Kevin Drum

Chart of the Day - 4.28.2009

| Tue Apr. 28, 2009 10:27 AM PDT

Today's chart come from the long-term trends section of the NAEP, the "nation's report card."  It shows — surprise! — long-term trends on the NAEP's reading and math tests, and the results are shockingly humdrum.  (Can something be shockingly humdrum?  I say yes!)

Did American education go completely to hell in the 70s and 80s?  It sure doesn't look like it.  Both reading and math scores stayed almost rock steady during the entire "Nation at Risk" period.  Did things improve with the passage of NCLB and the advent of massive high-stakes testing?  Scores for 9-year-olds have gone up a bit, but past evidence suggests that gains among young children usually wash out by the time they're 17.  There might be a bit of progress over the past eight years, but the evidence is very thin and very tentative.  Overall, among 17-year-olds, the average reading score during the past four decades has gone from 285 to 286 and the average math score has gone from 304 to 306.  There's hardly cause for either alarm or excitement.

Obviously there are lots of details when you look at this stuff.  NCLB mostly focuses on lower grades, and most of those kids haven't yet gone on to high school.  So maybe it just needs more time.  There are racial and gender gaps to look at, differences between public and private schools, and the effects of concentrated poverty.  Still, I think it's useful sometimes to take a look at the bottom line: plain old average scores over the past four decades among 17-year-olds.  And despite all the changes during that period in demography, testing, pedagogy, and popular culture, there just hasn't been much change.  I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader whether that's good news or bad.

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The Road to 60

| Tue Apr. 28, 2009 9:30 AM PDT

Fascinating news out of Pennsylvania today:

Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter will switch his party affiliation from Republican to Democrat and announced today that he will run in 2010 as a Democrat, according to a statement he released this morning.

...."I have decided to run for re-election in 2010 in the Democratic primary," said Specter in a statement....He added: "Since my election in 1980, as part of the Reagan Big Tent, the Republican Party has moved far to the right. Last year, more than 200,000 Republicans in Pennsylvania changed their registration to become Democrats. I now find my political philosophy more in line with Democrats than Republicans."

That's surprisingly forthright wording, isn't it?  It's hard to avoid the conclusion that Specter finds his views more in line with Democrats these days solely because there are 200,000 more of them in Pennsylvania than there used to be.  Points for honesty, I guess.

Of course, if he's really serious about this, he could switch parties now.  And maybe announce his support for a few Democratic initiatives while he's at it.  Interesting days.

UPDATE: Obama is "thrilled" by the news.  And who can blame him?

UPDATE 2: I think I may have misunderstood Specter's statement.  Apparently he does plan to begin caucusing with the Democrats immediately.  I think.  Press reports seem oddly fuzzy on this point, though.

UPDATE 3: In 1950, Specter participated in the National Debate Tournament, which addressed itself to the following topic: "Resolved: That the United States should nationalize the basic nonagricultural industries."  How newly relevant!  My father beat him, 969-964.  Take that, Ivy League.

Redefining History

| Tue Apr. 28, 2009 9:16 AM PDT

The new owners of the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles want to tear it down and replace it with a pair of 50-story towers containing condos, offices, shops and a smaller luxury hotel.  But not everyone is thrilled:

The Los Angeles Conservancy is determined to stop them. To bolster its campaign, it has enlisted the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which today put the 726-room Hyatt Regency Century Plaza hotel on its annual list of America's 11 most endangered historic places.

"By naming this structure to the list, the National Trust is demonstrating that the preservation of recent past and modern buildings is as important to our cultural record as preserving architecture that's from the Victorian period or Art Deco era," said Christine Madrid French, director of the trust's nascent Modernism + Recent Past Initiative.

This is lunacy.  I don't care one way or another whether Michael Rosenfeld gets to build his new complex, but it makes a mockery of historic preservation to pretend that this building deserves to be protected for the rest of time.  It was built in 1966.  Its architect, Minoru Yamasaki, is prominent, but he's not a native Angeleno and this wasn't a pivotal work in his career.  The building itself is a fine example of 60s-era modernism, but that's just another way of saying that it's also a fairly typical example of 60s-era corporate hotel design.  In its heyday, which lasted for perhaps two decades at most, the Century Plaza attracted plenty of VIP guests, but it never became an iconic structure because of that.  The Los Angeles Conservancy's page about the hotel is here, and they pretty obviously struggled to figure out a way to make it seem even moderately noteworthy.

The Century Plaza Hotel is a recent building of genuine but modest distinction.  But it escapes me how that qualifies it as a national historic place.  Pretending otherwise does a disservice to genuine history.

Stress Test Update

| Tue Apr. 28, 2009 8:29 AM PDT

Stress test results are starting to leak:

Regulators have told Bank of America Corp. and Citigroup Inc. that the banks may need to raise more capital based on early results of the government's so-called stress tests of lenders, according to people familiar with the situation.

....Bank of America's capital hole as measured by the regulators is in the billions, said people close to the company....It isn't clear how big a capital deficit Citigroup faces.

Well, I'll bet that Citi's capital requirements are "in the billions" too.  What else would they be in, after all?

In any case, there's no way that either bank can raise private capital, and the Treasury has stated flatly that it won't allow them to fail.  That means either another big capital injection from the feds or else some kind of guarantee to private investors.  The former would almost certainly have to be at market rates (I doubt there's any appetite for more sweetheart deals) and the latter would be such a thin veneer that it's almost certainly impossible to pull off.  Especially in the case of Citi, then, it's hard to see how the government ends up anything other than a majority owner of the bank once this is all over.  Tim Geithner can call this anything he wants, but that's nationalization whether he likes it or not.

Torturing Abu Zubaydah

| Mon Apr. 27, 2009 10:34 PM PDT

In The One Percent Doctrine, Ron Suskind reported that CIA sources told him the waterboarding of al-Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah had been worthless: Zubaydah coughed up reams of worthless intel under pressure but didn't provide anything genuinely valuable until an interrogator later got under his skin with some clever questioning.

But in December 2007, ABC's Brian Ross interviewed a CIA officer named John Kiriakou who told him just the opposite: according to Kiriakou, Zubaydah resisted waterboarding for "probably 30, 35 seconds" and the next day started providing information that "disrupted a number of attacks, maybe dozens of attacks."

My comment at the time: "Same guy. CIA sources for both accounts. But diametrically opposite conclusions. So who's right?"  Today, the New York Times revisits this episode in the wake of the torture memos released two weeks ago:

[Kiriakou's] claims — unverified at the time, but repeated by dozens of broadcasts, blogs and newspapers — have been sharply contradicted by a newly declassified Justice Department memo that said waterboarding had been used on Mr. Zubaydah “at least 83 times.”

....During the heated debate in 2007 over the use of waterboarding and other techniques, Mr. Kiriakou’s comments quickly ricocheted around the media. But lost in much of the coverage was the fact that Mr. Kiriakou had no firsthand knowledge of the waterboarding: He was not actually in the secret prison in Thailand where Mr. Zubaydah had been interrogated but in the C.I.A. headquarters in Northern Virginia. He learned about it only by reading accounts from the field.

....“It works, is the bottom line,” Rush Limbaugh exclaimed on his radio show the next day. “Thirty to 35 seconds, and it works.”  Mr. Kiriakou subsequently granted interviews to The Washington Post, The New York Times, National Public Radio, CBS, CNN, MSNBC and other media organizations. A CNN anchor called him “the man of the hour.”

....Mr. Kiriakou was the only on-the-record source cited by ABC. In the televised portion of the interview, Mr. Ross did not ask Mr. Kiriakou specifically about what kind of reports he was privy to or how long he had access to the information. “It didn’t even occur to me that they’d keep doing” the waterboarding, Mr. Ross said last week. “It doesn’t make any sense to me.”

He added, “I didn’t give enough credit to the fiendishness of the C.I.A.”

Kiriakou's testimony was immensely influential at the time, but it's pretty clear now that he was wrong: unless the CIA continued waterboarding him just for sport, Zubaydah didn't break after a single session.  Or ten sessions.  Or fifty.  And if Kiriakou was wrong about that, what are the odds that he was also wrong about the "dozens of attacks"?  Or about the fact that waterboarding was responsible for any actionable information at all?

Ron Suskind, on the other hand, hasn't been contradicted at all.  As near as I can tell, his reporting has stood up almost perfectly in the face of subsequent evidence.  If you want to know what really happened to Zubaydah, his book remains the gold standard for now.

Gingrich v. Gingrich

| Mon Apr. 27, 2009 11:59 AM PDT

It's hard to get too worked up when a politician turns out to be opportunistic, but Media Matters documents a pretty stunning case of cynicism from Newt Gingrich today.  Last week Gingrich vilified a Democratic cap-and-trade plan for carbon emissions as a "command-and-control, anti-energy, big-bureaucracy agenda, including dramatic increases in government power and draconian policies that will devastate our economy."  But two years ago, when he was in his "big ideas for conservatives phase," he was cap-and-trade's biggest fan:

I think if you have mandatory carbon caps combined with a trading system, much like we did with sulfur, and if you have a tax-incentive program for investing in the solutions, that there's a package there that's very, very good.  And frankly, it's something I would strongly support....The caps, with a trading system, on sulfur has worked brilliantly because it has brought free-market attitudes, entrepreneurship and technology and made it very profitable to have less sulfur.

Well, that's Newt for you: he dumps policy positions as quickly as he dumps wives.  But it also goes to show how fleeting conservative support for "market-oriented solutions" like cap-and trade is.  A lot of the liberal enthusiasm for cap-and-trade over the past decade has been based on the idea that it might be more acceptable to conservatives than a straight tax, but obviously that hasn't turned out to be the case.  Basically, they just don't want to do anything, full stop.

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Intimate Homicide

| Mon Apr. 27, 2009 10:55 AM PDT

Via Matt Yglesias, sociologist Jay Livingston says that 30 years ago wives killed their husbands almost as frequently as husbands killed wives.  Today, there's a huge gap:

What's going on?  There's some free-form speculation in the original post, and in that spirit I'll offer some of my own.  I'll bet that part of the overall decline has to do with improved medical care: husbands and wives are still trying to kill each other, but the advent of universal 911 and better trauma care means that a lot more people survive these attempts.  So then the question becomes: why are men surviving murder attempts better than women?

Perhaps women are just less skilled murderers than men?  Perhaps women who try to kill their husbands are more likely to feel immediate remorse and call 911?  Maybe it has to do with choice of murder weapons.  I dunno.  But I wouldn't be surprised if differential survival rates are part of the story here.

Basel Squared

| Mon Apr. 27, 2009 10:35 AM PDT

Ezra Klein gets geeky:

One of the pieces of the crisis that I hadn't understood until recently, for instance, was the role that Basel II banking regulations played in the growth of the structured securities market. In essence, Basel II, which went into effect a couple years ago, held that a bank only had to keep half as much capital on hand for AAA-rated securities as for other types of assets. That created a huge incentive for banks to get more things rated AAA....

And that in turn made the creation of allegedly AAA-rated securities a growth industry.  If a bank holds a $100 BBB-rated security, for example, they're required to maintain $8 in capital reserves to back it up.  However, if they ring up their friendly broker at AAA-rated AIG and buy a credit default swap on that bond, it's suddenly rated AAA too and the bank only has to hold $1.60 in capital.  That $6.40 freed up, and with leverage of 20:1 that's $128 available for productive investments in America, my friend!  What a bargain.

(Though it's worth noting that European banks engaged in this kind of regulatory arbitrage at least as much as American banks.  Maybe more, in fact, which is why AIG ended up paying out so much money to Société Générale and Deutsche Bank.  American banks have gotten the lion's share of the attention so far for their shoddy asset portfolios, which is fair enough since America was the focal point for the subprime crisis, but European banks were pretty eager consumers of regulatory shenanigans as well.)

In any case, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of Basel II, and among other things it goes to show the difficulty of setting international standards in the world of finance.  One of the reasons Basel II is weaker than Basel I is that every country has its own financial industry idiosyncracies, and every country wants banking accords to treat their particular idiosyncracies lightly.  Basel II did that, and then took things even further by allowing banks to use their own internal models for credit risk because, you know, internal models had proven themselves so sophisticated and reliable.  Oops.

On the other hand, the Basel II accords weren't even published until 2004, and didn't get adopted in most countries for several years after that.  As weak as Basel II is, the credit bubble and its associated financial rocket science far predates it.  I'm not really sure how far you can go in blaming it for our current meltdown.

Hunkering Down

| Mon Apr. 27, 2009 9:40 AM PDT

Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell's former chief of staff, thinks we need a special prosecutor to investigate Bush-era torture policies.  My MoJo colleague David Corn, the guy who first broke the Valerie Plame story, isn't so sure:

There's one problem with a special prosecutor: it's not his job to expose wrongdoing. A special prosecutor does dig up facts — but only in order to prosecute a possible crime. His mission is not to shine light on misdeeds, unless it is part of a prosecution. In many cases, a prosecutor's investigation does not produce any prosecutions. Sometimes, it leads only to a limited prosecution.

That's what happened with Patrick Fitzgerald. He could not share with the public all that he had discovered about the involvement of Bush, Cheney, Karl Rove, and other officials in the CIA leak case. Under the rules governing federal criminal investigations, he was permitted to disclose only information and evidence that was directly related and needed for the indictment and prosecution of Libby. Everything else he had unearthed via subpoenas and grand jury interviews had to remain secret. Repeatedly, Fitzgerald said that his hands were tied on this point. A special prosecutor, it turns out, is a rather imperfect vehicle for revealing the full truth.

David also says that lawyers he's talked to suggest that prosecutions would be difficult, which could leave us in the worst of all possible worlds: a long, drawn-out investigation that, in the end, produces not even a report or a set of indictment, let alone convictions.  No one would be satisfied.

David suggests an independent commission of some kind as the best way forward, and I'm tentatively inclined to agree.  Unfortunately, President Obama seems distinctly non-thrilled by the idea, and I doubt that Congress is especially eager to move forward either.  Porter Goss's op-ed last Friday in the Washington Post, where he insisted that both Democratic and Republican members of Congress knew what the CIA was doing and didn't object to it, may have been disingenuous in places, but I wouldn't be surprised if he's right about his essential point — or at least, close enough to right to make a genuinely independent commission as frightening a prospect for Dems as it is for the GOP.  It's probably the right thing to do, but if Obama's opposed and Republicans are opposed and Democrats are mostly running for cover, who's going to make it happen?

There's always the Senate Intelligence Committee, of course, but I wouldn't hold my breath that they're going to produce anything definitive.  Washington is hunkering down and hoping that this will all blow over as soon as the next crisis of the moment hits the front pages.  Unfortunately, they're probably right.

Withdrawing from Iraq

| Mon Apr. 27, 2009 8:48 AM PDT

The New York Times reports that the June 30 deadline to remove all U.S. combat troops from Iraqi cities may get watered down a bit:

The United States and Iraq will begin negotiating possible exceptions to the June 30 deadline for withdrawing American combat troops from Iraqi cities, focusing on the troubled northern city of Mosul, according to military officials. Some parts of Baghdad also will still have combat troops.

....The spokesman for the Iraqi military, Maj. Gen. Muhammad al-Askari, who is also the secretary to the committee’s Iraqi contingent, said also that a decision on Mosul would be made at Monday’s meeting, which he called “critical.”

“I personally think even in Mosul there will be no American forces in the city, but that’s a decision for the Iraqi government and the Iraqi prime minister,” General Askari said.

General [David] Perkins also expressed specific concerns about Mosul, noting how important the city is to Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the homegrown group that American intelligence officials say is led by foreigners.

“For Al Qaeda to win, they have to take Baghdad. To survive they have to hold on to Mosul,” he said. “Mosul is sort of their last area where they have some maybe at least passive support.”

I don't really feel like panicking at the moment about whether this is the camel's nose that keeps us in Iraq forever, but June 30 sure seems like the perfect opportunity to stop screwing around and make it clear that we're going to do what we said we were going to do.  At every step of this process, there are going to be enormous forces pushing in the direction of staying in Iraq for just a little bit longer, or in just a few more places, or with just a few more missions, and if we start giving in to them it's going to be hard to stop.  We've got a plan and a schedule.  Let's stick with it.