Monday, December 29, 2008

A Hail of Bullets
Not feeling quite up to fully thinking any of these things through with a long post, so I'm staging more Short Attention Span Theater:

  • The Eagles recorded arguably the greatest regular-season win in franchise history yesterday, absolutely burying the hated Dallas Cowboys in a win-or-die game for both teams. Thanks to an improbable turn of events elsewhere, they'll play on next week at Minnesota, a game in which they're favored... and while I'm reasonably confident that they'll win that one and get a mid-January trip to north New Jersey for their troubles, I can't imagine that anything short of maybe, maybe winning the Super Bowl Itself could come close to the euphoric high of yesterday's triumph. In a way--and I'm cursing my own blasphemy here--it might have been better even than the Phillies' world championship. That was pure happiness: relief, vindication, redemption. This was happiness, sure, and in that alone not close to the level of October 29--but in addition to the positive joy, there was wallowing, almost decadent pleasure in seeing the reviled fucking Cowboys embarrassed to an unprecedented extent. In my loud drunken state, I was giving Jerry Jones, Terrell Owens and other selected Dallasites both middle digits every time the camera caught them; if there had been a fixed picture-in-picture of either for the duration of the second half, I might have been at risk of having both hands stuck in finger-giving mode.

  • The question of just how good this Eagles team is now might get a more definitive answer. If, as I expect, they win next week and then lose to the Giants, we'll know that "good, not great" is the right description: basically on a par with most of the recent iterations, if more schizophrenic than the relatively stolid 12-win teams that petered out in successive NFC championship games earlier this decade. If they go further, though, we'll know that the hints buried in the numbers that this is no ordinary nine-win team--they set franchise records in a bunch of categories, including scoring, and ranked near the top of the league in almost every metric other than turnovers--got at the truth more than their relatively pedestrian record.

  • Matt Miller had an excellent op-ed in Sunday's Times urging a larger federal role in public education. This is a tough subject to engage people on, because the first counter-argument--it isn't only about money--is unanswerable. To his credit, Miller concedes that Washington DC and Newark, two of the better-funded public systems in the country in terms of per-student spending, suck the big one. But his characterization of local financing as "an injustice, masked as a virtue, so deeply ingrained in the American mind that no politician in either party dare challenge it" is spot on. He actually does exhume a politician who in some sense challenged the convention: Richard Nixon, who convened a committee on school finance in the early '70s that urged states to smooth out funding disparities from one community to another, and whose secretary of education suggested a much larger federal role in financing public schools: 25 to 30 percent, or more than three times the current contribution. Miller goes on to note that the feds could use additional money as a lever to effect policy changes: enticing top teachers to high-need schools, or convincing districts to do away with or modify teacher tenure. (I can only assume Miller has been hanging out with Ms. Rhee.) Sadly, this probably represents an act of political courage beyond what we can expect from Obama, or indeed any Democrat in the Oval Office; even more sadly, no Republican in the just-ended campaign had anything of note to say about education. It's an intramural fight right now; maybe this will be one of the questions that spark new blood flow to the atrophied Republican brain.

  • Another Times education op-ed from the previous day suggests that the bachelors degree should no longer be regarded as an employment credential. I completely agree, much as I detest the guy making the argument: Charles Murray, right-wing think tank fluffer and author of The Bell Curve, a masterwork of junk science that gave encouragement to well-mannered racists everywhere. Murray's core point here, as elsewhere in his recent writings, is that a four-year college education is sub-optimal for most young people, who in his estimation aren't smart enough to handle the work. In this piece, he uses some truly irrelevant points to support the premise: no, I probably couldn't have finished a physics degree, but then I'm also not at all sure I could pass a rigorous computer repair course, which Murray seems to regard as a better match for the less academically able. (And I'm pretty sure I'd wash out of a carpentry apprenticeship in, oh, a month, if I didn't saw my own fool hand off first.) He also obliquely acknowledges, but then ignores, the fact that family wealth is as or more important to a student's odds of finishing college as academic talent; why not then propose a fix around financial aid? Those problems aside, though, dropout rates alone show the irrationality of the "college for all" mindset. The trick will be changing the minds of students, parents, teachers and high school guidance counselors--pretty much all of whom are indoctrinated to believe that anything but a bachelors is inferior and shameful. I'll admit, though, that I haven't yet figured out how to go about that changing of minds and hearts.

  • Finally, Jim Webb is about to take on one of the toughest and most important policy questions in the country: corrections reform. I'm not sure his ideas are fully cooked yet, but judging from this piece, at least he's choosing the right ingredients: looking at who is locked up and why on the front end, and focusing less on retribution than rehabilitation for those already behind bars. The political atmospherics of this--on full display even in the article here--will be fascinating to watch unfold. Webb is one of the tougher guys in the Senate, so it won't be easy to pin him with the "soft on crime" label... but the Republicans will try, and even assuming they don't get him, it's an open question whether his shall we say less testicularly fortified Democratic colleagues would go on record to take action here. Given our world-largest prison population and the truly stunning amount of money we spend on incarceration for just abominable outcomes in terms of recidivism (see here for starters), I wish him all the success in the world.


The Navigator said...

I gather the history of prison reform is a nearly endless seesaw between lock 'em up and try to rehabilitate 'em. I suspect the ideal is to move ever closer towards the goal of correctly sorting out who can be rehabilitated and who needs to be locked up. I do wish Webb luck; I hope his effort includes expanded support for the Bush administration's commendable efforts (can you believe I wrote that?) to address the needs of ex-offenders released back into the community.

David said...

Yeah, the Second Chance Initiative was a good start. Of course, they didn't actually fund it...

Bush's interest in that issue, like his early-first term nod to school reform, arises from things he was involved with as governor in Texas. In this case, it was Charles Colson's faith-based re-entry work, a program called InnerChange. It pretty much gleefully violates church/state separation principles--this is the Bush administration, after all--but aside from that the model has some value. See here: