Kevin Drum

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.

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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.

Fantasyland

| Wed May 20, 2009 11:30 AM EDT

Well, Californians basically rejected all of yesterday's budget initiatives, and since they were mostly gimmicks I don't really blame them.  So what's next?

Beats me.  There are legal, judicial, federal, and contractual limits to how much spending can be cut, and there are political limits (i.e., the Republican rump in the legislature) to how much taxes can be raised.  The sums just don't add up.

Californians are living in a dream world.  Prop 13 slashed property taxes and nobody wants to amend it, even for commercial property.  Arnold Schwarzenegger got elected in the middle of a budget crisis by promising to cut taxes.  When that proved to be an unsurprising disaster, the voters approved billions in borrowing, making the budget situation even worse.  It's easy to blame Sacramento for this mess (and I do!), but the public has been complicit every step of the way.

Historically, California has been a high tax/high service state.  That's fine.  Some states prefer a low tax/low service model.  That's fine too.  (It's a lousy idea, I think, but fiscally it's fine.)  But over the past few decades we Californians have somehow concluded that we can be a medium tax/high service state.  It's a fantasy.  Unfortunately, I'm not sure just what it's going to take to jolt everyone out of their delusions.  Stay tuned.

Help Me, Help You

| Wed May 20, 2009 2:14 AM EDT

Guess what, gang.  It's fundraising time!

Here's the pitch: if you read my blog you're up to speed on most of the greed, corruption and hypocrisy coming out of Wall Street and Washington. You know all about the carried interest loophole.  You've heard of universal default.  You know what a yield spread premium is.

And all for free!  Sort of.  Because I'm actually supported by Mother Jones magazine, which covers all this stuff and more — and producing the magazine is a pretty expensive enterprise.  To do it, we rely on subscriptions, advertising, and donations to the Mother Jones Investigative Fund.  And that's where you come in.

Your contributions help keep our reporters at work (including me!) on these critical stories. We’re independent, nonprofit, and not afraid to take on the big guns of the financial industry. But we can do that only when our readers deliver the financial support we need to stay on the story.  So if you can afford to part with a few dollars, click here to make a donation.  It's a quick credit card donation form, and if you contribute $35 or more you get a subscription to the magazine too.

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Bitch Slapping the Dems

| Tue May 19, 2009 7:24 PM EDT

I never expected Barack Obama to be anything other than pragmatic and center left.  Still, I confess to feeling a little in the dumps lately over just how much he seems willing to bend and compromise on some key issues.  But then I read things like this:

In an abrupt shift, Senate Democratic leaders said on Tuesday that they would not provide the $80 million that President Obama requested to close the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

....The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, seemed to ramp up the concerns of Congressional Democrats, insisting during a news conference that lawmakers would never allow the terror suspects to be released into the United States....Pressed to explain if that meant they could not be transferred to American prisons, Mr. Reid said: "We don't want is them to be put in prisons in the United States. We don't want them around the United States."

To repeat: I read things like this.  And I realize all over again just what Obama is up against.  His own party won't support him against even the most transparent and insipid demagoguery coming from the conservative noise machine.  The GOP's brain trust isn't offering even a hint of a substantive case that the U.S. Army can't safely keep a few dozen detainees behind bars in a military prison, but Dems are caving anyway.  Because they're scared.  And then they wonder why voters continue to think that a party that can be bitch slapped so easily might be viewed as weak on national security.

But that's the reality that Obama has to deal with.  Under the circumstances, I guess he's not doing so badly after all.

Credit Card Update

| Tue May 19, 2009 6:43 PM EDT

I see that Chris Dodd's credit card reform bill passed the Senate 90-5 today.  This is even better than I expected, and goes to show the agenda-setting power of being in the majority.  In the past, Republicans could have simply prevented a bill like this from coming to the floor, thus sparing themselves the political difficulty of voting against it.  Now they can't do that.  They have to vote whether they like it or not.  And since credit card reform really is a hot button issue, their sense of self-preservation got the better of them and they gave the bill a massive majority.

Which is fine, but I suspect it also means that Dodd could have played hardball a little more strenuously than he did and negotiated a better bill.  Who knows?  If Dems figure this out, maybe it will be the first legislation in history to actually be improved in conference.

Oh — and all the boo hooing from the credit card industry?  If you believe even a single word of it, you need to run not walk to your local emergency room and have them do an MRI on your brain.  There's a chunk missing.

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Credit Card Hell

| Tue May 19, 2009 3:27 PM EDT

Ezra is obviously just pimping content from his new corporate overlords here, but today's Washington Post chat about the credit card industry really does make for interesting reading.  One of the things that comes through loud and clear is that people are almost universally paranoid about their credit scores.  And why not?  We live in a modern economy in which credit is essential, but your access to credit is determined by a process that's deliberately opaque, practically impossible to dispute, controlled almost entirely by credit issuers who make money when they lure you into practices that wreck your credit score, and wide open to fraud because the credit industry doesn't really care about it.

My solution?  For starters, credit scoring companies should be required by law to be far more transparent about their practices.  Beyond that, though, we need to give them an incentive to start caring about fraud: if the credit industry wrecks your credit score by allowing fraud, it's the credit industry that should pay the price, not you.  More here.

The Burbs

| Tue May 19, 2009 2:27 PM EDT

Dana Goldstein suggests that we should fund more magnet schools in urban cores as a way of attracting suburban kids into the city and opening up slots for city kids in the suburbs.  Matt Yglesias says this would probably have limited effectiveness, but still:

One way or the other, I can’t think of any good reason for a governor who’s genuinely interested in improving opportunities for poor kids not to be trying something along these lines.

Well, I can think of a good reason: because suburban parents in this governor's state would go absolutely batshit insane over the idea.  It would probably spell the end of his political career.

One of the great third rails of education policy debates is acknowledging the fact that suburban parents will flatly never go along with anything like this — at least not on a scale that makes any difference.  For the most part they don't want to ship their kids to urban schools, even if they are magnets, and they really really don't want urban schools shipping a bunch of stoners and gangbangers to their nice suburban schools.  And make no mistake: that is how they think of it, and all the research in the world showing that urban-suburban transfers don't affect educational outcomes won't budge them an inch.

I don't know what to do about this.  But to some extent education is a zero-sum game.  If we invest more money in inner-city schools, it means less for the suburbs.  If we try to attract the best teachers to urban schools, it means that suburbs get weaker teachers.  If we do it anyway, suburban parents will start sending their kids to private schools.  And the point at which public support for No Child Left Behind evaporates is the point at which suburban schools start "failing" in large numbers.  That isn't something suburban parents will tolerate, and they'll simply vote out of office anyone who tries to make them.

Even on a purely voluntary basis, I suspect that fostering "regional partnerships between urban and suburban districts" will never have more than a tiny impact.  Suburban parents just can't be talked into it, and when it comes to educational policy suburban parents rule.  Programs like the Harlem Children's Zone or the KIPP schools may have mixed track records, but at least they're both promising and feasible on a large scale.  My guess is that they're both better prospects for long-term change than trying to merge city and suburb.  I'm happy to be talked out of this, though.

Quote of the Day - 5.19.09

| Tue May 19, 2009 1:24 PM EDT

From Richard Posner, who is decidedly unimpressed with Ben Bernanke's reputation as a great crisis manager:

He is like a general who having been defeated in battle because of his errors manages the retreat of his army competently. He does not thereby escape blame for the defeat, and should not be permitted to shift blame to the soldiers under his command who gave way under attack.

There are plenty of things that I think a reasonable person might have missed about the dangers of the Bush-era credit boom.  But I'll go to my grave not understanding how so many people missed the housing bubble.  What were they all smoking?

Punching Your Ticket

| Tue May 19, 2009 1:17 PM EDT

Lane Wallace explains why you should go to college, even if you major in something dumb like semiotics:

I figured out the true value of a college degree not in the lofty halls of Brown University, but in a corrugated cardboard factory in New Zealand. I'd taken a "leave of absence" as they call it, after my sophomore year, to figure out if I really wanted to pay all that money learn things that seemed, well ... a tad non-essential, at best. I packed a backpack and took off for the romantic frontier-land of New Zealand with nothing but $500 and a working visa in my pocket. The six months I spent there were a far cry from what I thought the adventure would be, but it was educational. Culminating in my job at the cardboard factory — where I was surrounded by people who hated their jobs but had no other viable option.

In a flash, I grasped the true value of a college degree. It didn't matter what I majored in. It didn't even matter all that much what my grades were. What mattered was that I got that rectangular piece of paper that said, "Lane Wallace never has to work in a corrugated cardboard factory again."

Cubicle rats take note.  No matter how put upon you think you are, there are lots and lots of people worse off than you.