Monday, March 28, 2011

Born to Property

The earth in its natural, uncultivated state, was, and ever would have continued to be THE COMMON PROPERTY OF THE HUMAN RACE. In that state every man would have been born to property. He would have been a joint life-proprietor with the rest in the property of the soil, and in all its natural productions, vegetable and animal.

-- Thomas Paine, Agrarian Justice, (1793)

In this week's Sift:

  • The Justice of the Public Sector. What about that idea that the government is "stealing your money" and spending it on "freeloaders"? New-fangled notions from John Locke and Thomas Paine explain the hole in that thinking.
  • Who's Ready for Democracy? We can examine the obstacles to democracy in Libya (and elsewhere) without invoking religious, racial, or cultural stereotypes.
  • Short Notes. More soap opera in Wisconsin. Jon Stewart thinks "Gov hurts". The ACA is a year old. Warrantless wiretapping is back in court. And my wife and I politely ask NOM to stop defending our marriage, which is doing fine on its own.
  • This Week's Challenge. Let me know how the Sift gets from me to you.

The Justice of the Public Sector

Last week I argued that the current battles over state and federal budgets are part of a long-term conservative plan to destroy the public sector by "starving the beast". Last September (in a review of Thomas Geoghegan's Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?) I claimed that a society with a large public sector -- public schools, public parks, public healthcare, public pensions -- is a nicer place to live for the large majority of its citizens.

But even someone who granted me all those points might still say: "Yes, but the public sector is unjust. It relies on the government taking money from the people who earn it and spending it on people who didn't earn it."

Conservative rhetoric is the mirror image of Marxist rhetoric on this issue. To conservatives, you're a parasite if you flip burgers for minimum wage, pay little-to-no tax, and nonetheless expect the government to spend somebody else's taxes on your daughter's chemotherapy. To Marxists, you're a parasite if you expect burger-flippers to work for minimum wage so that dividends from your McDonalds stock can pay your country club membership.

Who's right?

If you look at things on the small scale, the conservative argument looks compelling: There's a big number at the top of your paycheck, and a considerably smaller number at the bottom that you get to take home. The idea that you "earned" the big number, but the government "stole" a chunk of it -- it looks right.

If you pull back to a larger scale, though, the Marxists have a point (especially if you express their ideas in religious terms that Marx would have hated). Pre-tax earnings (both yours and Warren Buffett's) reflect the outcome of a rigged game, because they're based on a property system that is fundamentally unjust.

Think it through from the beginning: For whose benefit did God create the world? Everybody's? Or just for the people who have their names on deeds? Babies are born into a world in which every object of value is already the property of someone else -- how can that be just? What did those babies do to lose their share of the inheritance of the world?

As Gar Alperovitz and Lew Daly argue in Unjust Desserts, and I've echoed on my religious blog, the same ideas apply more widely than just to land and other natural resources. Whether you're a capitalist, a worker, or something in between, the bounty of the world economy has little to do with your efforts.

You can think of the economy as an enormous lever that magnifies the results of the effort we put into it. When we work, we pull that lever and move the world. But how did the lever get there? Why is our labor so much more productive than the efforts of our hunter-gatherer ancestors?

In a word, the answer is knowledge. Not just the insights reflected in patents and copyrights, but the deep knowledge that is embedded in the system as a whole: language, the wheel, metallurgy, and many subsequent advances made by people who are long dead. A huge slice of today's economic pie is due to them, not to us. To us it may look like a wage, but it's really an inheritance too.

So who should get the benefit of that inheritance? Lately we have been operating the American economy under the assumption that capital-owners are the sole heirs; the lever belongs to them, and they graciously let the rest of us use it. That's reflected in the fact that wages have stagnated even as productivity increases. The lever of accumulated human knowledge continues to get longer and longer, but the benefit of its use no longer percolates down to everyone.

These observations are not new. The people who built the philosophical foundations of modern society knew that there was an original injustice at the root of the property system. When John Locke justified private property in his Second Treatise on Civil Government (1690), he set the stage like this:

The earth, and all that is therein, is given to men for the support and comfort of their being. And tho' all the fruits it naturally produces, and beasts it feeds, belong to mankind in common, as they are produced by the spontaneous hand of nature; and no body has originally a private dominion, exclusive of the rest of mankind, in any of them, as they are thus in their natural state: yet being given for the use of men, there must of necessity be a means to appropriate them some way or other, before they can be of any use, or at all beneficial to any particular man.

That means of "appropriation" -- privatizing, in our language -- was labor. If someone gathered acorns, the acorns became his or her private property through the effort of gathering. Similarly, land became property through the labor of cultivation:

God gave the world to men in common; but since he gave it them for their benefit, and the greatest conveniencies of life they were capable to draw from it, it cannot be supposed he meant it should always remain common and uncultivated. He gave it to the use of the industrious and rational, (and labour was to be his title to it;) not to the fancy or covetousness of the quarrelsome and contentious. He that had as good left for his improvement, as was already taken up, needed not complain, ought not to meddle with what was already improved by another's labour: if he did, it is plain he desired the benefit of another's pains, which he had no right to, and not the ground which God had given him in common with others to labour on, and whereof there was as good left, as that already possessed, and more than he knew what to do with, or his industry could reach to.

And there's the rub: After your labor makes a bucket of acorns or a piece of land yours, there should still be "as good left" for other people to invest their labor in and make their own. Plainly, that no longer is true, and it was already false in England in Locke's day.

So the basis of the property system was flawed from the beginning. But what can be done about it? Even if you could uproot the whole system without inciting a civil war, you would probably wreck productivity so badly that everyone would be poor for decades to come (as the Soviets proved in the 20th century).

In Agrarian Justice (1793), Thomas Paine provided a solution: Let the unjust-but-productive system run, but tax it to provide compensating benefits to those who have been disinherited from the legacy of God and our common ancestors. (Specifically, Paine proposed an inheritance tax to fund a grant of capital to the young and a pension to the old.)

And that's the philosophical basis of the public sector we have today.

So the big number on your paycheck is your share of that original unjust system. It may seem like a lot, but for most people it is Esau's porridge compared to the human birthright they have lost claim to.

Fortunately, though, those unjust desserts are taxed, and the taxes go to provide a public sector for the benefit of everyone. The public sector is our compensation for giving up our share of humanity's common inheritance. Conservatives can argue that this compensation is too large. But when you appreciate the magnitude of the legacy, I think there's a better case for claiming that the public sector is not big enough.

And that's why the burger-flipper's children are not freeloaders, even if their parents' taxes don't cover the cost of their education, or the use they get out of the parks or libraries or hospitals.

Mark Twain once responded to the charge that he was "low born" by pointing to his descent from Adam. The burger-flipper's kids have a similar pedigree. It includes Og, who invented the wheel, and goes all the way back to God, who created the Earth.

Who's Ready for Democracy?

Whenever we intervene in another country, we need to ask: What would count as success?

Obviously, our highest hope is that the country could become a prosperous democracy like Japan or Germany. But when is that a reasonable expectation?

Personally, I get a sinking feeling whenever I hear somebody wax optimistic about Afghan or Iraqi or Libyan democracy, but I don't want to indulge in the racial, religious, or cultural stereotypes that so often get used to justify those feelings. You know what I'm talking about. There's an longstanding argument about who is "ready for democracy". Are Arabs ready for democracy? What about Muslims? Africans? Asians?

If you follow the thread of those questions back through history, you wind up listening to the self-justifications of 19th-century European imperialists, who carried the "white man's burden" to bring civilization to the benighted parts of the world. In this telling of the story, the non-Western nations are like children, and we are the grown-ups. We need to nurture and discipline them until they're "ready" to be Western nations themselves.

Yuck. Get the mental floss.

On the other hand, it still seems naive to expect Libya to be Germany. But why, exactly?

The problems that have kept democracy from taking hold in places like Afghanistan are hard to think about because they are inherently political and collective, not averages of individual attributes like intelligence or maturity or education. (That should be obvious: Individuals of every description come to America, and once they get here they do fine with democracy.) Almost all these problems boil down to one issue: As a nation, have we reached consensus on the issues that are worth killing people over?

Try this thought experiment: You and I belong to different tribes, and our tribes have a blood feud going. My people want to kill all of your people, and vice versa. Now imagine that some imperial bureaucrat draws a circle around our territories and wants our two tribes to be a democracy. Is that going to work? If the candidate from your tribe loses the election and my tribesman takes control of the army, are your people going to submit peacefully to the genocide?

Of course not. We'll be in civil war before the inauguration. But it's got nothing to do with you and me as individuals, or even with the "maturity" of our tribal cultures. Maybe your tribe could be a perfectly fine democracy, and so could mine. We just can't be a democracy together, because we don't have consensus on the issues worth killing over.

Look at the early United States. We had a run of really excellent statesmen, but all they could manage was to put the Civil War off for most of a century -- because slavery was worth killing over, and we didn't have consensus on it.

Around the world, vast wealth is considered worth killing for. Sometimes there are widely accepted ideas about who legitimately owns what, and in those cases the accepted ideas can be the basis for democratic laws. But a lot of the world's wealth is what I sometimes call pirate treasure -- it belongs just as legitimately to any person as to any other person. Unless a society comes up with some way to legitimize its ownership, pirate treasure will be controlled by force -- and that's bound to undermine a democracy.

Oil in the ground is a prime example of pirate treasure. Why, for example, did Saddam control the oil of Iraq? Because he had the guns. When we came along with bigger guns, then we controlled the oil and could pass it on to whomever we chose. Nobody wastes their time worrying that some long-lost heir of Saddam will come along to claim legitimate ownership of the Iraqi oil, because there was no legitimate ownership in the first place. It's pirate treasure; finders keepers.

So as we wonder whether Libya or Iraq or Afghanistan will come out of their current struggles with a democracy, let's look in the right direction. It's got nothing to do with their DNA or the sophistication of their culture or even with Islam. (Remember: Overall, Muslim Americans have proven to be fine citizens.) The right question is: Can these countries reach consensus on the issues worth killing over? In Libya and Iraq, that especially hangs on the question of legitimizing ownership of the oil.

It won't be easy, because it's not enough to wield a majority on these questions. The consensus has to be large enough that any dissenters can be characterized as criminals, not a rebel faction. Again, think of the U.S.: Some teen-ager may decide that he owns your car, but that's not a threat to democracy in America. We can deal with it as a crime, not a revolution. Disputing the House of Saud's right to the oil of Arabia, though, could only be a revolution.

University of Chicago economist Casey Mulligan blogged a pessimistic view of Libya's prospects on the NYT website. LIbya has numerous "characteristics that make democracy unlikely", including oil and an "ethnically heterogeneous" population:

no amount of Allied help will change the country’s location or its basic economics. Nor would it change Libya’s demographics, though perhaps a post-Qaddafi Libya would consist of multiple countries, each more homogeneous than the unified Libya was.
The Allied intervention will not bring Libya peace in the short term, and will not bring democracy in the long term as long as Libya has valuable oil in the ground.

A separate NYT article raises the possibility that the Libyan revolt is a "tribal civil war", but Juan Cole is more optimistic.

It's important to understand why "heterogeneous population" is an obstacle to democracy, because otherwise you can find yourself justifying xenophobia and nativism.

The key insight comes from Walter Lippmann's 1920 classic Public Opinion: Democracy is a way for the will of the people to manifest itself and rule a country. But drawing a circle on a map doesn't automatically create a popular will among the people inside. Unless and until they form a national consciousness and develop a popular will, democracy will just be a tussle among the wills of various factions.

So homogeneity is useful when founding a democracy, but once a national consciousness has formed, people of all ethnicities can join it. In 1776, for example, the Founders benefited from a shared perspective as English Protestants. But if today's Americans consider themselves Irish or Jewish or Hispanic in addition to being Americans, democracy isn't harmed.

Here are some maps that deserve more attention than they're getting: a tribal and ethnic map of Libya and the locations of the oil reserves.

Compare them with the battle lines. In general, the population is along the Mediterranean coast. Qaddafi holds the capital of Tripoli in the West, while the rebels hold the the cities of the eastern coast. The west is dominated by the El Magarha tribe, while the east is split among numerous other tribes.

Both east and west have oil reserves, a fact which lends itself to the idea that the country could be partitioned. The pipeline to Europe is in Tripoli.

Short Notes

The soap opera of Wisconsin's union-killing bill just keeps getting soapier. In our last episode, a judge restrained the Secretary of State from publishing the bill (a technical step necessary for it to take effect). The injunction was supposed to provide time for the court to decide whether the rush-rush process Republicans used to pass the bill violated Wisconsin's open meetings law.

Friday, in what the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel called "a stunning twist", the Legislative Reference Bureau posted the bill to its website. The Walker administration says that's publication enough -- even though both the head of the LRB and the Secretary of State say no -- so they will begin enforcing the bill as law.

Both of the Republicans' latest moves are head-scratchers. The bill-passing maneuver didn't have to be so rush-rush, and premature enforcement will only spawn new court cases. Why not just let the first case proceed to a conclusion? Ratings, I guess.

Gov. Walker's budget slashes public funds available to finance elections to the state Supreme Court -- because judges should have to pander to wealthy special interests just like everyone else.

In another classy move, Wisconsin Republicans are using a freedom-of-information law to examine the emails of a history professor who criticized Governor Walker. Paul Krugman comments.

Governor Rick Scott's plan to contract out Medicaid services may or may not save Florida money, but it will definitely benefit the health-services company Scott founded. No conflict of interest, though, because he got rid of all his stock in that company -- by transferring it to his wife.

Rick Snyder, Rick Scott, Scott Walker -- Jon Stewart skewers them all in a segment called "Gov hurts".

The Affordable Care Act became law a year ago (though many of its features haven't kicked in yet). Wendell Potter, the ex-health-insurance-executive who realized that his previous job was immoral, explains why we should be happy about the ACA.

Warrantless wiretapping is back in the news. A lawsuit challenging the practice was thrown out of district court in 2009 because the plaintiffs did not have standing to sue. But Monday an appeals court reversed that decision. Neither ruling touches the merits of the case, which may finally get a hearing.

The National Organization for Marriage has a new ad attacking President Obama's decision to stop defending the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act in court. takes the ad apart point by point.

Having just celebrated our 27th anniversary, my wife and I have a message for NOM: Thanks, but we don't need your help. Whatever you think you're accomplishing, don't do it on our account.

This Week's Challenge

It's not a challenge exactly, but I would like to hear from you: How do you get the Sift? Email? RSS feed? Somebody links to it or forwards it to you? You bookmark the website? Is there some way that would be more convenient, or easier to pass on to others? Comment on the blog, drop an email to WeeklySift at -- whatever is convenient.

The Weekly Sift appears every Monday afternoon. If you would like to receive it by email, write to WeeklySift at Or keep track of the Sift by following the Sift's Facebook page.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Stubborn Ounces

You say the little efforts that I make

will do no good: they never will prevail

to tip the hovering scale

where Justice hangs in balance.

I don’t think

I ever thought they would.

But I am prejudiced beyond debate

in favor of my right to choose which side

shall feel the stubborn ounces of my weight.

-- Bonaro W. Overstreet

In this week's Sift:

  • A Hard Week to Sift. A difficult week makes me think about who the Sift is for, and whether I'm falling into the traps I want others to avoid.
  • Starve the Beast. Defund the Left. What we're seeing in the budget battles is not the normal back-and-forth of liberal/conservative politics. Aggressive strategies that used to be outside the mainstream have taken over the Republican Party.
  • Libya: The Third War. I have no way to know what is actually happening, so for now I'll just say what I hope is happening.
  • Short Notes. A Potemkin University, Weiner congratulates Republicans on defunding NPR, the tax cuts that make budget cuts necessary, a political wife wants to recall her husband, and Nuclear Boy has a stomach ache.
  • This Week's Challenge. Watch yourself watch the news.

A Hard Week to Sift

Every now and then as I write the Weekly Sift, my spider-sense goes off. I seldom know immediately just what I've done wrong, but somehow I have fallen into one of the traps I try to guide others around. I have accidentally wandered over some indistinct boundary and am in danger of spreading ignorance and confusion rather than knowledge and clarity.

Usually the alarm isn't hard to turn off. I just delete, re-think, and start over. Or sometimes the topic itself (like Sarah Palin) is already getting more attention than it deserves, and whatever I say about it will just make the problem worse. So I delete and don't start over.

This week my spider-sense went off and refused to be cajoled into silence. It wasn't the specific topic, and it wasn't the way I was framing the topic. It was the week. I was looking at the week all wrong.

That had never happened before, so it forced me to re-think things I usually take for granted. In general, sifting about sifting is not that interesting or worthwhile, so I try to avoid meta-articles about what I'm trying to accomplish or how I do it.

I thought I'd make an exception this week. But don't worry, it's not going to become a habit.

What/who the Sift is for. The purpose of the Weekly Sift is to provide useful information to people who are trying to be good citizens without quitting their day jobs. If full-time political activists find it interesting or apathetic people are entertained by it, that's fine, but that's not what it's for. The target Sift-readers are not the political movers and shakers, but ordinary people who want to keep track of public affairs so that they can wisely position the stubborn ounces of their weight.

Given how many well-intentioned ordinary citizens there must be, you'd think they would be a well-served market. But they're not. (You probably know that already.)

On any given topic, it's easy to learn the same five facts everybody else seems to know. You hear them repeated on newscast after newscast, headline after headline. But if you think about those five facts long enough to realize that (put together) they don't make sense, it takes much more effort to dig up the sixth and seventh facts that might bring things into a new focus. Worse, sometimes the five ubiquitous facts are so mis-stated or mis-framed that they might as well be lies.

Every topic has its own traps -- misleading ways of arranging the facts that either disarm the public or turn well-intentioned people against their own interests. But there are three traps that apply across the board:

1. Distraction. In the summer of 2009 we lost about two weeks of news coverage because Michael Jackson died. I admit, he was the King of Pop, and the Billie Jean video is one of my all-time favorites. But was there really nothing else happening that needed our attention during those two weeks? And what could you do about Michael being dead anyway?

That's an extreme case, but just about every week the corporate media dangles some bright shiny object to distract you from events that actually affect your life -- events that maybe could be changed if enough people like you paid attention.

2. Passive obsession. In reaction to the distractions of the corporate media, the blogosphere has its own trap. You can use the internet to learn everything about an important topic, and then you can either sit at your computer angsting about the whole thing, or you can feel quietly superior to all those ignorant drones who only know five facts (three of which are completely wrong).

The root problem with passive obsession is that action -- even something as simple as changing the kind of bread you buy -- is what makes information worthwhile. Without some minimal connection to action, knowing all the facts and figures about global warming is no more important than knowing the batting averages of the 1927 Yankees. If you're not going to do anything, ever, it's all just trivia.

3. Hype. When you know that people aren't really listening to you, and that even the ones who do listen are unlikely to do anything about what you're saying, it's tempting to turn up the volume. Nearly everyone, I imagine, gets regular emails from some friend or relative claiming that some current event is the Worst Outrage Ever!! Not only is the sky about to fall, the sky has already fallen, and we'd all be too mesmerized to notice if our friend didn't point it out to us.

The ultimate source of this alarming information (if you can trace it at all) is usually some interested group: a political party, a special-interest front organization, or some entertainer/propagandist on the radio.

One way to spot hype is that the proposed action (if any) is woefully inadequate to the scale of the alarm. You should buy a book or forward this email or send $20 to a campaign or just stay awake at night shaking in your bed.

The Week. Three major things have been happening this week: the failing nuclear reactors in Japan, the intervention in Libya, and the continuing budget battles at both the state and federal levels.

The first two are the kinds of stories the Sift can't cover well, at least not yet. Right now, there really isn't much you need to know or should be doing about Japan. There are various places you could send money, but frankly, Japan isn't Haiti. The Japanese have money, and to the extent that money can solve this problem, Japan will get it done.

Eventually, we're going to need to assess what happened and what it means for our own nuclear industry, but the information necessary to make that assessment isn't available yet. It's a good idea to start learning some background on nuclear power, and I'll link to some in the coming weeks. But speculating on what horrible things might be happening (or about to happen) isn't that useful.

Libya is still in the breaking-news category. There are a few things that it makes sense for a weekly to point out, and I'll have a few paragraphs later. But much of what has happened so far has been behind closed doors, or in places where we have no reliable eyes and ears. So we're all just speculating about it. Is the intervention working? Well, something might happen between my posting the Sift and you reading it that changes everything. You need a good 24-hour news channel to cover this story right now, and all I can do is wish we had one.

That leaves the budgets.

Budget battles. I've been on the state-budget story for weeks now, and there is more material this week than ever. More outrageous things in more states are getting closer than ever to fruition -- so many that filling the Sift's 3000-word template was going easily this week.

And then my spider-sense went off.

It took a while to sort out, but eventually I realized I was bouncing back and forth between passive obsession and hype. This awful thing is happening! That awful thing is happening! Here's a near-complete list with hundreds of links you can follow.

I was losing the useful-information-for-citizens perspective.

So I took some time off, backed up, and wrote the next article. Some details are down there, mostly in the links. But what you really need to know is the big picture.

Starve the Beast, Defund the Left

As I explained in the first article, I have had a hard time finding the right level of alarm to convey about the political battles that have followed the 2010 elections. The sky is not falling, but something new and dangerous is happening. It's easy to pick out the particular outrages that affect your community or your family or your particular interest group, but it's hard to get a handle on what to do unless you understand the big picture. So let me boil it down to bullet points:

  • This is not the normal back-and-forth of liberal/conservative politics.
  • The many different proposals in the various states and at the federal level are part of a unified conservative strategy.
  • That strategy's ultimate goal is the complete dismantling of the public sector.
  • This is the archetypal think-globally-act-locally issue. You need to understand the big picture, and then make common cause with people near you who care about the things you care about: your local schools, your library, the special services your children need, or the infrastructure of your town.
  • Your local concerns then need to make common cause with the local concerns of other people. That's why you need the big picture, so that your energy doesn't get diverted into fighting against someone else's equally valid concerns.

Now let's talk that through, starting from the beginning.

The origin of Starve the Beast. The fundamental economic differences between the two parties go back at least a century, and hardened during the Depression, when Franklin Roosevelt created the federal government we know today: a government that takes responsibility for the welfare of individual citizens through programs like Social Security and unemployment insurance, and is big enough to regulate the corporations.

But although post-Roosevelt Republicans continued to be for lower taxes and smaller government than Democrats wanted, from the 1950s through the 1980s there was broad agreement about government's overall mission. Republicans just wanted government to run more cheaply and efficiently, Democrats more generously. That yin/yang relationship worked fairly well, so losing an occasional election was nothing to get alarmed about. A Republican governor might cut away Democratic mistakes, and leave a more sound foundation on which the next Democrat could build.

In particular, both parties shared a fiscal vision: You decided what the government needed to do, then found taxes to pay for it. Republicans prided themselves on balanced budgets, and often had to raise taxes to achieve them.

Beginning in the Reagan administration, though, a new Republican strategy developed that became known as starve the beast. Traditional Republicans had wanted to cut spending so that they could cut taxes, but starve-the-beast said Republicans should cut taxes first, intentionally create a fiscal emergency, and then use the panic of that emergency to build popular support for spending cuts.

President Reagan pioneered the rhetoric of starve-the-beast, but he didn't practice it. The Reagan tax cuts of 1981 were pitched as a way to raise revenue by stimulating growth. When large deficits emerged instead, Reagan spent the rest of his terms raising taxes to cover them. Bush the First did the same, even though his famous read-my-lips campaign pledge said he wouldn't.

The first authentic beast-starver was Bush the Second. He inherited a budget surplus from President Clinton, destroyed it by cutting taxes and starting wars, and then kept cutting taxes until he handed President Obama a $1.2 trillion deficit and a broken economy.

We are still in the first economic downturn since the starve-the-beast strategy took hold. That's what's new.

Starve-the-Beast tactics. Economic booms raise revenue, while recessions raise government expenses for things like unemployment insurance. So ideally, a government would run a surplus in good times and a deficit in hard times.

If you want to starve the beast, though, you cut taxes in good times so that when the recession starts, the deficit is already at the maximum level acceptable to the public. Then as government revenues drop and expenses rise, you have the fiscal emergency you need to stampede the public into accepting deep cuts in otherwise popular government programs.

State-level starving. The federal government can ride out a recession by borrowing, but states can't. The hidden story of the Obama stimulus was that it countered beast-starvation by passing borrowed funds down to the states.

Now that the stimulus has ended, states face the full force of the unusually deep Bush/Obama recession. Simultaneously, newly elected Tea Party governors are cutting taxes even further on corporations and property owners, intentionally making the fiscal problem worse to extract deeper spending cuts.

Targets. This would all make sense if Republicans had some specific target, some particular government waste that they wanted to eliminate. In fact they don't.

Instead, conservative rhetoric has worked hard to create a vague impression of government waste, without identifying specifics beyond an occasional overpaid bus driver or bridge-to-nowhere whose cost is an infinitesimal fraction of government spending. This leads to the kind of citizen comment Democratic Congressman Paul Tonko faced at a recent townhall meeting: "I find it incredible that out of a $3 trillion budget, we can't find $100 billion to cut." The citizen can't find the cuts-that-won't-hurt-anybody either, but he is sure they must be there.

In fact the target is the entire public sector: public schools, libraries, Social Security, all of it. There is no part of government that someone has not proposed privatizing, including many military functions.

In the current state budget battles, the cuts are largely being pushed onto the schools and Medicaid. Again, this is not because specific wastes have been identified, but because conservative rhetoric insists waste must be in there somewhere.

Defund the Left. Within the beast-starving cuts is a much smaller target list: any money that might find its way back to Democrats. This explains the vehemence of the current assault on public-employee unions: Those unions support Democratic candidates. Ditto for tort reform: Trial lawyers are not just enemies of the big corporations, they are major contributors to Democrats. So anything that decreases the income of lawyers is a double win for Republicans.

The destruction of ACORN and the current attacks on Planned Parenthood and NPR are similar efforts that save minuscule amounts of money, but eliminate liberal infrastructure.

It's worth pointing out that many government contracts go to corporations that support Republican candidates, including Koch Energy, but there is no comparable liberal plan to defund the Right by canceling those contracts.

Local impact. You're likely to face the effects of  budget cuts on a very personal level: teacher lay-offs will give your child fewer curriculum options and more crowded classrooms; your street will have potholes; your union could go away; your library will cut back; emergency services will be slower to arrive; the impact of any personal misfortune will magnify as the social safety net frays.

It's important to realize that these are all effects of starving the beast. It's not an accident or a misfortune, it's a plan. If we don't realize that, we'll all be pitted against each other to maintain our slice of a mysteriously shrinking pie. People who want their school's music program restored will try to take the money from the special education budget, or vice versa. Teachers will resent nurses, or vice versa.

But like musical chairs, this is a manufactured crisis. We have to push and shove only because someone keeps taking chairs away. America continues to be a rich country. We are not broke; there are plenty of chairs. We can have roads and schools and adequate medical care and retirements without poverty. But we can't do that while continually slashing taxes on the rich and the corporations.

Libya: The Third War

After a UN Security Council resolution and with the support of allies including France and Britain, air strikes against Libya started Saturday. The stated purpose of the intervention is to protect civilians who were being killed, mainly by the pro-Qaddafi forces, and President Obama says no U.S. ground troops will be used.

There's a lot we don't know yet: what the full intentions of the coalition are, whether the Qaddafi opposition is coherent enough to put together a government and what kind of government it would be, how solid Qaddafi's support is, and so on. Some of these things might be known by the Obama administration, or might not.

Rather than project my hopes onto facts I don't know, I'll just list my hopes explicitly: I hope that Qaddafi is widely unpopular, and was being kept in power only because his side had the heavy weapons. I hope that air strikes can take out a lot of that weaponry without massive civilian casualties. I hope that Libyans who calculated that Qaddafi would win are changing their calculations and deserting him. I hope the opposition can now overthrow Qaddafi quickly, without foreign troops, and that Western troops not set foot in the country. I hope that a new government can form, can hold the country together, and can give the Libyan people the benefit of that nation's enormous oil wealth.

So far, the main difference between this intervention and the invasion of Iraq is that there is already an indigenous revolution going on; it's not just us taking out somebody we have decided is a bad guy. If that continues to be the story, this could turn out well. If not, it won't.

Watch for developments on BBC and Al Jazeera.

Short Notes

Huffington Post exposes Ashford University, a 76,000-student online money machine that is headquartered in San Diego, but maintains a Potemkin campus in Iowa for 1% of its students. Investors bought the campus, along with its accreditation, from an order of Franciscan nuns whose only alternative was bankruptcy.

Now Ashford runs like one of those mortgage-lending schemes from the real estate bubble. They intensely recruit students who have little chance of college success, sign them up for federal student loans they don't understand, and give them lots of encouragement for the four weeks of enrollment necessary to qualify for the loans.

Some students do eventually get an Ashford degree, for what that's worth, but many drop out and then are surprised to discover they're in debt.

Rep. Anthony Weiner's satirical reaction to the House's defunding of NPR is hilarious.

Things are getting testy on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. A new judge gets elected April 5.

Protesters who went to the home of Wisconsin State Senator Randy Hopper were met by his wife, who says he doesn't live there any more -- he lives in Madison with his mistress. According to one report, the wife and family maid are signing the petition to recall Hopper. The mistress is a 25-year-old woman who recently got a state job making significantly more than her predecessor.

Recall petitions against the Republican state senators are going well, while the corresponding efforts against Democrats are fizzling.

This graphic compares tax cuts to budget cuts.

This strangely amusing Japanese animation explains the stomach ache of Nuclear Boy.

This Week's Challenge

This week as you listen to or read the news, think about the traps of distraction, obsession, and hype. Watch yourself watch the news, and monitor your emotional reactions. Let me know if you identify other traps I should have listed.

The Weekly Sift appears every Monday afternoon. If you would like to receive it by email, write to WeeklySift at Or keep track of the Sift by following the Sift's Facebook page.

Monday, March 14, 2011

I or We?

The way I see it is we've got two choices. I can have my union busted and stand alone and be pitted against my neighbor in a desperate and unequal economy, or WE can come together to say, "This is what our families need. This is what our communities need. This is what a just wage is. This is what democracy looks like."

-- Wisconsin farmer Tony Schultz

at Saturday's 100,000-person rally in Madison

In this week's Sift:

  • Did We Lose? Wisconsin Governor Walker came up with a parliamentary maneuver to pass his union-busting bill without any Democratic support. So in the short term, we lost. But unlike other recent losses, this one leaves a lot to build on.
  • Money and Motivation in Education. It seems like common sense: If you want more from people, reward the top performers. Merit pay, pay-for-performance -- it's called a lot of things. But what if the whole idea behind it is wrong?
  • Short Notes. How many lives have government regulations saved in Japan? Larry Kudlow is grateful that the human toll was worse than the economic toll. NH college students will keep the vote. Why Newt won't be nominated. Bachman gives Lexington and Concord to NH. Domestic oil production isn't providing the answer.
  • This Week's Challenge. Do one thing for democracy this week.

Did We Lose?

Friday, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker signed the union-busting bill that Democrats have been trying to block and the citizens of Wisconsin have been demonstrating against for the last month. He didn't compromise on anything, and also gained vast new powers to regulate the state health care system.

So it looks like we lost that one. Or did we?

How it got done. The 14 Democrats in the state Senate had escaped to Illinois to deny the Senate the quorum it needs to vote on fiscal matters. Despite a new rumor every few days saying that they were about to give in and come back, they didn't. And despite a well-funded propaganda campaign about how they needed to "come back and do their jobs" -- i.e., knuckle under to Governor Walker -- poll after poll showed the people of Wisconsin supporting their position.

Here's how it went down: After weeks of claiming that the union-busting parts of the bill were absolutely essential to close the budget gap, the Republicans reversed themselves, split the union-busting off from the rest of the bill, and then declared that union-busting part was non-fiscal, and so didn't need the 20-senator quorum. They passed it 18-1 in what the Wisconsin State Journal called "a bizarre two-and-a-half hour legislative sprint" that appeared to violate Wisconsin laws about public notice.

Democratic Senator Jon Erpanbach summed up:

They have been saying all along that this is a fiscal item; we've been saying it is not. They have been lying. Their goal is to bust up the unions.

Will it stand? Wisconsin's Open Meetings Law says that public meetings require 24 hours notice unless there is an emergency, and even then two hours are required. The conference committee that split the fiscal and non-fiscal parts of the bill did neither. Worse, notice was provided inside the Capitol at a time when access to the Capitol had been strictly limited.

So there will be a legal challenge, and it's possible the bill will get thrown out. On the other hand, the Senate clerk says everything is OK, and it's not clear that the state courts have the right to call the legislature to account for rules the legislature imposed on itself. I can't predict what will happen.

BTW, this makes the April 5 election of a new state Supreme Court justice way more interesting.

What next? The bill restricts the public-employee unions' ability to collect union dues and requires an annual re-certification election, in addition to taking off the table nearly all the issues that would make workers want to have a union to begin with. So without question, it will kill the unions in the long run.

In the short run though, not much happens other than public employees seeing their take-home pay shrink. (Governor Walker told Sean Hannity workers could make up the difference by not paying union dues: "So, you can use those five or $600 if you are a state employee that you otherwise pay for union dues or up to $1,000 for teachers' union dues, and you can use those if you chose to pay for your health care and your pension contributions.")

Other than what the courts do, the next fight is to recall the eight Republican senators who are eligible for recall. Petitions are circulating, but the process is difficult. Two senators, though, seem to be in real trouble, and their recall would send a serious message.

Energized Democrats. There are a number of lenses through which to see the two major parties: big government vs. small government, government vs. corporations, and so on. The one that paints the Democrats in the best light is: working people against the rich. That's the frame this issue reinforces, and the longer it stays in the headlines, the better for Democrats.

In all these state budget battles, Democrats are for working people, for the public schools that the children of working people attend, for the state universities working people hope to send their kids to, and for unemployment insurance and state health care assistance they will need if they ever lose their jobs. Republicans, meanwhile, are for tax cuts and subsidies for corporations, and against any regulations that will prevent corporations from abusing their workers, cheating their customers, or destroying the environment.

The longer that frame stays in place, the better for the Democrats.

Best of all, for once Democrats did not knuckle under. They lost, but they lost defiantly, determined to continue the battle and win the war. Rank-and-file Democrats are hungry for that kind of backbone -- as was obvious Saturday when nearly 100,000 energized people welcomed the 14 Democratic senators back to Madison.

Contrast this with other recent progressive losses -- for example, when the public option was removed from the health care plan. Then we were left feeling depressed and leaderless, because our leaders were the ones telling us we'd have to give in. Is it any wonder Democratic turnout was low in 2010?

I think Walker expected that pattern to repeat. The polls would back him, the Democrats would come back to Madison with their tails between their legs, and we'd all feel depressed again. That didn't happen. Instead, Walker had to pull a fast one to get his way.

Tactics. The important question is what to do with this energy and how to keep it going. Initially, I worried that there would be violence after the legislative chicanery. But through some combination of leadership and good sense among the rank-and-file, that hasn't happened.

Obviously, recalling the Republican senators is an important political move.

There has even been talk of a general strike --  a phrase that (until this week) I had not heard used seriously in the United States in my lifetime. I'm still doubtful this will happen, and I'm undecided about whether it would be a good idea. But it shows where we've gotten to: Tactics from the earliest days of the labor movement are relevant again, because (like then) the survival of the labor movement is at stake.

Lesser actions are already happening. For example, unions are urging people to take their money out of the M&I bank, which has been a major Walker supporter. The M&I boycott home page is here. The full boycott list is here. (This morning, I sold my IRA's shares in one of the boycott companies, Johnson Controls.)

What you can do. MoveOn is raising money to support the Wisconsin recall movement. You can contribute here. When I checked this morning, they were just short of $1 million.

Tomorrow, Defend the American Dream demonstrations are planned around the country to protest the ongoing attacks on the middle class disguised as state and federal budget proposals. You can find one near you here.

One way to get rich is to inherit Koch Energy from your Dad. Another way is to start out with next to nothing and use your talent to write books people enjoy reading. Strangely, the people who take these different paths look at the world differently.

Stephen King, well known as a Mainer but also a Florida snowbird, spoke to an Awake the State rally in Sarasota Tuesday. The purpose of the rally was to raise energy against the budget proposed by new Tea Party Governor Rick Scott. King said:

You might say "hey what are you doing up there, aren't you rich?" The answer is, "thank God, yes" ...  And you know what, as a rich person I pay 28 percent [federal] tax. What I want to ask you is: Why am I not paying 50? Why is everybody in my bracket not paying 50?

Scott's budget is perhaps the most naked class-war attack of any of the new Tea Party governors, because it is clearly not about closing a deficit. He proposes billions in new tax cuts for businesses and property owners while cutting public education and Medicaid, as well as cutting benefits for state workers. Scott intends Florida's business taxes to go away completely by 2018.

Conservative rhetoric says that soaring compensation for public employees is bankrupting the states. Is there anything to that? Well, no. The Center for American Progress gets numbers from the U. S. Census Bureau and graphs total worker compensation as a percentage of state spending: It's been heading slowly downward since 1992, from around 23% then to a little less than 20% now.

The states are in trouble because revenue collapsed during the recession and hasn't completely recovered. No matter how many times you hear someone say, "We don't have a revenue problem", we have a revenue problem. Tax cuts just make it worse.

Comparisons have been made between the Wisconsin legislative maneuver and the Democrats passing health care reform through the reconciliation process. There are similarities, but also some important differences: The Democrats' maneuver was discussed in public long before it happened. At the time it happened, anybody who was paying attention knew what was going on. And finally, the legal justifications of the maneuver were made in public before the fact, not afterwards.

I can't resist pointing out the time-honored history of the general strike. History's first recorded general strike was the Aventine Secession of 494 BC that resulted in the establishment of the Roman tribunes, ten plebeian officials who had veto power to protect the common people.

Department of Corrections. Last week I said:

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

This turns out not to be true, as a commenter pointed out to me. I was fooled by the fact that the budget gap was $137 million and Walker had just passed a $140 million corporate tax cut. But the the cut is for the next fiscal cycle.

I stand by the larger point of the article -- that Walker took a fairly minor budget gap and used it as an excuse for solidifying Republican power in ways that had nothing to do with the budget.

Money and Motivation in Education

The best video I saw this week -- both for content and technique -- was Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. It's 11 minutes long, has fascinating content, and demonstrates what you can do with low-tech animation tools like a whiteboard and fast forward. It's from a talk Daniel Pink gave at RSA almost a year ago, and apparently almost 5 million people saw it before I heard about it. (I've got to get better connected.)

The economic "common sense" that keeps popping up in both business and government says you can get people to work harder and produce more if you reward the top performers with more money and penalize or fire the poorest performers. This creates a king-of-the-hill environment where everybody scrambles to be the best.

Well, research shows that this only works if the task is mechanical and repetitive. If you're paying people to dig ditches or stack up cinder blocks, they'll dig or stack faster if it affects their pay.

But if the task involves skill or thought, the reverse happens: pay-for-performance actually makes performance worse. Money will get you to pay more attention to a task you don't want to do. But if you already want to succeed, money just mucks things up. (Ask any golfer standing over a million-dollar putt.)

Pink explains:

The best use of money as a motivator is to give people enough to take the issue of money off the table. Pay people enough so that they're not thinking about money and they're thinking about the work. Once you do that, there are three factors that the science shows lead to better performance, not to mention personal satisfaction: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

OK, now let's look at this week's news: Florida legislators want to rate public-school teachers half on their principal's opinion and half on student test scores. High-rated teachers will be paid more, while poorly rated teachers will be paid less or fired.

This is a great idea if teaching is a mechanical job like ditch-digging or block-stacking. If teachers aren't interested in seeing their students learn, then we can pay for performance so that they get interested and work harder at the rote task of teaching.

On the other hand, what if teachers already want to teach? What if good teaching requires thought and creativity? Well, then, Pink's research says you would get better results if you just paid the teachers decently and got out of the way. Give them autonomy to try out their own ideas. Encourage them to master their profession and find a sense of purpose in the success of their students.

But rather than compare just-so stories from both sides, let's look at data. Since 2007, New York City has been trying out merit pay for teachers. Public and private sources came up with an extra $75 million for incentives. A Harvard economist (who was originally optimistic about the incentives) analyzed the results and concluded: "If anything, student achievement declined."

The economist believes differently-structured incentives still might succeed, but a commenter on the news report about this study has a different analysis:

The idea of merit pay includes an underlying assumption that teachers are operating at well below their capacity: in other words, merit pay should only be expected to work if teachers are, in fact, mostly being lazy, and are capable of much better work simply by applying themselves.
That assumption is pretty clearly embedded in the US' current public image of teachers. My own experience as an educator, however, indicates that such teachers are actually a minority of the active field of teachers. Most of the teachers I work with are working pretty near their capacity (and so couldn't be realistically expected to raise their performance in response to any sort of incentive…)

An interesting sidebar here is that the same people who believe in merit pay are also likely to believe in reforms that make teaching more mechanical and less emotionally rewarding: uniform curricula, tightly scripted lesson plans, frequent testing, and so on. Perversely, they could end up creating a situation in which their ideas pan out. Teaching could be turned into a dull, mechanical job that nobody really wants to do. And then financial incentives would make a difference.

Short Notes

I'm assuming you already know everything I do about the Japanese earthquake. JM Ashley adds this point: The headline you'll never see is Strict Government Regulations Save Millions of Lives. But that might well be the truth. Japan's building codes include a high level of earthquake-proofing, and they've done a massive amount of public education regarding disaster preparedness. As bad as this has been, imagine how a libertarian Japan would be faring.

It's hard to grasp the scale of the quake, but these numbers give you an idea: Much of the coastline of Japan's main island of Honshu seems to have moved about 8 feet, and the earth's axis shifted by 4 inches. And if you think time is speeding up, you're right: An earth-day is now 1.8 millionths of a second shorter. But Dan McNamara of the U. S. Geological Service says some of the claims for the earthquake are overblown.

CNBC's free-market cheerleader Larry Kudlow comments on the impact of the quake: "The human toll here looks to be much worse than the economic toll and we can be grateful for that."  Or at least Larry can be grateful that he has more invested more in stocks than in people.

In addition to busting unions, another element of the Republican plan to solidify power is to make it harder to vote. (Marginal voters tend to vote for Democrats.) Here in New Hampshire, we've managed to scrap a plan to disenfranchise college students.

Nate Silver explains why Newt Gingrich won't be the Republican nominee: He has no base, and his high unfavorability ratings make him a poor dark horse candidate if the early leaders falter.

Speaking of Newt, Salon has graphed "wives per GOP presidential candidate, 1988-2012". It starts at 1.17, drops to 1 in 1992, and then starts its inexorable climb to 1.8 in 2012.

The drill-baby-drill crowd knows what we have to do to protect the country from high oil prices: Increase domestic production. Guess what? We did. US oil production in 2010 was the highest since 2003, up more than 10% from its low in 2008. Have you noticed any decrease in gas prices at the pump?

Michelle Bachmann continues to do everything necessary to run for president. She just got endorsed by an Iowa state senator who the Iowa Independent describes as "a favorite of Iowa's evangelical conservatives and tea partiers".

And then she came to New Hampshire and congratulated us on the battles of Lexington and Concord. Actually that was Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, but we have a Concord in NH too, so what's the big deal?

This Week's Challenge

Don't be passive this week. Whether you support my positions or not, do something to participate in democracy: Go to a demonstration, contribute to a fund, write a letter to the editor, call your representatives, boycott something, or whatever. Don't just wish things would get better. If you want, post a comment about what you did.

The Weekly Sift appears every Monday afternoon. If you would like to receive it by email, write to WeeklySift at Or keep track of the Sift by following the Sift's Facebook page.

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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