The Gross Maldistribution Of Wealth

This comment, left at Robert Reich's blog in response to this post, is about the best description of how we got here, and where we are headed if we don't do something drastic:
Jennifer said...

Funny, the one observation I don't see anyone in the media or government making is this one: when you get to a certain level of wealth disparity, consumer economies cease to function. I'm not an economist, so maybe I'm just naive, but it appears to me that the reason for both the mortgage mess and the resultant mortgage-backed securities mess has the same proximate cause: gross maldistribution of wealth. By 1998, the wealthiest 10% of Americans owned 70% of the nation's wealth, while the poorest 40% owned 2/10ths of 1% of the nation's wealth. That should have been a red flag - when almost half of the people in the country have no wealth (discretionary income), you aren't going to have the level of discretionary spending necessary to keep a consumer economy moving. This could have been addressed by smart policy. Instead, we got the Bush administration, whose answer to the problem was to shift even more wealth to that top 10%, via income and estate and various other tax cuts. From the time the recession started in early 2001, there was no action to move the needle back in the other direction to stimulate consumer demand. Meanwhile, while US productivity rose by some 20% from 2000 - 2007, the workers responsible for those gains got none of them. Their wages remained stagnant as gas rose by 300%, health insurance by 100%, food by 50%, home heating by 100%...people were going into debt just to keep up with paying for the bare necessities of living, not for profligate consumer spending. As noted, consumer spending remained rather flat throughout the period. How many times did we hear that "housing is the engine driving the economy!!!"? That was the case because every other sector wasn't gaining ground at all. The question that a lot of us ordinary folks were asking at the time - not the finacial "experts" at the WSJ or on CNBC - was "how is this possible"? How could people so maxed out in consumer debt that they couldn't afford to buy more cheap Chinese crap at Wal-Mart afford to buy $300,000 houses?

The answer is, obviously, they couldn't.

Here's where the wealth maldistribution enters into the picture. If you think of the economy as a poker game, where one guy is sitting on all the chips, the only way the game can keep going is if he loans some of his chips to the other players. This is what was going on in the mortgage lending boom. The few guys who had all the money were finding problems with where to put all that money where it would earn a return. With consumer sectors of the economy remaining flat...well, you can't earn a return in manufacturing or retail when everyone is too maxed out in debt to buy your product. So, they threw that money into the mortgage market instead, on the theory that real estate is always a "safe" investment, since it is a tangible asset that "always" increases or holds its value. Unless, of course, the people to whom you're loaning money to buy that asset can't afford it and default. Even then, it's not a problem if the default rate stays low - you can just re-sell the asset. But when everyone has the same idea, the demand for borrowers exerts downward pressure on lending standards, more and more of the borrowers are bad risks, and when they default, there's no one remaining who's qualified for buying the asset - and certainly not at the current inflated value.

I suspect the same thing happened with the mortgage-backed securities boom - the few people who have all the money couldn't find any better place to put it to generate a return, so they threw it into an investment backed by a house of cards - or in this case, backed by a lot of houses of cards.

Bottom line: too few people have too much of the money, and it's stifling the economy for all of us. The maddening thing is that policy implemented thus far seems geared over all else towards making sure they don't lose any of that money, which is not going to do diddly-squat to get things moving again. Loaning more money to people who can't afford to pay off what they owe now is a joke. Levelling the playing field is what's required. Unless, of course, we're content to become a second- or third-world nation in terms of wealth distribution. I don't know about the rest of you, but living in a cardboard shack beside an open running sewer in a shantytown, so that a handful of billionaires and multi-millionaires can sit on piles of money so large they'll never be able to possibly spend it all, has never been my idea of the American dream. The irony is that if their vision of the American dream were ever fulfilled, those piles of money they're sitting on would be very much smaller. I suppose that's not a problem, as long as they continue to have a lot more than everyone else has.
Reich gets some pretty smart comments on his blog. Many of the commenters there praised Jennifer for this comment, and posted it on their blogs. I am doing it too. She's a smart cookie!

General Eric K. Shinseki: The Right Stuff

Spencer Ackerman, who knows a thing or two about today's military, says:
"To say this is an inspired choice underscores its magnitude. Shinseki's personal courage and virtue are close to unparalleled in the current generation of general officers. He knows the sacrifices of war personally, as he left part of his right foot in Vietnam. The new generation of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans -- already underserved by the country that sent them to war -- can know that he has their backs. After all, before the war began, he all but ended his career (Rumsfeld had announced his successor months before after they feuded over the Crusader artillery system) by telling Congress that the indefinite occupation of Iraq would require hundreds of thousands of troops to keep the peace, far beyond the antiseptic and now-discredited estimates of the Bush administration. At his retirement ceremony, Shinseki gave a prescient and impassioned speech imploring the Pentagon to "beware a 12-division strategy for a 10-division Army."

Last year, an exemplary soldier named Paul Yingling wrote a scathing essay indicting the generals who acquiesced to the Bush administration's inadequate plans for the occupation. It was titled "A Failure in Generalship." Yingling accused the current generation of generals of cowardice, egotism, careerism and dereliction of duty, putting self-interested deference to the administration before integrity, intellectual honesty and service to both the frontline soldier, sailor, airman and marine and the country itself. Ric Shinseki was the man who stood against this unfortunate trend, and he paid for his integrity with his career. To see him vindicated is to witness a proud moment in American history."
Many on the left are whining about Obama's appointments. I am not. I am happy with every appointment he has made. Shinseki, if you remember, was the guy who told Bush that Iraq would require hundreds of thousands of troops; Rumsfeld and Bush disagreed with him, and made Shinseki out to be an imbecile. And now the guy will run Veteran's Affairs. Got hope? I say yes!

Update: Here is Obama taling about Shinseki on MTP:

ObamaTube III: Public Works Edition


Ken Robinson: The Education Revolution

W: Murphy's Law Personified

Hertzberg On Education

As usual, Hertzberg gives us the straight dope:
Size Matters

In the Times this morning, David Brooks writes:
As in many other areas, the biggest education debates are happening within the Democratic Party. On the one hand, there are the reformers like Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee, who support merit pay for good teachers, charter schools and tough accountability standards. On the other hand, there are the teachers’ unions and the members of the Ed School establishment, who emphasize greater funding, smaller class sizes and superficial reforms.
I have to go with the teachers’ unions (boo!) and the Ed School establishment (hiss!) on this one.

Short of abolishing the whole crazy system of local school boards financed by local property taxes and replacing it with an all-powerful national Ministry of Education financed by the federal income tax, I’ve always believed that the best feasible “educational reform” is, precisely, smaller class sizes.

This is not hard to understand. Every teacher and every student knows that the smaller the class, the better the learning environment. Each kid gets more attention. Discipline and control are far easier to achieve. Disruptive kids have less scope for mischief. Teachers are happier and more likely to stay in the profession.

Moreover, class size is incredibly easy to measure. By contrast, measuring things like which teachers are good is extremely problematic. How do you measure which are the good teachers, short of placing a philosopher of education (or a senior fellow from the Heritage Foundation) in every schoolroom to take notes? Well, you can do it “subjectively,” by having principals or other authority figures make the evaluations, or you can do it “objectively,” by having kids take tests and comparing the results to I’m not sure what—last year’s results? how other, similarly situated kids are doing?

Either way, you’ve got problems. The subjective approach opens the door to favoritism, cronyism, and brownnosing. The objective approach means having lots of tests and teaching “to” them, with the inevitable accompanying distortions and creativity-crushing. “Accountability” may weed out very bad teachers, but it’ll also weed out very good ones, who’ll find lines of work that give their talents freer rein.

I’m not against merit pay or charter schools or accountability. Let a hundred flowers bloom. But the tools of national policy are imprecise. Making classes smaller is a totally clear goal, a totally measurable goal, and, conceptually, a totally achievable goal. The same cannot be said of fuzzier concepts like merit and accountability.

Of course, the problem with the class-size approach is that, as Brooks suggests, it costs money. You have to build more classrooms and hire more teachers. Still, at a time of crumbling infrastructure, rising unemployment, and universal demands for more public spending, what’s wrong with that?
Hertzberg hits on the important point--imprecision! I have talked about imprecision before regarding academic language that ought to be used in elementary school, but is not in favor of things like Lucy Calkins and Everyday Math, programs that rename things we already have names for (check my labels for Lucy Calkins or Everyday math for more).

Of course Hertzberg is talking about something else when he talks about the imprecision of the tools of national policy; but the 2 notions abut. Imprecision is problematic, and the more we teach, or make policy without precision the wider the gaps (especially the achievement one) will gape.

Obama coined the phrase "silly season" and I think we ought to begin using it more. The Rhees and Kleins of the "reform movement" lack precision, and therefore target the fish in the barrel--the teachers. That just seems like silly season!

Listen to Rick, and me, and start thinking about how, precisely, you would like our youth to grow up: taught to take a test, or taught to understand and learn. Those are your stark choices. Be precise!

Tenure As Stupid As Parents

Parents For America
by Leo Casey

There is an old, tired trope of the education deformer crowd that fawns over Michelle Rhee like star struck 1960s teeny-boppers swooning at the feet of Paul McCartney: they care about the children, while everybody else [read: teachers and their unions] only care about the adults connected to education. Here is the latest rendition at The Quick and The Ed.

The Rhees and Kleins of the world cared so much about the children that they couldn’t wait to get out of the classroom, and as a consequence learned not a thing about the teaching craft.

Luke Laurie, Santa Barbara County Teacher of the Year in California and a science teacher, had a particularly witty response to this thinking on the listserv of the Teachers’ Network Leadership Institute:
To say that tenure only benefits adults and has no benefit for kids, is like saying that a stable home provides no benefit for children. Why don’t we just go into homes and take out those unqualified parents every few years and replace them with young, smart and motivated “Parents for America” who will raise these kids right?


Thursday Cartoon Fun

Die, Creativity! Die!

So, we chase Asia's test scores:
Whereas U.S. schools are now encouraged, even forced, to chase after test scores, China, Singapore, South Korea, and Japan—all named as major competitors—have started education reforms aimed at fostering more creativity and innovative thinking among their citizens. China, for example, has taken drastic measures to reform its curriculum. As the United States raised the status of standardized testing to a record high in 2001 with No Child Left Behind, the Chinese Ministry of Education issued an executive order to significantly minimize the consequences of testing (2002). As the United States pushes for more centralized curriculum standards, China is abandoning its one nation—one syllabus tradition. As the United States moves toward a required program of study for high schools, China is working hard to implement a flexible system with more electives and choices for students. As the United States calls for more homework and more study time, China has launched a battle to reduce such burdens on its students.
What do we do now? Go read Fixing The Wrong Things.

The Charter School Fallacy Exposed!

Here is a great piece exposing the nonsense about charter schools. Read it, and support your local teacher!
Charter Schools in Minnesota: Do they measure up?

Here's the standard rap from advocates of educational reform:

The public system needs to have some competition in order to perform better. Post-secondary institutions exist in a competitive environment, and they represent America's highest achievement in terms of educational excellence. We need to do the same thing in secondary and primary schools in order to jolt the public
sector back to life.

So begins the argument for Charter schools, if not, depending on the agenda of the advocate, of public sponsored school vouchers for parents that would allow their children to attend private schools with public dollars.

And, in truth, it is a persuasive sounding argument. Markets have worked almost universally across the board in other areas of our society--well, until very recently, at least. And, given the magnitude of the crash that seems to be engulfing private capital markets, maybe the argument for Charter schools is about to undergo a seismic shift.

But, let's examine the Charter as public competition model argument.

The very yardstick by which public schools are being bashed, standardized test scores, is also now being applied to charter schools. And, as I might have guessed, being a strong opponent of standardized exams as a measure of anything of real value in education, charter schools are not doing that well. In fact, they are underperforming the public system here in Minnesota.

Here's the money graf for those too lazy to click the link:

But a study released today by the University of Minnesota's Institute on Race and Poverty finds that most charter schools have fallen short of that promise and perform worse than comparable district schools on state tests. In the process, it said, charters also intensify racial and economic segregation and compound the problem by encouraging districts to compete by creating ethnic niche programs.

"So many people are seeing charter schools as a solution to poor, segregated neighborhoods," said Myron Orfield, the institute's executive director. "The sad part is, they're getting these kids to switch schools and then they're doing worse" than district schools.

Readers should understand that Minnesota pioneered charter schools back in the early 1990s, and since then has been a leader in devising new and innovative ways to bring charter schools into the public arena. The fact that, in this state, charter schools are notscoring well on standardized exams is a cause for great concern, among editors, among legislators and among educators and parents.

What's more, given that it has been shown that charter schools increase racial and ethnic segregation--rather dramatically--there are now serious and important questions being raised about where we are going with the charter experiment.

To wit: if charters don't improve test scores, and if they serve to exacerbate segregation and class separation in all our public schools, just what benefit are we getting out of the competitive model?

Sure, some parents are very happy with charter schools and there is no doubt in my mind that some charters are excellent places to send children--innovative, personal, life-changing. But, remember, charters are being held out as "game changers" for the entire system, not just for the lucky few who have a quality charter in their area. We have to worry about the impacts on the whole system.

Thus, it is more than past time to do one of two things:

a. admit that the idea that charter schools necessarily increase excellence in traditional academics should not be assumed to be true--and indeed, that they increase competition for academic excellence is therefore also not true.

b. have a "come to Jesus" moment about the importance of test scores in measuring academic success and personal development.
We have to acknowledge, twenty years later that something is not right in the current debate about education reform. Either we are wrong about competition, or, we are wrong about measuring success in such a narrow way. Or, as I firmly believe, we are wrong on both counts: education is not a competition and you cannot improve it by pitting one group, one school, one community against another. And, relying on test scores as a measure of your overall level of excellence is akin totrusting "the system" more than the human beings who are, after all,the very foundation and reason for creating a system in the first place.

It's time to go back to the drawing board America, and remember why it is that we have schools in the first place. That is: to give children every opportunity to contribute something valuable to their families, their communities and their nation. Until we remember that, we will be treading water, if not getting sucked down the mighty vortex of systemic corruption that is currently suffocating our economy.


Michael Moore: Let Us Buy The Auto Companies

We could buy them?
You could buy all the common shares of stock in General Motors for less than $3 billion. Why should we give GM $18 billion or $25 billion or anything? Take the money and buy the company! (You're going to demand collateral anyway if you give them the "loan," and because we know they will default on that loan, you're going to own the company in the end as it is. So why wait? Just buy them out now.)
Let's Buy the Big Three
by Michael Moore
December 3, 2008 | 10:49am

What would it take for you, Congress, to drive off the lot with a new car company today?

I drive an American car. It's a Chrysler. That's not an endorsement. It's more like a cry for pity. And now for a decades-old story, retold ad infinitum by tens of millions of Americans, half of whom have had to desert their country to simply find a damn way to get to work in something that won't break down:

My Chrysler is four years old. I bought it because of its smooth and comfortable ride. Daimler-Benz owned the company then and had the good grace to place the Chrysler chassis on a Mercedes axle and, man, was that a sweet ride!

When it would start.

More than a dozen times in these years, the car has simply died. Batteries have been replaced, but that wasn't the problem. My dad drives the same model. His car has died many times, too. Just won't start, for no reason at all.

Let me just state the obvious: Every single dollar Congress gives these three companies will be flushed right down the toilet.

A few weeks ago, I took my Chrysler in to the Chrysler dealer here in northern Michigan—and the latest fixes cost me $1,400. The next day, the vehicle wouldn't start. When I got it going, the brake warning light came on. And on and on.

You might assume from this that I couldn't give a rat's ass about these miserably inept crapmobile makers down the road in Detroit city. But I do care. I care about the millions whose lives and livelihoods depend on these car companies. I care about the security and defense of this country because the world is running out of oil—and when it runs out, the calamity and collapse that will take place will make the current recession/depression look like a Tommy Tune musical.

And I care about what happens with the Big 3 because they are more responsible than almost anyone for the destruction of our fragile atmosphere and the daily melting of our polar ice caps.

Congress must save the industrial infrastructure that these companies control and the jobs they create. And it must save the world from the internal combustion engine. This great, vast manufacturing network can redeem itself by building mass transit and electric/hybrid cars, and the kind of transportation we need for the 21st century.

And Congress must do all this by NOT giving GM, Ford, and Chrysler the $34 billion they are asking for in "loans" (a few days ago they only wanted $25 billion; that's how stupid they are—they don't even know how much they really need to make this month's payroll. If you or I tried to get a loan from the bank this way, not only would we be thrown out on our ear, the bank would place us on some sort of credit rating blacklist).

Two weeks ago, the CEOs of the Big 3 were tarred and feathered before a congressional committee who sneered at them in a way far different than when the heads of the financial industry showed up two months earlier. At that time, the politicians tripped over each other in their swoon for Wall Street and its Ponzi schemers who had concocted Byzantine ways to bet other people's money on unregulated credit default swaps, known in the common vernacular as unicorns and fairies.

But the Detroit boys were from the Midwest, the Rust (yuk!) Belt, where they made real things that consumers needed and could touch and buy, and that continually recycled money into the economy (shocking!), produced unions that created the middle class, and fixed my teeth for free when I was ten.

For all of that, the auto heads had to sit there in November and be ridiculed about how they traveled to D.C. Yes, they flew on their corporate jets, just like the bankers and Wall Street thieves did in October. But, hey, that was OK!—they’re the Masters of the Universe! Nothing but the best chariots for Big Finance as they set about looting our nation's treasury.

Of course, the auto magnates used to be the Masters who ruled the world. They were the pulsating hub that all other industries—steel, oil, cement contractors—served. Fifty-five years ago, the president of GM sat on that same Capitol Hill and bluntly told Congress that what's good for General Motors is good for the country. Because, you see, in their minds, GM was the country.

What a long, sad fall from grace we witnessed on November 19, when the three blind mice had their knuckles slapped and then were sent back home to write an essay called "Why You Should Give Me Billions of Dollars of Free Cash." They were also asked if they would work for a dollar a year. Take that! What a big, brave Congress they are! Requesting indentured servitude from (still) three of the most powerful men in the world. This from a spineless body that won't dare stand up to a disgraced president nor turn down a single funding request for a war that neither they nor the American public support. Amazing.

Let me just state the obvious: Every single dollar Congress gives these three companies will be flushed right down the toilet. There is nothing the management teams of the Big Three are going to do to convince people to go out during a recession and buy their big, gas-guzzling, inferior products. Just forget it. And, as sure as I am that the Ford family-owned Detroit Lions are not going to the Super Bowl—ever—I can guarantee you, after they burn through this $34 billion, they'll be back for another $34 billion next summer.

So what to do? Members of Congress, here's what I propose:

1. Transporting Americans is and should be one of the most important functions our government must address. And because we are facing a massive economic, energy, and environmental crisis, the new president and Congress must do what Franklin Roosevelt did when he was faced with a crisis (and ordered the auto industry to stop building cars and instead build tanks and planes): The Big 3 are, from this point forward, to build only cars that are not primarily dependent on oil and, more important, to build trains, buses, subways, and light rail (a corresponding public works project across the country will build the rail lines and tracks). This will not only save jobs, but create millions of new ones.

2. You could buy all the common shares of stock in General Motors for less than $3 billion. Why should we give GM $18 billion or $25 billion or anything? Take the money and buy the company! (You're going to demand collateral anyway if you give them the "loan," and because we know they will default on that loan, you're going to own the company in the end as it is. So why wait? Just buy them out now.)

3. None of us want government officials running a car company, but there are some very smart transportation geniuses who could be hired to do this. We need a Marshall Plan to switch us off oil-dependent vehicles and get us into the 21st century.

This proposal is not radical or rocket science. It just takes one of the smartest people ever to run for the presidency to pull it off. What I'm proposing has worked before. The national rail system was in shambles in the '70s. The government took it over. A decade later it was turning a profit, so the government returned it to private/public hands, and got a couple billion dollars put back in the treasury.

This proposal will save our industrial infrastructure—and millions of jobs. More important, it will create millions more. It literally could pull us out of this recession.

In contrast, yesterday General Motors presented its restructuring proposal to Congress. They promised if Congress gave them $18 billion now, they would, in turn, eliminate around 20,000 jobs. You read that right. We give them billions so they can throw more Americans out of work. That's been their Big Idea for the last 30 years—lay off thousands in order to protect profits. But no one ever stopped to ask this question: If you throw everyone out of work, who's going to have the money to go out and buy a car?

These idiots don't deserve a dime. Fire all of them, and take over the industry for the good of the workers, the country, and the planet.

What's good for General Motors is good for the country. Once the country is calling the shots.

Invest In Human Capital

Reich makes an all to overlooked point about investments: They are/should not always be financial. In fact, with all the accounting going on it seems ridiculous that those who created NCLB are not being held to account for the horrors being visited upon teachers and students of those teachers...
Of Financial Capital and Human Capital: Why We're Bailing Out Wall Street While Allowing Our Schools to Get Clobbered

Our preoccupation with the immediate crisis of financial capital is causing us to overlook the bigger crisis in America's human capital. While we commit hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars to Wall Street, we're slashing our outlays for public education.

Education is largely funded by state and local governments whose revenues are plummeting. As consumers cut back, state sales and income taxes are shrinking; three quarters of the states are already facing budget crises. On average, state revenues account for half of public school budgets, and most of the funding of public colleges and universities. On top of this, home values are dropping, which means local property taxes are also taking a hit. Local property taxes account for 40 percent of local school budgets.

The result: Schools are being closed, teachers laid off, after-school programs cut, so-called “noncritical” subjects like history eliminated, and tuitions hiked at state colleges.

It's absurd. We’re bailing out every major bank to get financial capital flowing again. But we’re squeezing the main sources of our nation's human capital. Yet America's future competitiveness and the standard of living of our people depend largely our peoples’ skills, and our capacities to communicate and solve problems and innovate – not on our ability to borrow money.

What’s more, our human capital is rooted here, while financial capital moves around the globe at the speed of an electronic blip. Right now global capital markets are frozen, but the big money -- mostly in Asia and the Middle East -- and will come here, bailout or no bailout. At this point it's coming back as purchases of dollars or in the form of T-bills that are financing the Wall Street bailout. Eventually American assets will become so cheap that the money will come rushing here to buy up the bargains.

It’s our human capital that’s in short supply. And without adequate public funding, the supply will shrink further. Don't get me wrong: I’m not saying funding is everything when it comes to education. Obviously, accountability is important. But without adequate funding we can’t attract talented people into teaching, or keep class sizes small enough to give kids a real chance to learn, or provide them with a well-rounded curriculum, and ensure that every qualified young person can go to college.

So why are we bailing out Wall Street and not our nation’s public schools and colleges? Partly because the crisis in financial capital is immediate while our human capital crisis is unfolding gradually. But maybe it's also because we don’t have a central banker for America’s human capital – someone who warns us as loudly as Ben Bernanke did a few months ago when he was talking about Wall Street's meltdown, of the dire consequences that will follow if we don’t come up with the dough.
The reason, Bob, that we don't seem to care, is that we don't care!

Green technology seems attractive now because of pragmatism. Education funding has never seemed pragmatic, and with those who would blame teachers for all the ills of society, pragmatism won't enter into the fold any time soon. But, until pragmatism induces us to do something, e will continue the path of least resistance--blame schools.

Odetta: R.I.P.

NEW YORK — Odetta, the folk singer with the powerful voice who moved audiences and influenced fellow musicians for a half-century, has died. She was 77.

Odetta died Tuesday of heart disease at Lenox Hill Hospital, said her manager of 12 years, Doug Yeager. She was admitted to the hospital with kidney failure about three weeks ago, he said.


Where Do Schools Get All That Money?

From eduwonkette:
Guest blogger Sean Corcoran on: Private Donations to Public Schools
Sean Corcoran is an economist who teaches at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development at NYU.

One of my all-time favorite bumper stickers is the now-classic:

To my knowledge, the Air Force has yet to experiment with bake sales. But—according to three papers presented at last month’s National Tax Association meeting in Philadelphia—private contributions through local education foundations have become a significant source of operating funds for many of the country’s public schools.

Education foundations are not your grandmother’s PTA. School foundations organize as 501(c)(3) corporations, and in some cases mount sophisticated fund-raising campaigns, soliciting contributions from local businesses, parents, and philanthropies. Foundations fund more than occasional trips to the zoo, paying to supplement instructional programs, offer scholarships, and provide extra pay to recruit and retain teachers.

School foundations have grown over time. According to a 2005 report by Eric Brunner and Jennifer Imazeki, contributions to California school foundations rose from $123 million in 1992 to $238 million in 2001. If these contributions were divided up evenly statewide, they would amount to only $40 per child. Of course—as Brunner and Imazeki point out—these contributions are far from evenly distributed. Donations are strongly related to family income, and in some cases they are quite high, at more than $250 to $500 per student. (You can read about the $3.3 million education foundation in Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District here).

What explains the growth in private foundations? Two papers presented at the NTA meeting offer some hints. Julie Golebiewski of Syracuse University linked foundation giving in California to the restrictiveness of tax limitations in that state (the famous Proposition 13). In a nutshell, she finds that school districts that would have spent more on schools in the absence of the limitation were much more likely to raise funds through private foundations. Similarly, Tom Downes of Tufts found that private contributions in Vermont were highest in wealthy districts who—under their 1997 finance reform—would have been penalized for taxing themselves at higher rates.

Why do these education foundations matter? I find them interesting for several reasons. First, they stand in sharp contrast to the usual claim that school spending is out of control, and that teachers are adequately paid. If this were true, how can we account for the growth in voluntary contributions to public schools (some of which is channeled to teacher compensation)?

Second, foundations have the potential to undo school finance formulas designed to equalize educational opportunities. The evidence on school foundations suggests that communities with a high demand for school quality (or relative school quality) will find a way to meet this demand, regardless of the rules put before them. Thus, a policy based on promoting equity will not necessarily result in greater equity.

Finally, school foundations are likely to grow in importance as public education continues to decentralize control to individual schools. Charter schools and schools funded through a “weighted student” formula may come to rely on private giving whenever public funds are insufficient to meet the unique demands of their constituencies. As a result, school policies designed to level the playing field may end up tipping the balance in favor of schools most able to mobilize private resources. (For a terrific example from New York City, see this chapter by one of my colleagues Amy Schwartz).

Whether or not local school foundations will play a major role in the future of school funding remains to be seen. Eduwonkette readers, what do you think? Do private contributions play a role in your school district? Should they?

Commence Union Busting

From Think Progress. Michelle Rhee must be happy!
Bush strips collective bargaining rights from federal employees

Yesterday, President Bush issued an executive order “that denies collective bargaining rights to about 8,600 federal employees who work in law enforcement, intelligence and other agencies responsible for national security.” 900 of the employees affected were already represented by collective bargaining units. Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said that employees “had their collective bargaining rights stripped away for no justifiable reason.” For more on Bush’s last-minute regulations, orders, and proposed rule changes, check out ThinkProgress’ updated report: “Bush’s Backward Sprint To The Finish.”


The Presidents

Consumers Have Gone On Strike

The eminently qualified Robert Reich explains things so simply. He should think of teaching!
The Great Crash of 2008

If this isn't a Great Crash I don't know how to define one. Stocks were down another 7 percent today. Since the peak of last year, major stock indexes have dropped 47 percent. We're in range of the Great Crash of 1929.

Why is the Great Crash of 2008 happening? First, because investors are beginning to understand the enormity of the bubble economy that began to form in the late 1990s when all contraints were lifted on borrowing in order to buy everything that was assumed to be increasing in value -- starting with houses and including securities and shares of stock themselves. So-called "margin requirements," first instituted in the wake of the Great Crash of 1929, were all but abandoned, as big banks and hedge funds found ways around them.

Even more important, investors are starting to fathom the emptiness of American consumers' wallets. Retail sales last Friday and Saturday -- the first days of the Christmas buying season -- were disappointing. Had retailers not discounted to the point of taking losses, sales would have been abysmal. In other words, consumers have gone on strike.

Why have they gone on strike? Not because of the difficulty of getting credit. Most consumers can barely afford to pay the interest charges on the debt they're already carrying. Consumers have gone on strike because their earnings haven't kept up. The recovery that officially ended December, 2007 (the National Bureau of Economic Research now tells us) was the first on record in which median earnings declined, adjusted for inflation. Since then, many people have also lost their jobs or are working part time when they'd rather be working full time, or else know they're in danger of losing their jobs.

The speculative bubble still has some air in it; asset values will continue to drop before they hit bottom. That will take at least a year, possibly two. But don't expect asset values to bounce substantially back, even then. The only way to revive Wall Street is to revive Main Street, and the only way to accomplish this is to get America back on the course of rising median incomes.

Obama On World AIDS Day

Monday Cartoon Fun

Michelle Rhee: Dangerously Self-Confident

A new profile of Michelle Rhee, and a snippet from a kid who is not impressed:
Now that he is a senior, Rhodes spends much of his time worrying about getting into college. As we stand on the front steps of the school one autumn evening after class, I ask him what he wants to study. He answers quickly: "Public administration, with a minor in English." I ask him how he can be so sure. "Because someone told me that's what I have to do to take Chancellor Rhee's job," he says matter-of-factly, watching his drum corps practice and his baton twirlers twirl in the twilight.
It's not a pretty picture. Rhee is cold, callous, calculating, hard-headed, driven, tunnel-visionary, self-assured, and dangerously confident.
Rhee Tackles Classroom Challenge
By Amanda Ripley / Washington

In 11th grade, Allante Rhodes spent 50 minutes a day in a Microsoft Word class at Anacostia Senior High School in Washington. He was determined to go to college, and he figured that knowing Word was a prerequisite. But on a good day, only six of the school's 14 computers worked. He never knew which ones until he sat down and searched for a flicker of life on the screen. "It was like Russian roulette," says Rhodes, a tall young man with an older man's steady gaze. If he picked the wrong computer, the teacher would give him a handout. He would spend the rest of the period learning to use Microsoft Word with a pencil and paper.

One day last fall, tired of this absurdity, Rhodes e-mailed Michelle Rhee, the new, bold-talking chancellor running the District of Columbia Public Schools system. His teacher had given him the address, which was on the chancellor's home page. He was nervous when he hit SEND, but the words were reasonable. "Computers are slowly becoming something that we use every day," he wrote. "And learning how to use them is a major factor in our lives. So I'm just bringing this to your attention." He didn't expect to hear back. Rhee answered the same day. It was the beginning of an unusual relationship.

The U.S. spends more per pupil on elementary and high school education than most developed nations. Yet it is behind most of them in the math and science abilities of its children. Young Americans today are less likely than their parents were to finish high school. This is an issue that is warping the nation's economy and security, and the causes are not as mysterious as they seem. The biggest problem with U.S. public schools is ineffective teaching, according to decades of research. And Washington, which spends more money per pupil than the vast majority of large districts, is the problem writ extreme, a laboratory that failure made. (See pictures of a diverse group of American teens.)

Rhee took over Anacostia High and the district's 143 other schools in June 2007, when Mayor Adrian Fenty named her chancellor. Her appointment stunned the city. Rhee, then 37, had no experience running a school, let alone a district with 46,000 students that ranks last in math among 11 urban school systems. When Fenty called her, she was running a nonprofit called the New Teacher Project, which helps schools recruit good teachers. Most problematic of all, Rhee is not from Washington. She is from Ohio, and she is Korean American in a majority-African-American city. "I was," she says now, "the worst pick on the face of the earth."

But Rhee came highly recommended by another prominent school reformer: Joel Klein, chancellor of New York City's schools. And Rhee was once a teacher--in a Baltimore elementary school with Teach for America--and the experience convinced her that good teachers could alter the lives of kids like Rhodes.

Anacostia High has a 24% graduation rate, and only 21% of its students read at grade level. Rhodes is well aware of the miserable statistics, and when he first saw his new chancellor from afar, he thought she looked petite, foreign and underqualified. "I was like, She doesn't look ready for urban kids." But after they exchanged e-mails, he agreed to meet her downtown. He realized almost at once that he had underestimated her. "She actually sat with me," he says, "and talked eye to eye, like I was one of her co-workers." They decided to meet again, this time at Anacostia High. Rhodes began to talk about Rhee to his classmates, and they started writing an agenda for the meeting, detailing all the things that were wrong with the D.C. school system. They had much to tell.

Rhee has promised to make Washington the highest-performing urban school district in the nation, a prospect that, if realized, could transform the way schools across the country are run. She is attempting to do this through a relentless focus on finding--and rewarding--strong teachers, purging incompetent ones and weakening the tenure system that keeps bad teachers in the classroom. This fall, Rhee was asked to meet with both presidential campaigns to discuss school reform. In the last debate, each candidate tried to claim her as his own, with Barack Obama calling her a "wonderful new superintendent."

Hard as it is to imagine Washington schools ranking among the best in the country, the city does have some things working in its favor. The system is relatively small, making it easier to redirect. As in New York City, the board of education was recently dissolved, which means changes can be made without waiting for the blessing of a fractious body of overseers. And now that a third of Washington's kids are in charter schools, there is intense pressure on the public system to keep the students it still has. If they keep fleeing the system at the current rate, enrollment will drop 50% every 10 years.

Each week, Rhee gets e-mails from superintendents in other cities. They understand that if she succeeds, Rhee could do something no one has done before: she could prove that low-income urban kids can catch up with kids in the suburbs. The radicalism of this idea cannot be overstated. Now, without proof that cities can revolutionize their worst schools, there is always a fine excuse. Superintendents, parents and teachers in urban school districts lament systemic problems they cannot control: poverty, hunger, violence and negligent parents. They bicker over small improvements such as class size and curriculum, like diplomats touring a refugee camp and talking about the need for nicer curtains. To the extent they intervene at all, politicians respond by either throwing more money at the problem (if they're on the left) or making it easier for some parents to send their kids to private schools (if they're on the right).

Meanwhile, millions of students left behind in confused classrooms spend another day learning nothing.

A Teacher from Toledo

ONE DAY IN AUGUST, I SPENT THE MORNING with Rhee as she made surprise visits to Washington public schools. She emerged from her chauffeured black SUV with two BlackBerrys and a cell phone and began walking--fast--toward the front door of the first school. She wore a black pencil skirt, a delicate cream blouse and strappy high heels. When we got inside, she walked into the first classroom she could find and stood to the side, frowning like a specter. When a teacher stopped lecturing to greet her, she motioned for the teacher to continue. Rhee smiled only when students smiled at her first. Within two minutes, she had seen enough, and she stalked out to the next classroom.

In the hallway, she muttered about teachers who spend too much time cutting out elaborate bulletin-board decorations or chitchatting at "morning meetings" with their third-graders before the real work begins. "We're in Washington, D.C., in the nation's capital," she said later. "And yet the children of this city receive an education that every single citizen in this country should be embarrassed by." (See pictures of teens and how they would vote.)

In the year and a half she's been on the job, Rhee has made more changes than most school leaders--even reform-minded ones--make in five years. She has shut 21 schools--15% of the city's total--and fired more than 100 workers from the district's famously bloated 900-person central bureaucracy. She has dismissed 270 teachers. And last spring she removed 36 principals, including the head of the elementary school her two daughters attend in an affluent northwest-D.C. neighborhood.

Rhee is convinced that the answer to the U.S.'s education catastrophe is talent, in the form of outstanding teachers and principals. She wants to make Washington teachers the highest paid in the country, and in exchange she wants to get rid of the weakest teachers. Where she and the teachers' union disagree most is on her ability to measure the quality of teachers. Like about half the states, Washington is now tracking whether students' test scores improve over time under a given teacher. Rhee wants to use that data to decide who gets paid more--and, in combination with classroom evaluation, who keeps the job. But many teachers do not trust her to do this fairly, and the union bristles at the idea of giving up tenure, the exceptional job security that teachers enjoy.

Rhee grew up in a nice neighborhood in Toledo, Ohio, a middle child, between two brothers. Her parents immigrated from South Korea several years before she was born so that her father could study medicine at the University of Michigan. He became a specialist in rehabilitation and pain medicine, and her mother owned a women's clothing store. Education was highly valued in the family, as was independence. After Rhee finished sixth grade, her parents sent her to South Korea to live with an aunt and attend a Korean school, a harrowing experience for a child in a strange land with limited skills in its language. When she returned a year later, her parents sent her to a private school because they found the public schools lacking.

After Rhee graduated from Cornell University in 1992, she joined Teach for America. She spent three years teaching at Harlem Park Elementary, one of the lowest-performing schools in Baltimore. Her parents visited and were stunned by the conditions of the neighborhood. "The area where the kids lived reminded me of a scene after the Korean War," says her father Shang Rhee.

Rhee suffered during that first year, and so did her students. She could not control the class. Her father remembers her returning home to visit and telling him she didn't want to go back. She had hives on her face from the stress.

The second year, Rhee got better. She and another teacher started out with second-graders who were scoring in the bottom percentile on standardized tests. They held on to those kids for two years, and by the end of third grade, the majority were at or above grade level, she says. (Baltimore does not have good test data going back that far, a problem that plagues many districts, so this assertion cannot be checked. But Rhee's principal at the time has confirmed the claim.) The experience gave Rhee faith in the power of good teaching. Yet what happened afterward broke her heart. "What was most disappointing was to watch these kids go off into the fourth grade and just lose everything," Rhee says, "because they were in classrooms with teachers who weren't engaging them."

The summer after her second year of teaching, Rhee met Kevin Huffman, a fellow Teach for America member. They married two years later and had two daughters, Starr and Olivia, now 9 and 6. They moved to Colorado to be closer to Rhee's parents, but the marriage faltered. Huffman and Rhee separated, agreeing to joint custody of the kids. And then Rhee got the offer to run Washington's schools. Huffman, now head of public affairs for Teach for America, had no illusions about the challenges Rhee would face. But when he heard about the job offer, he decided to follow her to D.C. "Even though moving didn't sound like a whole lot of fun," he says, "the reality is that I genuinely believed that she had the potential to be the best superintendent in the country. Most people think about their own longevity, about political considerations." He adds, "Very few people genuinely don't care about anything other than the end result for kids. Michelle will compromise with no one when it comes to making sure kids get what they deserve."

Scorched Earth

WHEN THEY ARRIVED IN WASHINGTON, Huffman and Rhee anted up. They enrolled Starr and Olivia in Oyster-Adams, a public elementary school. Although the school is considered among the best in the city, Rhee quickly concluded that it was inferior to the Colorado public school her daughters had been attending. Among other things, the homework was sporadic and unchallenging, she says. Rhee dismissed the principal before the school year was out, a move that sparked outrage across the city and in her own home. "That," she says, "was probably the decision I got the most grief about."

Rhee is, as a rule, far nicer to students than to most adults. In many private encounters with officials, bureaucrats and even fundraisers--who have committed millions of dollars to help her reform the schools--she doesn't smile or nod or do any of the things most people do to put others at ease. She reads her BlackBerry when people talk to her. I have seen her walk out of small meetings held for her benefit without a word of explanation. She says things most superintendents would not. "The thing that kills me about education is that it's so touchy-feely," she tells me one afternoon in her office. Then she raises her chin and does what I come to recognize as her standard imitation of people she doesn't respect. Sometimes she uses this voice to imitate teachers; other times, politicians or parents. Never students. "People say, 'Well, you know, test scores don't take into account creativity and the love of learning,'" she says with a drippy, grating voice, lowering her eyelids halfway. Then she snaps back to herself. "I'm like, 'You know what? I don't give a crap.' Don't get me wrong. Creativity is good and whatever. But if the children don't know how to read, I don't care how creative you are. You're not doing your job."

Rhee's ferocity has alienated many people--even those who support her ideas and could be helpful to her. This summer the chair of the Washington city council called dealing with Rhee a "nightmare." There has been talk of passing legislation to rein her in. "Michelle Rhee believes in scorched earth," says Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, a national union that has become unusually involved in local matters in Washington. "I am not saying that D.C.'s school system doesn't need a lot of help. But I have been part of a lot of reforms, and the one thing I have never seen work is a hierarchical, top-down model."

Rhee is aware of the criticism, but she suggests that a certain ruthlessness is required. "Have I rubbed some people the wrong way? Definitely. If I changed my style, I might make people a little more comfortable," she says. "But I think there's real danger in acting in a way that makes adults feel better. Because where does that stop?"

The Data

ON RHEE'S TOUR OF SCHOOLS DURING the first week of classes this year, a parent stopped her to praise her accomplishments so far. Rhee listened with a small smile while systematically cracking each of her knuckles with the thumb of the same hand. Then she got back into her SUV and began furiously e-mailing. When she calls her staff, she does not say hello; she just starts talking. She answered 95,000 e-mails last year, according to her office.

She frequently sounds exasperated. "People come to me all the time and say, 'Why did you fire this person?'" she says. The whiny voice is back. "'She's a good person. She's a nice person.' I'm like, 'O.K., go tell her to work at the post office.' Just because you're a nice person and you mean well does not mean you have a right to a job in this district."

The data back up Rhee's obsession with teaching. If two average 8-year-olds are assigned to different teachers, one who is strong and one who is weak, the children's lives can diverge in just a few years, according to research pioneered by Eric Hanushek at Stanford. The child with the effective teacher, the kind who ranks among the top 15% of all teachers, will be scoring well above grade level on standardized tests by the time she is 11. The other child will be a year and a half below grade level--and by then it will take a teacher who works with the child after school and on weekends to undo the compounded damage. In other words, the child will probably never catch up.

The ability to improve test scores is clearly not the only sign of a good teacher. But it is a relatively objective measure in an industry with precious few. And in schools where kids are struggling to read and subtract, it is a prerequisite for getting anything else done. In their defense, Washington teachers and principals, like educators in many of the country's worst school districts, talk about trying to teach a seventh-grader who is eight months pregnant; about being assaulted by students; about holding meetings for parents, replete with free food, and no one showing up. Washington Teachers' Union leader George Parker worries that test-score data cannot take all this into account: "I don't think our teachers are afraid of demonstrating student growth, but you have to look at the dynamics of the children you're dealing with. If I'm teaching children who have computers at home, who have educated parents, those students can move a lot faster than kids whose parents can't read."

Rhee says she does not expect all kids to move up the charts at the same rate; the important thing is to demand that most do move up. "This is a cultural shift," says Kaya Henderson, Rhee's deputy. "For years, there were no data, and you were a good teacher because the parents or your principal told you so. And so this is a scary thing."

The most glaring example of the backward logic of schools is the way most teachers receive lifetime job security after one or two years of work. As Larry Rosenstock, CEO of eight California charter schools, noted at an education panel last spring, we don't give that kind of job security to pilots or doctors--or any others who hold our children's fate in their hands: "What is it that is so exceptional about teachers that they should have this unique right?"

Teachers got tenure rights in the early 20th century to protect them against meddling politicians and school-board members who treated their jobs as patronage pawns. But the rationale is plainly antiquated. Today dozens of federal and state laws protect teachers (and other people) from arbitrary firing. But most teachers still receive tenure almost automatically. In fact, even before they get tenure, they are rarely let go. Schools spend millions of dollars evaluating teachers, but principals have little incentive to shake up their staffs, and so most teachers end up scoring near the top. "What I'm finding is that our principals are ridiculously--like ridiculously--conflict-averse," Rhee says. "They know someone is not so good, and they want to give him a 'Meets expectations' anyway because they don't want to deal with the person coming into the office and yelling and getting the parents riled up."

Right now, schools assess teachers before they teach--filtering for candidates who are certified, who have a master's degree, who have other pieces of paper that do not predict good teaching. And we pay them the same regardless of their effectiveness.

By comparison, if we wanted to have truly great teachers in our schools, we would assess them after their second year of teaching, when we could identify very strong and very weak performers, according to years of research. Great teachers are in total control. They have clear expectations and rules, and they are consistent with rewards and punishments. Most of all, they are in a hurry. They never feel that there is enough time in the day. They quiz kids on their multiplication tables while they walk to lunch. And they don't give up on their worst students, even when any normal person would.

Students know this instinctively. Acquirra Carter, 14, attends Washington's Cardozo High School, where, she complains, kids walk out of classes when they get bored and certain teachers talk on their cell phones when they are supposed to be teaching. But there are exceptions, and Carter knows them when she sees them. "Some teachers find a way. Mrs. Brown, they would not dare walk out of her class. She has total control. Mrs. Lawton, nobody leaves her class. This boy whispered, and she knew it!"

Minefields in the Schoolyard

IN THE VIEW OF RHEE AND REFORMERS like her, the struggle to fix America's failing school system comes down to a simple question: How do you get the best teachers and principals to work in the worst schools? In her quest to figure this out, Rhee has already suffered a major setback. Earlier this year, she proposed a revolutionary new model to let teachers choose between two pay scales. They could make up to $130,000 in merit pay on the basis of their effectiveness--in exchange for giving up tenure for one year. Or they could keep tenure and accept a smaller raise. (Currently, the average teacher's salary in Washington is $65,902.) The proposal divided the city's teachers into raging, blogging factions. This fall, the union declined to put Rhee's proposal to a vote, and its relationship with her has become increasingly hostile.

In October, Rhee vowed to purge incompetent teachers through any means necessary. She has brought on extra staff to help principals navigate the byzantine termination process and says an unprecedented number of teachers have already been put on notice. But she cannot give teachers the huge raises she proposed unless the union agrees to a new contract. So this approach will be slower, more litigious and less inspiring. In other words, it will be all stick and no carrot. It's hard to say if anyone else would have been able to persuade the union to trade away tenure for cash bonuses, but Rhee's sometimes dismissive attitude made it harder for some teachers to trust her.

For now, Mayor Fenty says he still has full confidence in Rhee, and he claims that Washington residents share his enthusiasm. "Regular people love the fact that for once someone is making tough decisions for D.C. schools," says Fenty, who attended the district's public schools. But the disconnect between Rhee's confident, sweeping rhetoric and the tortured reality is sizable, and it is most apparent at ground level, in the schools she is trying to save.

Rhee likes to tell the story of how Rhodes got in touch with her. She recounted it on TV on The Charlie Rose Show in July: "A student sent me this e-mail and said, basically, If you really want to know what's wrong with our schools, you should come and talk to the kids because I'm afraid that by talking to the adults, you might not be getting the real story."

Rhodes has a more nuanced version of the story. After their initial meeting, they met for a second time at Anacostia High, in a room off the library. Rhodes had invited eight fellow students, and they gave Rhee their typed agenda. They talked about the need for better teachers, as Rhee emphasizes when she tells the story. But Rhodes says he also told her about the holes in the floors, the lack of supplies and the fact that most classes did not have enough books for the students to take home. Rhee listened but did not offer many specific solutions. "She was vague," Rhodes says. "I got the sense she didn't want to make promises she couldn't keep."

Then one day last May, Rhee dismissed Anacostia's principal. Rhodes was devastated. He sent Rhee a furious e-mail. "My principal is a mother, mentor and a teacher to us all," he wrote. "I refuse, NO! we refuse the students of Anacostia to let her go." Rhee wrote him back. "She told me not to worry about it," Rhodes says quietly.

One of the things that make school reform so wrenching and slow is that schools become embedded in people's hearts. This is true in rich neighborhoods and poor ones, with good schools and bad. Rhodes talks about his school as if it were an extension of himself. He talks about "my teachers" and "my staff," and he refers to other students as "my colleagues." "I love Anacostia High School," he says. At the same time, he is dismayed by his school. He walks through his halls, pointing out the litter on the floor and the broken lockers. Rhodes is 6 ft. 8 in. (2 m) tall, so he has to look down to talk to almost everyone. He wears white tube socks under his black Nike flip-flops and carries his large frame deliberately, like a gentle overseer. "You see all these lockers? None of them work," he says. "This classroom over here is supposed to be for home economics, but it's never been fixed up."

Rhodes did not contact Rhee again. This year Anacostia has a new principal, and Rhodes admits that the school is functioning better. "All the children are wearing their uniforms," he says. "No kids are in the hallways." If you come to school without your uniform on, a security guard or an assistant principal will "snatch you up and just send you home." All the computers in his Microsoft Word classroom now work.

But on Nov. 19, Rhodes had to evacuate his school when fights broke out in the hallways and three students were stabbed. And he still doesn't use the school bathrooms, which are filthy and sometimes unsafe. He waits until he returns to his grandmother's house, where he lives.

Now that he is a senior, Rhodes spends much of his time worrying about getting into college. As we stand on the front steps of the school one autumn evening after class, I ask him what he wants to study. He answers quickly: "Public administration, with a minor in English." I ask him how he can be so sure. "Because someone told me that's what I have to do to take Chancellor Rhee's job," he says matter-of-factly, watching his drum corps practice and his baton twirlers twirl in the twilight.


The Cost Of Torture

Former interrogator slams torture: Torture has cost nearly as many lives as 9/11.

In a Washington Post op-ed today, a former Special Operations interrogator who worked in Iraq in 2006 sharply criticizes American torture techniques as ineffective and dangerous. “Torture and abuse cost American lives,” he writes:

I learned in Iraq that the No. 1 reason foreign fighters flocked there to fight were the abuses carried out at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Our policy of torture was directly and swiftly recruiting fighters for al-Qaeda in Iraq. … It’s no exaggeration to say that at least half of our losses and casualties in that country have come at the hands of foreigners who joined the fray because of our program of detainee abuse. The number of U.S. soldiers who have died because of our torture policy will never be definitively known, but it is fair to say that it is close to the number of lives lost on Sept. 11, 2001. How anyone can say that torture keeps Americans safe is beyond me — unless you don’t count American soldiers as Americans.

The writer, who used a pseudonym for the article, adds that when he switched his team’s techniques to a rapport-building method, they found enormous success. One detainee told the author, “I thought you would torture me, and when you didn’t, I decided that everything I was told about Americans was wrong. That’s why I decided to cooperate.”

Update: The author, who is writing a book on his experiences as an interrogator, notes that the Pentagon tried to redact non-classified information and block parts of his book. "Apparently, some members of the military command are not only unconvinced by the arguments against torture; they don't even want the public to hear them," he writes.

Hertzberg On Clinton

Hertzberg worked for Carter, and TNR. He is smart. Now that it's official that Hillary will be SOS, here is Hertzberg's take on the decision.

Unlike many progressives, I am not at all worried about Obama's seemingly centrist cabinet picks. Obama will be in charge, and these center folks work for him, and his agenda is as progressive as can be expected considering he also has to save the world!
People Who Need People

No question about it: asking Hillary Clinton to be Secretary of State is a bold and brave move on the part of President-elect Obama. A risky move, too—but if it weren’t risky it wouldn’t be bold and brave, now, would it?

But that doesn’t change the fact that the current fad for stories (and/or lamentations) to the effect that “Obama is surrounding himself with Clinton people” (with the implication that “this isn’t the change we voted for”) constitutes an unusually bogus “narrative.”

What is a “Clinton person”? Apparently, it’s any Democrat under about fifty or fifty-five years of age who has had work experience in the executive branch of the federal government.

The theory seems to be that a “Clinton person” would be inclined, at best, to reproduce the policies and actions of the Clinton Administration, including the accompanying mistakes, or, at worst, to serve the interests of “the Clintons” should they prove divergent from those of the Obama Administration and the nation.

This is the sort of reasoning that led to needless unhappiness the last two times Democrats were in power. Jimmy Carter’s circle regarded Johnson, who mired the nation in Vietnam and then handed the White House to Nixon, as a failure. They weren’t about to have any “Johnson people” in their White House. Clinton’s circle regarded Carter, who allowed himself to be paralyzed by a few hundred Iranian “students” and then handed the White House to Reagan, as a failure. They weren’t about to have any “Carter people” in their White House.

It didn’t seem to occur to either crowd, Carter’s or Clinton’s, that old hands, far from being eager to repeat the errors of the Administrations of which they had been a part, would be especially keen to avoid them. Also, they would know in detail what those errors were.

The Carter people made several stupid mistakes right at the beginning of their tenure. One was to cut the White House staff by one-third. This resulted in a couple of days of fairly good press. A fresh breeze was blowing, Nixon’s imperial presidency was being cut down to size, “cabinet government” would restore the rightful order of things—that sort of thing. Another mistake, related to the first, was to cut the White House budget for “frills” such as newspaper subscriptions and television sets. A third mistake was to sell off the Sequoia, the Presidential yacht—another gesture of populist humility, yielding in another day or two of positive press.

If Carter had put a “Johnson person” in a top White House job—if, for example, Joseph Califano had been named White House Chief of Staff instead of Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare—then that person would have been able to tell the newbies (a) that you need a big White House staff to have any hope of controlling the departments and agencies, (b) that getting rid of newspapers and TV sets is like wearing earplugs and dark glasses to work, and (c) that a Presidential yacht is one of the most cost-effective items in the federal budget, because it can be used to flatter and persuade impressionable, luxury-loving, bourbon-drinking Congressmen to give their support to worthy measures, support that might otherwise have to be purchased with bridges to nowhere and the like.

A yacht is a lot harder, politically, to acquire than to dispose of, even (or especially) if you’re a Republican, so when Clinton came to town he didn’t have the option of getting rid of one. However, not having any “Carter people” around to warn him off, he repeated Carter’s mistake of splashily cutting the White House staff, this time by one quarter. Naturally, the positions eliminated were not those of big shots—special assistants to the President and whatnot—but of grunt workers. Mid-level big shots ended up doing their own Xeroxing, typing, filing, and so on. Results: unreturned phone calls, exhaustion, impaired judgment. Eventually, interns were recruited to take over these clerical tasks. We all know how well that turned out.

The Clinton Administration was not an obvious failure; on the contrary, it was rather successful, overall. Nevertheless, it had its problems, and Senator Obama ran against its first couple. So President-elect Obama deserves credit for choosing Rahm Emanuel—who not only served in the White House under Clinton but was a senior staffer whose West Wing office was a ten-second walk from the Oval—to be his White House chief of staff.

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