Monday, November 30, 2015

Trump and Truthiness

The media has taken a brief pause from scaring the living shit out of Americans with hyperbolic reporting on terrorism to return to their political bĂȘte noire - the debunking of whatever slur-du-jour uttered by Donald Trump. Two recent examples illustrate the power of "truthiness" - the Stephen Colbert dubbed term generally defined as an idea having the "feeling" of truth, evidence to the contrary. 

The first had to do with Trump's re-tweeting of a debunked statistic regarding murder in America:

While the numbers were well off the mark, there was a patina of "truthiness" embedded in the bogus graph. To wit, it is not true that 97% of African-Americans are killed by other African-Americans, but according to PolitiFact, that figure is around 90%. [1] Everything else in the graph is way off base, [2] but if you are a Trump supporter who thinks the Black Lives Matter movement is undermining law enforcement or fails to focus on the pandemic of black-on-black violence, the inaccuracies are less important than that kernel of truth.

The media has also freaked out about Trump's statement that "thousands" of Muslims in Jersey City, New Jersey celebrated on 9/11. Again, this idea has been widely debunked but Trump has clung to a Washington Post article from a week after the attacks that talked about the FBI investigating claims that a couple of people had engaged in such behavior. Here again, the "truthiness" of Trump's claim is more important than whether what he said was literally true. If you are a Trump supporter suspicious of Muslims and fearful of terrorism, whether Muslims celebrated in Jersey City, Paterson, or the West Bank (where they actually *did* celebrate) is less important than the fact that some people cheered the fact that we were the victims of a terrorist attack. Arguing over the number of people who celebrated or where is not nearly as important to Trump supporters as whether it happened or not. 

And the media scrutiny is also curious. Most cable and Sunday talk shows are content to simply allow politicians and their surrogates to spout easily debunk-able talking points without pushing them to defend their statements. Indeed, while Chuck Todd cross-examined Trump on his 9/11 claims, he blithely allowed panelist Hugh Hewitt to repeat lies about Planned Parenthood selling "baby parts" later in the same episode. [3] More generally, there are gaffes and policy claims that go largely unreported, from the tax plans that tilt heavily to the wealthy to Marco Rubio's off-handed comment that the Paris terrorist attack was "good" for his campaign. This is not to say that the media should let Trump off the hook, but rather, why it is that they are not holding other candidates to the same standard.

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3. Hewitt appears to conflate "baby parts" with "fetal tissue." A lengthy exegesis can be found here:

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Book Review - The Prize

Dale Russakoff's book The Prize starts like a spy thriller - cloistered in the back of an SUV late at night, two men are plotting a revolution. But unlike a John LeCarre novel, these men - New Jersey's Republican Governor, Chris Christie, and the Democrat running the state's largest city - Newark Mayor Cory Booker, are not engaged in Cold War scheming, but rather, a discussion about how to remake public education in a city that graduates barely half its high school students and most consistently read, write, and do math well below their grade levels.

What unfolds over the following few years is a cautionary tale of what happens when well-intentioned people try to make radical change without understanding how to do it and the arrogance to try it without including the people who would be affected by it. Woven throughout this experiment in public policy are people talking past each other, or not at all, of generations-held suspicions of outsiders, racial tension, and bald political machinations that squander much of the good will and philanthropic contributions earmarked to help the children of Newark.

Of course, things do not start out that way. Buzzing from a splashy announcement that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is donating $100 million to improve schools in Newark (another $100 million in "matching" funds would bring the total to $200 million), all things seem possible. Wrapped in that gift are the demands of education reformers - accountability, metrics, best practices, and of course, that loaded term, "charter schools." Left unspoken, either in the public reveal on Oprah Winfrey's eponymous show or in the strategic planning that would follow, was an interest in engaging those who would be most affected by this change - the families in Newark and the teachers who served them - in its planning, coordination, or implementation.

And perhaps this is unsurprising. The Newark School District has been under state control for more than two decades, stripping locals of much say in how their children are educated while strong union protections offer little incentive for more junior teachers to thrive and allow entrenched older, poorer performing teachers to continue receiving a generous salary even as they fail to meet the needs of the students they are responsible for educating. In this way, the reforms Zuckerberg, Christie, and Booker were all lobbying for were admirable. No one would question that the school system had failed the children of Newark, but, as Russakoff shows, the opportunities presented by this infusion of cash were not fully realized and much of the book reads as an after action report on where the reformers fell short. 

Zuckerberg did a very Silicon Valley thing - he "bet on people." In this case, Booker, who charmed him with his vision for Newark's future, Christie, willing to be equal parts bull in the china shop and model for bipartisan agreement, and the seductive appeal of Republicans and Democrats working across the aisle to help poor children. While Zuckerberg's philanthropy may have been well-intentioned, he was woefully naive about what it would take to make this change possible. Betting on people may make sense when it comes to the latest start-up, but when those people are also politicians, the ROI is likely to be less impressive. One thing The Prize shows is that leadership from any of these three men at various points along the way may have made a difference as the reform effort unraveled. But Zuckerberg is portrayed as largely hands-off, only intervening when timetables had already slipped significantly, Booker's focus is strong at first but wanes as obstacles accumulate and he instead turns his eye to the U.S. Senate, and Christie's national profile diverted his attention, first in the wake of Hurricane Sandy and later, after the Bridgegate scandal broke. 

To take an example, one of the signature needs for implementation of education reform is the mitigation of tenure protection for teachers. Union contracts tend to make it hard to remove poor performing teachers and also allow more senior teachers to "bump" less experienced ones if layoffs occur. The political leadership failed to deliver the type of contract that would have allowed for generous performance bonuses, additional staffing, and the removal of the worst teachers that the three men all claimed would happen. Instead, more than $90 million - or almost half of the entire philanthropic donation - went into the pockets of the same teachers the reformers claimed were failing, in the form of back pay, buy outs, and administrative fees. This failure had a tangible impact on the reform effort - while schools were shuttered, the remaining ones were able to cherry pick the best teachers, but the excess teachers could not be terminated, resulting in costs that would ultimately run into the tens of millions of dollars. Meanwhile, Christie and Booker's hand picked superintendent, Cami Anderson, exacerbated the problem by approving $1,000 a day contracts for outside consultants even as support staff and janitors were being handed pink slips. 

The community does not wrap itself in glory either. Russakoff leaves largely unexamined the lack of personal responsibility of men and women having children when they have no steady source of income or at a young age or without the basic family structure that might improve their chances of success. This is brought into sharp relief when Russakoff talks about poorly attended community outreach events but also at protest rallies against educational reform where parents defend the abysmal outcomes produced by the school system they are protecting through their presence. It makes no sense, yet little time or attention is focused on it. Russakoff leaves it to the reader to find in Appendix II the fact that nearly three-quarters of households in Newark are led by a single parent and that 42% of children in Newark live below the poverty line, but the dots that connect those alarming statistics to the poor performance of the students in Newark's schools rarely lead back to blaming the parents who are raising these children in near third-world conditions. 

Often in The Prize one is left wondering whether the scope of the problem is simply too great to solve. Russakoff highlights the beyond-the-call-of-duty efforts of teachers, principals and school staff who dip into their own wallets to pay for school supplies, arrange rides for students without reliable transportation, and provide ]extra tutoring sessions for the children under their charge, but too often these gains are phyrric, either because of the students' unsettled family life or the simple passage of time and transfer to other educators who do not go the extra mile to help. A case study highlighted in Russakoff's book is a 7th grader named Alif Buyah, who, when we meet him in 2012 has already been held back twice. Through patience and diligence, his teachers nurture Alif, creating a specific tutoring plan, helping him get to and from school, and through his hard work and their support, he is promoted to 9th grade by the end of the school year. But Alif's success would be short-lived. A combination of trauma (a close friend was murdered in front of him), bureaucratic decisions (his school was closed as part of the district's reorganization), and his own struggles without the aid of those who had helped him resulted in truancy, absenteeism and drug use that wiped away all the gains that had been made in that one magical year. 

If there is one grace note in The Prize it is found in the small stories of commitment as illustrated through the educators who, against all of the bureaucratic bullshit, are truly passionate about making a difference in the lives of young people. But the systemic change envisioned in Newark has not come to pass. Achieving such a result would have been hard under ideal conditions, but the unforced errors made by so many along the way ensured the reform effort's defeat. Indeed, the cruel irony of what has happened in Newark is the creation of what is akin to a 21st century separate but equal educational system where about a third of Newark students are hand picked by charter schools saturated in services and money while the rest are educated in understaffed classrooms by a hodge-podge of great, good, and not-so-good teachers - not a particularly good return on a $200 million investment. 

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Wednesday, November 11, 2015


While the pundits score last night's Republican debate, who zinged who, who looked "Presidential," who garnered the greatest applause lines, and gee whiz, weren't those moderators great?, a larger truth is unsurprisingly being obscured. In a friendly room packed with partisans and batting practice softballs, the hard right ideas that were articulated in Milwaukee - on taxes, on immigration, on foreign policy - may have played well, but arguing for the massive deportation of the undocumented, the starvation of federal tax revenue while spending mindlessly on the military, and shutting down entire federal agencies, will not play well in Peoria come general election time.

And this is a problem that any of the candidates on stage last night will struggle with. Marco Rubio can repackage his stump speech into small sound bites for a 90 second answer that go largely unchallenged by a friendly Fox Business News panelist, but he will have to answer to an ocean of advertising and pushback regarding his inexperience, his flip flop on immigration, his no-exemption stance on abortion, and his tax plan if he is nominated for President. The same is true for Ted Cruz (my pick for who will win the nomination), who wants to shut down five government agencies (though he only remembered four - must be something in the water in Texas) and whose religiosity will be a turn off for millions of Americans. 

Of course, if the primary electorate somehow toggles toward the mainstream, the relative moderation of a guy like John Kasich will cause the right wing elements within the Republican Party to blanche and the limp effort by Jeb Bush thus far suggests that but for his last name, he would have been written off long ago. Chris Christie was a rising star once upon a time, but between his middling record in New Jersey and the embarrassing "Bridgegate" scandal, he has been relegated to the "kid's table" debate and is now an also ran. The rest of the field are non-starters on the national stage. Trump is a bloviating egomaniac, Fiorina appears allergic to the truth and is a fact checker's wet dream, and Ben Carson does not appear to know more than a thimbleful of information about anything that one needs to be President. 

And this does not even take into account the "Blue Wall" of states that have voted Democratic in each of the last six Presidential elections and will hand Hillary Clinton 90 percent of the electoral votes she will need to be elected, leaving her free to contest the handful of states to get her to 270. Couple that with the extreme views being espoused during these debates - instant fodder for devastating 30 second attack ads - the demographic shifts that continue to favor the Democrats, President Obama's surging popularity and the contrasting economic success of the two most recent Democrats in the White House versus the past three Republicans, and you start to see why the Republican debates are just exercises in deciding who will lose next November.

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Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Jeb Can't Fix It

In the wake of another horrible debate performance where his well-paid staffers did not bother preparing him with any follow-up for his limp zinger at Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush is attempting a re-boot with the odd tagline “Jeb Can Fix It.” It is probably unclear to most whether Mr. Bush is speaking about his own flaccid campaign or the larger issues facing the country. Regardless, based on past performance being an indicator of future results, I would not hold my breath on either account.

The debate debacle was just another in a long list of indignities for the former Florida Governor. The party’s presumed standard bearer when he entered the race, Bush has been pummeled by real estate mogul Donald Trump for months, looked confused and wobbly when predictable questions about his brother’s Administration were raised, and has watched as people with no political experience like Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina have had their moments in the sun. 

Bush is doing what any candidate with deep pockets would do – he has hired a new image consultant, tightened up his stump speech and lowered expectations while underscoring his determination to win. And these are all well and good, but a guy who started out claiming he wanted to be his own man is now leaning almost entirely on his family connections for money, staff, and support. His super PAC may have a nine figure balance in its bank account, but Super PACs cannot pay for the basic needs of office space, travel, staff salaries, and other necessities that campaigns must pay to keep their candidate afloat. Bush’s third quarter fundraising was woeful and his “burn” rate was high, meaning he has little cash on hand to do those things that a campaign needs to pay for. Another poor debate performance and the money may dry up entirely, depriving Bush of the one thing he needs to survive. 

While the pundit class is not quite ready to write Jeb off, they are also reluctant to concede three important points: 
  • The “Bush” name is mud. Whether Republicans will ever admit it or not, their failure to embrace Jeb suggests they acknowledge that the country does not want another Bush in the White House. Jeb! has tried to excise his family’s name, but it is hard to take that seriously while employing nearly twenty of your brother’s high-ranking appointees;
  • The Republican Party is deeply conservative in ways it was not prior to 2010. Tax raising, amnesty giving liberal Ronald Reagan would struggle to win in today’s GOP. The combined support of outsiders like Trump, Carson, and Cruz easily eclipses fifty percent and what “establishment” energy exists is flowing toward Rubio as Bush falters; 
  • It will be hard for Jeb to win early primaries or caucuses. There are four early contests – Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada. Bush is lagging badly in Iowa, New Hampshire handed his brother a 17 point defeat in 2000 and gave Pat Buchanan 37 percent support against Jeb’s dad as a sitting President, South Carolina is basically Antebellum at this point and Nevada is a hotbed of libertarian thought. Even if Bush survives to contest these primaries and caucuses, none favor whatever ideology he is selling. Going 0 for 4 is a one-way ticket to political oblivion.
Of course, when your super PAC is sitting on $100 million and your last name is “Bush,” you cannot be counted out entirely, but the reality is that Right to Rise has run ads for weeks and Bush’s numbers are dropping not rising. The candidate’s uneasiness about his brother and his awful record as President have not changed and he continues to be gaffe prone, as his recent “stuff happens” comment regarding gun violence indicates. Lastly, the GOP electorate itself, in the wake of gains made last night based on hard-right ideology, is more likely to stiffen its opposition to anyone who appears to be part of establishment politics, like the brother and son of two former Presidents.

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