Monday, March 7, 2011

Fair and Honest

The issue is injustice. The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants.

-- Martin Luther King

from the Mountaintop Speech given the day before he died

In this week's Sift:

  • Blueprint for Dystopia. We don't have to speculate any more about the Right wanting to destroy public schools. It's all there in the new Wisconsin budget.
  • Nothing Personal, AT&T. The Supreme Court limited how far it will go with corporate personhood, but continues to support the basic concept.
  • The Importance of Early Intervention. A surprisingly readable piece of education research says that improving the schools isn't enough. For some kids, the damage is already done by the time they get to school.
  • Short Notes. What the Cookie Joke gets right. Republicans won't buck Big Oil for any amount of money. Jon Stewart is biased about teachers. Take the Sheen/Beck/Qadaffi quiz. Colbert calls for a new country. And more.
  • This Week's Challenge. Any other jokes like the Cookie Joke?


Blueprint for Dystopia

Every time I think that I'm over-obsessing on the Wisconsin budget stand-off, I run into some other intelligent person who has barely heard about it. Considering the coverage comparative handfuls of Tea Party activists got in the summer of 2009, the fact that a three-week siege of the Wisconsin Capitol by thousands of pro-union protestors isn't leading the network news every night is pretty amazing.

Previously … In case you've only been paying attention to the major media outlets, let me catch you up. (You can catch me up on other vital issues like Charlie Sheen and Kate Middleton.)

Newly-elected Governor Scott Walker inherited a budget headed for either balance or a small surplus, which he promptly wrecked with corporate tax cuts.

He then proposed a "budget repair bill" to fix this "emergency". The bill closed his self-created budget gap by cutting benefits on state employees, and then went on to do some very non-fiscal-emergency stuff: It ended state and local employees' rights to collective bargaining on any issue but wages (i.e., benefits, working conditions, lay-offs), and imposed new rules on public-employee unions that probably would lead to their eventual extinction. He continued to insist on the non-fiscal union-busting parts of the bill even after the unions indicated they'd give in on the fiscal parts.

This was all supposed to be a rush-rush emergency, and Democrats knew they didn't have the votes to stop it, so they tried a desperation tactic: The 14 senate Democrats escaped to Illinois, preventing the state senate from meeting its constitutionally-required quorum.

Meanwhile, thousands of teachers, nurses, firemen, and other ordinary Wisconsinites who work for state and local governments, together with UW students and out-of-state liberals who have come to see Madison as the Minas Tirith of the American labor movement, have surrounded and sometimes occupied the state capitol in numbers that reach into the tens of thousands on weekends.

Next budget. That's all about the budget that ends in June. Tuesday, Governor Scott Walker released his budget proposal for the two-year cycle beginning in July.

It's a piece of work. In this era of partisan polarization, each side does a lot of speculating over the true intentions of the other side, and frequently you'll hear it said that one side is "planning" X, Y, or Z based on some off-hand remark or a statement by some radio host or comparatively minor official.

Well, this is a budget proposed to the legislature by the governor in a middle-of-the-road state. We're not speculating here. This is what the Right wants to do.

On education, for example, the Right wants to break public schools and push everybody into using state vouchers to pay for private schools. You see that in Walker's budget in the combined effect of these proposals:

  • Cut state funding for education by $834 million. This is the make-hard-choices and share-the-sacrifice part of the budget. It is supposedly justified by the deficit that would result otherwise.
  • Cap local property taxes. This proposal has nothing to do with the state deficit, and it's hard to say what it's doing in a state budget bill at all. It means that local communities who want to save their public schools from cutbacks can't raise their own taxes to make up the difference. So it's a gross violation of the alleged conservative principle of local control, and its only possible purpose is to make certain that the state budget cuts damage the public schools. In Green Bay, Brown County Executive Tom Hinz responded: "The bottom line is that counties should have the abilities to make their own decisions and not be dictated by the state. … I take offense at something like that."
  • Expanded access to private-school vouchers. Milwaukee already has an experimental state-funded voucher program for low-income families. Walker's budget phases out the income requirement. So a wealthy Milwaukee family will be able to use state funds subsidize sending their kids to chi-chi private schools -- which they'd be foolish not to do, since their public schools are going to go to hell. (This is a twofer, BTW. Every student who leaves a public school reduces its state aid even further.)

The best way to kill any public service is to get the wealthy to abandon it, because the wealthy are usually in the best position to make their voices heard. After the wealthy are gone, you can start the vicious cycle of cuts and abandonment, because each cycle eliminates the voices most likely to protest successfully.

And the wealthy are in the best position to take advantage of vouchers. Vouchers typically aren't large enough ($6442 per student, currently) to pay a really ritzy school's tuition, but they're a nice bonus if you were thinking about sending your kid there anyway.

So if this passes it will put the Milwaukee public schools on the road to extinction, a fact which can then be used to argue that people across the state would prefer private schools.

Other hidden gems. In his budget address, Walker said:

It’s true we are reducing aid to local government by just over one and a quarter billion dollars, but we are providing almost $1.5 billion in savings through our budget repair bill.

"What savings?" you might wonder. Well, after the budget repair bill takes away collective bargaining rights, local governments can cut their employees' pensions and other benefits. So: I'm taking money away from you, local governments, but I'm showing you how to take even more from your employees. Win-win.

This, again, strikes at the conservative principle of local control. Any local government that doesn't want to screw its workers will be in a deep financial hole. And remember, it can't raise its own taxes.

Deep in the weeds of the budget, Madison's Madtown Max found $100 million for the recently-created Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation. It's publicly funded, has a broad mandate to support "new business start-ups, business expansion and growth", is run by a small board dominated by the governor, and is exempt from most regulations that apply to state agencies (like the Department of Commerce that the WEDC more-or-less replaces).

Max concludes:

A picture emerges of the governor and a few friends, with the “flexibility” to dispose of a large budget to achieve very broadly defined, “pro-business” goals, without any pesky concerns about the environment or clean energy, or providing retirement benefits to their employees.

But what's $100 million to Wisconsin? It's not like the state is broke or something.


As protests continue and Walker's popularity falls, the governor is resorting to increasingly authoritarian tactics. Police illegally kept protestors out of the capitol, and Walker supporters were brought in to clap for his budget address.

Some Democrats in the Assembly (which unlike the senate is still functioning), moved their desks outside (in Wisconsin in March) so that they could continue to meet with their constituents in spite of the Capitol lockdown.

Among the tactics used to pressure the 14 Democratic senators to return to the state: They're being fined $100 a day. Arrest warrants have been issued, so that they can be taken into custody the moment any of them appear in Wisconsin. They also face a barrage of pettiness: they have lost their parking privileges, their staffs have been re-assigned, they can't use the copy machines, and they can't access their paychecks until they appear in person to claim them.

Strangely, loss of copy privileges has not crushed their resistance.

Walker has also issued a series of don't-make-me-kill-the-hostages threats, including laying off state workers.

This is the kind of stuff an executive resorts to when the people turn against him.


The anti-Walker protests have been a huge political boon to Democrats. DaveV reports:

my 82 year old dad -- a 50 year union member who has voted R since Reagan -- offered the other day to picket with me.  He doesn't listen to Limbaugh any more.  He has turned off Fox News.

Meanwhile, recall petitions are circulating on 16 of the 33 Wisconsin senators -- everyone who can legally be recalled at this point in the election cycle. It's 8 Democrats and 8 Republicans, but given the polls, I like the Democrats' chances of making gains. Bring it on.


While Bill O'Reilly and an on-the-scene correspondent talk about the protestors in Madison, Fox shows video of shouting and shoving in Sacramento. If most viewers get the impression that the Madison protests have turned violent, well, that's not really Fox's problem, is it? Stephen Colbert gives this the ridicule it deserves.


Russ' Filtered News -- a filter, a sift, it's the same thing -- documents at least 20 lies from Governor Walker.


Another recent bill proposed by Walker rescinds the requirement that cities disinfect their drinking water. This is one of those "savings" that make up for cuts in state funding. A Madison Democrat dubbed this "the Poison Our Drinking Water Act". I wonder if Poland Springs contributed to Walker's campaign.

Another priority is to stop defending wetlands from developers.



Nothing Personal, AT&T

After the Citizens United decision, we had to wonder how far the corporate personhood insanity would go. Well, this week the Supreme Court had a chance to push to even more bizarre lengths, and they backed off.

The case is FCC v AT&T, and the issue comes from an investigation into AT&T overcharging a government program. AT&T settled the case for $500,000. But later, competitors of AT&T filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for records of the FCC's investigation.

There are a series of exemptions from FOIA reports, which usually just result in some parts of documents being blacked out. Trade secrets are one exemption. A more generous exemption is for "personal privacy" -- for example, details that turned up about individual AT&T employees.

AT&T wanted to claim that as a corporate person, it was entitled to the personal privacy exemption, and not just the trade secret exemption.

The Court ruled 8-0 against this strange idea, with Justice Kagan not participating. Judge Roberts, the driving force behind Citizens United, wrote the Court's opinion.

His reasoning hangs on legal grammar, and does not at all undermine corporate personhood in general. Roberts argues that in the FOIA, "personal privacy" means more than the sum of its parts:

“Personal” in the phrase “personal privacy” conveys more than just “of a person.”  It suggests a type of privacy evocative of human concerns—not the sort usually associated with an entity like, say, AT&T.

But Roberts ignored the fact that being a "person" at all is usually "evocative of human concerns -- not the sort usually associated with an entity like AT&T." So while he refused to double down on his previous mistakes, he didn't back off either.



The Importance of Early Intervention

In the background of the hot political debate about teachers and their unions is a long-smouldering public discussion about education. And that discussion is made all the more bitter by the fact that none of us really know what we're talking about.

American education is prone to fads and controversies: the new math, phonics vs. see-and-say, strictness vs. freedom, competition vs. collaboration, big consolidated schools vs. small neighborhood schools vs. home schooling, tenure reform, merit pay, charter schools and on and on. Every few years, it seems, we decide that our schools are failing and launch some big reform. And then a few years later we wonder what that was all about.

Usually, it wasn't about much. For example, it's worth remembering that the current testing fad is based largely on Governor Bush's "Texas miracle" -- which we now know was miraculous mainly its ability to cheat and juggle statistics.

It's hard to admit that after decades of research, teaching is still more art than science. Every educated person can look back and pick out some extraordinary teacher. But if you try to nail down exactly what made that teacher special -- something that can be codified in rules and mandated across the country -- you'll have to admit that you don't really know. Beyond "every student like me should have a teacher like that" we're all just guessing.

We've identified some things that don't work: bad childhood nutrition, violent schools, cruelty, sexual abuse. Beyond that, we're mostly just playing hunches backed by a few anecdotes. Perhaps out of embarrassment, education researchers have developed layer after layer of jargon that the general public finds impenetrable.

So it was surprising to find a recent report by James Heckman that is surprisingly readable, makes clear recommendations, and seems to be based on actual data:

American public policy has to shift to acknowledge that the core skills needed for success in life are formed before children enter school. The main lesson of Figure 1—that gaps in child test scores open up early and persist and that schools contribute little to these gaps—needs to be acted on.

Figure 1, which Kevin Drum reproduces, shows the gaps in achievement test scores between children of mothers with various educational backgrounds. The gaps appear by age 3 and stay fairly flat thereafter. Maternal education is an easily-measured stand-in for a host of fuzzier variables: delayed parenting, greater wealth and social standing, more two-parent homes, richer intellectual home environment, higher parental self-esteem, and so on. Educated mothers, for example,

spend more time reading to children and less time watching television with them. Disadvantaged mothers, as a group, talk less to their children and are less likely to read to them daily. … Disadvantaged mothers encourage their children less and tend to adopt harsher parenting styles. Disadvantaged parents tend to be less engaged with their children’s school work.

Footnotes reference the studies that establish these statements as statistical tendencies rather than free-floating stereotypes. (In case you're wondering, Heckman poses and refutes with data the theory that the differences are primarily genetic.)

It's worth noting that black educator Geoffrey Canada came to the same conclusions, and so his Harlem Children's Zone project is as much about training disadvantaged parents to raise high-skill toddlers as it is about educating school-age children.

Another interesting point is that Heckman is talking more about "soft skills" than about IQ. Some of the differences that concern him are in the ability to manage time and delay gratification, as well as character traits like curiosity and confidence. A curious and confident child who enters school with an ability to delay gratification and manage time may be way ahead of a kid who is just smart.

Which means that current policy is dangerously wrong-headed:

In contrast, the school-focused No Child Left Behind program diverts teaching away from fostering other skills that matter for success in life besides tested math and reading. Because it ignores inequality at the starting gate, No Child Left Behind leaves many children behind.

Heckman thinks early-intervention programs focused on supplementing the resources available to disadvantaged families would be far more effective than many of the programs we are funding now. In the long run, we might save more on future remedial programs than we spend now.

Unfortunately, in the current environment, I can easily imagine his research being interpreted to say "don't fund schools" -- ignoring the part about funding early interventions.



Short Notes

I saw this joke everywhere this week:

a CEO, a tea party member, and a union worker are all sitting at a table when a plate with a dozen cookies arrives. Before anyone else can make a move, the CEO reaches out to rake in eleven of the cookies. When the other two look at him in surprise, the CEO locks eyes with the tea party member. "You better watch him," the executive says with a nod toward the union worker. "He wants a piece of your cookie."

It's typical of the discussion the TV talking-heads are having: The 11 cookies taken by the rich are already off the table, so we'll focus on everybody else fighting over that last cookie. But Michael Moore is right: There are plenty of cookies.


Example: How about we narrow the deficit by cutting subsidies to the oil companies? No, no, those are too important -- cut medicine for sick kids instead. No Republican in Congress was willing to cross Big Oil.


Jon Stewart collects the video: The same people who defended rich people and Wall Street bonuses on principle, reverse those principles when it comes to teachers.

Stewart is biased, of course, because his mother was a teacher. And I'm biased because my sister is. (She was at the big demonstration in Nashville Saturday. If it had been a Tea Party rally it you'd have seen it on all the news shows, but … you know.)

Come to think of it, a whole lot of people are "biased" by actually knowing somebody who works for state or local government. Demonization works pretty well when it targets Muslims or illegal aliens or inner-city single moms. But the trick is harder to pull off when the public already knows the people being demonized.


Sheen, Beck, or Qaddafi? Take the quiz about which loon said which loony thing. It's hard. I got 9 out of 15.


New research on the difference between sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, which sweetens most processed foods: HFCS leaves you hungrier than a calorie-equivalent amount of sugar. That could be one reason why Americans are getting fatter.


Stephen Colbert says "sometimes income brackets just drift apart" and proposes the rich create their own country, America Plus.


The New Republic puts its finger on what's wrong with the low-taxes-low-services-low-regulations model of economic growth:

The fact that the “beneficiaries” who get jobs as a result of this corporate development model will have to work for lower wages and fewer benefits, and suffer from poor schools and a violated environment, is beside the point.

Chris Hayes explains why polls say Americans want the government to focus on creating jobs, while the actual government (and the media that covers it) are focused on anything but jobs: If you're part of the DC power structure, just about everybody you know either has a college degree or lives in DC. Those two segments of the economy are recovering pretty well.

it just so happens that policy-makers, pundits and politicians are drawn from the classes that are in recovery, and they live in an area where new sushi restaurants are opening all the time. For even the best-intentioned and most conscientious staffers and aides this has, I think, a subconscious effect.


This Week's Challenge

The Cookie Joke gets its point across without any of the boring facts and statistics that liberals are famous for. What other jokes should we be telling?

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5 comments:

C said...

I'm not sure you can state as a fact he was going to start with a surplus. For example:

http://www.jsonline.com/blogs/news/116480323.html

http://www.politifact.com/wisconsin/statements/2011/feb/18/rachel-maddow/rachel-maddow-says-wisconsin-track-have-budget-sur/

Doug Muder said...

C:

Looking at your links and checking a few others, I agree with you. I'll correct next week.

Rhett said...

I call shenanigans on the HFCS article. Throughout the article, it equates sugar and glucose. Sugar is a dimer of glucose and fructose, and the dimer bond breaks quickly. As a result, consuming sucrose (what we all call "sugar") is consuming a 50/50 solution of glucose and fructose. The HFCS used in soft drinks is HFCS-55, which is a 45/55 solution of glucose and fructose, and that really is not a major difference.

Yes, the body does react differently to fructose than glucose, but to extend this out to how products with a relatively small difference in their chemistry affect us, a more apples-to-apples comparison is needed.

Colin said...

Good article on NPR about Democrats and Unions:

http://www.npr.org/2011/03/02/134203177/why-unions-matter-to-democrats-its-not-just-money

kimc said...

Don't I wish I had a joke as good as that one!
When I was getting my MS in education, I asked what was the best, most effective, teaching method. They said they had lots of scientific studies, and the answer appeared to be: the method the individual teacher is most comfortable with is the one that works best for the students. That means that no one method is best for everyone, and as long as we are looking for a single answer, it will look like there isn't an answer at all.