Tag Archives: Bloggingheads

Pigford Bounces Around The Blogosphere

Daniel Foster at NRO:

On Jan. 5, 1999, a federal district court in Washington, D.C., approved a preliminary consent decree — essentially a seal of approval for a settlement — granting class-action relief for a wide swath of black farmers. Give or take an unseemly lawyer, it looked like the angels had won. It was a victory bipartisan in the making: Speaker Newt Gingrich had helped push through legislation waiving the statute of limitations for discrimination complaints, allowing the suit to clear a crucial legal hurdle. But the story was far from over, and Pigford v. Glickman would prove the settlement that launched a hundred thousand frauds.

The “Pigford class” — the range of individuals eligible to claim settlement money — originally was defined as

all African-American farmers who (1) farmed between January 1, 1983, and Feb. 21, 1997; and (2) applied, during that time period, for participation in a federal farm program with USDA, and as a direct result of a determination by USDA in response to said application, believed that they were discriminated against on the basis of race, and filed a written discrimination complaint with USDA in that time period.

Both sides acknowledged that the class size wasn’t likely to exceed 2,500. But the seeds of abuse were already sown. Despite the fact that the class was at first strictly limited to those who had “filed a written discrimination complaint” with the USDA, the settlement crucially allowed that most members of the class lacked any documentation of these complaints, purportedly owing to poor record-keeping by the USDA. So the resolution mechanism offered potential claimants two “tracks” toward settlement money. Track B required a higher bar for evidence — the “preponderance” standard traditional in civil actions, demonstrated during one-day “mini-trials” before court-appointed arbitrators — but it came with no cap on potential awards. Track A provided, in the words of the case’s judge, “those class members with little or no documentary evidence with a virtually automatic cash payment of $50,000, and forgiveness of debt owed to the USDA.” Track A claimants would also get their taxes on that debt paid directly to the IRS for them, and priority consideration on their next USDA loan application.

To get their checks, Track A claimants were required to show court-appointed facilitators “substantial evidence” that they had had “communication” with the USDA, a member of Congress, the White House, or any federal, state, county, or local official regarding a discrimination complaint. How “substantial”? According to the consent decree, “something more than a ‘mere scintilla’” — in practice, as little as the corroboration of one’s story by a single individual who was not immediate family. The definitions of “communication” and “complaint” were stretched as well: Under the agreement, even participating in a “listening session” with USDA officials was as good as filing a discrimination complaint. And in cases where there was no documentary evidence whatsoever of communication with the USDA, a popular defense was for claimants to explain that USDA officers would not even give them the forms and applications they requested — in one fell swoop both demonstrating the discrimination and accounting for the lack of a paper trail. Thus could blacks who had never cultivated land they’d owned or rented — who in point of fact might never have mown a lawn or tended to a shrub — claim that systemic racism thwarted their farming careers before they ever started. Such claimants came to be known as the “attempted to farm” class, and by some estimates as many as 92 percent of all Pigford filers marched under their banner.

Conor Friedersdorf at Sullivan’s place:

In the current issue of National Review, Daniel Foster has a long piece on Pigford vs. Glickman. As Wikipedia notes, the Pigford case is “a class action lawsuit against the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), alleging racial discrimination in its allocation of farm loans and assistance between 1983 and 1997. The lawsuit ended with a settlement in which the U.S. government agreed to pay African American farmers US$50,000 each if they had attempted to get USDA help but failed. To date, almost US$1 billion has been paid or credited to the farmers under the settlement’s consent decree.”

As Salonexplains, the case is a matter of public controversy largely because Andrew Breitbart has become obsessed with it. His allegation is that the payout is rife with fraud and political corruption. I haven’t mentioned the matter before because having witnessed Breitbart’s carelessness with facts, the egregiously sloppy journalism he publishes on a daily basis, and his hubristic, immoral, “ends justify the means” approach to activism, I have serious doubts about his integrity and a strong conviction that his ethical compass is broken. More to the point, I just can’t trust a damn thing he publishes, and having discredited himself on a national scale in the Shirley Sherrod case, a lot of others agree.

But I’ve enjoyed Foster’s work for awhile now, and critical as I’ve been of a couple colleagues he works with at NR, the publication retains the ability to publish solid pieces, especially the ones prepped for print.

Although I can’t personally vouch for the facts in his Pigford story, having never reported on the matter myself, it reads like a solid piece – one that raises serious questions worthy of scrutiny. Alas, it is behind National Review’s paywall, and that presents a problem: As press coverage of the Pigford case increases – Breitbart is touting it singlemindedly at CPAC, and the stories are inevitable – the conversation is starting to focus is on the man whose heat-to-light ratio detracts from a cool-headed assessment of facts more than anyone in America. One purpose of this post is to suggest that we’d all be better off focusing the discussion on the NR piece, paywall or no. Certainly, liberal bloggers writing about the matter should acquire access to it. I’d be curious to see if they have a persuasive rebuttal. If so, I’ll air it here. And if not – if the Foster piece has everything right – the story definitely merits attention.

Here’s a very brief summary:

– Everyone agrees that between 1983 and 1997, the USDA discriminated against black farmers.

– The class action lawsuit made eligible for compensation farmers or aspiring farmers whose interests were harmed due to USDA discrimination. (There were other requirements too, but forget that for a moment.)

– According to Foster’s piece, a 1997 census study found a total of 18,500 black farmers nationwide.

– Yet there are nearly 100,000 claimants in the Pigford case.

There’s a lot more to Foster’s story, and this matter generally. But that gap between the number of claiments and the total number of black farmers in America is what struck me. If accurate it suggests widespread fraud.

A word about the bigger picture.

There are conservative bloggers expressing outrage that Americans haven’t been told more about this story. It’s worth pondering that reaction. It’s understandable: the misuse of public funds is always a legitimate story, and I hope this one gets reported out if that’s what has happened. But the fact that Americans have never heard of the Pigford case before now is most damning because it means we were utterly ignorant of the fact that the federal government was discriminating against thousands of blacks for almost 15 years, and as recently as the late 1990s! That is far more troubling than the possibility that private citizens perpetrated fraud on a poorly conceived settlement (though it doesn’t excuse it).

One narrative taking hold is that the Pigford case is about political correctness – that the fraud is “reparations in disguise,” and is enabled by a mainstream media willing to look the other way rather than inform the public about an injustice. Anyone spreading that narrative ought to remember that although the federal government’s racism against some Pigford claimants has been written about some in the media, it remains an obscure story known to very few people – and most of them didn’t show any interest in the story until it fit into the narrative of PC excess and the left buying off votes.

There’s nothing wrong or unnatural about political adversaries tuning into a story when their opponents may be guilty of corruption. A rare benefit of partisanship is that it creates an incentive to expose bad behavior. And the rest of us shouldn’t care about their motives insofar as it affects how we go forward– if fraud has been perpetrated on a large scale, better that we learn about it if only to prevent the same sort of thing in the future. Had the federal government discriminated for years against black farmers, however, then paid them off efficiently and without fraud, the vast majority of people in the conservative movement – and most of America along with them  – would’ve ignored the whole Pigford matter entirely. Is that the mark of a society overrun by political correctness?

Surely outrage is warranted for the initial discrimination.

Ta-Nehisi Coates:

This is where you see “conservative” effectively becoming a synonym for “white populist.” You would think that the government discriminating against a class of farmers over 15 years, under three different presidential administrations, from two different parties, not in the distant, but recently, would be a pet cause for people disturbed by the overreach of government. In fact those who claim that banner, are disturbed by the remedy applied–not the problem, itself.

I’m reminded of David Brooks, lamenting the fact that Sonia Sotamayor didn’t go to school in the ’50s, while neglecting to mention that her alma mater (Princeton) didn’t even admit women until a decade later. The opportunistic rush to elide hard problems, in order to disparage imperfect, and perhaps even wrongheaded, solutions is an essential feature of modern conservative. In regards to blacks it shows itself in this sense that racism–even government-sponsored racism–isn’t actually a problem, people trying to fix it are a problem.

Mark Thompson at The League:

These concerns are poppycock – it is simply not the case that the discrepancy between the number of claimants and the number of black farmers in 1997 “suggests widespread fraud.”  As mistermix correctly points out, some very rudimentary fact-checking provides the answers to a lot of these concerns.*

For starters, this reporting elides the extreme severity of discrimination against black farmer, especially as perpetrated by the USDA: the average market value of a farm operated by a black farmer is only about 20% of the market value of an average farm operated by a white farmer, and even in 2007 black farmers applying for federal loans were able to receive loans of only about 1/3 of the amount of the average federal loan provided to white farmers.  Notably, in its settlement agreement in Pigford I, the USDA expressly refused to agree that it would cease discrimination against black farmers in its loan programs.

Second, using the number of black-owned farms extant in 1997 as the sole baseline for comparison is absurd on its face, particularly in light of the fact that the number of black-owned farms declined by almost 50% between 1983 and 1997, and in light of the fact that the settlements cover discrimination over a 15 year period.  At the very least, then, the far more appropriate benchmark would need to be 33,250, the number of black-owned farms existing in 1983.

Third, the settlement quite appropriately covers not only actual farmers but also people who sought to acquire or start a farm and applied for a loan from the USDA.  These persons would never appear in statistics of “black farmers” since, by definition, they needed the loans to become farmers.

Fourth, until 2002, no statistical distinction was made between “black farmers” and “black-owned farms,” which is important in light of the fact that any farmer would have been eligible to apply for one of these loans.  We do know that when this distinction started to be made, in 2002, there were at least 50% more “black farmers” than “black-0wned farms.”  Assuming these statistics would have been similar in 1982, then the number of “black farmers” in 1983 would have been at least 50,000.

Fifth, these claims ignore the possibility of farms changing ownership during that 15 year period, thus creating multiple possible claimants.

Sixth, nowhere in Conor’s post or Breitbart’s original reporting is there a mention of the fact that just because a claim is made does not mean it will be granted; instead, both seem to believe that claims will be rubber stamped once made.  But to the contrary, 30% of claims that were made under Pigford I were ultimately denied, and there’s no reason to believe that the rate will be any lower under Pigford II; this is an abnormally high rate of denial for a class action settlement, suggesting that the USDA is in fact reviewing claims quite carefully.

Lastly, there are certainly going to be other legitimate claimants who would not fall into the categories outlined above.  But even if there are not, a quick look at the numbers I’ve put together here quickly reveals that we are well within the realm of reasonableness: if the remaining claims are all approved at the same rate as the Pigford I claims, there will be a total of between 60,000 and 65,000 approved claims.  We know that, at a minimum, there were 50,000 black farmers in 1983 who were eligible to apply for these loans.  Given that, is it conceivable that there were at least an additional 10-15,000 people who attempted to become farmers but were denied the needed loans from the USDA or who simply obtained their farms (whether through inheritance or otherwise) subsequent to 1983?  I think the answer to that is “absolutely.”

None of this is to say that there hasn’t been and will not be successful fraudulent abuse of these settlements.  Where such fraud is discovered, clearly it should be prosecuted.  And no doubt, given the stakes involved, it should not be a surprise if these settlements turn out to be more prone to fraud than most – we are talking about large sums of money readily available with a relatively low burden of proof.  Unfortunately, such a low burden of proof is probably necessary here – unless the overwhelming majority of claims are in fact fraudulent, it’s safe to assume that forcing them to be tried under a higher standard of proof would impose far more costs than they would save.

What is appalling here is the ease with which the information I’ve noted above is readily available, and the utter failure of both Breitbart and Conor (and, I assume, Foster) to cite any of it.  Increasingly, it seems that the role of more high-brow political journalism is simply to, consciously or not, provide intellectual cover for the base’s ill-supported memes rather than seeking truth or attempting to challenge the base.  Instead of talking to the base, they merely parrot it.**

[UPDATE: 1.  In the comments below, Conor acknowledges his error, for which he certainly deserves credit, and which is something that is certainly all-too-rare in the blogosphere.

Mistermix:

After Conor Friedersdorf was thoroughly “fisked”—to use a word he can understand—for pimping an error-filled National Review article that supported Andrew Breitbart’s attempt to start a race war out of a settled case of discrimination, he responded with a little humility:

All I can say is that it was an honest mistake, and while I wish I would’ve raised it in my initial post, I am at least glad that I blogged about this issue because a lot of folks who were wrong in the same way I was now have the benefit of understanding this controversy better. I’ll certainly deploy your arguments as this case gets covered elsewhere.

That lasted about as long as it took the author of the original National Review, Dan Foster, to put up a lengthy defense of his original piece:

The main thing you need to know about that defense is that, at many key points, Foster cites either Andrew Breitbart or Breitbart’s helper, Lee Stranahan, for factual evidence. He many have done independent reporting on his own, but when it comes down to the important facts, he’s citing a person Conor has acknowledged that he can’t trust. But Conor’s more than willing to pimp Breitbart’s story through an intermediary. How is that anything but useful idiocy?

Daniel Foster at National Review:

I think my piece largely speaks for itself (although there was certainly some stuff that had to be cut: the original draft was twice as long as what ended up in the mag), and so I hope Coates and Thompson will read it. But let me briefly try to answer their criticisms, in order. (Apologies: if you haven’t read it, some of this will lack context).Thompson has seven points. Here’s one:

. . . this reporting elides the extreme severity of discrimination against black farmer, especially as perpetrated by the USDA: the average market value of a farm operated by a black farmer is only about 20% of the market value of an average farm operated by a white farmer, and even in 2007 black farmers applying for federal loans were able to receive loans of only about 1/3 of the amount of the average federal loan provided to white farmers.  Notably, in its settlement agreement in Pigford I, the USDA expressly refused to agree that it would cease discrimination against black farmers in its loan programs.

Okay, the story fully grants that there is statistical evidence of discrimination against black farmers in the relevant time period, so we’re not in disagreement there. To say, though, that “the USDA expressly refused to agree that it would cease discrimination against black farmers in its loan programs” in the settlement is a bit off. It’s sort of a “when did you stop beating your wife?” question. The settlement meant that the USDA didn’t have to admit, in the legal sense, to discrimination (though we’ll see later that they fell all over themselves to admit it in the moral sense), and that they could avoid the messy process of investigating and adjudicating it. Like many (most, all?) settlements, the USDA traded cash for the risk of legal liability.

Here’s two, four, and five, and seven, which are related:

Second, using the number of black-owned farms extant in 1997 as the sole baseline for comparison is absurd on its face, particularly in light of the fact that the number of black-owned farms declined by almost 50% between 1983 and 1997, and in light of the fact that the settlements cover discrimination over a 15 year period.  At the very least, then, the far more appropriate benchmark would need to be 33,250, the number of black-owned farms existing in 1983.

[. . . ]

Fourth, until 2002, no statistical distinction was made between “black farmers” and “black-owned farms,” which is important in light of the fact that any farmer would have been eligible to apply for one of these loans.  We do know that when this distinction started to be made, in 2002, there were at least 50% more “black farmers” than “black-0wned farms.”  Assuming these statistics would have been similar in 1982, then the number of “black farmers” in 1983 would have been at least 50,000.

Fifth, these claims ignore the possibility of farms changing ownership during that 15 year period, thus creating multiple possible claimants.

[. . .]

Lastly, there are certainly going to be other legitimate claimants who would not fall into the categories outlined above.  But even if there are not, a quick look at the numbers I’ve put together here quickly reveals that we are well within the realm of reasonableness: if the remaining claims are all approved at the same rate as the Pigford I claims, there will be a total of between 60,000 and 65,000 approved claims.  We know that, at a minimum, there were 50,000 black farmers in 1983 who were eligible to apply for these loans.  Given that, is it conceivable that there were at least an additional 10-15,000 people who attempted to become farmers but were denied the needed loans from the USDA or who simply obtained their farms (whether through inheritance or otherwise) subsequent to 1983?  I think the answer to that is “absolutely.”

As to the number of black farmers, I mention both the 18,500 and 33,000 numbers in my piece; neither jibes with the number of claims that have poured in. The point about the difference between black-owned farms and black farmers isn’t really true either. Take a look at this table from the 1992/1997 Ag census. It does in fact distinguish between black-owned farms and black-leased or -rented farms, and it provides numbers for black tenant farmers. They hew closely to the 18,500 figure. But even if we take the biggest number that Thompson’s multi-step statistical conjecture produces — 50,000 black farmers — we’re still missing half the claimants. It’s also worth noting that the type of loans and assistance the USDA is alleged to have withheld from blacks were for farm operators, not agricultural workers broadly construed. So if that’s what Thompson had in mind in making his distinction then it’s not clearly relevant. Look, I — and parties on both sides of the case — yield that USDA record-keeping makes it difficult to pin down how many black farmers there were at any given time. In fact, much of my article is basically an argument that that problem is what opened the case up to fraud.

Doubling back now to Thompson’s third point:

Third, the settlement quite appropriately covers not only actual farmers but also people who sought to acquire or start a farm and applied for a loan from the USDA.  These persons would never appear in statistics of “black farmers” since, by definition, they needed the loans to become farmers.

Aye, there’s the rub. The original Pigford class contained a few hundred farmers, and while the settlement was being negotiated, both sides agreed that when it was all said and done, there would likely be no more than 2,500 or so potential claimants. But trial lawyers and a sympathetic judge wrote the claims process in such a way that almost no proof was required to collect $50,000. Not only did you not have to prove that you were actually discriminated against by the USDA — you didn’t have to prove by a preponderance of evidence that you had even applied for a loan. Again, this is all in the piece and I won’t rehearse it here. But ask whistle-blower Pigford claimants and even advocates for Pigford II about the category of “attempting to farm” claimants, which by some measures account for the vast majority of outstanding claims.

And lastly Thompson’s sixth point:

Sixth, nowhere in Conor’s post or Breitbart’s original reporting is there a mention of the fact that just because a claim is made does not mean it will be granted; instead, both seem to believe that claims will be rubber stamped once made.  But to the contrary, 30% of claims that were made under Pigford Iwere ultimately denied, and there’s no reason to believe that the rate will be any lower under Pigford II; this is an abnormally high rate of denial for a class action settlement, suggesting that the USDA is in fact reviewing claims quite carefully.

Once you’ve read the bit in my piece about the standards of evidence required to collect $50,000 under the settlement you’ll laugh out loud at that last sentence. And if you read Andrew Breitbart’s report, in which he interviews USDA workers who actually rubber-stamped the claims, you’ll see that approval was nearly automatic in a number of jurisdictions.

Now let’s deal with Coates. Here’s the meat of his criticism:

This is where you see “conservative” effectively becoming a synonym for “white populist.” You would think that the government discriminating against a class of farmers over 15 years, under three different presidential administrations, from two different parties, not in the distant, but recently, would be a pet cause for people disturbed by the overreach of government. In fact those who claim that banner, are disturbed by the remedy applied–not the problem, itself.

Indeed it would be extremely worrisome if the federal government under three different presidents and two different parties had discriminated wholesale against black farmers. But the queer thing about the USDA programs at the heart of the Pigford case is that they were locally administered. The USDA bankrolled these loan programs, but they were actually run by hundreds or thousands of county boards in dozens of states, virtually all of them elected by the local farmers. Centralized, top-down, discrimination by the federal government would be awful but plausible; the sheer number and geographic scope of the claims suggests a remarkable universality. Maybe it is the case that a thousand different county boards, independently, thought blacks didn’t deserve farm operating loans. But there are also anecdotes about claims coming out of the Washington, D.C., suburbs; out of Chicago; out of a county in Arkansas where the entire loan board was black. . . .

As to his point about what this case, and my story, says about racial politics in America, I can only reiterate: There was discrimination against black farmers, and it was shameful. But so too is the race-hustling, trial-lawyer greed and fraud that has come out of the settlements. I didn’t even include in the piece stuff about reparations activists and unsavory Nation of Islam types glomming onto Pigford as a proxy for their own goals. E.g. Gary Grant, President of the Black Farmers & Agriculturalist Association (BFAA), which played a pivotal role in expanding Pigford settlements, went so far as to tell Fox News in 2001 that he doesn’t care if all the claimants are really farmers. “If you are an African-American, you deserve $50,000 because your roots are in farming and your folks have already been cheated,” he said. “You are collecting what your grandparents didn’t have the opportunity to.” In 2003, BFAA vice-president Ridgely Muhammad, who moonlights as “minister of agriculture” in the Nation of Islam, wrote on a black nationalist web site that the Pigford settlement illustrated both promise and peril for the reparations movement: the promise of showing how to navigate the “legal flaws in current reparations lawsuits” and the peril of allowing “white ‘do gooder’ lawyers’” to profit from the proceedings. Faya Ora Rose Touré (Rose Sanders until she elected to step away from her “slave name”) is a Selma, Alabama civil-rights lawyer who won an appellate court ruling to extend the filing deadline for Pigford claimants. She has also long been a dogged fighter for reparations, having once gone to court alongside Johnny Cochran to seek compensation from corporations that profited from slavery. Today, she is Shirley Sherrod’s lawyer. And then there is Dorothy Tillman, a former (Obama endorsed) Chicago alderman who during her tenure in public life has made reparations her signature political issue, and who has been recognized by Rep. John Conyers (D., Mich.), Congress’s greatest champion of reparations, for her work for “Black farmers and for justice.” The list goes on.

Breitbart and documentary filmmaker Lee Stranahan, who is working on a Pigford project, tell me they have recently recorded evidence of a black activist giving what Breitbart called a “demented Princeton Review” seminar on how to game the settlement to a packed black church in the South. I haven’t seen the tape so I didn’t run with it and I’ll reserve judgment, but I do know (and again, it’s in the piece) that real black farmers who were really discriminated against are still hurting, because the settlements were structured to spread the money far and wide, and right quick, not to actually bring relief to struggling black farmers who are still working the land.

To paraphrase Coates, the point is this: You would think that a bunch of fraudsters and fringe ideologues using legitimate claims of past discrimination to bilk taxpayer dollars and propagate a divisive program of grievance politics, not in the distant or recent past, but today, would be a pet cause for people interested in overcoming the legacy of racism in this country. In fact those who claim that banner are disturbed by the exposure of that problem — not the problem itself.

Adam Serwer:

Pigford I

As the Congressional Research Service report notes, “as of November 2010, 15,642 (69%) of the 22,721 eligible class members had final adjudications approved.” Foster says you’ll “laugh out loud” at the necessary evidentiary standards for filing under Track A, but someone could have plausibly walked away from reading Foster’s piece believing none of the 94,000 claims would be dismissed, when 31 percent of those in the original settlement were.

The claimants were required to show “substantial evidence” that they were entitled to part of the settlement. This doesn’t fit neatly into an article, so it’s understandable Foster didn’t include it, but I’ll just blockquote it here:

• a copy of the discrimination complaint filed with USDA or a copy of a USDA document referencing the discrimination complaint;

• a declaration by a person who was not a member of the claimant’s family, stating that the declarant had first-hand knowledge that the claimant had filed a discrimination complaint with USDA and describing the manner in which the discrimination complaint was filed;

• a copy of correspondence from the claimant to a member of Congress; the White House; or a state, local or federal official averring that the claimant had been discriminated against (except that, in the event that USDA did not possess a copy of the correspondence, the claimant also was required to submit a declaration stating that he or she sent the correspondence to the person to whom it was addressed);

• a declaration by a non-familial witness stating that the witness had first-hand knowledge that, while attending a USDA listening session or other meeting with a USDA official (or officials), the claimant was explicitly told by a USDA official that the official would investigate that specific claimant’s oral complaint of discrimination.

In his response, Foster alludes to the Big Government report that claims to cite testimony from “USDA workers who rubberstamped the claims.” Adjudicating whether the claims have merit was not handled by the USDA; it’s handled by a court-appointed third party, who is backed up by another court-appointed monitor who double checks the claim. The USDA can provide evidence as to whether or not a particular claim is false, and I’m guessing that might be what he means.

Let me just point out, though, that if 31 percent of the claims are being denied, it literally means they aren’t being rubber-stamped. The reason the terms were so generous was that, as Media Matters points out, folks at the USDA were literally throwing complaints into the trash, making documentation on the government’s end difficult. There’s basically a choice here — you can make it easier to prove a claim and risk that some terrible people will try to defraud the government, or you can make it so difficult that a number of people with legitimate claims won’t be able to prove they were discriminated against. In either case, it’s possible, even likely, that some people who deserve money won’t get it and some who don’t will. But that doesn’t amount to “massive fraud,” nor do I think it discredits the entire process.

Fortunately, if you believe that the old terms were too generous, there are additional fraud protections in the Claims Resolution Act, that further empower the claims adjudicator and gives access to claims information, including the names and address of the claims filers, to the GAO. Not that you’d know that from Foster’s piece. Chances are if/when someone tries to file a fraudulent claim, both we — and Congress — will hear about it.

Around 74,000 people filed claims past the deadline, the vast majority of these were dismissed for not meeting the deadline. The large number of late claims prompted the Senate to pass — unanimously, I might add — a second settlement.

Pigford II

$1.15 billion was approved to address the claims that weren’t handled by Pigford I. The total number of dollars anyone has been paid from this is zero. Every single one of the late claimaints who didn’t squeak through under Pigford I will have to refile, and according to the USDA, not a single claim has been filed yet because the court hasn’t assigned an adjudicator. It’ll be another two to three years before any Pigford II claims are adjudicated.

That’s what makes the allegation of “94,000 phantom farmers” are getting payouts inaccurate. Foster never mentions that only around 16,000 have seen any money at all, while around 7,000 other claims were denied (“the gravy train shows no signs of slowing down”). He’s using the total number of claims filed in the past, leaving the reader with the impression that all of them will be approved, even though all the late filers have to refile. His original piece also leaves the impression, both in his discussion of the evidentiary standards being used for Track A, and the use of the 94,000 number in his conclusion, that everyone is just getting handed a check by the USDA. Just get your friend Carl to say you were a black farmer.

Foster finds the USDA’s widespread, systemic discrimination against black farmers to be inconceivable, because of the scale involved. “Centralized, top-down, discrimination by the federal government would be awful but plausible, the sheer number and geographic scope of the claims suggests a remarkable universality.” I find that to be an astonishing argument. Jim Crow was not a “centralized, top-down affair”; it was a matter of “local administration.” “Local administration” is how segregation worked; it’s how Southern Democrats did things like ensure the benefits of the New Deal would be restricted to whites.

I also had a really visceral emotional reaction to Foster’s original conclusion:

At a December 8 signing ceremony, President Obama heralded Pigford II as the close of “a long and unfortunate chapter in our history.” In a way, one hopes the president is right—that the credulity, or perhaps the shame, of the American government and its taxpayers cannot be strained to accommodate the petty greed of more than 94,000 phantom farmers, and that the con will finally have run its course. But that is unlikely. Two Pigford style class-action suits—one for Hispanic farmers, another for women—with the potential to dwarf current settlements are working their way through the courts. Like so many Pigfords to the trough.

Look, the genteel white populism of this paragraph can’t be explained away. Not only have those greedy black frauds stuck their snouts into your wallet, but the Messicans and womens are on their way. There’s simply no way to credibly pivot from a statement like this, which attacks the very idea of financial restitution for past wrongs, to genuine concerns about farmers who deserved money that didn’t receive it because of the settlement terms.

Historically speaking, according to the Congressional Research Service citing an internal USDA report tracking their practices between 1990 and 1995, the crowd at the trough actually looks considerably less diverse:

According to the commissioned study, few appeals were made by minority complainants because of the slowness of the process, the lack of confidence in the decision makers, the lack of knowledge about the rules, and the significant bureaucracy involved in the process. Other findings showed that (1) the largest USDA loans (top 1%) went to corporations (65%) and white male farmers (25%); (2) loans to black males averaged $4,000 (or 25%) less than those given to white males; and (3) 97% of disaster payments went to white farmers, while less than 1% went to black farmers. The study reported that the reasons for discrepancies in treatment between black and white farmers could not be easily determined due to “gross deficiencies” in USDA data collection and handling.

Shortly afterward, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman suspended farm foreclosures and ordered an investigation into the matter. Before then, no one had been particularly bothered by it, for obvious reasons. Some snouts are more welcome at the trough than others.

I have no doubt that some people will try to defraud the government out of money here, nor do I discount the possibility that some have. Frankly, I think the bigger worry is that some people who deserve money will be bilked out of it by people posing as agents or lawyers and promising to ensure, for a fee, claimants get their settlement money. A class-action settlement is a juicy target for con artists. Those people deserve to be in jail. The fact that some people will try does not invalidate the government’s effort to rectify past wrongs.

Finally, I just want to address Foster’s original nut graf:

And in finally securing justice for himself and the few hundred farmers who first joined his class-action suit, he’d unwittingly set off an injustice greater than the one he sought to rectify: one that would involve the waste of billions of dollars, systemic fraud implicating top federal officials, the unseemly electioneering of two presidential campaigns—even murder.

Maybe I’m missing something here, but I don’t see how Foster has proved that billions were wasted or that there is systemic fraud in the Pigford settlement. It’s only “unseemly electioneering” if you pretend there wasn’t substantial bipartisan support for the settlement, or if you think the president is unmoved by racial injustice and merely spends his entire day thinking about how to get whitey’s money. The idea that the settlement itself is responsible for people who planned to defraud the government by making a false claim and murdered a witness they feared might talk is just stupid.  But this paragraph certainly reflects the ideological disposition of most conservatives — that efforts to rectify past racial injustices always create “more injustice” than the original crime.

Publius at Big Government:

At a press conference at CPAC featuring Rep. Michele Bachmann, Rep. Steve King and Andrew Breitbart, black farmer Eddie Slaughter tells his impassioned story about how the Pigford settlement has actually hurt the original and actual victims of discrimination at the hands of the USDA.

Adam Serwer and Daniel Foster at Bloggingheads

Conor Friedersdorf at The American Scene:

This is going to get complicated quickly. My apologies. If you’ve never heard the word Pigford before this may be a post to skip. In my last stint guestblogging at The Daily Dish, I wrote a post about the Pigford controversy, where I basically argued that since it’s inevitably going to be an ongoing matter of dispute, the best way to talk about it is to focus on the reporting published in National Review by Daniel Foster, a writer whose basic integrity as a person I trust, rather than the stuff published by Andrew Breitbart, whose outspokenness on the matter is clearly outweighed by the numerous instances in which he has brazenly injected egregiously misleading information into public discourse.

So often, stories like this turn into conversational train wrecks. I see one coming – and an opportunity to do better. Let’s treat this like a complicated matter, one where even people writing in good faith can make mistakes, making it a perfect fit for the vetting function that comes from honest back-and-forths in the blogosphere.

The vetting started immediately. I’d noted an aspect of Foster’s piece that seemed particularly persuasive to me. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Adam Serwer, and Mark Thompson pushed back hard. I quickly saw that I’d been mistaken in buying into that particular argument, and said so. As is their wont, the folks at Balloon Juice misunderstood and misrepresented my narrow apology.

Meanwhile, National Review posted Foster’s piece online, so that folks no longer had to rely on my poor summary. Foster pushed back against his critics. Serwer went another round. And then the good people at Bloggingheads arranged for a diavlog between Foster and Serwer, which can be seen here. Some of the conversation is tedious through no fault of the interlocutors. This is a complicated story to talk about, especially for an audience that isn’t initiated. Other parts are riveting. It isn’t often that you see two writers with wildly different takes on race in America willing to confront one another and converse in ways that make both of them uncomfortable.

The exchange that has played out is basically what I hoped for when I wrote that initial post urging engagement with Foster’s piece. I’d wager that Foster, Serwer, Thompson and Coates would all write things a bit differently if they could redo this whole exchange. On the whole, however, I think they’ve all conducted themselves rather well: more precisely, whatever their mistakes, they’ve all argued in good faith, with intellectual honesty and a desire to leave the public better informed about the matter at hand. Put another way, if everyone merely rose to the level of imperfect reporting, analysis and argument displayed here, American public discourse would be greatly improved.

But damn, this is a messy, maddening process. Among the writers I’ve mentioned, there were heated exchanges, hurt feelings, occasional suspicions of bad faith, tedious intervals that didn’t make for particularly entertaining journalism… and as a reader, one had to wade through all of it for the payoff of being a lot better informed on the other end… but even being better informed, there wasn’t the satisfaction of easy answers or resolution to all the disagreements.

What I find so wrongheaded about the Balloon Juice approach to this story – and the approach taken by folks who emailed me insisting that I should have never written my initial post – is the glib insistence that merely wanting a robust exchange was tantamount to being Andrew Breitbart’s useful idiot.

Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under Race

Hey Kids, Tyler Cowen Wrote A Book!

Tyler Cowen’s new book, “The Great Stagnation”

Tyler Cowen:

That’s the title and it’s by me, the Amazon link is here, Barnes&Noble here.  That’s an eBook only, about 15,000 words, and it costs $4.00.  If you wish, think of it as a “Kindle single.”

Your copy will arrive on January 25 and loyal MR readers are receiving the very first chance to buy it.  Very little of the content has already appeared on MR.

Many of you have read my article “The Inequality that Matters,” but there I hardly touched on median income growth.  That is because I was writing this eBook.

Has median household income really stagnated in the United States?  If so, why?  Are the causes political or something deeper?  What are the important biases in how we are measuring national income and productivity and why do they matter for economic policy?  Are we getting enough value for all the extra money we are spending on the health care and education sectors?  What do some major right-wing and left-wing thinkers miss about this phenomenon?

How does all this relate to our recent financial crisis?

I dedicated this book to Michael Mandel and Peter Thiel, two major influences on some of the arguments.

Why did big government arise in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, what is its future, and why is science so important for macroeconomics?  How can we fix the current mess we are in?

Read (and buy) the whole thing.

Scott Sumner:

How great was Tyler Cowen’s marketing coup?  Well he forced a technophobe like me to actually learn how to use Kindle.  I wasn’t too happy about that, which makes me inclined to write a very negative review.  But that’s kind of hard to do credibly when I agree with the central proposition of the book; that technological progress (at least as traditionally measured) has slowed dramatically, and will continue to be disappointing for the foreseeable future.

In an earlier post I argued that my grandma’s generation (1890-1969) saw the biggest increase in living standards; most notably a longer lifespan (due to diet/sanitation/health care), indoor plumbing and electric lights.  Less important inventions included home appliances, cars and airplanes, and TVs.  From the horse and buggy era to the moon landing in one life.  And all I’ve seen is the home computer revolution.  Not much consolation for a technophobe like me.  I’m probably even more pessimistic than Tyler.

The parts of the book I liked best were those that discussed governance.  I had noticed that there was a correlation between cultures that are good at governance, and cultures that are good at running big corporations.    But Tyler added an interesting perspective, arguing that the technologies that facilitated the growth of big corporations also facilitated the growth of big government.  I don’t recall if he made this point, but I couldn’t help thinking that the neoliberal revolution, which led to some shrinkage in government size, was also associated with a move away from the big corporate conglomerates of the 1960s, towards smaller and more nimble businesses.

Tyler has a long list of complaints about the wasteful nature of our government/education/health care sectors, which he hinted is really just one big sector.  While reading this section I kept wondering when he was going to mention Singapore, which has constructed a fiscal regime ideally suited for the Great Stagnation.  When he finally did, on “Page” 830-37, he did so in an unexpected context, as an example of a society that reveres scientists and engineers.  He had just suggested that the most important thing we could do to overcome the stagnation was:

Raise the social status of scientists.

My initial reaction was skepticism.  First, how realistic is it to expect something like this to happen?  I suppose the counterargument is that every new idea seems unrealistic, until it actually occurs.  But even if it did, would it really speed up the rate of scientific progress?  My hunch is that if we doubled the number of people going into science, there would be very little acceleration in scientific progress.  First, because the best scientists (think Einstein) are already in science, driven by a love of the subject.  Second, with a reasonably comprehensive research regime, progress in finding a cure for cancer may require a certain set of interconnected discoveries in biochemistry that simply can’t be rushed by throwing more money and people at the problem.  Similarly, progress in info tech may play out at a pace dictated by Moore’s law.  Given Moore’s law, no amount of research could have produced a Kindle in 1983.  Could more scientists speed up Moore’s law?  Perhaps, I’m not qualified to say.  But that’s certainly not the impression I get from reading others talk about information technology.

Here’s another exhortation that caught my eye:

Be tolerant, and realize there are some pretty deep-seated reasons for all the political strife and all the hard feelings and all the polarization.

I couldn’t help thinking of Paul Krugman and Tyler Cowen, the two brightest stars of the economic blogosphere.  If only one of those two are able to have this sort of dispassionate take on policy strife, how likely are the rest of us mere mortals to be able keep a clear head and remain above the fray?  Still, it’s great advice.

Ryan Avent at Free Exchange at The Economist:

Mr Cowen’s book can be very briefly (too briefly) summarised as follows. The rich world faces two problems. The first is that a decline in innovation has reduced the growth rate of output and median incomes, making it hard for rich countries to meat obligations accepted when expectations were higher. The second is that a lot of recent innovation is occuring in places like the internet, where new products are cheap or free and create very few jobs.

Mr Sumner’s response is a good one. What Mr Cowen is essentially saying, he suggests, is that the actual price level is tumbling. Technology has created a lot of great things that are available for free, and so the price of a typical basket of household consumption is dropping like a rock. People used to spend a lot of money going to movies, buying books and records, making expensive long-distance phone calls, paying for word processing software, and so on. Now, a lot of that can be done at almost no cost. Prices are falling.

That has a couple of implications. It suggests that real incomes are actually rising, at least for those consuming the bulk of the free online content. And perhaps real incomes are too high, in some cases, for labour markets to clear. Given broader disinflation (understated because non-purchased goods aren’t included in price indexes) both prices and wages may need to adjust, but if they’re sticky, then they won’t. What’s needed is reinflation.

To a certain extent, Mr Cowen is concerned about society’s ability to pay off old obligations, and one reason society might struggle to do this is that new innovations deliver value through non-monetary transactions. But the value is still there, and that’s what should really matter for the paying-off of obligations. When you borrow, you’re offering to compensate the lender with more utility tomorrow for less utility today. Thanks to the internet, utility today is cheap, and that’s only a problem because the obligations we acquired yesterday were denominated in dollars. But we can print enough money to meet yesterday’s obligations. Indeed, we should, in order to offset the deflationary pressures from the cheap innovations.

Imagine a world in which technology has advanced to the point that robots can build robots that operate at basically no cost at basically no cost, such that people can have anything that want anytime for free; the only constraint on consumption is the time available. That would be a cashless economy, and as a result, debtors would be totally unable to pay creditors. But does that matter?

Paul Krugman:

Tyler Cowen argues that technological change since the early 1960s hasn’t been as transformative for ordinary peoples’ lives as the change that went before.

I agree. I wrote about that a long time ago, using the example of kitchens:

Better yet, think about how a typical middle-class family lives today compared with 40 years ago — and compare those changes with the progress that took place over the previous 40 years.

I happen to be an expert on some of those changes, because I live in a house with a late-50s-vintage kitchen, never remodelled. The nonself-defrosting refrigerator, and the gas range with its open pilot lights, are pretty depressing (anyone know a good contractor?) — but when all is said and done it is still a pretty functional kitchen. The 1957 owners didn’t have a microwave, and we have gone from black and white broadcasts of Sid Caesar to off-color humor on The Comedy Channel, but basically they lived pretty much the way we do. Now turn the clock back another 39 years, to 1918 — and you are in a world in which a horse-drawn wagon delivered blocks of ice to your icebox, a world not only without TV but without mass media of any kind (regularly scheduled radio entertainment began only in 1920). And of course back in 1918 nearly half of Americans still lived on farms, most without electricity and many without running water. By any reasonable standard, the change in how America lived between 1918 and 1957 was immensely greater than the change between 1957 and the present.

Now, you can overstate this case; medical innovations, in particular, have made a huge difference to some peoples’ lives, mine included (I have a form of arthritis that would have crippled me in the 1950s, and in fact almost did 20 years ago until it was properly diagnosed, but barely affects my life now thanks to modern anti-inflammatories.) But the general sense that the future isn’t what it used to be seems right.

David Leonhardt interviews Cowen at NYT

Derek Thompson at The Atlantic:

Tyler Cowen’s celebrated Kindle publication “The Great Stagnation” has received a lot of attention from the Web community. The New York Times David Leonhardt gets the author to sit for an e-interview on his e-book and asks a good first question: If our innovation motor is broken, what should we do know?

Cowen responds that we should double down on science…

The N.I.H. has done a very good job in promoting medical innovation and this is in large part because it allocates funds on a relatively meritocratic basis; Congress doesn’t control particular grants and on many important fronts the N.I.H. has autonomy. It is one reason why the United States is the world leader in medical research and development and I would expand its funding, provided it retains this autonomy. Basic research is often what economists call a “public good” and it offers economic and health returns for many years to come.

… and get realistic about clean energy.

“Clean energy” is a very important issue, for reasons of climate change, but it won’t be a job creator in a useful sense. In terms of energy production, fossil fuels are quite powerful. With green energy, at this point, we are simply looking to break even, namely to receive some of our current power but without the negative environmental consequences which accrue from carbon. That’s a worthy goal, but we shouldn’t start thinking about green energy as speeding up economic growth or creating jobs. It’s more like a necessary burden we will have to bear and the fact that these costs lie in front of us – from both the climate change and from the technological adjustments — is a sobering thought.

These are smart thoughts from a very smart guy. But let’s think about NIH funding from a jobs perspective. If the government increases science funding and this results in more pharmaceutical drugs coming online, that’s a great thing for the pharmaceutical industry. But new drugs, like any new technology, can be disruptive. For example, a drug to ease the side-effects of end-of-life diseases might replace the need for home health aides, which are projected to be one of the fastest growing jobs in the country for low-skilled workers. That’s not a reason not to develop a totally useful rug! But it throws a wrench into a claim (one that I’ve often made, too) that innovations in biosciences are pure job-creators.

Ezra Klein:

Cowen’s characterization of plumbing, fossil fuels, public education systems, penicillin and so forth as “low-hanging fruit” bugs me a bit. It took human beings quite a while to figure all that out. But Cowen is right to say that once discovered, those innovations produced extremely high returns. From the economy’s perspective, the difference between having cars and not having cars is a lot larger than the difference between having cars and having slightly better cars. A 1992 Honda Accord and a 2010 Honda Accord aren’t the same, but they’re pretty close.

The obvious rejoinder to this is, “What about the internet?” The problem, as Cowen points out, is that the Internet is not yet employing many people or creating much growth. We needed a lot of people to build cars. We don’t need many people to program Facebook. It’s possible, Cowen thinks, that the Internet is just a different type of innovation, at least so far as its ripples in the labor market are concerned. “We have a collective historical memory that technological progress brings a big and predictable stream of revenue growth across most of the economy,” he writes. “When it comes to the web, those assumptions are turning out to be wrong or misleading. The revenue-intensive sector of our economy have been slowing down and the beg technological gains are coming in revenue-deficient sectors.”

Maybe the Internet just needs some time to come into its growth-accelerating own. Or maybe the Internet is going to be an odd innovation in that its gains to human knowledge and enjoyment and well-being will serve to demonstrate that GDP and even median wage growth are insufficient proxies for living standards. Either way, we’re still left with a problem: Stagnant wages are a bad thing even if Wikipedia is a big deal.

And it’s not just the Internet. Even when we’re growing, things look bad. The sectors that are expanding fastest are dysfunctional. We spend a lot of money on education and health care, but seem to be getting less and less back. The public sector is getting bigger, but it’s not at all clear it’s getting better. For much of the last few decades, the financial sector was was generating amazing returns — but that turned out to be a particularly damaging scam. And economic malaise is polarizing our politics, leaving us less able to respond to these problems in an effective or intelligent way.

Kevin Drum:

Tyler makes a bunch of other arguments in “The Great Stagnation” too, some more persuasive than others. Like some other critics, I’m not sure why he uses median wage growth as a proxy for economic growth. It’s important, but it’s just not the same thing. Besides, median wage growth in the United States slowed very suddenly in 1973, and it’s really not plausible that our supply of low hanging fruit just suddenly dropped by half over the space of a few years. I also had a lot of problems with his arguments about whether GDP generated by government, education, and healthcare is as “real” as other GDP. For example, he suggests that as government grows, its consumption is less efficient, but that’s as true of the private sector as it is of the public sector. A dollar of GDP spent on an apple is surely more “real” than a dollar spent on a pet rock, but there’s simply no way to judge that. So we just call a dollar a dollar, and figure that people are able to decide for themselves whether they’re getting the same utility from one dollar as they do from the next.

The healthcare front is harder to judge. I agree with Tyler that we waste a lot of money on healthcare, but at the same time, I think a lot of people seriously underrate the value of modern improvements in healthcare. It’s not just vaccines, antibiotics, sterilization and anesthesia. Hip replacements really, truly improve your life quality, far more than a better car does. Ditto for antidepressants, blood pressure meds, cancer treatments, arthritis medication, and much more. The fact that we waste lots of money on useless end-of-life treatments doesn’t make this other stuff any less real.

To summarize, then: I agree that the pace of fundamental technological improvements has slowed, and I agree with Tyler’s basic point that this is likely to usher in an era of slower economic growth in advanced countries. At the same time, improvements in managerial and organizational efficiency thanks to computerization shouldn’t be underestimated. Neither should the fact that other countries still have quantum leaps in education to make, and that’s going to help us, not just the countries trying to catch up to us. After all, an invention is an invention, no matter where it comes from. And finally, try to keep an even keel about healthcare. It’s easy to point out its inefficiencies, but it’s also easy to miss its advances if they happen to be in areas that don’t affect you personally.

David Brooks at NYT

Cowen and Matthew Yglesias on Bloggingheads

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Economics

Talkin’ About Adding The Value

Grace Snodgrass at Huffington Post:

One day soon, my name and performance evaluation could be printed in your morning newspaper. It will tell you that I’m a teacher who has clear strengths and weaknesses in helping my students advance academically.

But as valuable as my so-called “Teacher Data Report” is in helping me identify these areas, it really doesn’t say much about the overall quality of my teaching. And printing the results — as an NYC judge just gave the city the right to do — will do little to make me, or any of my colleagues, better teachers. At least, not right away. What will help is the Department of Education and the teachers’ union putting aside their differences and improving these reports so that teachers like me receive good information about our performance and clear steps towards achieving our classroom goals.

As an educator, I want to be evaluated. I know that my students’ success hinges on the quality of my teaching. The Department of Education is actually on the right track with the “value-added” method it uses to calculate the impact teachers have on their students’ academic growth. Value-added compares a student’s predicted performance on standardized assessments with how he or she actually performs.

Dana Goldstein and Megan McArdle on Bloggingheads

Jim Manzi at The Corner:

Recently, Megan McArdle and Dana Goldstein had a very interesting Bloggingheads discussion that was mostly about teacher evaluations. They referenced some widely discussed attempts to evaluate teacher performance using what is called “value-added.” This is a very hot topic in education right now. Roughly speaking, it refers to evaluating teacher performance by measuring the average change in standardized test scores for the students in a given teacher’s class from the beginning of the year to the end of the year, rather than simply measuring their scores. The rationale is that this is an effective way to adjust for different teachers being confronted with students of differing abilities and environments.

This seems like a broadly sensible idea as far as it goes, but consider that the real formula for calculating such a score in a typical teacher value-added evaluation system is not “Average math + reading score at end of year – average math reading score at beginning of year,” but rather a very involved regression equation. What this reflects is real complexity, which has a number of sources. First, at the most basic level, teaching is an inherently complex activity. Second, differences between students are not unvarying across time and subject matter. How do we know that Johnny, who was 20 percent better at learning math than Betty in 3rd grade is not relatively more or less advantaged in learning reading in fourth grade? Third, an individual person-year of classroom education is executed as part of a collective enterprise with shared contributions. Teacher X had special needs assistant 1 work with her class, and teacher Y had special needs assistant 2 working with his class — how do we disentangle the effects of the teacher versus the special ed assistant? Fourth, teaching has effects that continue beyond that school year. For example, how do we know if teacher X got a great gain in scores for students in third grade by using techniques that made them less prepared for fourth grade, or vice versa for teacher Y? The argument behind complicated evaluation scoring systems is that they untangle this complexity sufficiently to measure teacher performance with imperfect but tolerable accuracy.

Any successful company that I have ever seen employs some kind of a serious system for evaluating and rewarding / punishing employee performance. But if we think of teaching in these terms — as a job like many others, rather than some sui generis activity — then I think that the hopes put forward for such a system by its advocates are somewhat overblown.

There are some job categories that have a set of characteristics that lend themselves to these kinds of quantitative “value added” evaluations. Typically, they have hundreds or thousands of employees in a common job classification operating in separated local environments without moment-to-moment supervision; the differences in these environments make simple output comparisons unfair; the job is reasonably complex; and, often the performance of any one person will have some indirect, but material, influence on the performance of others over time. Think of trying to manage an industrial sales force of 2,000 salespeople, or the store managers for a chain of 1,000 retail outlets. There is a natural tendency in such situations for analytical headquarters types to say “Look, we need some way to measure performance in each store / territory / office, so let’s build a model that adjusts for inherent differences, and then do evaluations on these adjusted scores.”

I’ve seen a number of such analytically-driven evaluation efforts up close. They usually fail. By far the most common result that I have seen is that operational managers muscle through use of this tool in the first year of evaluations, and then give up on it by year two in the face of open revolt by the evaluated employees. This revolt is based partially on veiled self-interest (no matter what they say in response to surveys, most people resist being held objectively accountable for results), but is also partially based on the inability of the system designers to meet the legitimate challenges raised by the employees.

Noah Millman at The American Scene:

I do want to add a few additional points of my own:

1. Evaluations establish the principle that there is such a thing as performance in the first place. A great deal of discussion nowadays in education revolves around the idea that what we need to “fix the schools” is great teachers. But if that’s what we need, we’ll never do it. What we need, instead, are mechanisms for getting marginally better performance, year after year, from a teaching pool that remains merely adequate.

One bit of low-hanging fruit for achieving that goal, meanwhile, is the ability to dismiss the bottom 5% of teachers in terms of performance. Not only are these teachers failing comprehensively in their own classrooms, but their mere presence has a corrosive effect on an entire organization – on the teachers, on the students, on the management of the school. But right now, firing these teachers is essentially impossible. For all the difficulty of doing a rigorous evaluation in order to improve teaching performance across the board, I suspect it is a whole lot easier to identify the worst teachers in the school. If that could be done, the pressure to be able to terminate them would be significant, and that could do a lot to improve school performance right there.

2. Value-added metrics wind up punishing perfectly good but not spectacular schools with above-average student bodies. It may be that these schools should suffer reputationally, because the staff is not actually delivering as much value as they should. But high-stakes standardized testing actually pushes these schools to destroy themselves, wiping out the programs that actually do deliver value to these high-aptitude students and instead focusing on teaching to the tests.

That’s not an argument against using value-added metrics as such. It’s an argument that they need to be used intelligently, with some understanding of what “value-added” means at different points on the performance spectrum. But that, in turn, would require admitting that different standards are needed for students with different aptitude, which, in turn, is extremely difficult for our education system to admit. (And, admittedly, it’s a problem in corporate cultures that cross widely different customer bases as well. How well would Wal-Mart manage Tiffany?)

3. Nobody goes into teaching “for the money” – that is to say, teachers in aggregate make significantly less than people with their educational credentials and academic aptitude could make in other professions. So monetary rewards are useful primarily going to prove useful as signaling devices. There’s a lot of evidence coming in from high-performance charter schools suggesting that a monetary reward system tied too closely to evaluations actually degrades performance, because it gets teachers focused on the evaluations rather than on the performance. The evaluations should primarily be used as a diagnostic, to identify correctable deficiencies in teacher performance so they can be corrected through staff development, and to identify gross deficiencies in teacher performance so the teachers in question can be dismissed.

4. Similarly, across a system, what evaluations are useful is for research purposes and to drive market discipline. Evaluations of a school should be very useful to parents seeking to select a school for their child. Schools that consistently achieve high valuations (particularly for value-added metrics) should be objects of study by administrators and others looking to replicate that performance in lower-performing but still basically well-run schools. The least-important use of the evaluation is to directly “reward” or “punish” a school bureaucratically – and, indeed, if that becomes the primary use then the school is likely to start focusing overwhelmingly on the evaluation process and lose sight of actual performance. I’ve seen this happen over and over in New York City schools; it’s not a theoretical question.

Conor Friedersdorf at Sullivan’s place:

And it helps explain the inherent tension between teachers unions and the rest of us. Unions exist to protect the interests of their members. Even in the best case scenario, that means lobbying for an evaluation system that maximizes fairness to the people being evaluated. As citizens, our primary goal should be creating the best education system possible, even if doing so sometimes means (for example) that the teacher most desserving of a bonus doesn’t get one. Saying that there is a conflict between the common good and the ends of teachers unions isn’t a condemnation of the latter. It’s just a fact. And everyone seems to understand the basic concept if you talk about prison guard unions.

Reihan Salam:

Part of what makes me nervous is that productivity varies dramatically within industries. It is very common for comparable factories at the 90th percentile produce four times as much as factories at the 10th percentile. Moreover, the scorecards and shortcuts used by factories at the 90th percentile wouldn’t necessarily work for those at the 10th percentile. Managerial insights are usually embedded in a complex tangle on personalities and practices that can’t easily be replicated. This is natural, and I’d say that I’d much rather see a few firms race ahead than allow all firms to remain mired at the low end of the productivity spectrum.  Suffice it to say, this is not the ethic that governs how we generally think about public schools.

In a time when at least half of the political spectrum is deeply troubled by inequality, i.e., by the fact that some firms, individuals, and households are racing far ahead of others, what at least some education reformers are saying is that we want to unleash a few inventive, well-managed schools to start deploying the same per pupil resources to much greater effect. That is, we want to, in the short run at least, make the K-12 educational landscape more unequal, in the hope that leading schools will identify instructional methods, e.g., effective virtual instruction, that will prove scalable.

Much depends on how one interprets the fact that some firms, individuals, and households are racing ahead of the others. I take what I think of as a nuanced view. Generally speaking, some firms, individuals, and households race ahead of others due to a combination of luck, opportunity, and smart investments in organizational capital. In some cases, we see rent-seeking, tax and regulatory arbitrage, etc. But whereas Simon Johnson and many of my friends on the left see this as the dominant narrative, I see it as a significant but nevertheless relatively small part of the wage dispersion story.

Nicholas Bloom and John Van Reenen have written a neat essay in the Journal of Economic Perspectives on how effective management practices spread. I was struck by many of their observations, including some that will be familiar to those of you who see organizational capital as very important (“firms that more intensively use human capital, as measured by more educated workers, tend to have much better management practices”).

The United States has a commanding lead in terms of the quality of management in firms. This is very interesting considering our relative weakness in terms of educational attainment at the median in the prime-age cohorts. And I suspect that this feeds back into wage dispersion as well as assortative mating, family breakdown, and other sources of “stickiness” at the low end of the income distribution. For a variety of reasons, our economy is rewarding people with managerial skills, and, in a crude sense, one might be able to extrapolate the ability to manage a wide range of tasks in the workplace to the ability to maintain constructive relationships in other domains. The obvious objection is that many hard-charging executives neglect their families and personal lives, etc. But it could also be true that the that neglect of parental responsibilities is somewhat more common among those marginally attached to the labor force, due to the greater prevalence of substance abuse and other risky behaviors.

Jonathan Chait at TNR on Manzi:

That’s an interesting insight into the general problem with quantitative measures. Here are a few points in response:

1. You need some system for deciding how to compensate teachers. Merit pay may not be perfect, but tenure plus single-track longevity-based pay is really, really imperfect. Manzi doesn’t say that better systems for measuring teachers are futile, but he’s a little too fatalistic about their potential to improve upon a very badly designed status quo.

2. Manzi’s description…

evaluating teacher performance by measuring the average change in standardized test scores for the students in a given teacher’s class from the beginning of the year to the end of the year, rather than simply measuring their scores. The rationale is that this is an effective way to adjust for different teachers being confronted with students of differing abilities and environments.

..implies that quantitative measures are being used as the entire system to evaluate teachers. In fact, no state uses such measures for any more than half of the evaluation. The other half involves subjective human evaluations.

3. In general, he’s fitting this issue into his “progressives are too optimistic about the potential to rationalize policy” frame. I think that frame is useful — indeed, of all the conservative perspectives on public policy, it’s probably the one liberals should take most seriously. But when you combine the fact that the status quo system is demonstrably terrible, that nobody is trying to devise a formula to control the entire teacher evaluation process, and that nobody is promising the “silver bullet” he assures us doesn’t exist, his argument has a bit of a straw man quality.

Manzi responds to Chait:

My post wasn’t about if we should use quantitative measures of improvement in their students’ standardized test scores as an element of how we evaluate, compensate, manage and retain teachers, but rather about how to do this.

Two of the key points that I tried to make are that the metrics themselves should likely be much simpler than those currently developed by economics PhDs, and that such an evaluation system is only likely to work if embedded within a program of management reform for schools and school systems. The bulk of the post was trying to explain why I believe these assertions to be true.

An additional point that I mentioned in passing is my skepticism that such management reform will really happen in the absence of market pressures on schools. Continuous management reform, sustained over decades, that gets organizations to take difficult and unpleasant actions with employees is very hard to achieve without them. There’s nothing magic about teachers or schools. The same problems with evaluation and other management issues that plague them arise in big companies all the time. It’s only the ugly reality of market discipline that keeps them in check.

Leave a comment

Filed under Education

Great Nation Or Greatest Nation? Or, This Blog Post Brought To You By The Letter “F.”

Rich Lowry at NRO (entire column):

When the likes of Marco Rubio, the new Republican senator from Florida, say this is the greatest country ever, sophisticated opinion-makers cluck and roll their eyes. What a noxious tea-party nostrum. How chauvinistic. What hubris.

Yet, what other countries deserve this designation? For the sake of convenience, start at 1648, when the Peace of Westphalia ratified the modern system of nation-states. And grade on power, prosperity and goodness.

Is Spain the greatest ever? It had a nice run a couple of hundred years ago based on plundering the New World of its gold and silver. By 1800, it was one of the poorest countries in Europe. Today, it teeters on bankruptcy.

Is France? Its model of centralizing monarchy in the 17th century was extremely influential, and admirable — if you like elaborate court ritual, religious persecution and expansionistic wars. It gave the world the template for modern ideological madness in the French Revolution and for the modern tyrant in Napoleon. After the debacle of World War II, it recovered to a power of middling rank. If there’s no doubting the greatness of the French, their history comes with the implicit admonition: “Do not try this at home.”

Germany? In the 18th and 19th centuries, it was a cultural jewel. And one of the most talented statesmen ever, Bismarck, forged a nation that became an industrial behemoth. It also had an illiberal heart. Germany today is an anchor of democratic Europe, but with a hellish black mark against it that will last for all time.

Russia? By the beginning of the 20th century, a decrepit autocracy sat atop a mass of misery. Then, things went south. The communists murdered and enslaved many millions across seven decades. Russia remains an important, if vastly diminished, power, governed by a prickly, grasping kleptocracy.

Britain? Getting warmer. It invented the rights that are the bedrock of liberal democracy. More than most European powers, it lived by Adam Smith’s formula for prosperity: “peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice.” From a tiny island, it came to govern an enormous extent of the globe in a relatively benign colonialism. It was a bulwark against the dictatorships of the Continent, from Napoleon, to the Kaiser, to Hitler. And it spawned the countries that have made the English-speaking world a synonym for good governance and liberty: Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and America.

Which brings us to the U.S. We had the advantage of jumping off from the achievement of the British. We founded our nation upon self-evident truths about the rights of man, even if our conduct hasn’t always matched them. We pushed aside Spain and Mexico in muscling across the continent, but brought order and liberty in our wake. Our treatment of the Indians was appalling, but par for the course in the context of the time. It took centuries of mistreatment of blacks before we finally heeded our own ideals.

The positive side of the ledger, though, is immense: We got constitutional government to work on a scale no one had thought possible; made ourselves a haven of liberty for the world’s peoples; and created a fluid, open society. We amassed unbelievable wealth, and spread it widely. Internationally, we wielded our overwhelming military and industrial power as a benevolent hegemon. We led the coalitions against the ideological empires of the 20th century and protected the global commons. We remain the world’s sole superpower, looked to by most of the world as a leader distinctly better than any of the alternatives.

Our greatness is simply a fact. Only the churlish or malevolent can deny it, or even get irked at its assertion. When a Marco Rubio talks of the greatness of America, it’s not bumptious self-congratulation. Our greatness comes with the responsibility to preserve our traditional dynamism and status as a robust middle-class society. To paraphrase the Benjamin Franklin of lore, we have the greatest country ever — if we can keep it.

Bill Kristol at The Weekly Standard:

Over at NRO, you can read Rich Lowry’s engaging year-end column about America, “Yes, the Greatest Country Ever.”

The day after Rich’s column appeared, on January 1, President Obama asserted in his weekly address that “we’ve had the good fortune to grow up in the greatest nation on Earth.” Then, in case anyone missed it, Obama repeated eight sentences later that he’s confident we can “do what it takes to make sure America remains in the 21st century what it was the 20th: the greatest country in the world.”

And sources now tell us that Lowry’s been called to the White House this week for a secret meeting.

Meanwhile, we look forward to denunciations from the usual enlightened quarters of this vulgar expression of American chauvinism and boastful claim of American exceptionalism by an American president.

Greg Sargent:

The last thing you need is more proof of the mindlessness and vapidity of the right’s attack on Obama for allegedly not believing in “American exceptionalism.” But Bill Kristol’s latest rendition is really worth savoring, because it unwittingly shows what nonsense it all is.

Kristol has a post up making the case that Obama has finally caved to the right’s attacks and has grudgingly conceded America’s greatness. The evidence? Kristol notes that in his weekly address on Saturday, the President hailed America as “the greatest nation on earth,” and “the greatest country in the world.”

This, Kristol says, showcases the “new, revised Obama.”

It’s unclear whether Kristol is joking, but given the idiocy we keep hearing along these lines, it’s perfectly reasonable to assume he isn’t. So allow me to point out that Obama has been using these phrases for literally years now.

In his breakout speech at the 2004 Dem convention, Obama hailed the “greatness of our nation” and the “true genius of America.” And he’s repeatedly stated as president that we live in the greatest country evah. Way back in August 2009, Obama described America as “the greatest nation on Earth.” In October of 2009, Obama declared that “we live in the greatest country on Earth.”

In January of 2010, Obama described America as “the greatest nation in the world.” He called America the “greatest country on Earth” on September 25, again on September 29th, and still again on October 21st. And so on.

Jennifer Rubin:

Bill needs no defense from me, but let me explain the joke to Greg. It is not Obama who is the target of Bill’s humor, but the left and its disinclination to project American power and values. Bill, like many conservatives, has supported the president’s policy in Iraq and Afghanistan. He’s been quite generous in his praise of a number of Obama speeches. The point of the barb is to make clear that not even the liberal icon Obama adopts the left’s disdain for American exceptionalism, nor its desire to retreat from the war on Islamic terror. Conservatives, me included, are prone to marvel at the left’s propensity to sneer at George Bush’s formulation of American exceptionalism while remaining mute as their liberal hero does the same.

The point, you see, is not to discredit the president, but to discredit those that would pull him ever leftward on matters of national security. To the degree Obama sounds much like his predecessor and conducts a robust foreign policy (e.g. use of drones in Afghanistan, a continued presence in Iraq) conservatives will applaud and, candidly, take some glee in recognizing that a president cannot adopt a leftist world view and hope to successfully defend U.S. interests.

Paul Gottfried at The American Conservative:

Unfortunately, I can’t resist pointing out minicon stupidities, and the latest example of this problem came to my attention in a recent syndicated column by Rich Lowry. In what is intended to be a discourse on American exceptionalism, Lowry goes through the anti-democratic evils of continental countries and then gets to England, which is awarded a clean bill of health. England previewed our “liberal democracy,” practiced “benign colonialism,” and was in many ways a “jumping off” point to our “exceptional nation.” “It was a bulwark against the dictatorships of the Continent, from Napoleon, to the Kaiser, to Hitler.”

Let me point out some of what is wrong with such hyperbole. The English bear many of the same “black marks” that Lowry ascribes to continental countries, and as the descendant of Irish peasants, Lowry might recall at least some of England’s many misdeeds. English rule abroad was not always “benign colonialism,” and in the Boer War, which the Salisbury government launched against the Afrikaners to grab their land, the English practiced naked aggression and engaged in atrocities against their fellow Northern European Protestants, as opposed to such customary English victims as Highland Scots, Irish Catholics, and the inhabitants of Chinese coastal cities.

It is also ridiculous to see all English entanglement in wars against continental powers as driven by a democratic struggle against dictatorship. As an insular empire protected by a large navy, the English had an interest in keeping hegemonic powers from emerging on the continent and pursued this interest with whatever allies they could find. What the English typically practiced was Realpolitik, which meant siding with some undemocratic, feudal regimes against other more powerful states. During the Napoleonic wars the English allied themselves with a reactionary Russia against a much more progressive France, which abolished serfdom and proclaimed religious liberty wherever its armies went. English Tories feared the rise of Germany from the time of its unification not because they viewed it as a “dictatorship” but because it was becoming a continental powerhouse. Later, in order to defeat its rival, England pulled the U.S. into the First World War, thereby setting the stage for playing second fiddle to England’s American cousins.

Doug J:

There was a lot of chest-thumping, or weasel-whacking or monkey-strangling or what have you, about the awesomeness of the United States among the wingerati over the past few days. Rich Lowry declared that the United States is the best because we are the best, no one rocks as hard as we do, bitch.

Our greatness is simply a fact. Only the churlish or malevolent can deny it, or even get irked at its assertion.

Bill Kristol then gave Lowry some kind ironic boo-yah about the fact that Obama talked about how great the US is right after Lowry wrote his column.

The exchange was fairly typical of what passes for high-brow conservatism these days. And yet there are those who why conservatism has such little appeal for intellectually-inclined voters.

Andrew Sullivan:

Somehow Lowry fails to grasp why this kind of assertion is so, well, fatuous and irritating. Imagine that once a month or so, Michael Jordan called a press conference, confidently listed his achievements as a basketball player, and insisted, “My greatness is simply a fact.” He’d be correct: he was a spectacular basketball player, arguably the best in history. Same with Tiger Woods. Or Stephen Hawking. On the other hand, we’re put off when people announce their own greatness – experience has taught that they’re usually doing so because they’re a braggart, or a narcissist, or a bully. (In Rich Lowry’s case, it’s intellectual bullying – wielding the collective club of nationalism against genuine worries about America’s fiscal bankruptcy, academic decline, and economic stagnation).

So it goes when conservatives invoke the greatness of America. The rhetoric that follows is inevitably political. When Marco Rubio lauds the USA, we roll our eyes because we have not had our skepticism of politicians sugically removed: we understand that politicians pin on flag lapels and talk about the greatness of America because they’re calculating pols, not because they think more highly of the United States than the rest of us. Our eyes tend to roll when politicians kiss babies too. That isn’t because we object to the notion that babies are lovable – merely because most politicians aren’t. Especially when uttering fatuous platitudes.

Doug Mataconis:

Or, as DougJ at Balloon Juice put it, America Fuck Yeah.

I’ve really got to wonder what the purpose of stuff like this is. The GOP has been obsessed in recent years with the idea of national “greatness” and conservatives are quick to condemn and political leader who doesn’t make the appropriate statement about how the United States of America is the greatest country ever. It all strikes me as rather silly schoolyard boosterism. It doesn’t inform policy decisions, and it tends to lead to the rather dangerous idea of “My country, right or wrong.”

This is what passes for political insight from the right these days, apparently.

Rich Lowry and Glenn Loury at Bloggingheads

Leave a comment

Filed under Go Meta

Galt Has A Moment And A Movement

Christopher Beam in New York Magazine:

Just before Thanksgiving, in an impassioned speech on the floor of the House of Representatives, Ron Paul called for Congress to be groped. The Transportation Security Administration, having rolled out its new airport body scanners, had decreed anyone who opted out could be subjected to the now-infamous enhanced pat-down. “Let’s make sure that every member of Congress goes through this,” Representative Paul said, waving his finger in the air. “Get the X-ray, make them look at the pictures, and then go through one of those groping pat-downs.” Perhaps this would put Congress in touch (quite literally) with real Americans.

Paul, the 75-year-old Texas libertarian and quixotic 2008 Republican candidate best known for his quest to abolish the Federal Reserve, is used to fighting lonely battles. But this time, he had company. Fox News went wall-to-wall on the (nonexistent) health hazards of body scans, naked outlines of passengers, and pat-down paranoia. “If you touch my junk, I’m going to have you arrested,” said newfound freedom fighter John Tyner to a TSA agent in a video that went viral. The left backed Paul too. Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald argued that the screenings had “all the ingredients of the last decade’s worth of Terrorism exploitation.” Blogger Jane Hamsher of Firedoglake called the X-ray devices “porno-scanners.” For one beautiful moment, the whole political spectrum—well, at least both vocal ends of it—seemed to agree: Too much government is too much government.

Maybe it was inevitable that the National Opt-Out Day, when travelers were going to refuse body scans en masse, failed to become the next Woolworth’s sit-in (how do you organize a movement that abhors organization?). It turned out most Americans actually supported the body scanners. But the moment was a reminder of just how strong, not to mention loud, the libertarian streak is in American politics.

No one exemplifies that streak more than Ron Paul—unless you count his son Rand. When Rand Paul strolled onstage in May 2010, the newly declared Republican nominee for Kentucky’s U.S. Senate seat, he entered to the strains of Rush, the boomer rock band famous for its allegiance to libertarianism and Ayn Rand. It was a dog whistle—a wink to free-marketers and classic-rock fans savvy enough to get the reference, but likely to sail over the heads of most Republicans. Paul’s campaign was full of such goodies. He name-dropped Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek’s seminal TheRoad to Serfdom. He cut a YouTube video denying that he was named after Ayn Rand but professing to have read all of her novels. He spoke in the stark black-and-white terms of libertarian purism. “Do we believe in the individual, or do we believe in the state?” he asked the crowd in Bowling Green, Kentucky, on Election Night.

It’s clear why he played coy. For all the talk about casting off government shackles, libertarianism is still considered the crazy uncle of American politics: loud and cocky and occasionally profound but always a bit unhinged. And Rand Paul’s dad is the craziest uncle of all. Ron Paul wants to “end the Fed,” as the title of his book proclaims, and return the country to the gold standard—stances that have made him a tea-party icon. Now, as incoming chairman of the subcommittee that oversees the Fed, he’ll have an even bigger platform. Paul Sr. says there’s not much daylight between him and his son. “I can’t think of anything we grossly disagree on,” he says.

There’s never been a better time to be a libertarian than now. The right is still railing against interventionist policies like TARP, the stimulus package, and health-care reform. Citizens of all political stripes recoil against the nanny state, which is nannier than ever, passing anti-smoking laws, banning trans fats, posting calorie counts, prohibiting flavored cigarettes, cracking down on Four Loko, and considering a soda tax in New York. All that, plus some TSA agent wants to handle your baggage.

Libertarianism has adherents on the left, too—they just organize around different issues. Whereas righty libertarians stew over taxes and bailouts, lefty libertarians despise de facto suspensions of habeas corpus, surveillance, and restrictions on whom you can marry. It’s not surprising that the biggest victories of the right and the left in the last weeks of this lame-duck session of Congress were about stripping down government—tax cuts and releasing the shackles of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Much of Americans’ vaunted anger now comes from a sense of betrayal over libertariansim shrugged. Right-wing libertarians charge that the Bush presidency gave the lie to small-government cant by pushing Medicare Part D, No Child Left Behind, and a $3 trillion war. Left-wing libertarians are furious that Obama talked a big game on civil liberties but has caved on everything from FISA to DOMA to Gitmo. Meanwhile, the country faces a massive and growing deficit (too much government!) that neither party has the power or the inclination to fix. If there were ever a time to harness libertarian energy—on left and right—it’s now.

Erik Hayden at The Atlantic with the round-up

Beam and Julian Sanchez at Bloggingheads

Matt Welch at Reason:

Beam’s piece ends on an extended Big But, in which we hear warnings about doctrinal purity, extreme Randian selfishness, Brink Lindsey leaving Cato, and minarchy being “an elegant idea in the abstract.” In the real world, not bailing out banks “would have unfairly punished a much greater number” of homeowners, and so on. Plus, that one Tennessee house burned down, and: Somalia! He ends the piece like this:

It took 35 years for Ron Paul to reach the center of American politics. And it could take another 35 before he or someone like him is back. It’s certainly a libertarian moment—but it’s not liable to last too long. Libertarianism and power are like matter and anti-matter. They cancel each other out.

Radley Balko at Reason:

The first two-thirds of the article are a sort of tour guide of libertarian personalities, factions, and general philosophy. It comes off a bit like Beam describing to Manhattanites some exotic new species discovered in Madagascar, but I suppose that probably is how libertarians come off to people outside the politics/policy/media bubble. This portion of the article is mostly fair, though are still some revealing word and phrase choices. (For example, the Koch brothers are only “infamous” if you don’t happen to agree with them. Just like George Soros is only infamous if you’re opposed to the causes he funds.)

Still, the first two-thirds of the article is mostly a quick and dirty introduction to or primer on libertarianism and the movement surrounding it, with Beam largely playing a neutral storyteller, interviewer, and interpreter.

It’s in the last third of the article there’s a noticeable and disruptive shift in tone. After establishing a certain trust with the reader that casts himself in the role of a mostly neutral observer and chronicler of this libertarian uprising, Beam then stops describing libertarianism, and starts critiquing it himself. The critiques are selective. He picks a few issues, broadly (and sometimes inaccurately, or without appropriate detail) describes the libertarian position, then describes why libertarianism fails on that particular issue. Taken as a whole, these critiques are supposed to support his thesis for the latter third of the article, which is that libertarianism is utopian and impractical. (He neglects to explain how the current system has produced better results, but that’s a different discussion.) I don’t think much of Beam’s critiques, but then I’m also a libertarian.

But it’s not the critiques themselves that I found off-putting. If this had been a straight Jacob Weisberg-style trashing of libertarianism, we could evaluate it on those terms. But this is more subtle and, I think, in some ways more pernicious. This was a thrashing disguised as a primer. That Beam makes these critiques himself comes off as abrupt and, frankly, condescending. There’s an aesthetic I’ve noticed among some journalists that libertarianism is so crazy and off the rails that it’s okay to step outside the boundaries of decorum and fairness to make sure everyone knows how nuts libertarians really are. (A couple years ago, I emailed a prominent journalist to compliment him on a book he had written. His strange response: He thanked me for the compliment, and then ran off several sentences about how dangerous and evil he thought my politics were.)

Reihan Salam:

Radley Balko has written a characteristically astute critique of Chris Beam’s New York magazine article on libertarianism. I think Radley says all that needs to be said on the subject.

Instead, I’d like to throw out a few other approaches to the subject that might have worked better:

(1) While talking to a good friend, we came to the conclusion that while cultural conservatism’s influence has been fading (something we both lament, albeit in different degrees) and while social democratic thinking is moribund, certain kinds of libertarian incrementalism (think Ed Glaeser and Tyler Cowen), not just resigned but comfortable with the idea of a social safety net in an affluent society, have grown more influential. Libertarian purists hate it. But they’ve grown less relevant. This piece might have focused on criminal sentencing, the war on drugs, etc., with a “we’re all libertarians now” coda. The trouble with this piece is that it might be really boring. But it would make sense. And it would avoid a lengthy discussion of minarchism.

(2) A much more fun piece, attuned to a New York audience, would open with the Tea Party’s libertarianism and make a strong case for its hypocrisy: they call themselves libertarians, but here are the subsidies they love, the un-libertarian restrictions they champion, etc. This section would be tendentious and unfair, but that’s the fun of it. And then the piece would argue that modern-day New York city, for all its taxes and regulations, is the real home of liberty: look to the cultural freedom, and also to the entrepreneurial energy of Silicon Alley, etc. Bracketing whether or not this is fair, it would be a provocative piece about who really owns liberty.

(3) Drawing on Amar Bhidé and Tim Wu and Tyler, one could also write a straightforward piece on how Tea Party libertarians and minarchists are misguided because more freedom and more affluence and more government tend to go hand in hand. We get more free and less free at the same time, along different dimensions. Again, this piece might be boring, but not necessarily.

David Weigel:

Beam’s history and etymology are going to be useful to outsiders, who don’t pay attention to this stuff. It’s a better case against libertarian policy, if you want that, than a shouty “investigative” blog post at some liberal site that connects a congressman’s staff to the Koch family with the assumption that evil has just been uncovered. But no case against libertarianism sounds very compelling right now, because any alternative to the managed economy sounds great to a country with 9.9 percent unemployment.

Do libertarians promise utopia? Sure. So do the socialists who came up with the ideas that motivate Democratic politicians. Voters don’t care much about where ideas come from as long as they have jobs. Now, the real test for libertarians will come if a year of Republican austerity budgeting is followed by economic growth. In the 1990s, the new, libertarian-minded Republican congressmen and governors discovered that fast growth allowed them to cut taxes and grow budgets for services that voters liked. In the 2010s, if unemployment falls, will the libertarian Republicans keep cutting budgets and reducing services? It doesn’t sound impossible right now.

E.D. Kain at The League:

In any case, I suspect the many reactions to Beam’s article are not because of any of its insights but rather because it is long and in a prestigious publication, and because it is written in such accessible language. It may not do anything but scratch a few surfaces and regurgitate a number of old anti-libertarian tropes, but that’s to be expected. Look, here I am commenting on it myself, largely because it is long and because so many other people are commenting on it and because I’m surprised at how little it really says about the Libertarian Moment in question.

Matthew Yglesias:

I liked Chris Beam’s NY Mag article on libertarians, but I want to quibble with this:

Yet libertarianism is more internally consistent than the Democratic or Republican platforms. There’s no inherent reason that free-marketers and social conservatives should be allied under the Republican umbrella, except that it makes for a powerful coalition.

People, especially people who are libertarians, say this all the time. But we should consider the possibility that the market in political ideas works is that there’s a reason you typically find conservative and progressive political coalitions aligned in this particular way. And if you look at American history, you see that in 1964 when we had a libertarian presidential candidate the main constituency for his views turned out to be white supremacists in the deep south. Libertarian principles, as Rand Paul had occasion to remind us during the 2010 midterm campaign, prohibit the Civil Rights Act as an infringement on the liberty of racist business proprietors. Similarly, libertarians and social conservatives are united in opposition to an Employment Non-Discrimination Act for gays and lesbians and to measures like the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act that seek to curb discrimination against women.

Jonathan Chait at TNR:

Let me refine the point a bit. The left-right division tends to center around the distribution of power. In both the economic and the social spheres, power is distributed unequally. Liberalism is about distributing that power more equally, and conservatism represents the opposite. I don’t mean to create a definition that stacks the deck. It’s certainly possible to carry the spirit of egalitarianism too far in either sphere. An economic policy that imposed a 100% tax on all six-figure incomes, or a social policy that imposed strict race and gender quotas on every university or profession, would be far too egalitarian for my taste. Soviet Russia or Communist China are handy historical cases of social and economic leveling run amok.

But in any case, there’s a coherence between the two spheres. Liberals see a health care system in which tens millions of people can’t afford regular medical care, or a social system in which gays face an array of discrimination, and seek to level the playing field. The inequality may be between management and labor, or rich and poor, or corporations versus consumers, or white versus black. In almost every instance, the liberal position is for reducing inequalities of power — be it by ending Jim Crow or providing food stamps to poor families — while the conservative position is for maintaining those inequalities of power.

Economic liberalism usually (but not always) takes the form of advocating more government intervention, while social liberalism usually (but not always) takes the form of advocating less government intervention. If your only ideological interpretation metric is more versus less government, then that would appear incoherent. But I don’t see why more versus less government must be the only metric.

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Conservative Movement, Politics

He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother

Jane Mayer in The New Yorker:

With his brother Charles, who is seventy-four, David Koch owns virtually all of Koch Industries, a conglomerate, headquartered in Wichita, Kansas, whose annual revenues are estimated to be a hundred billion dollars. The company has grown spectacularly since their father, Fred, died, in 1967, and the brothers took charge. The Kochs operate oil refineries in Alaska, Texas, and Minnesota, and control some four thousand miles of pipeline. Koch Industries owns Brawny paper towels, Dixie cups, Georgia-Pacific lumber, Stainmaster carpet, and Lycra, among other products. Forbes ranks it as the second-largest private company in the country, after Cargill, and its consistent profitability has made David and Charles Koch—who, years ago, bought out two other brothers—among the richest men in America. Their combined fortune of thirty-five billion dollars is exceeded only by those of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.

The Kochs are longtime libertarians who believe in drastically lower personal and corporate taxes, minimal social services for the needy, and much less oversight of industry—especially environmental regulation. These views dovetail with the brothers’ corporate interests. In a study released this spring, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst’s Political Economy Research Institute named Koch Industries one of the top ten air polluters in the United States. And Greenpeace issued a report identifying the company as a “kingpin of climate science denial.” The report showed that, from 2005 to 2008, the Kochs vastly outdid ExxonMobil in giving money to organizations fighting legislation related to climate change, underwriting a huge network of foundations, think tanks, and political front groups. Indeed, the brothers have funded opposition campaigns against so many Obama Administration policies—from health-care reform to the economic-stimulus program—that, in political circles, their ideological network is known as the Kochtopus.

In a statement, Koch Industries said that the Greenpeace report “distorts the environmental record of our companies.” And David Koch, in a recent, admiring article about him in New York, protested that the “radical press” had turned his family into “whipping boys,” and had exaggerated its influence on American politics. But Charles Lewis, the founder of the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan watchdog group, said, “The Kochs are on a whole different level. There’s no one else who has spent this much money. The sheer dimension of it is what sets them apart. They have a pattern of lawbreaking, political manipulation, and obfuscation. I’ve been in Washington since Watergate, and I’ve never seen anything like it. They are the Standard Oil of our times.”

A few weeks after the Lincoln Center gala, the advocacy wing of the Americans for Prosperity Foundation—an organization that David Koch started, in 2004—held a different kind of gathering. Over the July 4th weekend, a summit called Texas Defending the American Dream took place in a chilly hotel ballroom in Austin. Though Koch freely promotes his philanthropic ventures, he did not attend the summit, and his name was not in evidence. And on this occasion the audience was roused not by a dance performance but by a series of speakers denouncing President Barack Obama. Peggy Venable, the organizer of the summit, warned that Administration officials “have a socialist vision for this country.”

Five hundred people attended the summit, which served, in part, as a training session for Tea Party activists in Texas. An advertisement cast the event as a populist uprising against vested corporate power. “Today, the voices of average Americans are being drowned out by lobbyists and special interests,” it said. “But you can do something about it.” The pitch made no mention of its corporate funders. The White House has expressed frustration that such sponsors have largely eluded public notice. David Axelrod, Obama’s senior adviser, said, “What they don’t say is that, in part, this is a grassroots citizens’ movement brought to you by a bunch of oil billionaires.”

Erick Erickson at Redstate:

Obama’s coordinated character assassination campaign against anyone who disagrees with him strikes of Soviet style politics. Saul Allinsky would be proud.

For perspective, the Koch brothers have been funding right-of-center and largely libertarian causes since the 1970’s. David Koch was the Libertarian Vice Presidential nominee in 1980. That’s right — against Reagan. This is nothing new for the Koch family. Through Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Bush the Koch’s have been politically engaged, sometimes even against Republican Presidents.

But Barack Obama is so used to demagoguing and is the first Democratic President to really believe the rich are evil, and not just preach it for the base, he needs an enemy. The Koch family will be that enemy.

The New Yorker has an eleven page, 6,000 word article on David and Charles Koch, who own Koch Industries. The article, “Covert Operations,” appears in the August 30, 2010 copy of the magazine. In other words, this article was being manufactured well before Mr. Obama launched the opening salvo on August 9, 2010.

Writing in yesterday’s Playbook, Mike Allen referenced the article, highlighting a passage that David Axelrod, Mr. Obama’s advisor, is concerned about the Koch brothers. Mike Allen has more today.

Most troubling, the New Yorker cites as objective sources both the Center for American Progress and Media Matters without ever bothering to mention they are left-wing sources with biases and competing interests against those of the Koch brothers.

As the same time, Mother Jones is attacking the Smithsonian for taking Koch money, the Center for American Progress that the New Yorker relied on as an objective source, is attacking the Kochs in the Boston Globe, they are also attacking David Koch directly, and even Greenpeace is getting in on the act.

This is a coordinated character assassination against Koch Industries and the Koch brothers for daring to use their money to prevent the destruction of the American economy at the hand of a bunch of effete socialists in the White House.

Joseph Lawler at The American Spectator:

I’m not sure about Erickson’s speculation, but it’s hard not to notice that Mayer’s article paints an grim portrait of the Koch brothers without actually reporting anything objectionable that they might have done. For instance, here is how the article (headline: “Covert Operations: The billionaire brothers who are waging a war against Obama”) describes the Kochs’ efforts to promote libertarianism:

In Washington, [David H.] Koch is best known as part of a family that has repeatedly funded stealth attacks on the federal government, and on the Obama Administration in particular.

If that is how you describe peaceful, lawful activism, then what words are left to describe, for instance, the actions of al Qaeda, which funded an actual stealth attack on the federal government?

Later in the article, Mayer writes that “the Mercatus Center released a report claiming that stimulus funds had been directed disproportionately toward Democratic districts; eventually, the author was forced to correct the report, but not before Rush Limbaugh, citing the paper, had labelled Obama’s program ‘a slush fund…'”

Mayer is referring to Veronique de Rugy’s working paper. It is not accurate to claim that de Rugy was “forced to correct” the paper. A better description would be that she “voluntarily, in the spirit of transparency, improved the paper and found that her initial results still obtained.” You can read a less tendentious account of that episode here or de Rugy’s own explanation here.

Matt Welch at Reason:

I am a big admirer of Jane Mayer, and her article is worth reading for anyone who’s interested in the topic, but is seems a clear case of describing two apples with different adjectives because one smells funny (the George Soros paragraph in the article is a classic of the form). Whether the piece amounts to a kind of opening White House legal salvo against some of its biggest critics is something worth monitoring closely over the next two-plus months (and two-plus years). Given President Obama’s increasingly hysterical (and hypocritical) attacks against “the influence wielded by corporations and foreign entities,” it’s clear that the campaign will have rhetorical legs at the least.

Nick Gillespie at Reason:

Exactly how are the Koch brothers under the radar or underground? They show up every year in the Forbes super-rich lists. Charles Koch wrote a best-selling business book a year or two ago and makes no secret of his belief in free markets and limited government. David Koch ran for vice president of these United States on the Libertarian Party ticket in 1980 (where he helped Ed Clark pull over 900,000 votes, by far the highest total gained by the LP). Both are known for a wide range of philanthropic giving, whether to arts and medical outfits or think tanks or political action groups.

Full disclosure: David Koch has been on the board of trustees of Reason Foundation, the publisher of this website, for decades, and his name appears in the masthead of Reason magazine; I have also taught at various programs for the Institute for Humane Studies, which the Kochs fund, and will speak at an Americans for Prosperity event later this week. While I have never had more than brief interaction with either brother, I am perhaps overdue in thanking them on this blog for supporting my career at Reason, where I have argued in favor of gay marriage, drug legalization, non-interventionist foreign policy, open borders, sales in human organs, an end to corporate welfare, and a wide variety of other shamelessly libertarian policies.

While the Kochs are not publicity hounds, they certainly don’t hide their giving or their political agenda under a bushel basket. They are consistently in favor of smaller government (even if Koch Industries gave 15 percent of its political donations to Democrats in the 2008 election cycle). They may in fact be “out to destroy progessivism” but they are hardly using secret means to combat the growth and reach of government. You can argue whether The New Yorker story is “shameful,” but there’s no question that it is a great example of the demonization of opposing points of view (this happens on the right, too, where way too many liberals are labeled socialists or communists or whatever). It’s not enough that opponents believe different things, they must be cast as underhanded and duplicitous, acting out of only the most vulgar or awful of motives.

Frank Rich at The New York Times:

There’s just one element missing from these snapshots of America’s ostensibly spontaneous and leaderless populist uprising: the sugar daddies who are bankrolling it, and have been doing so since well before the “death panel” warm-up acts of last summer. Three heavy hitters rule. You’ve heard of one of them, Rupert Murdoch. The other two, the brothers David and Charles Koch, are even richer, with a combined wealth exceeded only by that of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett among Americans. But even those carrying the Kochs’ banner may not know who these brothers are.

Their self-interested and at times radical agendas, like Murdoch’s, go well beyond, and sometimes counter to, the interests of those who serve as spear carriers in the political pageants hawked on Fox News. The country will be in for quite a ride should these potentates gain power, and given the recession-battered electorate’s unchecked anger and the Obama White House’s unfocused political strategy, they might.

All three tycoons are the latest incarnation of what the historian Kim Phillips-Fein labeled “Invisible Hands” in her prescient 2009 book of that title: those corporate players who have financed the far right ever since the du Pont brothers spawned the American Liberty League in 1934 to bring down F.D.R. You can draw a straight line from the Liberty League’s crusade against the New Deal “socialism” of Social Security, the Securities and Exchange Commission and child labor laws to the John Birch Society-Barry Goldwater assault on J.F.K. and Medicare to the Koch-Murdoch-backed juggernaut against our “socialist” president.

Only the fat cats change — not their methods and not their pet bugaboos (taxes, corporate regulation, organized labor, and government “handouts” to the poor, unemployed, ill and elderly). Even the sources of their fortunes remain fairly constant. Koch Industries began with oil in the 1930s and now also spews an array of industrial products, from Dixie cups to Lycra, not unlike DuPont’s portfolio of paint and plastics. Sometimes the biological DNA persists as well. The Koch brothers’ father, Fred, was among the select group chosen to serve on the Birch Society’s top governing body. In a recorded 1963 speech that survives in a University of Michigan archive, he can be heard warning of “a takeover” of America in which Communists would “infiltrate the highest offices of government in the U.S. until the president is a Communist, unknown to the rest of us.” That rant could be delivered as is at any Tea Party rally today.

Last week the Kochs were shoved unwillingly into the spotlight by the most comprehensive journalistic portrait of them yet, written by Jane Mayer of The New Yorker. Her article caused a stir among those in Manhattan’s liberal elite who didn’t know that David Koch, widely celebrated for his cultural philanthropy, is not merely another rich conservative Republican but the founder of the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, which, as Mayer writes with some understatement, “has worked closely with the Tea Party since the movement’s inception.” To New Yorkers who associate the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center with the New York City Ballet, it’s startling to learn that the Texas branch of that foundation’s political arm, known simply as Americans for Prosperity, gave its Blogger of the Year Award to an activist who had called President Obama “cokehead in chief.”

Warner Todd Huston at Big Government:

First of all most of what Rich wrote was but rehashed words from Jane Mayer’s slam against the Koch Brothers of New York. Three quarters of what Rich penned really came from Mayer’s New Yorker piece on the philanthropists. So, big demerits for Frank Rich for simply appropriating Mayer’s piece.

But the real point of Rich’s piece was to pile onto Mayer’s slanted attack piece with some echoed slams against the Tea Party movement in order to discredit it all. Rich is desperate to make the movement seem like a marionette show with rich “sugar daddies” funding it and controlling it from the top.

“There’s just one element missing from these snapshots of America’s ostensibly spontaneous and leaderless populist uprising,” Rich says of the Tea Party events, “the sugar daddies who are bankrolling it, and have been doing so since well before the ‘death panel’ warm-up acts of last summer.”

Rich then rehashes Mayer’s examples of where the Koch brothers put their money in the form of Americans For Prosperity and Freedom Works, two nationwide, very active, and successful conservative advocacy groups.

Now, it is absolutely true that both AFP and Freedom Works have had the cash to put on large events in Washington D.C. and other cities. But it is not true that either of these groups controls and runs “the Tea Party” movement from above.

In fact, both AFP and Freedom Works were sort of caught unawares when the Tea Parties started forming spontaneously all across the nation in early 2009. Both had to rush to try and tap into that passion. Neither was initially prepared for the amazing energy that the Tea Party has unleashed.

Yes, these two organizations have held many events. But the number of evens that they have held, funded and had a hand in operating are but a small number compared to the hundreds if not thousands of Tea Party groups that started up all on their own, all with their own funding and members, all without the bankrolling of a “sugar daddy” named Koch.

To say that the Koch brothers, or Dick Armey, or Americans for Prosperity’s Tim Phillips control the Tea Party movement is simply a lie. In fact, these advocacy groups are like the 80-pound child taking his 200-pound dog for a walk. The kid may seem like the owner, but it is the big dog in control of where the walk ends up heading! The Tea Party is the 200-pound dog that neither AFP, nor Freedom Woks can control. These groups are the 80-pound kid holding on for dear life, trying to stay relevant in the minds of the Tea Party movement.

And Rich makes a second mistake — or calculation — in addressing the Tea Party movement. He keeps saying “the Tea Party” as if it is a single entity. It is not. I have been interacting with, writing about, and attending rallies with various Tea Party groups since the first days of the movement. There is one thing that holds true throughout. They are not connected one to the other in any meaningful way.

But you see, if Rich and his anti-traditional American ideologues can make it appear as if “the Tea Party” is run from the back pocket of the Koch brothers, it is easier to discredit as a false front set up by secretive, shadowy forces. If it were all a Koch enterprise, now that is a strawman that Frank Rich could knock down. But if the Tea Party is understood as millions of individual Americans following their patriotic hearts, that is an impossible image to discredit.

So you can see why Rich and his cohorts are desperate to make it “the Tea Party” instead of revealing the truth.

David Weigel:

Here’s more on the story I published this morning — a letter that the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation is sending around arguing that Jane Mayer’s New Yorker profile treated the Kochs unfairly.

“The New Yorker article, and those pieces that have echoed it, rely heavily on innuendo and unsubstantiated assertions,” writes foundation president Richard Fink, who is the public face of the brothers’ ideological work. “Unnamed sources and those with a strong philosophical opposition to the Kochs – many of whom have no current or first-hand knowledge of Koch Industries, Koch Family Foundations, Charles Koch or David Koch – go unchallenged. Supporters of the Kochs are largely ignored (as evidenced by the fact that the reporter chose not to include the vast majority of supportive comments made by a number of people familiar with the Kochs and the organizations they support). On the other hand, those who reinforce the reporter’s preconceptions are given a free pass.”

Fink argues that Mayer treated the Kochs unfairly despite the access she received, but Mayer reports that she didn’t get face time with David or Charles. That’s the point I’m making — these attempts to keep the brothers out of the political fray just don’t work anymore.

Reihan Salam:

All this is to say that I’m very comfortable with critiques of the rise of the right, including left-of-center critiques. Let’s just say I don’t think Rich is an authority on this subject. That said, I would never question his knowledge of the history of Broadway, Vaudeville, or theater more broadly.

I don’t doubt that a talented reporter could illuminate the worldview of the Kochs and the extent of their reach. But Mayer might be the most talented reporter writing today, and she’s written a piece that relies heavily on Gus diZerega, incendiary quotes from a wide range of scrupulously non-partisan but decidedly left-of-center think tanks, a credulous statement from a Soros spokesperson, a conversation with Matt Kibbe of FreedomWorks, references to Andrew Goldman’s article in New York and Brian Doherty’s Radicals for Capitalism, and something else I’m sure I’m missing. One possibility is that Mayer’s editors pressed for early publication of the Koch story, spurred by the fact that New York had published its piece in late July and the prospect of more articles on the Kochs in other magazines. If that is indeed the case, I think Mayer’s editors have done her a disservice.

As someone who has benefited from left-of-center and right-of-center foundations, I definitely have a bias here: I don’t think it’s a bad thing for rich people to devote some of their money to spreading ideas, including bad ideas. The U.S. economy is vast enough that I can’t imagine even the largest fortunes holding undue sway over our national political life, which could be Pollyannaish on my part. I’m not even all that threatened by the influence of the Ford Foundation, which, as David Bernstein observes, is considerable:

According to Mayer, the Kochs have spent “more than a hundred million dollars” on “right-wing” foundations since 1980. Let’s be aggressive, and assume arguendo the figure, adjusted for inflation, is four hundred million dollars. That’s a whole $13 million or so a year since 1980. By contrast, the Ford Foundation, one of many well-endowed “mainstream” liberal foundations, spends over $500 million a year, a decent fraction of which goes to left-wing organizations and causes. Any given major American university employs far more liberal academics in the social sciences annually than can possibly be employed on a $13 million budget. Soros’ Open Society Institute annually spends over $150 million to “support individuals and organizations advancing a more open, just, and equal society in the United States.”

I am definitely open to strong arguments that suggest the Ford Foundation or the Kochs are a danger to our democratic freedoms. I’m still waiting for them.

UPDATE: Matthew Yglesias and Matt Welch on Bloggingheads

1 Comment

Filed under Political Figures, Politics

The End? Part II: Speech, Speech, Speech!

Max Fisher at The Atlantic with an early round up.

Marc Ambinder:

President Obama has asked the television networks for 15 minutes tonight, and he’s going to pack quite a bit of messaging into that short period of time. Why do we need a speech marking the end of the combat mission in Iraq? It’s because we’re going to need, according to Obama, to understand the future of the war in Afghanistan and the interconnectedness of foreign and domestic policy in a way that reflects what Obama was able to do in Iraq.

What did he do? He set a time-frame and stuck to it. Iraq will now begin to fend for itself. He promised during his presidential campaign that he would end the Iraq war “responsibly.” He will note tonight that his administration managed to withdraw 100,000 troops from Iraq “responsibly.” He will portray this as a major milestone in his presidency.

We forget how integral Sen. Barack Obama’s decision to oppose the Iraq war was to his own political awakening, and how many contortions Hillary Clinton had to untwist in order to justify her own support for the war authority, and how, by the day of the general election, given the success of the surge (or the success of JSOC’s counterterrorism efforts), Iraq was no longer a central voting issue. Voters seemed to exorcise that demon in 2006, when they voted Democrats into Congress.

A large chunk of the speech will be taken up by the president’s careful description of the sacrifices that a million U.S. soldiers and diplomats have made by their service in Iraq, and how 4,400 Americans did not come home.

Then, a pivot point: the Iraq drawdown has allowed the president to refocus attention on the threat from Al Qaeda worldwide, and he will mention that the terrorist network is degraded, albeit still capable of waging terrorist attacks and intending to do so.

He will note that the government will be able to reap a bit of a post-Iraq transition dividend, allowing the administration to invest more in job creation, health care, and education here at home. (Subtly, the point: Obama wouldn’t have gone into Iraq, so we wouldn’t have had to spend as much as we did.) It’s time, he will say, to build our own nation.

Kevin Drum:

Since it’s a slow news day, let’s mull this over. First take: can you imagine anything that would piss off the liberal base more than acknowledging that the surge worked? You’d be able to hear the steam coming out of lefty ears from sea to shining sea. Second take: Even if he decided to do it anyway, would it be worthwhile? If he wants to be honest, Obama would have to at least mention all those other factors that Ambinder mentions, namely that the reduction in violence in 2007 was quite clearly the result of 4 S’s: Surge, Sadr ceasefire, Sectarian cleansing, and Sunni Awakening. But is this too much to talk about? And would it seem churlish to acknowledge the surge and then immediately try to take some of the credit away from it?

Third take: Forget it. Not only would mentioning the surge piss off liberals, but it would also imply some kind of “victory” in Iraq, and surely Obama can’t be dimwitted enough to come within a light year of claiming that, can he? Of course not. Not with sporadic violence back in the news and Iraqi leaders still stalemated on forming a government five months after the March elections.

So I’ll predict no direct mention of the surge. And since I’m usually wrong about this kind of stuff, I suppose you should try to lay down some money right away on Obama mentioning the surge tonight. But I still don’t think he’ll do it.

David Corn at Politics Daily:

Why is Barack Obama giving a speech on Iraq?

To mark the end of U.S. combat missions in the nation George W. Bush invaded over seven years ago, the president on Tuesday night will deliver a high-profile address from the Oval Office. Speeches from the Oval Office are usually reserved for the most pressing and profound matters of a presidency. And this partial end of the Iraq war — the United States will still have 50,000 troops stationed there — is a significant event. It demonstrates that Obama has kept a serious campaign promise: to end this war.

But with the economy foundering — many of the recent stats are discouraging — most Americans are probably not yearning above all for a report on Iraq and likely will not be all that impressed with Obama’s promise-keeping on this front. The main issue remains jobs, especially as the congressional elections approach.

Summer is essentially done. It’s back-to-school and back-to-work time for many of us. But on Obama’s first days after his Martha Vineyard’s vacation, he’s devoting (at least in public) more time and energy to foreign policy matters than the flagging economy. Worried Democrats must be livid. (Most House Democrats are still campaigning in their districts and are not yet back in Washington to gripe about their president.)

Wars are the most significant stuff of a presidency. There’s not enough media attention devoted to the Afghanistan war. But politically there’s little or no payoff for an Iraq war address. Obama can’t brag, “Mission accomplished.” (In fact, on Monday, press secretary Robert Gibbs said Obama would not be using those words.) He can’t declare victory. He can only declare a murky end to a murky war. That’s not going to rally the Democrats’ base or win over independents. It was not mandatory for Obama to deliver such a high-profile speech. Vice President Joe Biden traveled to Baghdad to commemorate this milestone. The administration has conducted other events regarding the end of combat operations. It’s been duly noted.

David Frum at FrumForum:

Just guessing, but here’s why:

The president’s biggest political problem is the disillusionment of his liberal voters. Contra Fox News, they do not see a liberal president doing liberal things. They see a consensus president rescuing Wall Street. The job situation remains dismal, the administration is deporting illegal immigrants, and where are the gays in the military?

What Obama needs to do between now and November is pound home the message: I have kept faith with my voters on their big concerns, healthcare and the Iraq war. Now those voters must keep faith with me.

Ronald Reagan could count on a cadre of conservatives to defend his actions against any and all critics. A friend once teased Bill Rusher, then publisher of National Review: “Whenever Reagan does something awful, you defend it on one of two grounds: either that Reagan had no choice, or that the full wisdom of his action will be disclosed to lesser mortals in God’s good time.” According to legend, Rusher answered, “May I point out that the two positions are not necessarily incompatible?”

Nobody seems willing to do for Obama what Rusher did for Reagan. So Obama must do the job himself. Tonight’s speech is part of that job. Message: I ended George Bush’s war. Vote Democratic.

The trouble is: This message seems unlikely to work in the way Democrats need. Obama’s speech is much more likely to alienate marginal voters than to galvanize alienated liberals, and for this reason:

Obama’s liberal voters will not abide any whiff of triumphalism in the president’s speech. For them, Iraq was at best a disaster, at worst a colonialist war crime. (Elsewhere on the Politics Daily site, David Corn’s colleague Jill Lawrence specifies what she’d like to hear the president say: “Never again.”)

But most Americans want and expect triumphs. “Americans love a winner. Americans will not tolerate a loser.” So said George Patton on the eve of D-Day, and he was right. And if President Obama declines to declare himself a winner, guess what alternative remains? Exactly.

Democracy In America at The Economist:

8:20: All in all, a nice speech by Mr Obama, in my opinion. Hit most of the right notes.

8:19: Agreed, though “they are the steel in the ship of our state” was a little much.

8:19: Call me a shallow booster, but that part about troops coming home, from the predawn dark to the excerpt below, was great prose. Just beautiful. Very affecting.

8:18: “Who fought in a faraway place for people they never knew”—that’s some beautiful iambic hexameter right there.

8:18: This turned into a rather moving tribute to the troops.

8:17: The shift from the war-ending announcement to the nation-building task reminds me of the BP speech—from the disaster to a different energy future was a stretch too far.  A good speech makes one or two strong points, not lots.

8:17: Yep—there’s the money: a post 9/11 GI bill. He’s daring Republicans to challenge it.

8:17: Is that a subtle gauntlet—the reference to doing right by our veterans?

8:16: This is starting to feel a little platitudinous. Time to dangle Beau from the upstairs window.

8:15: By one estimate, America has spent about $750 billion on the Iraq war.

8:14: Blaming the deficits on the war? True up to a point, but …

8:14: Also very nicely done—not setting a timetable for Afghan withdrawal. That makes it his more than Iraq. Double-down.

8:13: “As we approach the tenth anniversary, there are those who are asking tough questions about our mission there.” And I’m not going to answer those questions. PUNT!

8:12: Can’t explain why but the Oval Office format doesn’t play to Mr Obama’s significant strengths as a communicator. Maybe those curtains…

8:12: Having said that, I enjoyed this comment from one of Kevin Drum’s readers: “The surge worked just like stitches work to close a wound after improperly handling a knife.”

8:11: Why not thank him for the surge? It was a courageous, albeit very late in coming, policy.

8:10: Very nicely done—the reach-out to GWB. He didn’t knuckle under and thank him for the surge (as well he shouldn’t), but it was a graceful acknowledgement.

8:09: “A belief that out of the ashes of war, a new beginning could be born in this cradle of civilization.” Don’t feed the neocons.

8:09: Odd no mention of Saddam. If the war achieved anything it was toppling a mass murdering dictator. But that would be giving too much credit to Bush.

8:08: This part (Iraqis are a proud people, only Iraqis can do this and that) has the feeling of a plea.

8:08: Nice wiggle room: when a representative government is in place, then they will have a strong partner in the United States (but until then…?)

8:07: Is that true: that Iraqi forces have “taken the fight to” al-Qaeda, and have weakened them?

8:07: Credible elections, yes, but how can the US get the warring politicos to form a credible government?

8:06: It’s quite a valedictory tone, considering there are 50,000 troops still there.

8:05: Praising the courage of the armed forces is understandable and even obligatory but also a wonderful way to dodge the question of the whether the war was worthwhile

8:03: “Ahem, these are the reasons I did not support this war.”

8:02: Have other presidents had so many family pictures behind them during Oval Office addresses? Nice touch.

8:01: On the question of whether Mr Obama will give Mr Bush credit: I think he should. But I also think Mr Obama’s Afghan strategy is the sincerest acknowledgment of the surge’s success.

8:00pm: And we begin.

Instapundit:

ABSOLUT VICTORY: STEPHEN GREEN IS Drunkblogging Obama’s Iraq Speech.

Bush got a mention, the troops got two mentions — but I haven’t hear thanks to either one. . . .

What the hell is this? Seriously. We were promised an update on Iraq. Instead we’re getting a defense of Obamanomics, which unlike the Surge (anyone?), has been a total failure.

Read the whole thing. And weep, or laugh, or something. Drink!

UPDATE: More from Prof. Jacobson.

And here’s the full text of Obama’s speech.

Allah Pundit:

8 p.m. ET across the dial. It’s billed as an Iraq speech, but that’s not really what it is. The “key part,” apparently, will be a renewed call to “take the fight directly to al Qaeda” by finishing the job in Afghanistan. (Wouldn’t taking the fight to AQ require operations in Pakistan, not Afghanistan?) It’s also being billed as a “mission unaccomplished” speech, as the White House is ever mindful after Bush of the pitfalls in celebrating too early. But that’s not really what this is either. Like it or not, by investing the end of combat ops with the grandeur of an Oval Office address, The One is necessarily signaling completion of the task. And why not? The public couldn’t be clearer as to how it feels about renewing combat operations if Iraqi security starts to fall apart. This is closure, for better or worse.

Because it is closure, and closure at a moment when things are ominously open-ended in Iraq, I admit to having no appetite today for the standard left/right recriminations about how much Bush screwed up or whether Obama should credit him for the surge. (I think he will acknowledge Bush tonight, for what it’s worth, mainly to signal that this is an occasion that transcends partisanship. But never underestimate the political instincts of the perpetual campaigner.) Instead, since we’re putting a bookend on history, I offer you this grim big-picture reminiscence by star NYT correspondent John Burns, who was on the ground over there until 2007. Today is a day that’s taken forever to arrive, he says, and yet it still seems to have arrived too soon.

Ann Althouse:

Obama on Iraq: Mission Accomplished.

Jennifer Rubin at Commentary:

But most of all, the bulk of the speech had nothing to do with either Iraq or Afghanistan — it was a pep talk for his domestic agenda. This cements the sense that he simply wants out of messy foreign commitments. He also repeated a number of domestic policy canards. This was among the worst, blaming our debt on wars rather than on domestic fiscal gluttony: “We have spent over a trillion dollars at war, often financed by borrowing from overseas. This, in turn, has short-changed investments in our own people, and contributed to record deficits. For too long, we have put off tough decisions on everything from our manufacturing base to our energy policy to education reform.”

He is arguing for more spending.

Obama is still candidate Obama, never tiring of reminding us that he kept his campaign pledge and ever eager to push aside foreign policy challenges so he can get on with the business of remaking America. All in all, it was what we were promised it would not be — self-serving, disingenuous, ungracious, and unreassuring.

UPDATE: COMMENTARY contributor Jonah Goldberg’s smart take is here.

UPDATE II: Charles Krauthammer’s reaction is here.

Bill Kristol at The Weekly Standard:
President Obama opposed the war in Iraq. He still thinks it was a mistake. It’s therefore unrealistic for supporters of the war to expect the president to give the speech John McCain would have given, or to expect President Obama to put the war in the context we would put it in. He simply doesn’t believe the war in Iraq was a necessary part of a broader effort to fight terror, to change the Middle East, etc. Given that (erroneous) view of his, I thought his speech was on the whole commendable, and even at times impressive.

UPDATE: Ross Douthat

George Packer at The New Yorker

Scott Johnson at Powerline

Jonah Goldberg at The Corner

Matt Welch at Reason

UPDATE #2: Bill Scher and Matt Lewis at Bloggingheads

1 Comment

Filed under Iraq, Political Figures