Kevin Drum

Obama and Cheney

| Thu May 21, 2009 3:46 PM EDT

The media framing of today's national security speeches by Barack Obama and Dick Cheney as a sort of "showdown at noon" has struck me as pretty bizarre.  And yet....I just read both speeches and I have to admit that it's really not so bizarre after all: they could hardly form a starker contrast if they tried.  Obama's speech is all about the rule of law, honoring American values, creating policies that look beyond just today and tomorrow, and trying to figure out how to gain genuine security in a dangerous and complicated world.  Conservatives are going to absolutely howl over it.

And then there's Cheney: no regrets, no second thoughts, not even an admission that any kind of balance should be entertained ("In the fight against terrorism...half-measures keep you half exposed").  It's a pure, white hot defense of an absolutist military approach to every aspect of national security.  Among liberals, Cheney's reputation as a panic-stricken Buck Turgidson will be confirmed beyond doubt.

I want to read both of the speeches before I say any more.  But really, the contrast is truly spectacular.  It's worth your time to read them if you haven't already.

UPDATE: David Corn has a good summary here.   Jacob Heilbrunn has a good take here.

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The Credit Economy

| Thu May 21, 2009 1:27 PM EDT

Megan McArdle shares a horror story of her own about a mistaken tax lien that attached itself to her credit report for years like a barnacle from hell, but then adds a comment:

It is terrifying the power that these bureaus have assumed over us — when my bank made an error on my car loan, my first worry wasn't that they'd upped my payment by $60, but that the subsequent late charge for an undersized loan payment might show up on my credit report.  This was only slightly less panic-inducing than thinking that it might show up as a shadow on a chest x-ray.  The bank fixed its error immediately and cheerfully.  (And may I commend the Navy Federal Credit Union to all who are eligible for membership).  I doubt Experian would have been so accomodating.

But maybe it's worth remembering that the tyranny that credit scores exercise over our imagination have everything to do with the fact that we've built a society so utterly dependent on credit.  If you didn't need a credit card, an auto loan, and probably a mortgage to be considered middle class in this society, these opaque and unresponsive bureaus wouldn't be the most important source of information about us.

It is terrifying that these bureaus have such fantastic power to go around saying anything they want about us with virtually no oversight.  But I'd take issue with the closing paragraph here.  I don't know quite how Megan intended it, but I'd argue that there's nothing per se wrong with the fact that modern economies are so dependent on credit.  Widespread use of credit really does make life more convenient, really does make banking more efficient, really does enable useful advances like online shopping, and really does allow easier access to goods and services that would otherwise be difficult to get hold of.  Used in moderation, it's good stuff.  I sure don't want to return to the days of hauling around travelers checks whenever I fly off to Europe.

Speaking for myself, my jeremiads against the credit-industrial complex have never been meant as an attack on widespread access to credit itself.  Used reasonably, credit cards are a boon and credit reporting is a necessary part of providing credit responsibly in a big, complex world.  That said, credit is critically important to everyday living now, and that means that it needs to handled fairly and transparently.  And that's all I want from these folks: if you make a mistake, you clean it up.  If you can gather negative information automatically, you can also gather positive information automatically.  If you offer a loan at a given rate, then that's the rate.  If you charge fees and penalties, they should be at least vaguely related to the actual cost of the service, not made into a profit center designed to squeeze an endless income stream from the very customers most vulnerable to fine print and slick marketing.

That's all I want.  It's not so much, is it?

Google PowerMeter

| Thu May 21, 2009 12:18 PM EDT

Felix Salmon updates us on Google's PowerMeter project:

San Diego Gas & Electric [] has recently started installing what it calls “smart meters” in 1.4 million homes in southern California. It’s up to 10,000 now, hopes to get more than 200,000 by the end of the year, and have everybody installed by 2011.

Any of SDG&E’s customers can get their electricity-usage information from the utility’s own website, but now they’ll have the option of getting it straight from Google instead, embedding it on their iGoogle home page, that kind of thing. And the more they see how much energy they’re using, the less they’ll use — a 5%-10% reduction up-front, with more down the road when they start replacing appliances and light bulbs and the like.

SDG&E's smart meters are indeed smarter, but they're still outside, and they're still basically just a fancy replacement for your current power meter.  What's important is having something inside that shows you in real time how much electricity you're using.  Someday that will probably be a physical device, but for now Google is providing this information to SDG&E customers via its PowerMeter app, which can be embedded on your iGoogle home page.  Open it up and you can see exactly how much power you're using every time you turn an appliance on or off.  Neat.

The simple act of making people aware of their electricity usage can probably generate a surprising amount of conservation.  And relatively speaking, it's cheap.  This kind of thing could help in other areas too.  Here's a cheap and simple idea, for example: place the estimated 5-year cost of gasoline on the sticker of every new car.  EPA could easily come up with a formula based on average car use and recent gasoline prices, and it would almost certainly make fuel-efficient cars more attractive if people saw the savings of buying one right in front of their faces when they were comparing cars.  More like this, please.

Forbidden Topics

| Thu May 21, 2009 11:47 AM EDT

I'm having a little bit of a slow start this morning, so in the meantime here's your idiot news of the day:

The ACLU is demanding that school officials in the northern San Diego County community of Ramona apologize to a sixth-grade student who was not allowed to present her report on slain San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk during class time.

Instead, the principal sent letters to parents giving them the option of not allowing their child to listen to the presentation by classmate Natalie Jones. Officials cited the district policy requiring that parents be notified before any classroom instruction about sex, AIDS or "family life."

About half the class received permission and listened to the report, which was given during lunch hour rather than regular classroom time like other students' reports, the ACLU said.

Honestly, I don't even know if I blame the principal for this cretinism.  He probably has long experience with mobs of angry parents making his life miserable over trivia.  Not exactly a profile in courage either way, though.

Global Economy Update

| Thu May 21, 2009 1:54 AM EDT

The U.S. economy contracted by more than 6% last quarter, as bad a decline as we've had since World War II.  So how's the rest of the world doing?

On Wednesday, Mexico became the latest country to report a plunge in output. The country's gross domestic product fell at an annualized rate of 21.5% in the first quarter....Mexico's decline followed by a day Japan's report that its economy contracted in the first quarter at a 15.2% clip, its worst performance since 1955. Last week, Germany said its first quarter decline in GDP, an annualized 14.4%, was the worst since 1970.

Holy cow.

California's Constitution

| Thu May 21, 2009 1:33 AM EDT

California is broken.  So what's next?

As the notion of California as ungovernable grows stronger than ever, Mr. Schwarzenegger, a Republican, has expressed support for a convention to address such things as the state’s arcane budget requirements and its process for proliferate ballot initiatives, both of which necessitated Tuesday’s statewide vote on budget matters approved months ago by state lawmakers.

“There could not be more of a tipping point,” said Jim Wunderman, chief executive of the Bay Area Council, a business group that moved forward on Wednesday with plans to push for a constitutional convention. “We think the interest is going to grow by orders of magnitude now.”

I'm actually in favor of this idea, even though it would almost certainly turn into a circus of unparalleled proportions.  Latter day Madisons and Hamiltons are thin on the ground here in the Golden State.

But — just to remind everyone: in order to even hold a constitutional convention, it has to be put on the ballot and approved by a majority of the electorate.  And how does the question get put on the ballot?  It has to be approved by two-thirds of the legislature.  But this is the problem we're trying to solve in the first place: to pass a budget or raise taxes takes a two-thirds vote of the legislature, and Republicans have enough votes to stop that from happening.  Votes that they use regularly.  So why wouldn't they also stand in the way of a constitutional convention whose main purpose would almost certainly be to remove the two-thirds requirements for passing a budget and raising taxes?

Now, maybe sheer desperation would get a few of them on board.  Maybe some kind of backroom deal could be arranged.  Who knows?  But one way or another, you have to get two-thirds of the legislature to agree to it.  That's a problem we obviously haven't solved yet.

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Chart of the Day

| Wed May 20, 2009 5:53 PM EDT

The latest MIT study of global warming has now been published in the Journal of Climate, and its conclusions are grim.  The chart on the right shows their new projections (in red) compared to previous projections (in blue).  (The heavy lines are the median projections; the lighter lines are the 5% and 95% percentiles.) In the middle latitudes, they project warming of nearly 5ºC compared to previous projections of about 2ºC.  At the poles, they project warming of 8-10ºC compared to 5-6ºC.

Why the change?  Joe Romm summarizes the technical explanation: "The carbon sinks are saturating, and the amplifying feedbacks are worse than previously thought."

Is Waxman-Markey enough to stop this?  Not even close.  Will anything we do make a difference if we don't get the rest of the world on board?  Nope.  Does that mean we should give up?  Or continue wanking away on cost-benefit studies that still assume a 2ºC rise over the next century?  Or join the GOP buffoon caucus in pretending that CO2 is harmless because otherwise they wouldn't put it in Coca-Cola?  No, no, and no.  It means we have to work even harder to strengthen Waxman-Markey and then press the rest of the world to follow suit.  The time for wanking is way past over.

Credit Report Hell

| Wed May 20, 2009 3:11 PM EDT

This morning I got an email from reader SD about a recent experience with the credit reporting industry:

Through some screwups and misunderstandings settling my father's estate, we were hit with a tax lien.  We immediately cleared it up, but a year or so later when I went to get a car loan there it was on the record.  Got a notarized proof of clearance on it, sent it to the credit reporting agency.  A few years after that, we got a home improvement loan and there it was.  My wife was visiting our daughter recently in San Diego and looking at houses and a realtor ran a credit report and there it was.

It appears that when any credit reporting agency gets some dirt on you, they immediately tell all the peer operations....who tell all that they work with, and on and on.  Not only that, but it's nearly impossible to ferret out every instance of such misinformation (which should be the credit reporting agency's responsibility to clean up), AND the chain reaction keeps going until the same piece of disinformation that you originally expunged from, say, Experian, comes BACK to them and they enter it their database against you AGAIN.

Financial organizations should not only be made liable/responsible for correcting this kind of thing, but should be responsible for making sure that all instances of it are expunged.

As it is, they love and live for dirt on you, and take no responsibility for its correctness or the integrity of their data.  And you never find out, all the while suffering under the bad credit score unknowingly until you formally take out some kind of loan....

Credit reporting agencies don't care about making sure their reports are accurate.  Why should they?  There's no penalty for screwing up someone's life.

If the tax lien automatically showed up on SD's credit report, it should just as automatically be removed when it's taken care of.  Why should SD even have to handle this in the first place?  Beyond that, there should be straightforward procedures, mandated by law, for correcting your credit report.  Likewise, there should be straightforward procedures, mandated by law, for ensuring that corrections are sent immediately to every credit reporting firm.  Anyone who doesn't correct their records within 24 hours should be liable for statutory damages.  End of story.  Do that, and guess what?  Credit reporting agencies will suddenly start caring about the accuracy of their reports.

Hiding Ida

| Wed May 20, 2009 1:01 PM EDT

A new primate fossil was unveiled yesterday.  Hooray!  But what's up with this?

Hurum and team have been studying the fossil in secret for the past two years, going to great lengths to keep the finding under wraps until they were ready to publicly announce it.

...."There have been lots of reasons for the security and secrecy surrounding this project," said Anthony Geffen, producer of the new documentary. "The scientists wanted to get on with the research, and then get to that day, which is today, which is incredibly exciting for all of us, when the find could come out."

Hmmm.  What reasons?  Maybe this is unfair, but something about this reminds me of the fantastic lengths that scholars went to for decades to keep the Dead Sea scrolls under wraps.  In that case, it seemed to be motivated by pure professional greed from a group that was determined not to let anyone else contest their interpretations or beat them to a discovery.  In this case, it's — what?  A desire to wait until a massive publicity campaign was ready?

The event, which will coincide with the publishing of a peer-reviewed article about the find, is the first stop in a coordinated, branded media event, orchestrated by the scientists and the History Channel, including a film detailing the secretive two-year study of the fossil, a book release, an exclusive arrangement with ABC News and an elaborate Web site.

“Any pop band is doing the same thing,” said Jorn H. Hurum, a scientist at the University of Oslo who acquired the fossil and assembled the team of scientists that studied it. “Any athlete is doing the same thing. We have to start thinking the same way in science.”

Scientific research isn't all done in the glare of a spotlight, and peer-reviewed research takes a while to finish.  Maybe there's nothing wrong with this group's Manhattan Project-esque secrecy.  But something about it rubs me the wrong way.  Am I off base here?

UPDATE: The general consensus in comments from knowledgeable observers is that this is fairly standard procedure with fossils.  So regardless of how you feel about the massive publicity rollout, it sounds like there was nothing dubious about this.  More here.

The Burbs Revisited

| Wed May 20, 2009 12:10 PM EDT

Education blogger Kevin Carey is unhappy with me:

As a rule I enjoy Kevin Drum's blog at Mother Jones. But his occasional forays into education generally descend into naysaying and pessimism — Kevin's one all-purpose insight on the subject is that education policy is hard and as such not worth trying to solve.

I plead mostly guilty to this.  In fact, Kevin C. is being polite.  Not only do I think that education policy is hard, I think it's an absolute cesspool with very little to show for decades of effort.  In my defense, though, I don't think that means it isn't worth trying to solve education problems.  I just think that most claims to have done so turn out on inspection to be seriously overblown.

Take the post in question.  I argued that suburban parents are basically selfish SOBs who will never allow anything more than very modest levels of integration with urban school districts and will fight like crazed weasels to protect their own leafy citadels of learning.  Kevin C. disagrees.  I think.  He suggests that even suburban parents harbor some altruistic impulses, but then immediately admits that "when asked, parents will jealously guard the resources available to their own children."  Here's his solution:

So the key thing is to not ask.  For example, back when I worked on education funding in Indiana, we created a formula that allowed local school districts to keep all of the revenue they generated through property taxes, but then distributed state funds inversely to local property wealth, equalizing the overall funding level. The effect was to redistribute hundreds of millions of dollars of sales and income tax revenue from the wealthiest school districts to the poorest. But because that transfer occured in the context of an immensely complex formula understood by less than half a dozen people and negotiated in a back room long after the official hearings had finished and the press had gone home, nobody really got upset by it, because nobody knew exactly how much money they were losing, and we were in no hurry to tell them.

The point being, sometimes too much information is detrimental to fair public policy. States that have tried to explicitly transfer local property wealth between districts have had a horrible time of it, because the extent of the redistribution was too obvious. Sometimes it's better to hide the true extent of people's contributions to the common good. Otherwise they'll start asking questions and from there it's a slippery slope all the way back to every family huddling alone in a cave and foraging for fruits and nuts.

I'm not sure a rebuttal is even necessary.  It sounds to me like Kevin C. is agreeing that suburban parents will protect their schools like crazed weasels, and the only way to overcome this is to lie to them early and often.  And he thinks I'm the pessimistic one?

UPDATE: Richard Kahlenberg is unhappy with me too.  I don't blame him, really.  But as much as I respect both of these guys, neither of their counterarguments strikes me as very persuasive.  Lying to parents just isn't a long-term strategy, and the fact that urban/suburban transfers have worked in a very small number of special cases isn't evidence that it will scale well.

Besides, there's another problem here that no one mentions.  Even if you have a great system of urban magnet schools and urban/suburban transfers, what happens to the urban non-magnet schools?  They lose all their best students either to the magnets or to open spots in the suburbs, and the suburban kids are only transferring in to the magnets.  This means that the non-magnets end up with a worse student body than before.  The net result might still be positive, but the majority of urban schools are actually worse off.

Again, I don't pretend to know what the answer is.  But I continue to think that programs like KIPP or Green Dot that are just flatly aimed at improving urban schools are a more promising bet than counting on urban/suburban partnerships.