Saturday, July 28, 2007

A Hat Tip for Hillary
Obviously, I'm not a fan... but you have to admire this.

Few political fundraising e-mails have ever carried the subject header “cleavage,” but White House hopeful Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign sent a solicitation to supporters Friday with the attention-grabbing header in order to decry a recent Washington Post article devoted to the New York Democrat’s chest — and raise campaign cash in the process.

“Frankly, focusing on women’s bodies instead of their ideas is insulting,” Ann Lewis, a senior adviser to Clinton, wrote in the e-mail. “It’s insulting to every woman who has ever tried to be taken seriously in a business meeting. It’s insulting to our daughters — and our sons — who are constantly pressured by the media to grow up too fast.”

“Take a stand against this kind of coarseness and pettiness in American culture,” Lewis adds, with a link to make a contribution to the campaign. “And take a stand for Hillary, the most experienced, most qualified candidate running for president.”

"Brilliant" actually might not be a strong enough compliment here. One of Sen. Clinton's enduring problems in trying to win the Democratic nomination is that she actually does much better among working-class and less educated women than with academic high-achievers and extremely accomplished professional women like herself.

But one experience common to probably every single woman who could be thus described is being objectified in a professional context, and getting pissed off about it. Thanks to the vapid Washington Post article, Sen. Clinton now has a shared experience, and an emotionally resonant one at that, with "every woman who has ever tried to be taken seriously in a business meeting."

These people really do play the game of politics at a much higher level. I'm rooting against them, but the strategery is masterful.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Is Sen. Clinton "Bush-Cheney Lite"?
So says, or at least implies, Barack Obama:

"The Bush administration's policy is to say that he will not talk with these countries unless they meet various preconditions -- that's their explicit policy, and that was the question that was posed at the debate. This is the assertion that she made during the debate and subsequently, was that she would not meet with various leaders unless certain preconditions were met. Now, if that's not what she means, then she should say so, but that was the question that was posed at the debate."

Obama also said: “I’m not afraid of losing the PR war to dictators...I’m not going to hide behind a bunch of rhetoric. I don’t want a continuation with Bush-Cheney. I don’t want Bush-Cheney light. I want a fundamental change.”

What specifically prompted this is a rather insubstantial argument about "talking to America's enemies," in which Obama endorsed diplomatic talks without conditions and Clinton quickly smacked him for "naivete." In reality, both are probably in the same place: more willing to engage in diplomacy than the Bush administration, but hardly prepared to offer tea and sympathy to the worst regimes in the world.

In a larger sense, though, I believe Hillary Clinton *does* represent what we could call "Bush/Cheney Lite." To be fair, I'm not so sure it's different from the stance Bill Clinton took during his two terms, or how Al Gore would have approached the world had he been allowed to claim his victory in 2000. But the stakes of this approach are higher now, and its risks are commensurately greater.

First, the disclaimer. Though I'm clearly not a Hillary fan, I have no doubt that her administration would conduct foreign policy at a level of competence and thoughtfulness light years beyond what the current crop of goons, dimwits and sociopaths have wrought. But Sen. Clinton offers no challenge to the increasingly problematic foundational premises of American foreign policy:

1) Our unmatched power essentially gives us the right to do what we want, when we want

2) We should not be held responsible for our own past actions, and they bear no relation to what goes on now (e.g. Iranian distrust of U.S. actions and intentions is in no way justified by the fact that we staged a coup in their country more than 50 years ago, replacing a democratically elected government with a repressive tyrant)

3) Nobody worries about the larger budgetary and systemic (as in the ramifications for our democracy at home) consequences of our de facto empire except some weenie academics and losers who hang out on the Internets

It probably can be argued that the only candidate in the race on either side who's even thinking about these issues is the renegade Republican/Libertarian Ron Paul. And, of course, he's a nut on myriad other grounds. But I have vastly more faith that Obama at least might grapple with these issues than that Hillary Clinton--the chosen candidate of the Establishment, the most likely to embrace the Bush/Cheney vision of Executive Superpowers, and the Senator who didn't even bother to read the intel on Iraq because she'd made up her mind to cast the "right" political vote--ever will. If you think it's important to even question the premises of how we work in the world, you shouldn't be supporting Clinton.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Relative Quietude
I've been having trouble motivating myself to post all that much lately. The reason why isn't that I've not been paying attention to things, or that I don't think anything important is going on... but rather a sense, always there but stronger at some times than others, that things have quietly gone so far out of control that as a society, and as a nation, we're left only to see how long we can continue to coast on past accomplishments. I got myself terribly depressed this past Friday after reading about the Bush administration's unfathomable argument that whenever it claimed "executive privilege," it essentially could end any investigation, any oversight, any check on the powers the president and his Loyal Bushies have so egregiously misused by ordering the Justice Department not to pursue contempt charges from Congress.

The outrage over this absurdity has been pretty much nonexistant, at least beyond the circles where people are paid to be outraged by what the Other Party is up to. Maybe it will ramp up somewhat, after the farcically inept and dishonest Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez issued another series of unambiguous "fuck you" answers to Congress yesterday and the House Judiciary Committee approved contempt citations for two of the Most Loyal Bushies, Josh Bolten and Harriet Miers, on a party-line vote today. Maybe not. I'd guess not. But the mere fact that this was a party-line vote--that not one Republican put the prerogatives of their institution, and the Constitution, ahead of their party and their widely despised Leader--is much more depressing still.

I hate the idea of reflexive partisanship. Everything I read into American history, as well as my own life experience, pushes me to reject the notion that one side ever has all the answers. But at this point I struggle to see even the least bit of good in the modern Republican Party. What do these people care about? It comes out today that not only Bush, but his enablers in Congress, are now prepared to reject the idea of expanding the State Child Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP), which helps provide health coverage for low-income children. Why? Because it "goes against their philosophy," which I guess is "free-market fundamentalism, except when we have a donor constituency to protect."

I suspect the reason for this is nothing more and nothing less than not wanting to give the Democrats a political success. And to me, this is a perfect issue for the Democrats, with a far greater command on the public's attention now that they have congressional majorities and high-profile presidential candidates, to demagogue. But this is not something they've been particularly good at.

How can we solve any of the great problems of this time when we can't even agree that the health of kids is more important than little political pissing contests? Or that preserving and defending the Constitution is a nobler cause than Party Uber Alles?

Now I've gone and upset myself again. So you see why I'm having trouble writing about these things.
Sympathy for Two Devils
I did something unpleasant last night: put on an Atlanta Braves game on TBS. Aside from the Dallas Cowboys ("or, NAMBLA"), there's no franchise in pro sports I hate like the Braves. From the all-American adulterer Larry Jones, Jr. to John "I hates the gays and loves the Baby Jesus" Smoltz and Bobby "wife-beating drunk" Cox, and especially the tortured-Muppet announcer Skip Carey--who mercifully wasn't on the broadcast last night--I just detest the Braves. And while I didn't stay up late enough to get this particular dash of salt in the wound, they doubly screwed me last night as two fantasy pitchers of mine, Tim Hudson and Bob Wickman, squandered a 4-0 lead, and a win and a save, in the 9th inning last night. Had the Braves ultimately lost the game, the benefit to the Phillies would have rendered this acceptable--but they won in 13. No soup for me.

But this isn't really about the Braves per se. As they were playing in San Francisco (one more side note: evidently my political leanings are strong enough that whenever a sports team representing a clearly liberal city plays one representing a right-wingish area, unless there are very strong offsetting circumstances, I'll want the Blue team to win; this is pretty much the strongest rooting interest I have in for the NHL and NBA at this point...) whoever was announcing the game started talking about Barry Bonds' pursuit of Hank Aaron's home run record and the decision of MLB Commissioner Bud Selig to try to be in attendance when Bonds hits #756. Per the Braves announcers, when Selig was asked whether he thought Bonds would be legitimate as the record-holder despite all the performance-enhancement allegations that have dogged him for some years now, Selig answered to the effect that everyone is entitled to their opinion. Good enough, but then he added, "For me, it's difficult to put aside my personal feelings."

Selig reveres Hank Aaron, so I guess that's understandable, but it seems to me that after 15 (mostly painful) years in the job, he should know when to keep his frickin' mouth shut. Even considering that Bonds is a jerk, and that he almost certainly did take PEDs, to put that on him now is, I think, really piling on. Given the current level of scrutiny, if he took drugs last season, or is doing so this year, he shouldn't be playing baseball; he should be running the CIA. Yet at age 42/43 this year, he's got 19 home runs and an OPS well over 1.000; last year he hit 26 bombs in 367 at-bats with an OPS of .999. That's probably the best offensive performance at that age in baseball history, and it's almost certain that he did it clean.

So much for Bonds. For Selig's part, I can see not wanting to absolutely commit to being in attendance. It's not like when Cal Ripken broke Lou Gehrig's consecutive games played record: you could look at the schedule and see the date when it would happen. With Bonds, who knows? He generally sits out two days a week, but is likely to pinch-hit in those games. He's been in a terrible slump lately; maybe he comes out of it and ties the record in a flurry with a two-homer outburst, like he had last week in Chicago. Selig, ineffectual jerk that he is, is also going to turn 73 years old next week, and he has a day job. Having him go Deadhead following Bonds around for two weeks or three weeks or a month is neither feasible nor, in a sense, fair to Selig.

Now I gotta go bathe.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Bread and Circus
On the way home from the gym last night, I read what struck me as a pretty important "think piece" in Democracy Journal: "America's Teaching Crisis." The article pithily details one of the biggest problems in public education: how we recruit, train and compensate our teachers. It makes a crucially important and uncontestable point that, frankly, I'm a little embarrassed I hadn't thought of previously: through the 1970s, teaching (like nursing, where I was aware of this factor) had a big competitive human capital advantage just by the fact that the full range of career options weren't open to women and, to a somewhat lesser extent, non-white men, so people of talent and ambition were more likely to go into the field. Because of this advantage, there was less need to aggressively recruit or robustly compensate great educators.

(My mom was one of those people. Had she been born even 15 years later, I think she would have gone into the law or academia; as it was, she became a teacher. It was her students' gain, but similarly talented people are now far less likely to enter the profession.)

I don't know if it's possible to show that aggregate teacher quality has declined in recent decades, but at the least, the article suggests that today's teaching workforce is not replete with the sort of inspirational, mind-opening instructors we all wish for:

If the principal objective of a teacher-preparation program is to develop highly effective educators, then it ought to select its students with attention to the characteristics that correlate with effectiveness in the classroom. One such broadly recognized characteristic is the level of a prospective teacher’s "literacy"–not merely an individual’s ability to read, but rather one’s "world knowledge," general academic proficiency, and ability to communicate. To be sure, this broadly defined literacy does not, by itself, guarantee effective teaching, but it is, on average, very much related to success in the classroom. Multiple studies examining different proxies for literacy have shown that educators who are considered "highly literate" consistently produce student achievement that outpaces that of their "less literate" peers, sometimes by more than a third of a grade level per year. One study of Philadelphia students suggests that this effect may be greatest for low-income and minority students. Summarizing the evidence, the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), of which we are both members, reports that, "clearly a prospective teacher’s level of literacy, however measured, should be a primary consideration in the hiring process."

Despite this evidence, many schools of education do not select their students with an aggressive eye toward this broadly defined literacy. For example, one study of the graduates of the State University of New York system found that, on standardized aptitude tests, elementary and secondary teachers were more likely to score on the lower end of the distribution than their non-teaching peers, and less likely to score at the higher end. National data reflect the same trends: Fewer than 7 percent of public school teachers, for instance, graduated from "selective" colleges. Of course, test scores and college selectivity are not the only indicators of effective teaching; a range of factors leads to excellence in the classroom. However, research suggests that there is a real connection between effectiveness in the classroom and "literacy" that could be more fully addressed in how current teacher preparation programs select candidates.

I suspect that part of this is bound up in the problem that so many of the "best and brightest" teachers leave in frustration after a couple years on the job. The attrition rate for NYC schoolteachers is something like 50 percent within their first three years, and many of those who don't leave the profession entirely relocate out of higher-stress assignments with lower-achieving kids and inadequate resources to easier and better-paid postings in the suburbs. It is hardly an overstatement to say that the needier the students, the worse teachers they are likely to have.

My personal conceit about how to reform the teaching profession has been that it needs to become a true "profession," with high standards for entry and competence and lucrative compensation like medicine or the law. The article, however, swats aside this premise and offers a different prescription:

Some commonly proposed ideas to improve the quality of teaching in our schools are well intentioned, but untenable when scaled to the enormity of the challenge. Substantial across-the-board raises for teachers, for example, make great political rhetoric but would require extraordinary tax increases that the public is unlikely to accept. Moreover, across-the-board raises will not create the right incentives to bring high-quality people to work in the districts and to teach the subjects that need them the most.

Similarly, the notion of making education more like law or medicine–with a large body of canonical knowledge for all practitioners and the expectations of a lifetime career–makes for great talking points but ignores key differences between these professions. What’s more, many talented young people today are not looking for static careers spanning 30 years in a singular profession. The labor market is more mobile and dynamic than it was a generation ago, and public schools should embrace and exploit this trend in a search for talent, rather than resist it.

Instead, the nation needs a New Deal for teachers and the nation’s school children. Such an effort would involve more (and smarter) pay, better training and support, and increased opportunities for professional growth. It would also allow more people to come into education at different points in their careers, and it would structure the incentives to more effectively promote the goals of student achievement and educational equity. It would also involve more responsibility–namely more accountability for job performance in the service of our children.

It goes on to urge "raising the bar" for admission into the profession, which I think is a needed step but might not work unless the rewards rise ahead of professional expectations. A better recommendation is to develop a "market-based" system for teachers to pursue their own professional development, arming them with vouchers to get higher education institutions to compete for their business. Done right, this could lower turnover and boost teacher quality. Finally, the authors urge significant change in how teachers are evaluated and, ultimately, compensated. This strikes me as a nearly uncontestable point.

Public education is the foundation stone of both American democracy and American economic competitiveness. With the arguable exception of climate change, there's no issue that's more important for our national well-being over the long term. The ideas raised in this piece are serious and worthy of an extended "national conversation" involving not just politicians and experts (or even policy wonks who focus in other areas but find this stuff really compelling), but parents and students--particularly those stuck in failing schools and floundering districts.

Instead, though, we've got coverage of David Vitter and his ho (or ho's); the media's ongoing John McCain Political Deathwatch; and on and on it goes.

I don't know how to make "issues" interesting to the general public. But until someone figures this out, we're going to be forever watching parades pass by while the neighborhood burns down.

Monday, July 16, 2007

The Authenticity Paradox
Sunday morning I was up in time to watch Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) do verbal battle with Republican Lindsay Graham of South Carolina on the Tim Russert show. As is his wont, Webb was unscripted, unrehearsed, and devastating; as Graham tossed out one meticulously crafted talking point after another, Webb tore apart each of them. Carpetbagger has some highlights:

GRAHAM: Have you been to Iraq and — have you been to Iraq and talked to the soldiers?

WEBB: You know, you haven’t been to Iraq.

GRAHAM: I’ve been to — I’ve been there seven times.

WEBB: You know, you go see the dog and pony shows.

GRAHAM: I’ve been there as a reservist, I have been there and I’m going back in August.

WEBB: That’s what congressmen do. Yeah, I have, I have — I’ve been a member of the military when the senators come in.

GRAHAM: Well, all — listen, something we can agree on, we both admire the men and women in uniform. I don’t doubt your patriotism.

WEBB: Don’t put political words in their mouth.

I was so excited to see Webb defeat George "Felix Macacawitz" Allen last year not just because Allen is a snivelling racist shitbag, but because Webb is the sort of guy who can change perceptions of Democrats. A former Reagan administration official who voted for Bush--and Allen--in 2000, Webb left the Democrats over cultural and foreign policy issues during the 1970s after fighting in Vietnam, and came back thirty years later after realizing that his objections to Republican abuses of the military and idiocy on the world stage trumped those differences. (For his part, Webb also has pushed back on some social issues--gun control, which he vehemently opposes, in particular--and tried to pull the Democrats further to the left on economic issues, where he never felt comfortable with the Republicans. Elected to the Senate with other economic populists like Sherrod Brown, Bob Casey and Jon Tester, he seems to be having some impact in this area.)

As a decorated military veteran whose son is on the ground in Iraq, a novelist and journalist who has written extensively about war and fighting, and former high official (Secretary of the Navy under Reagan) in the defense hierarchy, Webb probably has more credibility on issues of war and peace than any other Democrat. As a political giant-slayer--a year ago, most figured that by now Allen would be a leading presidential candidate after easily winning re-election--who won in a state that's gone Republican in ten straight presidential elections--he seems a natural for vice-presidential consideration next year, regardless of whom the Democrats nominate for the top job.

But I can't see it happening.

The reason why I doubt Webb will be on the ticket is the same reason I think he'd be so good: he doesn't take direction. Webb refuses to muzzle himself in support of the Party Line. When he gave the Democratic response to Bush's state of the union speech in January, he was given a speech by party hacks; he threw it out in favor of his own, and got more positive press than any response address in memory. If he had any doubts that he was smarter than the established DC crowd--and I don't think he did--that experience surely erased them.

Perhaps the most interesting thing Webb said on Russert’s show yesterday was when he pushed back against Graham’s apologetics for “the surge.” Graham was talking about how the military had “taken back” Anbar Province because the population there had been won over by Petreus; Webb countered that what had happened was the population exacting “redneck justice” against al Qaeda in Iraq, which would have happened whether or not the Americans were present in force. Everything we know about Webb indicates that he’s not unsympathetic to notions like “redneck justice.” I believe that such a view probably resonates with the American electorate. But can you imagine Hillary Clinton’s campaign advisors taking on a guy who dares to voice such uncouth thoughts? David Broder might get upset!

I suspect that if you polled the public on which candidates were most and least "authentic," Hillary Clinton would come out at the bottom. Fairly or not (and I'd argue it's more fair than not), she is regarded as supremely scripted, endlessly packaged. Webb is not; watching him on Russert's show yesterday, he seemed sufficiently upset that I was actually a little worried he was just going to kick Graham's ass on national live TV.

But while we as a country crave authenticity--the perception of it is why the painfully unqualified Bush was close enough to Al Gore in 2000 to steal the presidency--the parties crave message discipline and predictability. Given the choice between a likely winner they couldn't control and a more dubious candidate who could be relied upon to stay on message, the professional class of politicals will take the latter. (John McCain, in his much more appealing "maverick" incarnation, would have crushed Gore in 2000.)

Given his perception and potential to make Clinton acceptable to some chunk of the 50 percent of the country that claims to hate her, Webb makes so much sense politically as Hillary’s running mate that maybe they’ll ask him anyway, and just sweat through the days waiting for him to say something that upsets their delicate stomachs. But I doubt it (and I doubt he’d accept second billing on a Clinton-headed ticket). They'd worry, with much justification, that the authentic #2 would overshadow the plastic-seeming presidential candidate.

Webb’s appeal just reminds me that the two-party system really does constrain our options and unacceptably narrow our choices. At this point, I plan to support the Democrats next year-–but my ideal really would be a Bloomberg/Webb ticket unfettered by all the political baggage and obligatory ass-kissing that goes with being labeled as Democrats.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Hello Hillary? Goodbye, Majority
I've had an idea rattling around in my head for a couple weeks now for how to demonstrate one of my three big arguments why the Democratic Party absolutely should not nominate Hillary Clinton for the presidency next year: that her nomination would seriously endanger not just Democrats' chances of winning the White House, but also their newly captured majority in the House of Representatives. (The other two are disgust for the Two-Family Duopoly--maybe a non-starter in a culture that seems to revere celebrity ever more--and my strong suspicion that Sen. Clinton holds a similarly expansive view of presidential power that has caused so much trouble during the Bush Misrule.)

The methodological concept I'm playing with is this:

1) Of the 30 or so seats that the Democrats gained in the 2006 midterm elections, take all those who represent districts where Bush won a majority of the vote in 2004.

2) Compare the Democrat's margin of victory in his/her race last year to Bush's margin over John Kerry in '04.

3) Subtract Bush's margin from the Democrat's margin; the resulting figure is the likely 2008 margin either way with a generic Democrat against a generic Republican.

4) Measure polling response (Approve/Disapprove, "Would you consider voting for," etc) to Sen. Hillary Clinton in each district.

5) If "disapprove" is larger (and it will be), divide the difference in half and then subtract that from the figure derived in Step 3.

Example: Gabrielle Giffords (Arizona, 8th district) won her race last year by a margin of 54-42. Bush beat Kerry in that district by 53-47. Subracting that six-point difference from Giffords' twelve-point advantage, she's still up by six. But if Hillary Clinton has 45 percent approval, 55 percent disapproval in the Arizona 8th, and we divide that -10 figure in half, Giffords goes from a six-point edge to a one-point edge. If she's badly outspent (or Clinton is more disliked than I'm positing here), Giffords is very likely sunk.

Nominating Sen. Clinton will severely exacerbate the difficulties many of the first-term Democrats in somewhat hostile territory are already anticipating in their initial--and by normal historical standards, the toughest by far--bid for re-election. Already, many of them Democrats from more conservative districts have tried to inoculate themselves against the ever-looming charge of "liberalism."

[A] vote analysis underscores that some Democratic lawmakers, particularly the more centrist members of the freshman class, have been less party-line than others. Twelve of the 25 lowest party unity scores of House Democrats were registered by freshmen.

These 12 hold seats that were among the 30 captured from the Republicans last fall — and all but one represent districts that voted favored Bush for president in 2004.
This is not to say that these dozen Democratic freshmen are iconoclasts. They side much more frequently than not with their party on votes that divided Democrats and Republicans. Even on Iraq, before voting for the “clean” war spending bill, all of them previously voted for legislation — subsequently vetoed by Bush — that made a reduction of U.S. troops in Iraq a condition to continue funding.

Some of the dozen Democratic freshmen with the lowest party unity scores in 2007 lean to the right on some social issues. Four of them were among the 14 Democrats who voted against a bill to expand the definition of “hate crime” offenses to include certain violent crimes against an individual because of race, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. Three of them joined just 13 other House Democrats in voting against legislation to promote embryonic stem cell research.

The Democratic leadership in the House is smart enough to understand that on "hot-button" social issues like abortion and stem-cell research, representatives have to vote with their districts. (It also helps that even now, enough moderate Republicans remain who will cross party lines to vote with the Democrats that the lack of support from conservative Democrats isn't generally enough to kill legislation.) Letting them go on those fights helps ensure that they'll stay on the reservation for big votes on economic and (to a lesser extent) foreign policy issues. If voters are really moved by emotional connections to their public officials, it's a good trade for the Democrats to cede a few legislative votes in exchange for preserving the sense that those officials share the values of their communities.

But the presence of a polarizing figure at the top of the ticket badly strains that perceived connection. No election is ever truly local--in that the personalities of the candidates, provincial issues, and related factors are ALL that matters--nor are they ever entirely national (in that those local factors matter not at all). In years when the presidency is at stake, however, the balance generally tips more toward the national side of the spectrum. Given how popular he remained in most of the "red" states, Bush might have helped a decent number of Republicans vying for lower office in 2004; possibly more significant was that John Kerry, or at least the caricature of him offered by the Bush political team and enabled by Kerry's own awful campaign--really hurt Democrats in those same states. The Oklahoma Senate race that year comes to mind; the Democrats ran a very strong candidate, Brad Carson, who had served in Congress for a few terms and was well within the mainstream of politics in that state, while the Republicans ran an eccentric and extremist obstetrician named Tom Coburn. Smartly, Coburn ran ads that slammed Carson as a "John Kerry Democrat"... and after months of polls showing a close race, he wound up winning by 12 points.

Carson was caught between trying to run his own race and focus attention on Coburn's many nutty qualities, and the need to keep emphasizing how he was different from his party's presidential nominee. This was a hard enough task for local down-ballot candidates with Kerry, who wasn't previously well-known (much less widely loathed) nationally. Sen. Clinton, who might be the most polarizing public figure in America (Bush can't really claim the title anymore with less than one-third of the public supporting him) is likely to have an even stronger "negative coattails" effect.

With the right opponent--pun partly intended--Senator Clinton could win the presidency with a "smarter Kerry" strategy: hold the blue states and run better races in Ohio, New Mexico, Iowa and maybe Florida. But in the states she'll write off, like Kansas and Indiana, a number of Democrats very likely will suffer defeat by association. Whether that's something Democratic primary voters are prepared to accept, I don't know--but I would like to feel more confident they're making an informed decision on the question.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Obama's Merit Badge
Barack Obama took a stand today that probably won't move the polls in his favor, and could possibly hurt him down the line. Speaking to the National Education Association, Obama announced that he supports merit pay for teachers--a step sort of comparable to walking into a Boston sportsbar wearing full Yankee regalia.
Obama's endorsement of merit pay for teachers was the first note deviating from the promise-anything tenor of visits by several presidential candidates to the union this week.

Obama said that improving public education was vital to the U.S. ability to compete in a global economy, pointing out that students here score well below their counterparts in other industrialized nations, particularly in science and mathematics.

"In the 21st century, countries that out-educate us now will out-compete us tomorrow," Obama said. "The work you do and the difference you make has never been more important to the future of this country."

He promised more pay "across the board" for teachers and extra incentives for those willing to work in lower-performing schools in urban and rural areas, though he noted that he would release the details of those goals and other education policies at a later date.

Obama did evidently hit several of the expected (and valid) Democratic notes as well, blasting the implementation of the federal No Child Left Behind policy with a clever one-liner--"Don't pass a law called No Child Left Behind and leave the money behind"--as well as its overreliance on standardized testing. But by supporting merit pay as well as differential bonuses for working in higher-need areas, Obama began to put some substance where his sentiments have been: if his campaign really is to transcend tired zero-sum partisan battles, he needs to acknowledge that arguments on both sides of those battles have some merit.

Resistance to merit compensation is one of two deeply dug-in positions of the teachers' unions that most everyone else hates. (Unwillingness to empower principals to fire crappy educators is the other.) It gives the sense, and understandably so, that the unions are more concerned with protecting the job security and earning power of bad teachers rather than rewarding great ones as a means to improve educational outcomes and ensure qualified teachers in shortage areas (math, science, special education, et al). While the devil certainly resides in the details of how to define and reward "merit"--one reason why he's right to seek a methodology in partnership "with" the NEA rather than doing it "to" them--the concept has to go forward.

I don't have the mental toughness to go track down Hillary Clinton's remarks to the NEA... but then again, do I really have to? You know and I know what she served up: a long list of platitudes about the importance of the profession, a few subtle or overt references to the role of the educator in the "village" she believes it takes to raise a child; an anecdote or two about a Very Special Teacher who helped shape her emerging personhood as a young woman; a promise that her administration will stand shoulder to shoulder with the teachers rather than just placing ever-heavier burdens on them as the Bushistas have done through the imposition of NCLB.

That's all fine. But it neither addresses the real problems within the teaching profession--which I believe should be thoroughly professionalized, with salaries comparable to lawyers and doctors and performance expectations similarly elevated from the current dismal level--nor moves the discussion of education issues forward in a way that's meaningful to anyone who wasn't in the room.

Obama's taking a whack at this particular sacred cow won't do much for him in the short term; most obviously, I can't imagine he'll get the union's endorsement now. But it does suggest that some of those traits liberals were unsure he possessed--a measure of courage, a willingness to take stands--might be there after all, underlaying the lofty rhetoric with a real vision of leadership.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

The Twisted World of the WSJ
For awhile now, I've been meaning to start writing more about my own work and experiences here on AIS, at least until football season starts. But I didn't want to get quite this personally involved; yesterday morning I received an e-mail that a policy brief I recently wrote for the Center for an Urban Future, about the importance of New York City's Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP), was featured in a Wall Street Journal editorial.

Now, it's always nice to see one's work get attention, and indirectly the editorial endorsed our view that the program, which puts upwards of 40,000 New Yorkers ages 14 to 21 into subsidized employment for seven weeks every summer, is beneficial. But... well, read it for yourself and see if you can spot the problem:

...[A] sobering new report from the New York City-based Center for an Urban Future shows how minimum-wage laws are already hurting the unskilled and inexperienced.

The "Summer Help" study assesses New York City's publicly funded Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP), which each year matches tens of thousands of young people between the ages of 14 and 21 with employers ranging from the local library to investment banks.
Today, however, the New York program serves 20% fewer young adults than it did in 1999, and last year it turned away 30,000 mostly black and Latino applicants. The report cites minimum wage-increases in the Empire State --one of 30 states that mandates a minimum higher than the federal floor -- as a factor in the program's decline.

"The higher state minimum wage that went into effect in 2005," writes author David Jason Fischer, "added to the challenge of funding SYEP by increasing the cost per participant, making it difficult to keep SYEP enrollment levels the same without year-over-year budget increases or additional administrative cuts." New York's minimum wage increased once again this year
to $7.15 from $6.75, adding another $3.5 million in costs.

The harm from minimum-wage laws is well-documented, and even government job programs aren't immune. ...

Did I write that sentence? Yes.

Do I "cite minimum wage increasees... as a factor in the program's decline"? HELL NO.

Entirely unmentioned in the editorial are either of the two biggest reasons we suggest for why enrollment is down from 1999: the calamitous decline in federal funding for SYEP--from $42.5 million in '99 to $5.4 million in 2006--and, to a considerably lesser extent, the lack of awareness or interest on the part of the private sector in NYC in supporting seasonal employment for young people. What they did, of course, was take one point we made, in the interest of intellectual honesty--the fact that the higher minimum wage raises the cost per SYEP participant--and stretch it beyond wafer-thin to resume their usual ideological battle against the minimum wage.

I don't suppose I need mention that I wasn't contacted before this editorial was published, nor that I vehemently disagree with its conclusion. The only time I've ever taken on the question of the minimum wage in a professional capacity was in late 2004, when we endorsed the move then current in the New York state legislature to pass the three-stage increase that has brought the wage to $7.15 per hour in our report "Between Hope and Hard Times." Before doing so, we examined a lot of research for and against minimum wage increases, and we reached an informed conclusion that such measures did considerably more good than harm. In New York, this manifestly has proven to be the case, as the Fiscal Policy Institute found six months ago in this short report.

To my knowledge, this is the first time my work has been misappropriated in this dishonest way. I wrote a letter in response to the WSJ, but have not yet heard whether or not they plan to publish it. Here's the gist:

Your July 3 editorial, “Minimum Wage, Jobless Kids,” twists the findings of the Center for an Urban Future’s report “Summer Help,” which I authored, almost beyond recognition. Notwithstanding your focus on the minimum wage, our primary finding was that the biggest reason enrollment for New York City’s Summer Youth Employment Program has decreased by 20 percent was the precipitous decline of federal dollars to support the program—from $42.5 million in 1999 to $5.4 million last summer. It is irresponsible, to say the least, to hijack this point in order to argue against the minimum wage—a premise with which we strongly disagree, and that much research has refuted.

Despite its clearly mischievous intent, the editorial has the germ of a point: if any situation justifies a sub-minimum wage, it is publicly subsidized employment for part-time workers who are not their families’ primary wage earners. Given the proven value of summer youth employment, it might well be a better public investment to employ a larger number of teens at a slightly lower hourly wage. To stretch this point into a blanket condemnation of the minimum wage, however, is a dishonest distortion of our work.

Happy 4th of July.