Kevin Drum

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.

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Kevin Drum Smackdown Watch

| Fri May 8, 2009 12:18 PM EDT

The IMF says U.S. banks need $275 billion in new capital.  Tim Geithner says they need $75 billion.  Or, to be more accurate, that's what I said the IMF and Tim Geithner said.  James Surowiecki says I got it wrong:

The confusion here is understandable, but this is a mistake....The Fed’s estimate, as seen in the stress-test results, was that, as of the end of 2008, the nineteen biggest U.S. banks required $185 billion in new equity. That number is now $75 billion because, over the last four months, via things like restructuring, asset sales, and Citigroup’s conversion of preferred stock to equity, the banks have raised around $110 billion in equity. But the apples-to-apples comparison is that the I.M.F. estimate was $275 billion, the Fed’s $185 billion.

The I.M.F.’s estimate, though, is for the banking system as a whole, while the Fed’s is just for the nineteen biggest banks. Those banks have about two-thirds of the banking system’s assets, so if capital needs are distributed proportionally, then the Fed’s estimate suggests that the banking system needs just about, yes, $275 billion — a number that’s identical to the I.M.F. estimate.

Can we please fix the economy so I can go back to writing about simple stuff like rescuing the healthcare system and keeping the planet from turning into a cinder?  Thanks.

Are Churchgoers Nicer?

| Fri May 8, 2009 12:01 PM EDT

Are churchgoers nicer people?  After reading some recent polling showing that churchgoers are more likely to support torture, I find that a hard sell.  Still, Robert "Bowling Alone" Putnam says the answer is yes: in fact, churchgoers are so nice they even let people cut in line in front of them more often than others.

But does going to church cause you to be nice?  Or do nice people just like hanging out in churches?  Michelle Cottle reports:

Columnist E.J. Dionne (reading my mind) asked Putnam about the degree to which this phenomenon can be explained by the self-sorting joiners-are-joiners principle. After all, it's well established that people's personal relationships and social bonds in general are a huge predictor of how happy and, almost by definition, how engaged they are. Isolationism is good for neither the soul nor the community....Putnam acknowledged that it's tough to tease out such causal relationships. He did point to one aspect of their research that seemed to indicate that religious participation actively propels people up the niceness scale. By going back a year after first interviewing people and conducting a follow up, he and Campbell were able to track behavioral changes among interviewees who had, in the meantime, become more frequent churchgoers. In those cases, niceness indeed tended to rise with participation. 

....Coupled with Putnam's findings that young people today are significantly more secular than previous generations, this raises some troubling questions about our civic life going forward. Although, before any Jerry Falwell types start wagging their pious fingers, note that Putnam's research also suggests that the rise of the Christian Right and its politicization of religon played a major role in driving young people out the church. Luring them back, he argues, calls for decoupling faith and politics once more. Unhappy news for some of the old-school demagogues who have made their career flogging this union. But a very welcome prescription for the rest of us.

Well, I'm not sure how unwelcome this news really is, but I'll let that slide for now.  Europeans seem to be just as nice now as they were back when they went to church a lot.  Maybe nicer, in fact.  Nonetheless, check out that final conclusion: if you turn your church into an arm of the Republican Party, your fortunes are then tied up with the fortunes of the Republican Party.  That worked pretty well for conservative evangelicals for a couple of decades, but now the tide has turned.  Perhaps the answer is for young people to start joining nicer churches and avoiding the culture warriors.  That would be good for both niceness and churchgoing.

Job Losses Slow

| Fri May 8, 2009 11:02 AM EDT

The New York Times reports on the latest employment figures:

The United States economy lost 539,000 jobs in April, the government reported on Friday, a sign that the relentless pace of job losses was starting to level off slightly but was still nowhere near ending.

A year ago, the loss of more than half a million jobs in a single month would have seemed like a disaster for the economy. On Friday, experts were calling it an improvement.

This is being taken as yet another sign that although things are still getting worse, they aren't getting worse quite as fast as before.  Or, even more positively, that since employment is a lagging indicator (i.e., it usually keeps declining even after the rest of the economy starts to turn around), this means the recession might be nearly over.

Maybe.  It's true that, just as it's easy to get too optimistic in good times, it's also easy to get too pessimistic in bad times.  But I still wonder if there are more economic shocks around the corner.  If not, we might be headed for a slow recovery.  But if, say, Russia or Austria or Mexico suddenly decides to collapse, we might not be.  Obviously I don't know any more about this possibility than the next guy, but I'm still having a hard time generating much optimism about this report.  We'll see.

Chart of the Day - 5.7.2009

| Fri May 8, 2009 1:49 AM EDT

Here it is: the results of the banking system stress tests.  How did your bank do?

Quote of the Day #2 - 5.7.09

| Thu May 7, 2009 6:52 PM EDT

From a hacker who broke into the Virginia Prescription Monitoring Program:

I have your shit! In *my* possession, right now, are 8,257,378 patient records and a total of 35,548,087 prescriptions. Also, I made an encrypted backup and deleted the original. Unfortunately for Virginia, their backups seem to have gone missing, too. Uhoh :(For $10 million, I will gladly send along the password.

The site has since been shut down.  Bruce Schneier has more.

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Taxing Carbon - Part 3

| Thu May 7, 2009 4:53 PM EDT

Apologies if you're getting bored with this, but here is Jeffrey Sachs weighing in on the cap-and-trade debate:

A straightforward carbon tax has vast advantages. (1) It can be levied upstream at a few dozen places — at the wellhead, the mine face, and the liquid natural gas depot — rather than at thousands or tens of thousands of businesses. (2) A carbon tax covers the entire economy, including automobiles, household use, and other units impossible to reach in cap-and-trade. (3) A carbon tax puts a clear price on carbon emissions for many years ahead, while a cap-and-trade system gives a highly fluctuating spot price. (4) A carbon tax raises a clear amount of revenue, which can be used for targeted purposes (R&D for sustainable energy) or rebated to the public in one way or another, while the revenues from a cap-and-trade system are likely to be bargained away well before the first trade ever takes place.

(Numbering mine.) This is amazing.  Sachs is a smart guy.  He's a famous economist.  But as near as I can tell, there's only one true statement in that entire paragraph.  Let's take a look.

First: Cap-and-trade can be implemented either upstream (i.e., you require permits for the inputs, like coal and oil) or downstream (i.e., you require permits for the outputs, the carbon that's actually emitted into the atmosphere).  It's just a matter of how you write the legislation.  The Waxman-Markey bill combines both methods, with electric plants and industrial sources covered downstream while refiners and other producers of liquids and gases are covered upstream.  On this score, there's no inherent difference between a tax and cap-and-trade.

Second: Cap-and-trade can cover the entire economy just as well as a tax can.  Again, it's just a matter of how you write the law.  Waxman-Markey would cover an estimated 85% of all greenhouse gas emissions.

Third: Yes, a carbon tax does place a clear price on emissions — though it's worth keeping in mind that every serious tax proposal envisions changing the tax rate regularly in order to hit emission targets.  So this sentence is sort of true.  (On the other hand, it's worth noting that under a cap-and-trade system, the price of permits naturally decreases whenever demand for energy decreases, as it does in a recession.  So cap-and-trade acts as an automatic stabilizer, which is a handy feature.)

Fourth: Revenue is revenue.  There's simply no reason to think that revenue from cap-and-trade is any more likely to be bargained away than revenue from a tax.

On balance I think cap-and-trade is superior to a carbon tax on several grounds, but there are nonetheless perfectly good arguments in favor of a tax.  So why make arguments like these instead?  It's embarrassing.

Quote of the Day - 5.7.09

| Thu May 7, 2009 1:46 PM EDT

From Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC):

"Marginal tax rates are the lowest they've been in generations, and all we can talk about is tax cuts.  The people's desires have changed, but we're still stuck in our old issue set."

The noteworthy thing about this quote isn't that Patrick McHenry is a Republican, it's that he's Patrick McHenry.  This is not Olympia Snowe.  McHenry is a young man who made his bones by insisting loudly and on all occasions that, no matter who else was in the room, he was still the most right-wing guy there.  But he's also a young man who made his name as a guy willing to do whatever it took to climb the political ladder.  If he's decided that maybe taxes aren't the road to electoral glory anymore, the GOP better start looking for another issue.

For more, read "Getting Ahead in the GOP," Ben Wallace-Wells's profile of McHenry in the Washington Monthly a few years ago.

Pincus on Newspapers

| Thu May 7, 2009 1:19 PM EDT

Walter Pincus has an interesting piece about the newspaper biz in the Columbia Journalism Review this month.  The points he makes aren't exactly new, but they're worth making anyway.  For example:

We have turned into a public-relations society. Much of the news Americans get each day was created to serve just that purpose — to be the news of the day.

....In 1981, at the beginning of the Reagan administration, Michael Deaver — one of the great public-relations men of our time — began to use early-morning “tech” sessions at the White House, which had been a way to help network producers plan the use of their camera crews each day, to shape the television news story for that evening. Deaver would say that President Reagan will appear in the Rose Garden to talk about his crime-prevention program and discuss it in terms of, say, Chicago and San Francisco. That would allow the networks to shoot B-roll. The president would appear in the Rose Garden as promised, make his statement, perhaps take a question or two, and vanish.

After a while, the network White House correspondents began to attend these sessions, and later print reporters began showing up, too. On days when the president went off to Camp David or his California ranch, Sam Donaldson, the ABC News White House correspondent, began his shouted questions to Reagan, and Reagan’s flip answers became the nightly news — and not just on television. The Washington Post, which prior to that time did not have a standing White House story each day (publishing one only when the president did something newsworthy), began to have similar daily coverage.

At the end of Reagan’s first year, David Broder, the Post’s political reporter, wrote a column about Reagan being among the least-involved presidents he had covered. In response, he got an onslaught of mail from people who said they saw Reagan every night on TV, working different issues. It was a triumph of public relations.

....Today, mainstream print and electronic media want to be neutral, presenting both or all sides as if they were refereeing a game in which only the players — the government and its opponents — can participate. They have increasingly become common carriers, transmitters of other people’s ideas and thoughts, irrespective of import, relevance, and at times even accuracy.

Read the whole thing.

Specter Gets a Chairmanship

| Thu May 7, 2009 12:30 PM EDT

Arlen Specter may have lost his seniority when he defected to the Democratic Party, but thanks to the generosity of Dick Durbin (D–Ill.) he's getting his hands on a gavel nonetheless:

Senate Democratic leaders have reached agreement with Sen. Arlen Specter to partially restore the party switcher's status on the Judiciary Committee, by granting Specter the chairmanship of the Crime and Drugs Subcommittee.

Under the deal, which Senate Democratic aides outlined this morning, Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) would give up the gavel of the prestigious post, which holds jurisdiction over most Justice Department activities.

So Specter now controls the hearings for "most Justice Department activities."  Not bad.  No wonder he took the news of his demotion the other day so calmly.