Kevin Drum

The Civic Function of Blogs

| Sat May 9, 2009 7:59 PM EDT

If newspapers go away as a way of holding politicians accountable, can blogs replace them?  Andrew Sullivan says yes:

A good blog, with a tenacious blogger, on a difficult subject, can keep at a subject with intensity newspapers are hard-pressed to match. And as long as there are meta-blogs or aggregators or edited blogs that can highlight niche blogging on important, less-read subjects, these issues can be brought to the fore. Ideally, blogs and newspapers form a helpful nexus. But both can and will evolve to save the old civic function of the press.

I don't disagree with this.  Still, even as recently as the 2008 campaign, it was striking how little impact most net-based feeding frenzies had until they were picked up by someone in the mainstream press.  So far, at least, it's still the MSM that mostly provides legitimacy to stories and forces public officials to react to negative publicity.  I wonder how long that will continue to be true?

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Chart of the Day - 5.9.2009

| Sat May 9, 2009 7:34 PM EDT

Just for the hell of it, here's a composite version of the two charts I posted the other day from the stress test report. Basically, for each of the 19 big banks that were tested, it shows estimates of both projected losses under adverse economic conditions as well as the ability to absorb those losses without eating into capital. For example, on the far left, American Express has big expected losses, but also has the capacity to absorb them all via earnings. So, since their capital structure is OK right now, that means it will stay OK and they don't need to raise money.

Next door, however, is Bank of America. They have big projected losses and only a limited ability to absorb them via earnings. That means their losses will eat into their capital. What's more, their capital structure isn't so hot even now. That's why Treasury is requiring them to raise a huge tranche of new money.

Anyway, as you can see, hardly anybody is in really good shape. Even the banks that have adequate capital and income to see them through the recession are still expected to take sizeable losses. And yet, bank stocks are up, up, up. Go figure. If I didn't listen to Paul Krugman so much maybe I would have bought 10,000 shares of BAC a couple of months ago and made a killing. Thanks a lot, Paul.

The End of the Carterets

| Sat May 9, 2009 5:34 PM EDT

The residents of the Carteret Islands have finally lost their long battle with global warming.  Sea levels have been rising for decades, crops no longer grow, and they're now left with no choice but to get out.  Dan Box reports:

The evacuation of the Carteret Islands have begun. This morning I stood on black volcanic sand, pressed up right against the jungle, and watched a small white boat powered by a single outboard engine run in against the shore. On board were five men from the Islands, the fathers of five families, who have come to finish building houses and gardens already begun in a cleared patch of jungle at Tinputz, on the east coast of Bougainville. When these homes are ready the five will return to the Carterets, to fetch their wives and children back. Life, they hope, will be better for them here. On the Carterets, king tides have washed away their crops and rising sea levels poisoned those that remain with salt. The people have been forced to move.

This is likely to become an increasingly common story over the upcoming decades, and while there are probably multiple causes, it's likely that global warming is one of the big ones.  We may be the ones causing most of the warming, but we're not the ones who will pay the biggest price.

Sex Offenders in our Schools

| Sat May 9, 2009 2:42 PM EDT

OK, I'm curious about something.  Let me lay out the issue and then solicit some opinions.

The Los Angeles Times has been running a series of pieces this week that basically declare war on the LA Unified School District.  Now, I don't live in Los Angeles and don't have a dog in this fight, but from everything I've heard LAUSD is so monumentally dysfunctional that they probably deserve whatever they're getting.  So to be clear up front: I don't have any special problem with the Times dedicating lots of space to beating up on the district.

Today's piece, though, is about teachers and aides accused of sexually molesting students.  This is, obviously, incendiary stuff.  And the Times subhead makes the point of today's article crystal clear: "L.A. Unified has failed to follow up on complaints once police or prosecutors dropped criminal actions, leaving students vulnerable to molesters."

Is this true?  Are LAUSD student vulnerable to molesters?  Maybe.  Unfortunately, the story was so poorly written that I literally had to print it out and start circling names and dates to figure out what their evidence was.  When I finished, here's what I had: Over a period from 1995 to 2005 the district, which employs around 50,000 teachers, apparently had three cases in which teachers or aides were (a) accused of molestation, (b) cleared, (c) put back in the classroom, and (d) later convicted of a subsequent molestation.  In addition, there was one more case in which an aide acquitted of molestation charges was briefly put back in a classroom but later fired.

In 2006 the district "tightened its policies" on allowing accused molesters back in the classroom, but then it happened again.  Police told district officials in 2007 that they had "found evidence" of a possible sexual relationship between an assistant principal named Steve Thomas Rooney and a student, but no charges were ever filed.  Rooney returned to work and a year later was arrested for allegedly kidnapping and sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl.  The case is pending.

This is horrific stuff, and there's not much question that the district screwed up badly in the Rooney case.  But there are still a few things I'd like to know:

 • How does four or five cases over a decade compare to other school districts?  It actually sounds like a pretty low rate of recidivism to me.

 • Exactly what are the district's policies in cases like this?  Amazingly, the article never bothers to say.

 • How many teachers over the past ten years have been accused of molestation, cleared, and then returned to the classroom without further incident?  How many have been accused and then quickly and efficiently dismissed?

 • Given that not all charges are true, and that teachers cleared of charges deserve to be treated as innocent, exactly what is it that critics think needs to be done?  Amazingly, the article never really bothers to dive into this either.  Should the district conduct its own investigations if the police come up empty-handed?  Maybe.  That gets a few sentences in the story.  There's also a vague suggestion that if a teacher cleared of charges is transferred, the principal at the new school should be notified of....something.  It's never entirely clear what.  ("Past misconduct," the article says at the end, but if no charges are filed, or if a teacher is acquitted, there is no past misconduct.)

Considering that this is perhaps the most inflammatory charge that could possibly be leveled at LAUSD, shouldn't the Times address some of these issues instead of just recapping five cases from the past decade?  Shouldn't its readers be given some idea of how pervasive this problem really is?  Of how often molestation charges are brought?  Of how many innocent people have been falsely charged in addition to the possibly guilty ones who got off?  Of what, if anything, needs to be done about it?  Of how other districts handle this?

Seems that way to me.  But then again, I'm not a parent and maybe I'm not reacting as strongly as I should.  Maybe just publicizing the problem is a worthwhile public service.  Maybe.  Read the article and tell me.

The Cost of Housing

| Sat May 9, 2009 12:33 PM EDT

Why do houses cost so much today?  In the Wilson Quarterly, Witold Rybczynski writes that even when you adjust for inflation and home size, prices are still considerably higher today than they were 50 years ago.  There are two reasons, he says:

The first is Proposition 13, the 1978 California ballot initiative that required local governments to reduce property taxes and limit future increases, and sparked similar ­taxpayer-­driven initiatives in other states. Henceforth, municipalities were unable to finance the ­up-­front costs of infrastructure in new communities, as they had previously done, and instead required developers to pay for roads and sewers, and often for parks and other public amenities as well. These costs were passed on to home buyers, drastically increasing the selling price of a house.

Interesting!  If Rybczynski is right, we now have lower taxes but higher house prices.  And perhaps that's fair.  But it's also a godsend for everyone who bought a house more than 20 years ago.  In California, it means that your original home price was low because taxes paid for the property improvements.  Then the high taxes that built your neighborhood were capped, which drove up the price of building new neighborhoods, and since housing is fungible it also drove up the price of existing homes like yours.  In other words: low price, low taxes, lots of appreciation.  That's great news for all us baby boomers, but I'm afraid the Xers are paying the price.  Par for the course, isn't it?  Someday you guys are going to figure out just how badly we've screwed you over and it's going to be Soylent Green time.

(Rybczynski's second reason is development restrictions that artifically lower the supply of housing.  Read the whole piece for more details.)

Friday Cat Blogging - 8 May 2009

| Fri May 8, 2009 3:05 PM EDT

Exciting news today!  It's Inkblot's tenth birthday!

Sort of.  We don't really know when he was born, of course, but we brought him home from the Mission Viejo Animal Shelter on July 10, 1999.  He was about two months old at the time, so I figure he was born on May 10.  However, just as federal holidays all fall on a Monday, around here cat birthdays are observed on Friday.  So today we celebrate!

But how?  Good question.  I could buy him a trout or something, but Inkblot is such a doofus he'd just ignore it.  If it doesn't come out of a can or a bag, he's not interested.  I could dress him up, but that's a nonstarter too.  So instead, he gets Friday Catblogging all to himself this week.  His official portrait is below.  Marian says it makes him look fat.  I say: magnificent and visionary, gazing toward a prosperous future with a chicken in every pot and preheated blankets for all.

Bonus trivia: Inkblot shares his birthday with absurdly successful science fiction writer/blogger John Scalzi.  In fact, if you convert human to cat years at the approved ratio of 4:1, they'll be exactly the same age on Sunday.  I think this means John should write a book about him.

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Muddling Through

| Fri May 8, 2009 2:34 PM EDT

Do we need to take drastic action to save the American banking system?  Or can we just let weak banks "muddle through," using their operating profits to slowly but steadily improve their solvency over time?  The latter was the Japanese approach, and Matt Yglesias points out today that there are some revisionist arguments going around that, actually, Japan didn't do all that badly.  So maybe muddling isn't so bad after all.

Along the same lines, John Hempton once pointed out to me that Thailand followed the same approach after their currency crisis in 1997, and it worked fine.

Then again, Sweden and Norway needed massive intervention to save their banking system in the early 90s.  Muddling wouldn't have worked for them.

So it all depends.  That's not a very exciting conclusion, is it?  But that's life in the world of high finance.  It's just like Hollywood: nobody knows anything.

Prime Time Pressers

| Fri May 8, 2009 2:14 PM EDT

From the Hollywood Reporter:

Executives at the Big Four broadcast networks are seething behind the scenes that President Obama has cost them about $30 million in cumulative ad revenue this year with his three primetime news conference pre-emptions.

Now top network execs quietly are hoping that Fox's well-publicized rejection of the president's April 29 presser will serve as precedent for denying future White House requests for prime airtime.

"We will continue to make our decisions on White House requests on a case-by-case basis, but the Fox decision gives us cover to reject a request if we feel that there is no urgent breaking news that is going to be discussed," said one network exec, who, like all, would not speak for attribution fearing repercussions from the administration.

....Even more irksome, the White House is bailing out bankers, insurers and carmakers, but nary a nickel has gone to the struggling media industry.

I'm actually on the networks' side here: it's really not clear to me why they should be obligated to blanket the airwaves with presidential press conferences these days.  Something like 90% of all households now get cable or satellite reception, which means they can watch this stuff on CNN or CSPAN regardless of what the nets do.  And very little news is made at these things.

So why not rotate?  Let cable cover prime time press conferences as part of their normal fare, and let the Big Four take turns.  The days are long gone when we could expect the entire nation to stop what it was doing and listen raptly whenever the president decides to take a few questions from the press corps.

At the same time, if the nets really are irked about not getting any bailout money — well, break out the tiny violins.  You know what to do with them.

Pelosi's Torture Briefing

| Fri May 8, 2009 1:45 PM EDT

Did the CIA tell Nancy Pelosi about waterboarding back in 2002, when she was the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee?  The chart on the right, provided by the CIA, is the sum total of the evidence at hand: on September 4, 2002, Pelosi and Porter Goss met with CIA briefers, who describe the meeting this way:

Briefing on EITs [enhanced interrogation techniques] including EITs on Abu Zubaydah, background on authorities, and a description of the particular EITs that had been employed.

Pelosi says waterboarding was never mentioned.  And the CIA document, which specifically mentions waterboarding in a later briefing given to Pat Roberts and Jay Rockefeller, doesn't say it was brought up in the Pelosi meeting, even though Zubaydah had been waterboarded dozens of times by then.

Greg Sargent seems to think this means Pelosi is probably telling the truth.  Waterboarding a guy 80 times isn't something that just slips your mind, after all, so the fact that it's not mentioned probably means Pelosi was never briefed about it.

Unfortunately, I suspect we'll simply never know for sure — although Sam Stein reports today that a senior aide to another member of Congress says that waterboarding was never mentioned at other briefings held around the same time.  So right now, all we can do is guess.  Here's mine: both sides are probably twisting the truth.  I wouldn't be at all surprised if the CIA was a little cagey during its briefings in 2002, but I also wouldn't be surprised if members of Congress are now being a little cagey about exactly what they were told at the time.  The motivations on both sides are just too strong to expect otherwise.

High Stakes Testing

| Fri May 8, 2009 12:59 PM EDT

Bob Somerby notes that Merryl Tisch, New York state's new schools chancellor, is quoted today by the New York Times wondering if rising test scores are really all they're cracked up to be.  And he's appalled:

Let’s be fair to Tisch. She’s new to her post as head of the Board of Regents — although she’s served as a member of the board since 1996....That said, Tisch’s statement is quite remarkable.

“As a board, we will ask whether the test is getting harder or easier?” What the fig has the board been doing for the past thirteen years? To state the blindingly obvious, the question Tisch raises is well beyond basic; it makes no sense to compare test scores from one year to the next unless we know that the tests in question have remained equally difficult. And in New York City, this question was specifically raised by skeptical teachers at least as far back as 2005.

....As we’ve noted in the past: State education departments should be able to demonstrate that this year’s test is as hard as last year’s. If tests of this type have been competently devised, this shouldn’t be a matter of guesswork. State departments should have technical manuals which show the new tests are equally hard. For some time, we’ve noted that reporters at newspapers like the Times should be insisting on this.

Now see, because I'm a nicer guy than Bob I would have let this go with a halfhearted cheer that at least Tisch was bringing up a good question.  But that's because I'm such a squish.  (And also because I'm not entirely sold on these tests anyway.)  On the merits, though, Bob is right.

If you truly believe in the high-stakes testing mania — and plenty of people do — that's fine.  Maybe it will turn out to be a good idea.  But there's strong evidence on at least two scores.  First, that different states have wildly different standards on their tests, so comparing them to each other is hopeless.  Second, that there's very little correlation between improvements on state tests and improvements on the more reliable NAEP tests.  This suggests that a lot of state tests have in fact been steadily dumbed down to meet federal NCLB standards, so comparing them year-to-year is hopeless.

Now, the whole point of high-stakes testing is to provide us with hard, quantitative assessments of how our kids are doing.  You simply can't be a believer in this stuff and not care about whether the tests are meaningful from place to place and year to year.  And yet, as Bob says, this issue gets only an occasional mention each year before being quickly dropped down the memory hole until another year's test results come out and someone happens to casually mention it again.  It's almost enough to make you think that a lot of these folks are more interested in using tests as a political cudgel than they are in whether kids are actually learning something.  Almost.