Tag Archives: Huffington Post

Choo Choo Canned Heat Collectivism

George Will in Newsweek:

So why is America’s “win the future” administration so fixated on railroads, a technology that was the future two centuries ago? Because progressivism’s aim is the modification of (other people’s) behavior.

Forever seeking Archimedean levers for prying the world in directions they prefer, progressives say they embrace high-speed rail for many reasons—to improve the climate, increase competitiveness, enhance national security, reduce congestion, and rationalize land use. The length of the list of reasons, and the flimsiness of each, points to this conclusion: the real reason for progressives’ passion for trains is their goal of diminishing Americans’ individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism.

To progressives, the best thing about railroads is that people riding them are not in automobiles, which are subversive of the deference on which progressivism depends. Automobiles go hither and yon, wherever and whenever the driver desires, without timetables. Automobiles encourage people to think they—unsupervised, untutored, and unscripted—are masters of their fates. The automobile encourages people in delusions of adequacy, which make them resistant to government by experts who know what choices people should make.

Time was, the progressive cry was “Workers of the world unite!” or “Power to the people!” Now it is less resonant: “All aboard!”

Jason Linkins at Huffington Post:

One way of looking at high-speed rail systems is that they are a means by which distant communities get connected, economic development and jobs are fostered, and workers with a diverse array of marketable skills can improve their mobility and thus their employment prospects. But another way of looking at high-speed rail is that it’s some nonsense that came to a bunch of hippies as they tripped balls at a Canned Heat concert. That’s my takeaway with George Will’s latest grapple-with-the-real-world session, in which he attempts to figure out “Why liberals love trains.” It’s “Matrix” deep, yo

Sarah Goodyear at Grist:

In case you’re wondering about the provenance of that “collectivism” word — well, collectivism was a favorite demon of Ayn Rand, right-wing philosopher and the Ur-mother of libertarianism in the United States. Here’s a typical usage, from The Objectivist Newsletter of May 1962 (via the Ayn Rand Lexicon):

The political philosophy of collectivism is based on a view of man as a congenital incompetent, a helpless, mindless creature who must be fooled and ruled by a special elite with some unspecified claim to superior wisdom and a lust for power.

“Collectivism” also recalls some of the very worst communist ideas, including the “collectivization” of farms in the Stalinist Soviet Union — among the great atrocities of the 20th century (a crowded category).

Which makes it a pretty strong term to be throwing around when it comes to funding different modes of transportation in 21st-century America. But Will persists with his formulation:

To progressives, the best thing about railroads is that people riding them are not in automobiles, which are subversive of the deference on which progressivism depends. Automobiles go hither and yon, wherever and whenever the driver desires, without timetables. Automobiles encourage people to think they — unsupervised, untutored, and unscripted — are masters of their fates. The automobile encourages people in delusions of adequacy, which make them resistant to government by experts who know what choices people should make.

A couple of things here. First off, automobiles are not the only vehicles capable of encouraging “delusions of adequacy.” Bicycles, one might argue, are a lot more capable of encouraging such delusions — fueled as they are entirely by the body of the “unscripted” individual. Which is perhaps why they seem to enrage people in cars, who have to worry about gasoline and the like, so very much.

Second, let’s talk about modern air travel. What mode of transport is more capable of sapping the human sense of possibility, more confining of the untrammeled human spirit? Perhaps before Will goes after high-speed rail, he should call for the defunding of the Federal Aviation Administration.

Paul Krugman:

As Sarah Goodyear at Grist says, trains are a lot more empowering and individualistic than planes — and planes, not cars, are the main alternative to high-speed rail.

And there’s the bit about rail as an antiquated technology; try saying that after riding the Shanghai Maglev.

But anyway, it’s amazing to see Will — who is not a stupid man — embracing the sinister progressives-hate-your-freedom line, more or less right out of Atlas Shrugged; with the extra irony, of course, that John Galt’s significant other ran, well, a railroad.

Matthew Yglesias:

But I do think this is a good look into the psychology of conservatives. Maybe high-speed rail is a waste of money and maybe it isn’t. I think it’s plausible to say we should just spend the cash on better regular mass transit or whatever. But I’ve long struggled to explain the right-wing’s affection for status quo American policies that amount to massive subsidization of the automobile. A small slice of that is spending on roads. A much larger amount is minimum lot size rules, parking mandates, the whole shebang. It’s a bit odd, and my instinct had been to say that this just goes to show that conservatism has nothing to do with free markets and everything to do with the identity politics of middle aged white suburban conformists. But Will offers another explanation here. Automobile use is not a sign of the free market, but an actual cause of it. Driving inculcates habits of freedom, and thus coercive pro-car regulations are, in a way, freedom-promoting.

More Krugman:

A bit more on this subject — not serious, just a personal observation after a long hard day of reading student applications. (My suggestion that we reject all applicants claiming to be “passionate” about their plans was rejected, but with obvious reluctance.)

Anyway, my experience is that of the three modes of mechanized transport I use, trains are by far the most liberating. Planes are awful: waiting to clear security, then having to sit with your electronics turned off during takeoff and landing, no place to go if you want to get up in any case. Cars — well, even aside from traffic jams (tell me how much freedom you experience waiting for an hour in line at the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel), the thing about cars is that you have to drive them, which kind of limits other stuff.

But on a train I can read, listen to music, use my aircard to surf the web, get up and walk to the cafe car for some Amfood; oh, and I’m not restricted by the War on Liquids. When I can, I prefer to take the train even if it takes a couple of hours more, say to get to Boston, because it’s much higher-quality time.

Yes, your choices are limited by the available trains; if I wanted to take a train from beautiful downtown Trenton to DC tomorrow, I’d be restricted to one of 21 trains, leaving roughly once an hour if not more often, whereas if I wanted to drive I could leave any time I wanted. Big deal.

And don’t get me started on how much more freedom of movement I feel in New York, with subways taking you almost everywhere, than in, say, LA, where you constantly have to worry about parking and traffic.

So if trains represent soulless collectivism, count me in.

Atrios:

As Krugman says, trains really are the best way to travel, at least for travel times that are roughly competitive with air travel. That fact doesn’t automatically mean that therefore we should spend huge amounts of public money on it, but, you know, it does mean that people like trains for more reasons than their insidious collectivist promotion.

Scott Lemieux at Lawyers, Guns and Money:

Manypeoplehave, for good reason, taken their knocks at syndicated columnist William F. George’s ludicrous column about trains, with particular emphasis on the substantial amount of government subsidies that facilitate “individualistic” car travel.    In addition, I’d note that the flying experience is a good example of Republican “freedom.”   For some distances flying is of course necessary and useful, although a good high-speed train network would reduce the number of routes that make flying more practical. For the ordinary person, however, flying is a miserable experience — more waiting in line than a Soviet supermarket during a recession, the potentially humiliating security theater, and incredibly cramped and uncomfortable travel.     But — and here’s the rub — people as affluent as Will can buy their way out of the worst aspects of flying, with separate security lines, private lounges, and first-class seating.   With trains, on the other hand, the experience for the ordinary person is infinitely superior but the affluent can obtain an only marginally better experience.   So you can see why Will hates it.   The fact that trains might represent more meaningful freedom for you isn’t his problem.

More Krugman:

Some of the comments on my various pro-train posts have been along the lines of “Oh yeah, try taking the train to Los Angeles.” But that, of course, misses the point.

I think about the trains/planes comparison something like this: planes go much faster, and will continue to go faster even if we get high-speed rail; but there are some costs associated with a plane trip that can be avoided or minimized on a rail trip, and those costs are the same whether it’s a transcontinental flight or a hop halfway up or down the Northeast Corridor. You have to get to the airport at one end, and get from it at the other, which is a bigger issue, usually, than getting to and from train stations that are already in the city center. You have to wait on security lines. You have to spend more time boarding. So if we look just at travel time, it looks like this:

DESCRIPTION

Suppose that I put those fixed costs at 2 hours; suppose that planes fly at 500 miles an hour; and suppose that we got TGV-type trains that went 200 miles an hour. Then the crossover point would be at 667 miles. It would still be much faster to take planes across the continent — but not between Boston and DC, or between SF and LA. Add in my personal preference for train travel, and I might be willing to train it to Chicago, maybe, but not to Texas.

Now, if we got vacuum maglevs

More Yglesias:

I endorse Krugman’s analysis, but in some ways I think the fact that you can’t get to LA on a train actually is the point. You can’t take the train from New York to Los Angeles. You can’t drive from New York to Los Angeles. You need an airplane. But LaGuardia Airport has limited runway capacity and many daily flights to Boston. Clearly, though, you can take a train from New York to Boston. So money spent on improving the speed and passenger capacity of NYC-Boston train links is, among other things, a way to improve New York’s air links to the West Coast.

Now a separate question is whether there’s any feasible way to actually do this in a country that doesn’t have a French (or Chinese) level of central political authority empowered to build straight tracks through people’s suburban backyards. The answer seems to be “no,” but the potential gains from greater rail capacity in the northeast are large and would (via airplanes) spill over into the rest of the country.

More Goodyear:

In the dark days immediately after 9/11, Will seems to have had a revelation about how a certain mode of transportation could help our nation be stronger and more secure. In an Oct. 1, 2001 column syndicated in the Jewish World Review, Will recommended three steps in response to the attack that the nation had just sustained. First, buy more B-2 bombers. Second, cut corporate taxes. And third? Let Will speak for himself (emphasis mine):

Third, build high-speed rail service.

Two months ago this columnist wrote: “A government study concludes that for trips of 500 miles or less — a majority of flights; 40 percent are of 300 miles or less — automotive travel is as fast or faster than air travel, door to door. Columnist Robert Kuttner sensibly says that fact strengthens the case for high-speed trains. If such trains replaced air shuttles in the Boston-New York-Washington corridor, Kuttner says that would free about 60 takeoff and landing slots per hour.”

Thinning air traffic in the Boston-New York-Washington air corridor has acquired new urgency. Read Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker essay on the deadly dialectic between the technological advances in making air travel safer and the adaptations to these advances by terrorists.

“Airport-security measures,” writes Gladwell, “have simply chased out the amateurs and left the clever and the audacious.” This is why, although the number of terrorist attacks has been falling for many years, fatalities from hijackings and bombings have increased. As an Israeli terrorism expert says, “the history of attacks on commercial aviation reveals that new terrorist methods of attack have virtually never been foreseen by security authorities.”

The lesson to be learned is not defeatism. Security improvements can steadily complicate terrorists’ tasks and increase the likelihood of defeating them on the ground. However, shifting more travelers away from the busiest airports to trains would reduce the number of flights that have to be protected and the number of sensitive judgments that have to be made, on the spot, quickly, about individual travelers. Congress should not adjourn without funding the nine-state Midwest Regional Rail Initiative.

Now that it’s a Democratic administration advocating for rail, Will sees it not as a sensible solution for moving people from one place to another, but instead as a tool to control an unsuspecting populace:

To progressives, the best thing about railroads is that people riding them are not in automobiles, which are subversive of the deference on which progressivism depends. Automobiles go hither and yon, wherever and whenever the driver desires, without timetables. Automobiles encourage people to think they — unsupervised, untutored, and unscripted — are masters of their fates. The automobile encourages people in delusions of adequacy, which make them resistant to government by experts who know what choices people should make.

In his recent screed against rail, Will explicitly dismissed arguments that it would be good for national security. He also didn’t mention air travel. Maybe that would have reminded him of what he himself wrote nearly 10 years ago.

David Weigel:

Good get, but if we’re going to be talking about stupid ideas people had right after 9/11, we’ll be here all day. Will’s rail fetish was a passing fancy, and since then he’s come around to the conservative consensus that rail can never, ever work as a replacement for air travel, so rail projects are essentially boondoggles.

This is an odd discussion to have as the Atlas Shrugged movie comes out. The book and the film absolutely fetishize rail; the film makes it clear that rail will become necessary once gas starts to really run out. And this is something liberal rail adherents point out, too. But I don’t see conservatives coming around to HSR, which needs a massive manpower and financial and land commitment to get going, outside of that sort of crisis thinking.

Jamelle Bouie at Tapped:

This isn’t to play “gotcha,” as much as it is to note a simple fact about our world: We’re all partisans, whether we admit it or not. Reason’s opposition to the individual mandate has almost nothing to do with the substance of what is truly a center-right policy and everything to do with current political circumstances. The mandate was implemented by a Democrat. Reason, as a right-libertarian institution, is part of the conservative opposition to the liberal president. Likewise, Will’s opposition to high-speed rail is purely a function of partisan politics.

This isn’t a bad thing. Yes, partisanship can be taken too far and veer into ideological blindness, but, in general, it is a useful way of organizing our thoughts on policies and politics. Indeed, it’s how most voters process political information. Political commentary would be much more bearable if pundits were willing to accept the partisan origins of their biases and skepticism, instead of playing a game where we pretend to be open-minded observers.  Most are anything but.

Gulliver at The Economist:

Mr Bouie might be overstating the influence of partisanship a bit, and it’s hard for people to know exactly what is driving others’ opinions—or even one’s own. Still, partisanship is certainly a useful frame through which to view both the most ardent opponents and the most passionate defenders of HSR. There is political science research that shows that a president weighing in on one side of a given debate (as Barack Obama has with high-speed rail) dramatically increases political polarization on that issue. Of course, if Mr Bouie’s theory is correct, we should be able to point to some lefty supporters of HSR whose support seems to be driven primarily by partisanship—or even a few who, like Mr Will, have switched positions on the issue. Anyone have a nomination? Let us know in the comments.

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Ashton Kutcher Is Surely Behind This

Adam Weinstein at Mother Jones:

Is that really Scott Walker? [Update: Yep.] A New York-based alt-news editor says he got through to the embattled Wisconsin governor on the phone Tuesday by posing as right-wing financier David Koch…then had a far-ranging 20-minute conversation about the collective bargaining protests. According to the audio, Walker told him:

  • That statehouse GOPers were plotting to hold Democratic senators’ pay until they returned to vote on the controversial union-busting bill.
  • That Walker was looking to nail Dems on ethics violations if they took meals or lodging from union supporters.
  • That he’d take “Koch” up on this offer: “[O]nce you crush these bastards I’ll fly you out to Cali and really show you a good time.”

But was it for real? Check out the details on the guerrilla caller and audio of his conversation below the jump.

According to his Wikipedia entry, Ian Murphy is a gonzo journalist and editor of the Buffalo Beast, an online mag that was founded in 2002 as an alternative biweekly by gonzo Matt Taibbi and a band of colleagues. Murphy’s probably best-known for a tough read about America’s war dead called “Fuck the Troops.” But if his latest Beast post, “Koch Whore,” is to be believed, it’s likely to be read a lot more widely.

When Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Tim Carpenter complained that Walker wouldn’t return any of the Dems’ calls, Murphy says he wondered: “Who could get through to Gov. Walker? Well, what do we know about Walker and his proposed union-busting,no-bid budget? The obvious candidate was David Koch.” Koch, of course, is one of the right-wing brothers behind Americans for Prosperity and a host of other GOP-friendly causes; MoJo‘s own Andy Kroll broke the news last week on the Koch brothers’ past support for Walker and his agenda.

So, Murphy says, he managed to have a phone audience with the governor by posing as Koch. And he taped the whole thing, copied on the videos below.

Jason Linkins at Huffington Post:

Here’s something for your “can this possibly be for real” file this morning. Over at the Buffalo Beast — the former print alt-weekly turned online newspaper founded by onetime editor Matt Taibbi, typically best known for its annual list of “The 50 Most Loathsome Americans” — there appear to be recordings of a phone call between Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and current editor Ian Murphy. Now, why on earth would Scott Walker want to talk on the phone with the editor of an online site in Buffalo? Well, he wouldn’t.

But what if said editor pretended to be David Koch of the famed Koch Brothers? Well, that’s a different story altogether, apparently! And so Walker, believing himself to be on the phone with his patron, seems to have had a long conversation about busting Wisconsin’s unions.

Buffalo Beast Publisher Paul Fallon told The Huffington Post that the audio is “absolutely legit.” That the call took place as described by the Beast has been confirmed by Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie.

“Basically what happened was, yesterday morning [Murphy] was watching television about this Wisconsin stuff and he saw a report where he saw Walker say he wasn’t going to talk to anybody,” Fallon said. “And he said, ‘I bet he would talk to somebody if he had enough oomph behind him.'”

This all apparently went down Tuesday afternoon, hours before Walker made his “fireside chat.” It took some doing: Murphy-as-Koch said he had several hoops to jump through before he was granted access to Walker, beginning with a receptionist, leading to the governor’s executive assistant, and finally ending up with his chief of staff, Keith Gilkes.

Alex Pareene at Salon:

So Walker will happily take a call from a Koch brother. He says that he considered “planting some troublemakers” among the protesters. He is convinced that everyone is on his side. Like most people who only watch Fox, he has a skewed impression of the popularity of his union-crushing proposals. (His plan is, nationally, roundly unpopular. Except on Fox.)

When “Koch” calls Mika Brzezinski “a real piece of ass,” Walker does not respond by saying something awful, which is a bit of a disappointment.

Walker does reveal that he is planning to trick the Democrats into coming back into town for a “talk,” despite his lack of interest in compromising anything. He will ask them to open a session in the Assembly, and then take a recess for this talk. At that point, the Senate Republicans would hold the vote on the bill while Walker distracts the Democrats with this entirely pointless discussion:

They can recess it … the reason for that, we’re verifying it this afternoon, legally, we believe, once they’ve gone into session, they don’t physically have to be there. If they’re actually in session for that day, and they take a recess, the 19 Senate Republicans could then go into action and they’d have quorum because it’s turned out that way. So we’re double checking that. If you heard I was going to talk to them that’s the only reason why. We’d only do it if they came back to the capitol with all 14 of them. My sense is, hell. I’ll talk. If they want to yell at me for an hour, I’m used to that. I can deal with that. But I’m not negotiating.

Walker also thinks that Reagan crushing the air-traffic controllers’ union was “the first crack in the Berlin wall,” because he’s been stewing in the propaganda of conservative mythology for years.

Greg Sargent:

The Internet is burning up with the news that Governor Scott Walker may have been pranked by a caller claiming to be David Koch, and a spokesman for the Governor, Cullen Werwie, emails a statement confirming the call is legit:

The Governor takes many calls everyday. Throughout this call the Governor maintained his appreciation for and commitment to civil discourse. He continued to say that the budget repair bill is about the budget. The phone call shows that the Governor says the same thing in private as he does in public and the lengths that others will go to disrupt the civil debate Wisconsin is having.

More on this in a sec, but for now, suffice it to say that this will reinforce perceptions that Walker is in way over his head.

Michelle Malkin:

A left-wing website that specializes in pranking celebrities, pundits, and politicians — a la Howard Stern — is doing a Snoopy dance over a fake call its operatives made to GOP Gov. Scott Walker.

The hoaxer pretended to be David Koch, the progs’ favorite capitalist target.

I’m not going to give any direct traffic to the infamy-seekers. Here is the Memeorandum link round-up on the story. In sum, Walker talked to the poser for about 20 minutes (audio is here).

Walker stood firm on his no-negotiations stance with Big Labor and talked about his already publicized efforts to bring the Dems back to the state by requiring them to collect their paychecks in person

Ezra Klein:

To Walker’s credit, he doesn’t say anything incriminating. When Murphy/Koch offers to plant demonstrators, Walker declines. The worst you can say is that when Murphy/Koch makes a lewd comment about Mika Breszinski, Walker doesn’t challenge him on it. But that portion reads to me as Walker politely grunting in response to an odd provocation. I imagine politicians are pretty good at gently moving the conversation along when their contributors say crazy things.

But if the transcript of the conversation is unexceptional, the fact of it is lethal. The state’s Democratic senators can’t get Walker on the phone, but someone can call the governor’s front desk, identify themselves as David Koch, and then speak with both the governor and his chief of staff? That’s where you see the access and power that major corporations and wealthy contributors will have in a Walker administration, and why so many in Wisconsin are reluctant to see the only major interest group representing workers taken out of the game.

The critique many conservatives have made of public-sector unions is that they both negotiate with and fund politicians. It’s a conflict of interest. Well, so too do corporations, and wealthy individuals. That’s why Murphy — posing as Koch — was able to get through to Walker so quickly. And it shows what Walker is really interested in here: He is not opposed, in principle, to powerful interest groups having the ear of the politicians they depend on, and who depend on them. He just wants those interest groups to be the conservative interest groups that fund him, and that he depends on.

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The Continued News Out Of Madison…

Amanda Terkel at The Huffington Post:

Wisconsin’s public employee unions have agreed to cuts to their health care and pension funds, and a moderate Republican state senator has offered a compromise that would temporarily, not permanently, strip their collective-bargaining rights, but Gov. Scott Walker (R) refuses to budge on the latter issue. Now, state Senate Democrats say they’re done with Walker and seek ways to work around him.

“We had a Senate Democratic caucus last night, and we’ve pretty much given up on the governor,” said state Sen. Jim Holperin (D). “I think this is a governor who is a very stubborn individual and maybe does not understand fully the collateral consequences of his stubbornness. So we’ve decided to refocus on the people we believe may be flexible to some degree, and that’s Senate Republicans. A lot of those Senate Republicans have been around a long time, and I think understand the gravity of eliminating rights from people.”

Holperin and Wisconsin’s other Senate Democrats remain in Illinois, a move that prevents their Republican colleagues from reaching the quorum needed to move forward on budget bills like Walker’s. So far, Democrats said, Walker has ignored all their calls and requests to meet together.

Byron York at The Washington Examiner:

“They’ve painted themselves in a corner,” Wisconsin Republican state senator Randy Hopper says of his Democratic colleagues. “There’s no way for them to get out of it.”

Democratic senators last week fled Wisconsin rather than allow a vote on Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s new budget bill, with its curtailments of some public-sector unions’ right to bargain collectively. The bill surely would have passed given the Republicans’ 19 to 14 advantage in the Senate. So Democrats, deeply dependent on union money and support, ran away to avoid a vote.

Walker has stood firm in the fight, but the truth is a lot of Republicans were nervous last week when crowds of protesters showed up and Democrats headed for the hills. What if the public supported the unions? After going home to their districts over the weekend, Republicans are feeling better. Many heard from constituents telling them to hang tough, and voters were especially unhappy with Democrats for hightailing it out of state. “We think public opinion is with us on the budget issue, and we’re sure public opinion is with us on the Democrats’ not showing up for work and doing their job,” says Mark Jefferson, executive director of the state Republican Party.

In fact, for many Republican supporters, the big question is not whether the fight is worth the trouble but whether there’s some way the GOP can steamroll over the Democrats. But that’s not going to happen, at least for now. Republicans believe they are going to win without using extraordinary measures.

In Madison, the protesters are allowed to do almost anything. The police are watchful and bemused; during the foot-stomping, for example, Sgt. Brian Aubrey, who has been here for four days with capitol police, holds up his iPhone and takes a short video, then goes back to watching the crowd.

This occupation of the capitol is totally legal. During the legislative session, anyone can enter the building, from morning to midnight, without going through a security gate. In addition, police unions in Madison and Dane County oppose the governor’s bill and back the protest, even though they are exempted from the legislation’s ban on collective bargaining.

“Why do we deserve collective bargaining rights if no one else gets them?” asks Steve Heimsness, treasurer of the Madison Professional Police Officers Association, right after marching into the capitol with a “Cops for Labor” sign. “Also, if the collective bargaining rights are taken away from the other workers, it’ll happen to us. Guaranteed. I’m sure of it.”

 

So there’s no hurry to clean up the hundreds of small signs taped to the walls—several of them remind the crowd that “This is a PEACEFUL protest”—or the larger ones that have been taped there for days. They cover letters spelling out “We Are Wisconsin,” visible from most parts of the building, and the massive banner on the second floor asking Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to come to Madison because “we came to your rally.”

No one is telling the people who are sitting on sleeping bags, where they intend to spend the night, to go home. Sheryl Labash, who drove to Madison from Detroit on Thursday, has carved out a little section of a hallway on the second floor, where she reads the Socialist Worker’s Web site as she charges her Blackberry. Not far away, another protester is taking the time to nap, happily earplugged against the din of hundreds of screaming comrades.

The drum lines and the out-of-state sleepovers are a relatively new part of the protest. They were probably inevitable. One reason why Madison is a tricky place to start a Republican crackdown on union power is that it’s home to a sprawling university and all manner of left-wing organizations, magnets for Midwest liberal activism. The Grassroots Leadership College, based here, is using the occasion to hold Nonviolent Demonstration Trainings around the clock, sharing tips like “Don’t make sudden moves around the police” and “Write the ACLU’s phone number on your body” (for when you’re arrested and your phone is taken). Ian’s Pizza, a restaurant close to the Capitol, has been delivering an endless supply of free food paid for by donors from around the world; the leftover boxes are immediately turned into makeshift protest signs. There’s free coffee and water, and on some days free bratwurst, all from local shops.

The hardiest protesters, the ones who have been on strike—a teacher’s strike ends tomorrow—say they feel they are doing something worthwhile. Alyson Pohlman, who works for the university, walks in and out of the capitol building with one of the 12 signs she’s made over seven days of protests. If the budget repair bill passes, she calculates that she’ll make 14 percent less than she used to. But this concerns her less than the cause she is supporting, which she describes as ensuring that “the voice of the people” remains strong enough to speak out against corporate America.

A lot of the protesters talk like this. They don’t want to lose bargaining rights, but they couch that worry in a broader, more existential fear: What if they’re losing their country? It is almost impossible not to hear echoes of Tea Party protesters. (There are some common slogans: I spotted one “Mad as Hell” and one “Can You Hear Us Now?” sign.) The Tea Party worries about George Soros and ACORN; the Cheddar Revolutionaries worry about libertarian billionaires Charles and David Koch, and an overall Republican strategy to “defund the left.” They cite New Yorker and New York Timesreports to make this case, and they’re scared.

There are countless signs attacking the Kochs, or Walker as a “Koch tool,” or listing which products to boycott in order to hit the Kochs’ pocketbooks. And there are detailed charts explaining that if unions are neutered politically, the biggest campaign donors in America will be “right-wing.” Mark Jansen, who drove to the protests from Indiana, walks the capitol with a yellow umbrella that came free with some Eggo waffles, and is now festooned with anti-Koch, anti-Citizens United slogans.

“Walker’s a pink, naked purse dog for the Kochs!” he says.

Jonathan Chait at TNR:

Imagine a Democratic governor proposed a plan to close a budget crisis. First he jacked up the Earned Income Tax Credit. Then he proposed a tax hike on the rich and on corporations to close the deficit. And then he packaged it with a stringent campaign finance law, a law to require corporations to obtain permission from shareholders before engaging in any kind of political activism, and other laws designed to crush the political power of corporate America. (Pro-Democratic businesses would be exempted.) It’s budget-related, because, after all, you can’t maintain higher taxes on the rich if the rich are able to bend the political system to protect their interests. Oh, and Republicans accepted the tax hikes on the rich but opposed the other provisions, but Democrats refused to negotiate them.

I suspect conservatives would interpret this not as a genuine effort to close the deficit but as an exercise in class warfare and raw politics. They’d be correct.

Ann Althouse:

You know, it really was rather smart of the Republicans to let the protest/exile peter out over time. The teachers couldn’t keep canceling school, and the group at the Capitol will, more and more, be UW students/TAs and old Madison lefties with more radical slogans. The legislators-in-hiding look more and more ineffectual and more and more Chicago. I don’t think these developments are increasing political support around the state.

Meanwhile, Walker and his GOP cohort are waiting patiently — it only takes a few days — to get going working on the state’s problems.

“They can vote on anything that is nonfiscal,” said Senator Jon Erpenbach, a Democrat, from his hotel across state lines.

(There’s a Senate rule that requires a larger quorum for fiscal matters. The Republicans need one Democratic senator to return to give them that quorum.)

“They can take up their agenda; they can do whatever they choose to do.”

Mr. Erpenbach said that his caucus was determined not to return until the restrictions to collective bargaining were off the table. But he worried aloud about what legislation could emerge in the meantime.

What legislation should the Republicans put on the agenda? They have the votes to pass things with or without the Democrats, so the question might be: What do they want to do that will be especially convenient to do without Democrats around to pester them? Or: What are the things that, if done without the Democrats’ participation, will most hurt the Democrats politically? Or: What issue will prompt at least one Democrat to return, thus enabling them to get to the fiscal matters?

UPDATE: Concealed carry, voter ID, race-blind admissions in the University of Wisconsin system…

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The Word From Madison, Wisconsin

Alex Altman at Swampland at Time:

Thousands of Wisconsin’s union workers and supporters crowded into the state capitol in Madison for a second day to protest a bill that would strip key collective-bargaining rights from public employees. The measure, introduced last Friday by new Republican Governor Scott Walker, would take away public-worker unions’ ability to negotiate pensions, working conditions and benefits. State and local workers would have to foot more of the cost for their pensions–around 5.8 %–and more than twice that percentage of their health-care costs. Nearly all public workers–the bill exempts police, firefighters and state troopers–would be able to bargain only for salary, and any wage increases would be tied to the Consumer Price Index. (Raises beyond that capped figure would require a special referendum.) With Republicans now in control of the state legislature after November’s electoral victory, the measure is expected to pass as early as tomorrow. You can read the statehouse’s summary of the bill here.

There’s no question Wisconsin has a deficit problem. The state has a short-term budget shortfall of $137 million, and over the next two years the deficit balloons to more than $3.6 billion. Walker says the “budget repair bill” would save some $30 million this fiscal year, which ends June 30, and $300 million during the following two. “I’m just trying to balance my budget,” Walker told the New York Times. “To those who say why didn’t I negotiate on this? I don’t have anything to negotiate with. We don’t have anything to give. Like practically every other state in the country, we’re broke. And it’s time to pay up.” He says the measure will help avoid up to 6,000 layoffs.

The measure has infuriated the state’s 175,000 public-sector employees, who say they’re being scapegoated by a governor whose party has no love for unions.Other newly installed Republican governors, from Florida’s Rick Scott to Ohio’s John Kasich, have zeroed in on cutting state-employee rolls and rights as a way to close sagging budget gaps. But Walker’s plan, which guts entrenched rights, is perhaps the most dramatic. “It is up to us to fight for the right of workers to have a collective voice on the job,” said Wisconsin AFL-CIO president Phil Neuenfeldt. “This proposal is too extreme.”

David Vines at Huffington Post:
For the last two days, protestors have been marching on the Wisconsin State Capitol, protesting Governor Scott Walker’s new union-busting budget proposal. Last night, a public forum was held and protesters got a chance to speak inside the Capitol to let their voices be heard. As of early Wednesday morning, citizens are still speaking to the Joint Finance Committee in the Capitol.

Scroll Down For Latest Updates.

*All times are Central Standard Time

Tuesday, February 15, 10:42 PM: Thousands of demonstrators are inside the Capitol, demanding a chance to speak in an open forum. Officials have been allowing citizens to sign up on a list, but are debating closing down the list due to overcrowding and public safety reasons. Video here.

11:20 PM: I conducted interviews with three members of the University of Wisconsin community, which can all be seen below.

“I’m worried about the future,” Jason Kempe, a Spanish teaching assistant, told me. “I don’t have a problem with losing, but I do have a problem with abolishing the ability to negotiate,” he said. Watch the full interview here.

Then I spoke with Chris McKim, a recent UW graduate who recently spent time abroad in Nepal. “Where I was living in Nepal, they are coming out of 15 years of civil war over very basic human rights, one of them the right to peacefully assemble and collectively bargain in unions,” McKim said. “To see something like that stripped from us here at home, it’s horrifying.” Watch the full interview here.

“We want our professors to be the best and we want our TA’s to be the best,” said Meghan Ford, an undergraduate student at the University of Wisconsin. “They work extremely hard and to take away their pay like this is a basic violation of human rights, not just worker’s rights.” Watch the full interview here.

Wednesday, February 16, 12:22 AM: It’s past midnight here but the crowd has not thinned out much.

I just talked to Leif Brottem, a sixth-year PHD student and research assistant at UW-Madison. “Taking away health insurance and taking away bargaining rights of the union really… it’s going to negatively effect the university’s ability to attract students which are the lifeblood of the university.” Watch the full interview here.

Then, I interviewed Zachary DeQuattro, a TAA member and Zoology teaching assistant at UW-Madison. “I’m here tonight in support of my wife whose a Madison school teacher, and in support of myself and other graduate students,” DeQuattro told me. He said of the proposed bill, “It’s really the start of losing the whole union setup. The union will be eaten up trying to re-certify every year and it’s just a real shame.” Watch the full interview here.

12:51 AM: Just got word from a student upstairs that this hearing will likely go on all night. The Republicans may leave at 2:00 when they initially anticipated the forum to end, but I’m hearing that this will go on all night.

2:00 AM: It is officially 2:00 AM and the forum is still going strong. I’m with a few hundred people in the atrium of the building, some of whom are fast asleep.

2:02 AM: All of the lights went off for about 10 seconds, which was met with cheers from some of the people gathered here, but they were promptly turned back on. “Maybe someone just leaned on the light switch,” a friend of mine joked.

Choire Sicha at The Awl:

Just in case you’re busy tracking unrest in Bahrain or elsewhere around the globe, you should also know that Wisconsin’s capitol is still actually totally occupied, due to its governor being an enemy of working people everywhere. Live coverage here and here.

Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo:

Over the last few days we’ve had a growing number of emails from readers saying what’s happening now in Wisconsin is important and we should be on it. As you can see from our current feature, we agree. And we are on it. So I wanted to take a moment to explain just why I think this is so important.

On one level, this is just a meaty news story. The newly-inaugurated right-wing Governor of Wisconsin is using the state’s budget crisis to drastically change the rights of union organizing in the state. He’s even added the weird and bizarre touch of proactively hinting that he might call out the state National Guard to calm any labor unrest. The key point is that Gov. Walker is going well beyond cross-government retrenchment to making wholesale changes to rights to collective bargaining. In response, labor and its progressive allies are mobilizing in a huge way to counter the effort. [Click here to see our slideshow of what’s happening on the ground in the state capitol today.] The Governor excludes police and firefighters from the changes to the labor laws. But at least the firefighters in the state seem to be standing with other public sector union members in what’s turning into a huge public battle.

That in itself would make it a story we’d want to be all over. But it’s quite a bit more than that. Whichever side of the policy issue you’re on, I think the outcome of this situation is going to have ramifications across the country. Republicans came out of the 2010 election pumped up and feeling that they had a huge mandate to fundamentally change government in this country. I don’t think the elections really told us that at all. But these things are decided by results post-election not by analysis of the election returns. And that’s what’s being determined right now.

Ann Althouse:

I said imagine how Democrats would react if Tea Partiers had a demonstration like that — replete with misspelled signs and signs depicting a Democratic Party politician as Hitler or with his head in a noose.

The fact is that the Republicans decisively won the governorship and both houses of the state legislature — probably with next to no votes from the people who came to the demonstration. If you’re asking — like Shilling — for the Republican legislators to listen to democracy, they should look at the last election, the people all over the state who voted for them and, presumably, for fiscal responsibility and shared sacrifice.

The people around the state were probably at their jobs yesterday, not able to travel here, into the heart of the state’s liberal politics, to do a counter-demonstration and show their numbers (the numbers recorded last October at the polls). Did the demonstrators — many of whom were teachers — try to speak to those people or did they mostly look inward, at each other, pumping up their own resolve?

What are the people around the state supposed to think of them — teachers who have pretty nice jobs and who decided they could go somewhere else for the day instead? What did those teachers teach? I didn’t notice any of them trying to speak to the people of the state, trying to win anyone over. In fact, there were chants — simple, repeated words that don’t try to explain and persuade — and ugly signs full of name-calling and violence. There were plenty of nice people too and gentle signs, but the nice to ugly ratio was worse than at the Tea Party rallies I’ve seen, and Democrats aimed such contempt at the Tea Partiers. Why should the Tea Party-type people of the state be impressed by the other side’s crowds?

Eric Lach at Talking Points Memo:

Speaking on Morning Joe Thursday morning, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) compared the current situation in Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker (R) has inspired days of protests by proposing a budget that would remove key bargaining powers for public employee unions, to the recent unrest in Egypt that toppled the 30-year authoritarian rule of Hosni Mubarak, saying it’s “like Cairo has moved to Madison these days.”

Host Mika Brzezinski asked Ryan what he made of the protests and Walker’s “stand.”

“He is basically saying, state workers, which have extremely generous benefit packages relative to their private sector counterparts, they contribute next to nothing to their pensions, very, very little in their health care packages,” Ryan responded “He’s asking that they contribute about 12% for their health care premiums, which is about half of the private sector average, and about 5.6% to their pensions. It’s not asking a lot, it’s still about half of what private sector pensions do and health care packages do. So he’s basically saying, I want you public workers to pay half of what our private sector counterparts are, and he’s getting, you know, riots. It’s like Cairo has moved to Madison these days. It’s just, all of this demonstration. It’s fine, people should be able to express their way, but we’ve got to get this deficit and debt under control in Madison, if we want to have a good business climate and job creation in Wisconsin.”

Ryan then seemed to compare what’s happening in his state to anti-austerity protests that took place in Europe last year.

Ben Smith at Politico:

The Democratic National Committee’s Organizing for America arm — the remnant of the 2008 Obama campaign — is playing an active role in organizing protests against Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s attempt to strip most public employees of collective bargaining rights.

OfA, as the campaign group is known, has been criticized at times for staying out of local issues like same-sex marraige, but it’s riding to the aide of the public sector unions who hoping to persuade some Republican legislators to oppose Walker’s plan. And while Obama may have his difference with teachers unions, OfA’s engagement with the fight — and Obama’s own clear stance against Walker — mean that he’s remaining loyal to key Democratic Party allies at what is, for them, a very dangerous moment.

OfA Wisconsin’s field efforts include filling buses and building turnout for the rallies this week in Madison, organizing 15 rapid response phone banks urging supporters to call their state legislators, and working on planning and producing rallies, a Democratic Party official in Washington said.

The @OFA_WI twitter account has published 54 tweets promoting the rallies, which the group has also plugged on its blog.

“At a time when most folks are still struggling to get back on their feet, Gov. Walker has asked the state legislature to strip public employees of their collective bargaining rights. Under his plan, park rangers, teachers, and prison guards would no longer be able to fight back if the new Republican majority tries to slash their health benefits or pensions,” OfA Wisconsin State Director Dan Grandone wrote supporters in an email. “But that’s not even the most shocking part: The governor has also put the state National Guard on alert in case of ‘labor unrest.’ We can’t — and won’t — let Scott Walker’s heavy-handed tactics scare us. This Tuesday and Wednesday, February 15th and 16th, volunteers will be attending rallies at the state

Wis Politics:

In protest of the budget repair bill that will strip public union workers of almost all of their collective bargaining rights, Senate Democrats have walked away from a floor session.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said Dems are refusing to come to the floor to debate and vote on the bill.

Fitzgerald said at some point, if needed, Republicans will use the State Patrol to round up Democrats to bring them to the floor. The bill passed the Joint Finance Committee on a partisan 12-4 vote Wednesday night and was due to be taken up by the Senate today.

During last night’s debate on the repair bill, Republicans on the JFC amended the bill to remove a provision stripping pension and health benefits from limited term employees.

The GOP amendment will also mandate local governments offer civil service protections to public employees similar to those state employees receive. Democrats on the committee, unsatisfied with what they felt were insignificant changes, voted against the amendment.

“We have to continue to fight,” Rep. Tamara Grigsby, D-Milwaukee, said. “This is one battle in the war.”

Republican leaders expected it to pass through the Legislature unchanged except for the amendment added in the JFC.

A few audience members broke down in tears as the committee moved toward a vote.

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Filed under Economics, Legislation Pending

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.

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Arianna Told Me To Write This Blog Post

Arianna Huffington at The Huffington Post:

I’ve used this space to make all sorts of important HuffPost announcements: new sections, new additions to the HuffPost team, new HuffPost features and new apps. But none of them can hold a candle to what we are announcing today.

When Kenny Lerer and I launched The Huffington Post on May 9, 2005, we would have been hard-pressed to imagine this moment. The Huffington Post has already been growing at a prodigious rate. But my New Year’s resolution for 2011 was to take HuffPost to the next level — not just incrementally, but exponentially. With the help of our CEO, Eric Hippeau, and our president and head of sales, Greg Coleman, we’d been able to make the site profitable. Now was the time to take leaps.

At the first meeting of our senior team this year, I laid out the five areas on which I wanted us to double down: major expansion of local sections; the launch of international Huffington Post sections (beginning with HuffPost Brazil); more emphasis on the growing importance of service and giving back in our lives; much more original video; and additional sections that would fill in some of the gaps in what we are offering our readers, including cars, music, games, and underserved minority communities.

Around the same time, I got an email from Tim Armstrong (AOL Chairman and CEO), saying he had something he wanted to discuss with me, and asking when we could meet. We arranged to have lunch at my home in LA later that week. The day before the lunch, Tim emailed and asked if it would be okay if he brought Artie Minson, AOL’s CFO, with him. I told him of course and asked if there was anything they didn’t eat. “I’ll eat anything but mushrooms,” he said.

The next day, he and Artie arrived, and, before the first course was served — with an energy and enthusiasm I’d soon come to know is his default operating position — Tim said he wanted to buy The Huffington Post and put all of AOL’s content under a newly formed Huffington Post Media Group, with me as its president and editor-in-chief.

I flashed back to November 10, 2010. That was the day that I heard Tim speak at the Quadrangle conference in New York. He was part of a panel on “Digital Darwinism,” along with Michael Eisner and Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen.

At some point during the discussion, while Tim was talking about his plans for turning AOL around, he said that the challenge lay in the fact that AOL had off-the-charts brand awareness, and off-the-charts user trust and loyalty, but almost no brand identity. I was immediately struck by his clear-eyed assessment of his company’s strengths and weaknesses, and his willingness to be so up front about them.

As HuffPost grew, Kenny and I had both been obsessed with what professor Clayton Christensen has famously called “the innovator’s dilemma.” In his book of the same name, Christensen explains how even very successful companies, with very capable personnel, often fail because they tend to stick too closely to the strategies that made them successful in the first place, leaving them vulnerable to changing conditions and new realities. They miss major opportunities because they are unwilling to disrupt their own game.

After that November panel, Tim and I chatted briefly and arranged to see each other the next day. At that meeting, we talked not just about what our two companies were doing, but about the larger trends we saw happening online and in our world. I laid out my vision for the expansion of The Huffington Post, and he laid out his vision for AOL. We were practically finishing each other’s sentences.

Two months later, we were having lunch in LA and Tim was demonstrating that he got the Innovator’s Dilemma and was willing to disrupt the present to, if I may borrow a phrase, “win the future.” (I guess that makes this AOL’s — and HuffPost’s — Sputnik Moment!)

There were many more meetings, back-and-forth emails, and phone calls about what our merger would mean for the two companies. Things moved very quickly. A term sheet was produced, due diligence began, and on Super Bowl Sunday the deal was signed. In fact, it was actually signed at the Super Bowl, where Tim was hosting a group of wounded vets from the Screamin’ Eagles. It was my first Super Bowl — an incredibly exciting backdrop that mirrored my excitement about the merger and the future ahead.

Jack Shafer at Slate:

I underestimated Arianna Huffington when she launched her Huffington Post in May 2005. I didn’t trash the site the way Nikki Finke did, though. Finke called Huffington the “Madonna of the mediapolitic world [who] has undergone one reinvention too many,” and slammed her site as a “humongously pre-hyped celebrity blog” that represented the “sort of failure that is simply unsurvivable.” And those were among Finke’s nicer comments.

Instead of critiquing Huffington’s debut copy, I speculated as to whether she was up to the job of “impresario.” In the scale of things, my write-up is more embarrassing today, now that Huffington has sold the Post to AOL for $315 million, than is Finke’s pissy take. Huffington has proved herself a first-rate entrepreneur, incubator of talent, and media visionary.

Felix Salmon:

My feeling, then, is that this deal is a good one for both sides. AOL gets something it desperately needs: a voice and a clear editorial vision. It’s smart, and bold, to put Arianna in charge of all AOL’s editorial content, since she is one of the precious few people who has managed to create a mass-market general-interest online publication which isn’t bland and which has an instantly identifiable personality. That’s a rare skill and one which AOL desperately needs to apply to its broad yet inchoate suite of websites.

As for HuffPo, it gets lots of money, great tech content from Engadget and TechCrunch, hugely valuable video-production abilities, a local infrastructure in Patch, lots of money, a public stock-market listing with which to make fill-in acquisitions and incentivize employees with options, a massive leg up in terms of reaching the older and more conservative Web 1.0 audience and did I mention the lots of money? Last year at SXSW I was talking about how ambitious New York entrepreneurs in the dot-com space have often done very well for themselves in the tech space, but have signally failed to engineer massive exits in the content space. With this sale, Jonah Peretti changes all that; his minority stake in HuffPo is probably worth more than the amount of money Jason Calacanis got when he sold Weblogs Inc to AOL.

And then, of course, there’s Arianna, who is now officially the Empress of the Internet with both power and her own self-made dynastic wealth. She’s already started raiding big names from mainstream media, like Howard Fineman and Tim O’Brien; expect that trend to accelerate now that she’s on a much firmer financial footing.

Paul Carr at TechCrunch:

We really have to stop being scooped by rivals on news affecting our own company.

Tonight, courtesy of a press release that our parent company sent to everyone but us, we learn that AOL has acquired the Huffington Post for $315 million. More interestingly, Arianna Huffington has been made Editor In Chief of all AOL content, including TechCrunch.

Now, no-one here has been more skeptical than me of AOL’s content strategy. I was reasonably scathing about that whole “tech town” bullshit and I was quick to opinion-smack Tim Armstrong in the face over his promise that “90% of AOL content will be SEO optimized” by March. Hell I’ve stood on stage – twice – on TC’s dime and described our overlords as “the place where start-ups come to die”.

And yet and yet, for once I find myself applauding Armstrong – and AOL as a whole – for pulling off a double whammy: a brilliant strategic acquisition at a logical price. As AOL’s resident inside-pissing-insider, I can’t tell you how frustrating that is. I can’t even bust out a Bebo joke.

An important note before I go on: I have no idea how any of this will affect TechCrunch. So far AOL has kept true to its promise not to interfere with our editorial and there’s no reason to suppose that will change under Huffington. That said, it would be idiotic to think that our parents’ content strategy – particularly the SEO stuff – won’t have annoying trickle-down consequences for all of us in the long term.

As I wrote the other week, I hate SEO. It’s bad for journalism as it disincentivises reporters from breaking new stories, and rewards them for rehashing existing ones. And it’s bad for everything else because, well, it’s garbage. But when discussing the SEO phenomenon privately, I’ve always cited the Huffington Post as the exception that proves the rule.

Arianna Huffington’s genius is to churn out enough SEO crap to bring in the traffic and then to use the resulting advertising revenue – and her personal influence – to employ top class reporters and commentators to drag the quality average back up. And somehow it works. In the past six months journostars like Howard Fineman, Timothy L. O’Brien and Peter Goodman have all been added to the HuffPo’s swelling masthead, and rather than watering down the site’s political voice, it has stayed true to its core beliefs. Such is the benefit of being bank-rolled by a rich liberal who doesn’t give a shit.

Ann Althouse:

What difference does it make? AOL as a brand meant something to me in the 1990s, but not now. Who cares whether AOL retains a semblance of political neutrality? In any case, mainstream media always feels pretty liberal, so why would anyone really notice. Now, that quote is from the NYT, so… think about it. The NYT would like to be the big news site that looks neutral (but satisfies liberals). HuffPo is the raging competition, which needs to be put in its place.

Alexis Madrigal at the Atlantic

Erick Schonfeld at TechCrunch

Kevin Drum:

Last night I saw a tweet saying that AOL was going to buy the Huffington Post for $31.5 million. Yowza, I thought. That’s a pretty rich valuation. Maybe 20x forward earnings? Who knows?

But no! AOL actually bought HuffPo for $315 million. I mentally put in a decimal place where there wasn’t one. I don’t even know what to think about this. It sounds completely crazy to me. The odds of this being a good deal for AOL stockholders seem astronomical.

Still, maybe I’m the one who’s crazy. After all, I haven’t paid a lot of attention to either HuffPo or AOL lately. I’m a huge skeptic of synergy arguments of all kinds, but maybe Arianna is right when she says that in this deal, 1+1=11

Peter Kafka at Media Memo:

So maybe AOL + HuffPo won’t equal 11. And maybe 10x Huffington Post’s reported 2010 revenue is a very pre-Lehman multiple. But the broad strokes here make sense to me:

AOL is pushing its workers very hard to make more content it can sell. HuffPo is a content-making machine:

Huffington Post still has the reputation as a left-leaning political site written by Arianna Huffington’s celebrity pals. In reality, it is most concerned with attracting eyeballs anyway it can. Sometimes it’s with well-regarded investigative journalism, and much more often it’s via very aggressive, very clever aggregation. And sometimes it’s by simply paying very, very close attention to what Google wants, which leads to stories like “What Time Does The Super Bowl Start?

However they’ve done it, it’s worked–much more efficiently than AOL, which is headed in that direction as well. AOL reaches about 112 million people in the U.S. every month with a staff of 5,000. The Huffington Post, which employed about 200 people prior to the deal, gets to about 26 million.*

AOL can start selling this stuff immediately:

HuffPo reportedly generated around $30 million in revenue last year, but that was done using a relatively small staff that sales chief Greg Coleman had just started building. AOL’s much bigger sales group, which has just about finished its lengthy reorg, should be able to boost that performance immediately.

AOL can afford it:

Tim Armstrong’s company ended 2010 with $725 million in cash, much of which it generated by selling off old assets. This seems like a relatively easy check to write and one that shouldn’t involve a lot of overlapping staff–AOL figures it will save $20 million annually in cost overlaps, but that it will spend about $20 million this year on restructuring charges. HuffPo is about four percent of AOL’s size, and several of its top executives are already stepping aside. (This is the second time in two years that sales boss Greg Coleman has been moved out of a job by Tim Armstrong.) The biggest risk here will be in the way that Huffington, who is now editor in chief for all of AOL’s edit staff, gets along with her new employees. On the other hand, morale is low enough at many AOL sites that it will be hard to make things worse.

AOL Gets a Really Big Brand:

There’s some downside risk to attaching Arianna Huffington’s name to a big, mainstream media brand, as her politics and/or persona might scare off some readers and/or advertisers. But two years after Armstrong arrived from Google, AOL still doesn’t have a definable identity, other than “the Web site your parents might still pay for even though there’s no reason to do so.” Being known as “the guys who own Huffington Post” is infinitely better than that.

HuffPo’s “pro” list is much shorter, but only because there’s not much to think about for them: Huffington, co-founder Kenneth Lerer and their backers get a nice return on the five years and $37 million they put into the company. And those who stay on get to leverage the benefits of a much larger acquirer–access to more eyballs and more advertisers. Easy enough to understand.

Dan Lyons at The Daily Beast:

No doubt Hippeau and Lerer and Huffington were drinking champagne last night, but the truth is, this deal is not a victory for either side. It’s a slow-motion train wreck and will end in disaster.

Listen to Nick Denton, who runs Gawker, which now becomes the biggest independent Web-based news outlet. “I’m disappointed in the Huffington Post. I thought Arianna Huffington and Kenny Lerer were reinventing news, rather than simply flipping to a flailing conglomerate,” he told me.

Denton insists he has no intention of ever selling Gawker, and he seems not-so-secretly pleased to see his opponents cashing out: “AOL has gathered so many of our rivals— Huffington Post, Engadget, Techcrunch—in one place. The question: Is this a fearsome Internet conglomerate or simply a roach motel for once lively websites?”

One big problem with the deal is that Arianna Huffington now runs editorial for AOL properties, which include tech sites Engadget and TechCrunch. Those sites are both accustomed to being free-wheeling, fiercely independent and fiercely competitive—so competitive, in fact, that recently they’ve been battling with each other.

Michael Arrington, who runs TechCrunch and just sold it to AOL a few months ago, is an abrasive, big-ego, sometimes obnoxious guy. He’s a friend of mine, so I mean this in the best possible way. But I can’t imagine him working for Arianna.

The other, bigger problem is AOL itself. AOL touts itself as a media company, but as Ken Auletta reported in The New Yorker recently, most of what AOL publishes is junk, and 80 percent of its profits come from a rather seedy little business—charging subscription fees from longtime users who don’t realize that they no longer need to pay for AOL service, and could be getting it free.

The other problem is that AOL’s chief executive, Tim Armstrong, is a sales guy. He ran sales at Google before he came to AOL in 2009. Nothing wrong with sales guys, except when they start telling people how to do journalism. Sales guys deal in numbers. But journalism is about words. Sales guys live in a world where everything can be measured and analyzed. Their version of journalism is to focus on things like “keyword density” and search-engine optimization.

Journalists live in a world of story-telling, and where the value of a story, its power to resonate, is something they know by instinct. Some people have better instincts than others. Some people can improve their instincts over time. The other part of storytelling is not the material itself but how you present it. Some can spin a better tale out of the same material than others.

But no great storyteller has ever been someone who started out by thinking about traffic numbers and search engine keywords.

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Stop! Panel Time!

Uri Friedman at The Atlantic:

Explaining something as tangled, technical, and multi-dimensional as the 2008 financial crisis is fraught with difficulty. Some have tried comparing toxic assets to supermodels, while others have given musical theater a shot.

This morning we have another answer–in the form of a 576-page book–from the congressionally appointed panel charged with investigating the roots of the meltdown. Were it not for corporate incompetence, inadequate government regulation, and excessive risk-taking by Wall Street banks in the housing market, the commission concludes, the country could have avoided financial calamity.

Keith Hennessey:

At long last, here is the dissent filed by Vice Chairman Bill Thomas, Dr. Doug Holtz-Eakin, and me to the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission Report.  (I know, you’ve been holding your breath waiting for this.)  This dissent will be transmitted to the President and the Congress later today (Thursday, January 27th) along with the majority’s document and Peter Wallison’s separate dissent.

Our dissent is 27 pages long as a PDF.  The majority’s document is 20 times longer.  Their endnotes are 98 pages.  I am not making this up.  The full report will be available on FCIC.gov tomorrow around 10 AM EST.  Peter Wallison’s dissent is available now.

Since I know that 27 pages is too long for the overwhelming majority of readers on the web, I’ll try to suck you in by telling you that our core argument is in the first seven pages.  The last twenty flesh out in more detail each of our “ten essential causes of the crisis.”  You could stop after seven pages (I hope you won’t) and have our basic argument.

If you have followed any of the press coverage of the FCIC over the past six weeks, you may think you know what we’re going to say.  This dissent, however, makes a fundamentally different argument than the four-man document I signed onto in December.  For me this document supersedes that December document, which I looked on as a temporary placeholder.

Mark Thoma on the dissent:

Bill Thomas, Keith Hennessey, and Douglas Holtz-Eakin have a dissenting statement in response to the final report of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission:

What Caused the Financial Crisis, by Bill Thomas, Keith Hennessey, and Douglas Holtz-Eakin, Commentary, WSJ: Today, six members of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission … are releasing their final report. Although the three of us served on the commission, we were unable to support the majority’s conclusions and have issued a dissenting statement. …

We recognize that … other … narratives have popular appeal:… Had the government not supported housing subsidies (the first narrative) or had policy makers implemented more restrictive financial regulations (the second) there would have been no calamity.

Both of these views are incomplete and misleading. … We believe the crisis was the product of 10 factors. Only when taken together can they offer a sufficient explanation of what happened:

Starting in the late 1990s, there was a broad credit bubble in the U.S. and Europe and a sustained housing bubble in the U.S. (factors 1 and 2). Excess liquidity, combined with rising house prices and an ineffectively regulated primary mortgage market, led to an increase in nontraditional mortgages (factor 3) that were in some cases deceptive, in many cases confusing, and often beyond borrowers’ ability to pay.

However, the credit bubble, housing bubble, and the explosion of nontraditional mortgage products are not by themselves responsible for the crisis. Our country has experienced larger bubbles—the dot-com bubble of the 1990s, for example—that were not nearly as devastating… Losses from the housing downturn were concentrated in highly leveraged financial institutions. Which raises the essential question: Why were these firms so exposed? Failures in credit-rating and securitization transformed bad mortgages into toxic financial assets (factor 4). Securitizers lowered the credit quality of the mortgages they securitized, credit-rating agencies erroneously rated these securities as safe investments, and buyers failed to look behind the ratings and do their own due diligence. Managers of many large and midsize financial institutions amassed enormous concentrations of highly correlated housing risk (factor 5), and they amplified this risk by holding too little capital relative to the risks and funded these exposures with short-term debt (factor 6). They assumed such funds would always be available. Both turned out to be bad bets.

These risks within highly leveraged, short-funded financial firms with concentrated exposure to a collapsing asset class led to a cascade of firm failures. … We call this the risk of contagion (factor 7). In other cases, the problem was a common shock (factor 8). A number of firms had made similar bad bets on housing…

A rapid succession of 10 firm failures, mergers and restructurings in September 2008 caused a financial shock and panic (factor 9). Confidence and trust in the financial system evaporated, as the health of almost every large and midsize financial institution in the U.S. and Europe was questioned. The financial shock and panic caused a severe contraction in the real economy (factor 10). …

[I]t is dangerous to conclude that the crisis would have been avoided if only we had regulated everything a lot more, had fewer housing subsidies, and had more responsible bankers. Simple narratives like these ignore the global nature of this crisis, and promote a simplistic explanation of a complex problem. Though tempting politically, they will ultimately lead to mistaken policies.

I don’t think the conclusion that better regulation would not have stopped the crisis follows from the factors they list.

By their own admission, the reason that factors 1 and 2 led to factor 3 was “an ineffectively regulated primary mortgage market.” So right away better regulation could have stopped the chain of events the led to the crisis.

Factor 3 was “nontraditional mortgages that were in some cases deceptive, in many cases confusing, and often beyond borrowers’ ability to pay.” Sure seems like regulation might help to prevent deception and confusion (through, among other things, a financial protection agency). One thing is clear in any case. The market didn’t prevent these things on its own.

On to factor 4: Securitizers lowering credit standards, a failure of credit agencies, and buyers failing to do their own due diligence. Once again, regulation can help where the private market failed. The ratings agencies exist because they help to solve an asymmetric information problem. The typical purchaser of financial assets does not have the resources needed to assess the risk of complex financial assets (which is why saying that they should have performed their own due diligence misses the mark). Instead, they rely upon ratings agencies to do the assessment for them. Unfortunately, the ratings agencies didn’t do their jobs — perhaps due to bad incentives arising from to how they were paid — and this is where regulation has a role to play.

Factor 5 is the accumulation of correlated risk — again something a regulator can stop once the accumulation or risk is evident. This seems like an easy one — when regulators see this type of risk building up, they should do something about it. The question, however, is how to give regulators better tools for assessing these risks. Backing off on regulation, as implied above, won’t help with this.

M.V. at Newsbook at The Economist:

IT IS not the most promising script for a whodunit. Ten experts are brought together to solve a mystery, but they can’t get along and ultimately reach three different conclusions. That, sadly, is the story of America’s Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, whose book-length report was released on January 27th.

When the six Democratic and four Republican appointees began their work, there was hope that they could clarify the causes of the financial crisis in the same way as the authors of the 9/11 commission’s report had shed light on the terrorist attacks of September 2001.

It was, though, evident well before they had finished 19 days of public hearings and over 700 interviews that ideological spats would get in the way. By November Republican members were moaning that the Democrats were more interested in crafting a document  that would bolster their party’s attacks on the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives than in revealing the truth. When a majority of the panel voted to push the report’s release beyond the December 15th deadline, the four Republicans produced their own preliminary report. Then they began to fracture too.

The result is an unfortunate loss of credibility and, confusingly, three competing narratives. The main report, endorsed by the Democrats only, points to a broad swathe of failures but pins much of the blame on the financial industry, be it greed and sloppy risk management at banks, the predations of mortgage brokers, the spinelessness of ratings agencies or the explosive growth of securitisation and credit-default swaps.

The report takes swipes at politicians, too, for overseeing a long period of deregulation that allowed Wall Street to run riot; and at regulators for not using the powers they had to curb risk-taking and for blithely assuming that markets could police themselves. It points to the Federal Reserve’s “pivotal failure” to rein in reckless mortgage lending, and to the Securities and Exchange Commission’s lax supervision of investment banks. It also fingers an over-reliance on short-term debt. These, however, are hardly novel conclusions.

Rick Moran:

You may recall the Democrats telling us that the FinReg bill would make it impossible for banks to be “too big to fail” ever again. Nobody believed it then and this inquiry apparently proves it a lie.

Despite a slowly improving economy, it could all fall apart again with another shock to the system. If that happens, the taxpayers will be left holding the bag.

Richard Eskow at Huffington Post:

his report has had a long and sometimes challenging history. But to paraphrase an old gospel song, it “may not be here when you want it, but it’s right on time.”Useful Utopians

Over three decades, our government was captured by a libertarian-inspired economic philosophy that had previously been considered radical and impractical — correctly so, as it turns out. That philosophy’s most prominent spokesman, former Ayn Rand acolyte Alan Greenspan, was celebrated as a “maestro,” until the house of cards he came to symbolize finally collapsed.

The prevailing economic myth, of an impossibly wise and genuinely free market, was as useful as it was Utopian. It provided ideological cover for the deregulation that both parties embraced. Government leaders were compromised by the lure of huge campaign contributions, and by a revolving door that ensured future wealth for cooperative politicians and regulators from both parties. The result enriched Wall Street and the Washington elite and left the rest of the country wounded.

The deregulation of the 90s allowed banks to take risks they couldn’t possibly survive. But they had been rescued in previous crises, and the cozy relationship between government and bankers assured them they’d be bailed out again. Freed from the consequences of their own actions, they gambled… and we lost.

Money for Nothing

The most surprising thing about the FCIC hearings for me personally was the lack of competence shown by so many top bankers. The Wall Street executives I worked for were smart, demanding, and driven, but bankers like Citi’s Robert Rubin and Chuck Prince… not so much. Their FCIC testimony displayed a shaky grasp of their business and a lack of concern about the risks facing their own organizations. Many of them seemed to lack even the most basic level of intellectual curiosity. A big bank is a fascinating, complex entity, but one executive after another seemed to shrug off the details of their own banks’ operations with bored indifference.

Sure, their testimony may have been especially vague because of their understandable desire to avoid self-incrimination. But even allowing for that, the low level of managerial skill they displayed was disconcerting. Today’s generation of financial executives may be enjoying the greatest disparity between income and executive performance since indolent princes inherited vast kingdoms through the divine right of kings.

Yet despite this embarrassing record, these executives want to be pampered and flattered by Washington again — and they’re getting their wish. The president and his party took some steps toward genuine financial reform with last year’s bill, but a great deal of work is still needed and their recent appointments aren’t encouraging. Meanwhile, the Washington consensus is pressuring the administration to assuage the “hurt feelings” of CEOs with some success, despite record profits that should provide more than adequate compensation for any injuries to their pride.

Unfinished Business

The president only mentioned financial reform in passing, in his comments about regulations:

When we find rules that put an unnecessary burden on businesses, we will fix them. But I will not hesitate to create or enforce commonsense safeguards to protect the American people. That’s … why last year we put in place consumer protections against hidden fees and penalties by credit card companies, and new rules to prevent another financial crisis…

Last year’s bill was a start, but more reform is urgently needed — to break up “too big to fail” banks, end runaway speculation, protect consumers, and end the incestuous relationship between banks and government. Prosecutions are needed, too. They’re the only way to ensure that bankers can’t violate laws with impunity, knowing that even if they’re caught their shareholders will pay the fines.

Barry Ritholtz at The Big Picture:

It appears we got hit with another 10-12 inches of snow overnight. Schools are cancelled, and my trains are not running into the city yet.

I need to go blow the snow off the driveway, then figure out what I am gong to do today. I was hoping to read the FCIC report, but it does not look like I will get to the store today.

And speaking of Snow Jobs, the dissenters in the FCIC continue their embarrassing foolishness.

The NYT devotes two paragraphs to Peter Wallison — they mention he was “chief lawyer for the Treasury Department and then the White House during the Reagan administration” and that he is “now at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.”

But nowhere do they mention that he was co-director of the AEI’s Financial Deregulation Project.  This is a serious omission by a major publication.

The New York Times should be much better than this . .

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