It Takes a Generation

JAN. 23, 2014 David Brooks NYTimes

Over the past decade we’ve had a rich debate on how to expand opportunity for underprivileged children. But we’ve probably made two mistakes.

First, we’ve probably placed too much emphasis on early education. Don’t get me wrong. What happens in the early years is crucial. But human capital development takes a generation. If you really want to make an impact, you’ve got to have a developmental strategy for all the learning stages, ages 0 to 25.

Second, we’ve probably put too much weight on school reform. Again, reforming education is important. But getting the academics right is not going to get you far if millions of students can’t control their impulses, can’t form attachments, don’t possess resilience and lack social and emotional skills.

So when President Obama talks about expanding opportunity in his State of the Union address on Tuesday, I’m hoping he’ll widen the debate. I’m hoping he’ll sketch out a stage-by-stage developmental agenda to help poor children move from birth to the middle class.

Such an agenda would start before birth. First, children need parents who are ready to care for them. But right now roughly half-a-million children are born each year as a result of unintended pregnancies, often to unmarried women who are not on contraception or are trying to use contraceptives like condoms or the pill. As the University of Pennsylvania’s Rebecca Maynard and Isabel Sawhill and Quentin Karpilow of the Brookings Institution have argued, if these women had free access to long-acting reversible contraceptives like I.U.D.’s, then the number of unintended births might decline and the number of children with unready parents might fall, too.

Once born, children are generally better off if they grow up within a loving two-parent marriage. It would be great if we knew how to boost marriage rates, but we don’t.


The Populist Imperative

JAN. 23, 2014 Paul Krugman NYTimes

“The outstanding faults of the economic society in which we live are its failure to provide for full employment and its arbitrary and inequitable distribution of wealth and incomes.”

John Maynard Keynes wrote that in 1936, but it applies to our own time, too. And, in a better world, our leaders would be doing all they could to address both faults.

Unfortunately, the world we actually live in falls far short of that ideal. In fact, we should count ourselves lucky when leaders confront even one of our two great economic failures. If, as has been widely reported, President Obama devotes much of his State of the Union address to inequality, everyone should be cheering him on.

They won’t, of course. Instead, he will face two kinds of sniping. The usual suspects on the right will, as always when questions of income distribution comes up, shriek “Class warfare!” But there will also be seemingly more sober voices arguing that he has picked the wrong target, that jobs, not inequality, should be at the top of his agenda.

Here’s why they’re wrong.

First of all, jobs and inequality are closely linked if not identical issues. There’s a pretty good although not ironclad case that soaring inequality helped set the stage for our economic crisis, and that the highly unequal distribution of income since the crisis has perpetuated the slump, especially by making it hard for families in debt to work their way out.

Moreover, there’s an even stronger case to be made that high unemployment — by destroying workers’ bargaining power — has become a major source of rising inequality and stagnating incomes even for those lucky enough to have jobs.


Teacher’s Column On Education Reform Goes Viral

By KATHLEEN MEGAN, [email protected]
5:00 am, January 23, 2014 Hartford Courant

When Elizabeth Natale wrote an opinion piece for the Courant last Sunday venting her frustrations with education reform, she didn’t expect it to go viral, resulting in emails of support from teachers and parents across Connecticut and the country.

Natale, an English teacher at Sedgwick Middle School in West Hartford, wrote that she was considering quitting a job she loves because of “government attempts to improve education” that are “stripping the joy out of teaching and doing nothing to help the children.”

Natale said this week that she was “just trying to voice what so many teachers are saying. I haven’t run into a teacher since September who isn’t saying the same things I am, but people are a little nervous about taking a stand on this …’

“I said, when is someone going to stand up and say something outside the hallway because that’s where all this conversation is going on… I did not, however, expect the reaction I got.”

It appears that half-way through a year of substantial education reform — including a new teacher evaluation system, new academic standards, and the trial of a new computerized testing system — many Connecticut teachers and administrators say they feel much the way Natale does.

“I think it’s fair to say that [the column] reflects the opinion of the overwhelming majority of teachers in the state today,” said Mark Waxenberg, executive director of the state’s largest teachers union, the Connecticut Education Association.

“I think what’s happening in Connecticut is a perfect storm,” Waxenberg said. “It really is extremely overwhelming, not only for the teachers, but for the students and the classroom.”


Privacy or Security: a False Choice

FEB 3, 2014, VOL. 19, NO. 20 • BY GARY SCHMITT Weekly Standard

In the wake of all the “leaks” by Edward Snowden of the National Security Agency’s collection programs and the resulting debate over those programs, one constantly hears from elected officials and the commentariat about the need to strike the right balance between privacy and security. More often than not, this is followed by a suggestion that, as a country, since 9/11, we haven’t. Putting aside for the moment that no one has come up with evidence that the NSA, in spite of all the powerful capabilities it has at hand, has done anything untoward, the common refrain is that we are only a step away from the era of “Big Brother.”

Yet anyone who knows anything about the modern American intelligence community knows that it is virtually impossible for any of its major components to carry out a program significantly impinging on American privacy and get away with it for any extended period. Between the agencies’ own inspector generals, the oversight provided by the courts, Congress, and the executive departments and agencies themselves, any effort to stray outside the lines is not likely to go undetected or unreported for very long.

A telling example is the FBI’s expansive use of “national security letters,” administrative subpoenas used by the bureau to obtain transactional information from third parties—such as credit card information, travel history, etc. Under the Patriot Act, the FBI was given more discretion to employ NSLs in connection with counterterrorism investigations. In short order, having been blamed in part for not preventing 9/11, the bureau took advantage of the new provisions and greatly expanded its NSL requests. But this hardly went unnoticed. Congress, the courts, and internal FBI and Justice Department auditors all weighed in to impose greater rigor on how this investigative tool was used, with the result that the number of NSLs has decreased, oversight has been beefed up and, with the president’s most recent directive, greater transparency ordered in their use.


Legalization isn’t the end of the ‘war on drugs’

January 23, 2014 Bruce Dixon Florida Courier

he forty-year “war on drugs” has been the front door of what can only be described as the prison state, in which African-Americans are 13 percent of the population but more than 40 percent of the prisoners. The chief interactions of government with young Black males are policing, the courts and imprisonment.

Given all that, legalizing marijuana possession ought to be good news. Not necessarily.

What would it look like if policymakers wanted to end the prohibition of marijuana, but not necessarily the war on drugs? What if they desired to lock down the potential economic opportunities opened up by legalizing weed to themselves and a handful of their wealthy and well-connected friends and campaign contributors?

What if they wanted to make the legal marijuana market safe for predatory agribusiness, which would like to claim lucrative patents on all the genetic varieties of marijuana that can be legally grown, as they already try to do with other crops?

If they wanted to do those things, Colorado’s system would be a good start.

In Denver today, low-income property owners can’t just plant pot in the backyard in hopes of making their mortgage payments. Ordinary households are limited to three plants per adult. Selling the weed or the seed is illegal.

To participate in the marijuana economy as anything but a consumer requires background checks, hefty license fees, a minimum of hundreds of thousands to invest, and the right connections. All this currently drives the price of legal weed in Colorado to over $600 per ounce, including a 25 percent state tax – roughly double the reported street price of illegal weed.

Cops and judges and jailers figure to be just as busy as they always have been the last forty years, doing pretty much what they’ve always done: conducting a war on illegal drugs, chiefly in the poorer and Blacker sections of town, with predictable results.


Deadly bird flu surges in China as millions travel

Elizabeth Weise, USATODAY 6:04 p.m. EST January 22, 2014

Four more cases of deadly bird flu were reported in China on Wednesday, bringing the season’s total in that country to 221. Fifty-seven people have died.

The surge in cases has health officials worldwide watching closely as hundreds of millions of Chinese begin to travel for Chinese New Year.

The H7N9 strain of influenza jumped from birds to humans only last year. It is extremely dangerous, causing severe illness in more than three quarters of people infected and death in more than one quarter, according to Chinese researchers.

It is called bird flu because the virus originated in birds and so far is transmitted to humans only by live poultry. Cooked meat is no risk.

All of this year’s cases have been in China.

The surge in cases comes as China gets ready for what is called Spring Festival in Chinese. Known as Chinese New Year in the West, it begins Jan 31. People customarily travel to spend the holiday with family.

China estimates that 3.6 billion trips will be taken during the two-week holiday — and many of those traveling will be taking or buying live chickens and ducks as gifts.


WikiLeaks, Drought and Syria

Thomas L. Friedman JAN. 21, 2014 nNYTimes

In the 1970s, I got both my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in modern Middle East studies, and I can assure you that at no time did environmental or climate issues appear anywhere in the syllabi of my courses. Today, you can’t understand the Arab awakenings — or their solutions — without considering climate, environment and population stresses.

I’ve been reporting on the connection between the Syrian drought and the uprising there for a Showtime documentary that will air in April, but recently our researchers came across a WikiLeaks cable that brilliantly foreshadowed how environmental stresses would fuel the uprising. Sent on Nov. 8, 2008, from the U.S. Embassy in Damascus to the State Department, the cable details how, in light of what was a devastating Syrian drought — it lasted from 2006-10 — Syria’s U.N. food and agriculture representative, Abdullah bin Yehia, was seeking drought assistance from the U.N. and wanted the U.S. to contribute. Here are some key lines:

■ “The U.N. Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs launched an appeal on September 29 requesting roughly $20.23 million to assist an estimated one million people impacted by what the U.N. describes as the country’s worst drought in four decades.”

■ “Yehia proposes to use money from the appeal to provide seed and technical assistance to 15,000 small-holding farmers in northeast Syria in an effort to preserve the social and economic fabric of this rural, agricultural community. If UNFAO efforts fail, Yehia predicts mass migration from the northeast, which could act as a multiplier on social and economic pressures already at play and undermine stability.”


What Is The Most Dangerous Impact Of Climate Change?

BY JOE ROMM ON JANUARY 22, 2014 AT 4:46 PM ThinkProgress

NOAA concluded in 2011 that “human-caused climate change [is now] a major factor in more frequent Mediterranean droughts.” Reds and oranges highlight lands around the Mediterranean that experienced significantly drier winters during 1971-2010 than the comparison period of 1902-2010. [Click to enlarge.]

What is the most dangerous climate change impact? That is a question Tom Friedman begins to get at in his must-read NY Times column, “WikiLeaks, Drought and Syria.” The piece is about a “WikiLeaks cable that brilliantly foreshadowed how environmental stresses would fuel the uprising” in Syria.

One of Friedman’s key arguments is that “Syria’s government couldn’t respond to a prolonged drought when there was a Syrian government. So imagine what could happen if Syria is faced by another drought after much of its infrastructure has been ravaged by civil war.” Thanks to human-caused climate change, that is all but inevitable.

The 2008 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Damascus to the State Department details the prescient warnings from Syria’s U.N. food and agriculture representative, Abdullah bin Yehia:

“Yehia told us that the Syrian minister of agriculture … stated publicly that economic and social fallout from the drought was ‘beyond our capacity as a country to deal with.’ What the U.N. is trying to combat through this appeal, Yehia says, is the potential for ‘social destruction’ that would accompany erosion of the agricultural industry in rural Syria. This social destruction would lead to political instability.”


Even small ball is too much for Congress

By DARREN SAMUELSOHN and DAVID NATHER | 1/22/14 5:01 AM EST Politico

Everybody knows that Congress can’t do anything big any more – but it turns out Capitol Hill is equally hapless about getting the small stuff done as well.

All the dysfunctional partisan gridlock keeping the House and Senate worlds apart on the transcendent issues of the day also means little progress on the no-brainers, like technical corrections and minor fixes to Obamacare and the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law. Revamping the nation’s energy policies with low-hanging fruit proposals championed by both Democratic and GOP lawmakers are stuck, too.

t’s a broken government with messy consequences. Absent action from Congress, the Obama administration is stuck navigating a maze of murky statutes and crafting regulations ripe for lawsuits. A glance at recent Supreme Court and federal appellate court dockets underscores what happens when inertia rules in the House and Senate.

Sure, there are exceptions — Congress just passed a $1.1 trillion spending bill to fund the government for the rest of the year, and it even managed to adopt a modest budget blueprint last month. But don’t be fooled. Funding the government is the bare minimum in lawmakers’ job description, and the overall pattern is unchanged: even the things that should be a breeze have suddenly become very hard.

Lawmakers hit a new low in 2013, passing the fewest number of laws in modern history, easily besting even the “Do Nothing” Congress that President Harry S. Truman famously assaulted. Typically, the second year of a congressional session picks up the pace, as the two chambers catch up with each other and a flood of bills pass surrounding the next election.

But this isn’t your typical Congress. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has become an expert at blocking floor votes on politically tinged amendments offered on both big bills and the benign ones. House Speaker John Boehner has declared that his legacy shouldn’t be measured by how many laws make it to President Barack Obama’s desk.


Oxfam: Richest 1% own nearly half of world’s wealth

Kim Hjelmgaard, USA TODAY 3:05 p.m. EST January 20, 2014

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify confusion between two sets of numbers in the report.

Almost half of the world’s wealth is owned by just 1% of the world’s population, according to a report published just days before the start of the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting, where the topic of rapidly increasing income disparities will be a major focus.

In its study titled Working for the Few, the British-founded development charity Oxfam concludes that the $110 trillion wealth of the 1% richest people on the planet is some 65 times the total wealth of those floundering at the “bottom half” of the world’s population.

Further, this poorer “bottom half” now has about the same amount of money as the richest 85 people in the world, and the wealthiest grew their share of bounty in 24 out of 26 countries surveyed between 1980 and 2012, the study says. The research was compiled using data from Credit Suisse’s World Wealth report and the Forbes’ billionaires list.

“In the last 30 thirty years seven out of 10 people have been living in countries where economic inequality has increased,” Nick Galasso, one of the co-authors of the study, told USA TODAY. “This is a trend that has been unfolding globally for the last two or three decades. What we’ve not seen is any political will toward curbing it.”

President Obama has identified economic equality as one of the defining issues of our time and in a speech in December he said that increasing inequality “challenges the very essence of who we are as a people.” In the U.S., the financially privileged — the wealthiest 1% — have “captured 95% of post-financial crisis growth since 2009, while the bottom 90% became poorer,” the Oxfam report notes.