at tax planning, too.

Overall, there's not much question that Wall Street bankers are going to continue to be paid astronomical sums as long as the firms they run are making astronomical profits.  And that's the key problem.  Tax policy can help — though it's a pretty broad brush — but the fundamental problem is that the finance sector in the U.S. is so damn big.  And it's seemingly an unstoppable juggernaut: Wall Street income may have been down last year, but even the biggest economic collapse since World War II hasn't made even a medium term dent.  A mere year later, the overall size and profitability of the finance industry is on track to be about the same size as it was during the boom years.

In the light of all this, tax policy can work only on the margins, and putting in place a "pay czar" for Wall Street will do nothing except generate a few juicy headlines here and there.  Compensation follows money flows just as surely as the tide follows the orbit of the moon, and the only way to reduce Wall Street compensation is to reduce the size and profitability of Wall Street.  Unfortunately, no one wants to talk about that.  So instead we get a pay czar.

The Alaskan Way of Life

| Mon Aug. 10, 2009 9:34 AM PDT

Kim Murphy of the LA Times reports from rural Alaska:

This summer Takotna, population somewhere between 46 and 61, has become one of the best-known villages in Alaska — thanks to the $18.7-million airstrip the federal government is funding on the edge of town. The 3,300-foot gravel runway, complete with night lighting, will replace the short one on a wind-swept hill where several planes have crashed.

....In an era of dwindling public revenue, even Alaskans increasingly wonder how much they can afford to support those who choose to live miles from civilization....According to the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska, about $1.4 billion a year in state and federal government subsidies, purchases and wages goes to more than 200 far-flung villages in the state — from the frigid Arctic coastal plain to the soggy, impenetrable tundra of the deep Alaskan interior. Federal dollars help pay for airline service and mail delivery, subsidize electricity rates and fund health clinics, among other things.

"Even Alaskans" wonder how they can support this?  Spare me. For the most part, "Alaskans" don't.  The federal government does.  Alaskans could support these communities out of oil revenues, of course, but they choose instead to divvy up that cash into annual Christmas presents for themselves and then let the rest of the country support them.  See Charles Homans for more on this.

There's nothing unusual about this, of course.  On a per capita basis, rural America receives far more federal cash and far more federal development aid than the rest of the country, but they're also the ones who yell the loudest about big government and high taxes and standing on your own two legs.  Alaska just stands out more because their version of this hypocrisy is performed on a somewhat more spectacular scale.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

The Many Moods of Sarah Palin

| Mon Aug. 10, 2009 8:24 AM PDT

Sarah Palin, Friday:

The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's "death panel" so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their "level of productivity in society," whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.

Sarah Palin, Sunday:

There are many disturbing details in the current bill that Washington is trying to rush through Congress, but we must stick to a discussion of the issues and not get sidetracked by tactics that can be accused of leading to intimidation or harassment.

Indeed.  Obama's evil death panels would kill my baby Trig, but let's be sure to keep the discourse civil.

Documenting the Atrocities

| Sun Aug. 9, 2009 6:20 PM PDT

James Fallows on the healthcare "debate":

Nearly fifteen years ago, after the collapse of the Clinton health-reform effort, I spent a lot of time working on an Atlantic article (and subsequent book chapter) about how, exactly, the discussion of the bill had become so unmoored from reality and finally determined by slogans, stereotypes, and flat-out lies.

It's better to do that after the fact than not to do it at all....But if there's a chance, it would obviously be better still to keep the current debate from ending up in the same intellectual/political swamp in which the previous one drowned.

By all means, let's document it now, in real time.  Let's start with the "Dems want to kill granny" meme.  Its starting point is clear, I think: July 16, 2009, when Betsy McCaughey went on Fred Thompson's radio show and said, "Congress would make it mandatory — absolutely require — that every five years people in Medicare have a required counseling session that will tell them how to end their life sooner....All to do what's in society's best interest or in your family's best interest and cut your life short."

From there it entered chain email hell and took on a life of its own.  But when did it hit the mainstream and become an acceptable topic of soberminded, bien-pensant he-said/she-said journalism?  I'd date that to August 8, 2009, when Charles Lane wrote in the Washington Post that although the right-wing agit-prop is "rubbish" — nicely establishing his non-wacko credentials — he's pained to say that after a careful reading of the House healthcare bill, supporters of Section 1233 might have some 'splainin to do after all:

I think they protest too much: If it's all about obviating suffering, emotional or physical, what's it doing in a measure to "bend the curve" on health-care costs?....Indeed, the measure would have an interested party — the government — recruit doctors to sell the elderly on living wills, hospice care and their associated providers, professions and organizations. You don't have to be a right-wing wacko to question that approach.

Indeed not!  Not anymore, anyway. Tout Washington now has license to talk earnestly about this as if it were actually a sensible topic of conversation.  Thanks, Charles!

Howl

| Sun Aug. 9, 2009 3:38 PM PDT

After several weeks spent ginning up ferocious opposition to healthcare reform, culminating in a relentless and coordinated effort to incite howling mobs to shut down town hall meetings across the country, I would like to congratulate the conservative movement for their ingenious strategy of blaming the whole thing on "SEIU thugs."  Seriously.  It's brilliant.  Yadollah Javan would be proud.

Global Warming Update

| Sun Aug. 9, 2009 2:34 PM PDT

The latest on the climate front:

Bjorn Lomborg, an influential figure among climate change sceptics, has thrown his weight behind a drive to forge a global deal to halt rising world temperatures at a summit in Copenhagen this year.

“It’s incredibly important. We need a global deal on the climate,” Mr Lomborg told the Financial Times....“If that disappoints some people who are sceptics, I am not the least bit unhappy.”

Hey, that's great!  Except, um, for what comes next:

He is concerned that the United Nations-led consensus that a climate treaty must focus on cuts in greenhouse gas emissions from rich countries is mistaken. “It’s a costly way to achieve very little,” he said.

Instead, Mr Lomborg argues, there are cheaper ways of halting temperature rises. These include tackling sources of climate change other than carbon dioxide, such as methane and soot; investing in new tech­nologies; adapting to the effects of climate change; planting more forests; and weighing up whether emissions cuts are cheaper to do now or later.

So what exactly is new here?  Lomborg has always accepted the fact of climate change, he's just argued that halting it isn't as important as cleaning up drinking water in Africa or tackling malaria or doing more agricultural research or whatnot.  He's never denied global warming, he just thinks it's not that big a deal.

So it sounds like nothing much has changed on that front.  The U.S. military, however, is slowly but surely starting to see reality:

The changing global climate will pose profound strategic challenges to the United States in coming decades, raising the prospect of military intervention to deal with the effects of violent storms, drought, mass migration and pandemics, military and intelligence analysts say.

....An exercise last December at the National Defense University, an educational institute that is overseen by the military, explored the potential impact of a destructive flood in Bangladesh that sent hundreds of thousands of refugees streaming into neighboring India, touching off religious conflict, the spread of contagious diseases and vast damage to infrastructure. “It gets real complicated real quickly,” said Amanda J. Dory, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy, who is working with a Pentagon group assigned to incorporate climate change into national security strategy planning.

....Ms. Dory, who has held senior Pentagon posts since the Clinton administration, said she had seen a “sea change” in the military’s thinking about climate change in the past year. “These issues now have to be included and wrestled with” in drafting national security strategy, she said.

Well, that's going to pose a problem for conservatives, isn't it?  What are they going to do when four-star generals start telling them they need to take climate change seriously?  Their heads will explode.

Which wouldn't be such a bad outcome, I suppose, would it?