Thursday, December 30, 2010

Marty Van

I really wanted to like Martin Van Buren. In a lot of ways, one of the most interesting things about reading history is the interesting way my brain grapples with it. On one level, I'm reading the text and being as impartial as I can, but on another I'm flipping through trying to figure out who the good guys are and who the bad guys are (And then looking for evidence that surely, my ancestors couldn't have been the bad guys). I guess I should maybe try to make myself stop doing that...but in general I think there are many things in life that should be approached in the same way as an anxiety attack. It's counter productive to worry about getting an anxiety attack, you're supposed to recognise it for what it is and think "hey, look! it's an anxiety attack." I read through history thinking "hey, look! it's my primitive need for life to be black and white." And then I move on.

I really wanted Martin Van Buren to be one of the good guys, though. He's one of the only presidents in history with a non-British Isles name (Eisenhower and Obama are the others). That should make him cool, right? Also, in Gore Vidal's book Burr, you're supposed to like him, and I know that's historical fiction...but Gore Vidal is on my team so I want to believe him. So far though (so far being p. 539 of What Hath God Wrought), there seems to be little evidence that Van Buren was anything better than a political opportunist, and if he lacked the personal affinity for evil that Andrew Jackson had, that's damn faint praise. And so, I guess we have learned some important things about the prejudices of my mind. Differentness is not always good, and teams are not consistent. The Democrats were like, bad, in the antebellum period. At some point, I'm probably going to have to grapple with the fact that that doesn't make the Whigs good (John Quincy Adams is a little bit of a badass though). William Henry Harrison isn't president yet though, so we'll see. I'm sure he'll come riding into town on his dark horse and have some really solid ideas about environmental protection and civil rights. Right?

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Bon Temps

One of the things that I think the Sookie Stackhouse books do very well, besides appealing to women, is create a genuine small town feeling. I mean, maybe this is an area where I shouldn't really have an opinion, since the small town that I grew up in isn't really a small town by many people's standards (population of ~30,000), but it was just Christmas and I was just there and so it's on my mind.

A big part of it is how many siblings everybody has. It's not really something you notice until you start paying attention, but sibling relationships are kind of glossed over in a lot of popular culture. In Harry Potter, nobody has siblings except for Ron...that's his thing that makes him "different." In Robert Jordan (ok, maybe not popular culture), I think Matt or Perrin might have some siblings (Bode Cauthon! She has the one power), but they're mostly just a vague thought that a character might have every other book or so. In Sex and the City...I think Miranda has a sister? Buffy...three only children, until Dawn got invented. Do any of the kids on Glee have siblings?

The other half of it, I think, is age. Again with old are those kids? I could have sworn last year was their senior year, but here they are in high school again, so I guess not. Are they all the same age? Isn't that a little unusual for an elective class? What about Ron's parents vs. Harry's parents...were they all at Hogwarts at the same time? And don't even get me started on Veronica Mars. Who's older? Lily or Duncan? Are they twins? These things matter!

In the Sookie Stackhouse books, by contrast, characters get introduced as "a few years ahead of my brother in school" or "his sister and I were on a softball team together." It stands out to me, because that's how I'm used to people talking. Sometimes, out in the big world, you feel a little self conscious about it, because isn't the biggest possible failure in life to never get past high school? Having people's family history and graduation year permanently etched on your brain feels a little odd, just as it feels odd to realize that I've met people later in life and gotten to know them well without even finding out how old they are, or being able to keep their siblings straight. 

I guess there's probably room in the world for both ways. I enjoy the complex web of interconnectedness that you get when everyone comes with at least a couple of decades of personal history, which is part of the reason why I like the Sookie Stackhouse books, but I can also see how some people might find that stifling and prefer that their backstory get a little bit blurred with time. If only I could suppress my urge to provide gobs and gobs of helpful background information in every situation. People need to know these things! How can they not find them interesting?

(Also, the relationship between Sookie and Jason is one of the best brother/sister combos that I can think of. Which is of course completely dumbed down and practically ruined on the show. But then, making Lafayette and Tara cousins adds an interesting dimension, so I guess there's trade offs.)

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Please, won't someone think of the children?

The New York Times has an interesting article on the weaker aspects of current teacher evaluation methods, playing into why maybe it's too early for mass releases of this kind of data like they did in Los Angeles, or arbitrary policies demanding that low scoring teachers be replaced.  Turns out, somewhere around a quarter of the teachers who get ranked as low performing one year will get ranked as high performing the next year...which year do you base the decision to fire them on?!? (The article doesn't get very specific on this, but the implication is that this is due to testing error, not actual improvement...I assume because the variation is strong in both directions).

On the one hand, the growing field of educational effectiveness research is a very interesting one; I think it's fairly promising in the long term, and I think it's an important thing to be looking into. On the other hand though, I will admit that I see big flashing warning signs at every turn, almost to a paranoid degree. Here's why: I think it's a mistake to assume that high quality free public education is a universal goal in this country. I think there is a significant section of this country that is looking to reform public education right out of existence...people like this guy, for example. The Republicans were making political hay by promising to abolish the Department of Education well through the 90s, defunding the public schools and sending all the white children to private ones was a favorite tactic of Southern bigots looking to sidestep integration. There is a constituency for this, people who feel that the curriculum of the public schools undermines their goals for their children (evolution, tolerance, the fact that the Aztecs were not actually Satan worshipers, Keynesian economics, non-revisionist U.S. History, who knows what else...) and that it is their right to reserve their tax money to pay for private schools that will let them decide what their children will be taught...or to localize public schools until they teach only the views held in their own homogeneous communities.* When I hear (questionable) metric after (questionable) metric proving that the public schools are failing, I do wonder if part of it is just setting the groundwork for moving people away from the expectation that public schools will educate their children. I guess what it comes down to is I'm not against standardized testing, per se, and I'm not against seeking out new ways to measure teacher performance, but I am against the rhetoric that America's public schools are failing. Or at least, not in front of those people. That's like telling your ex boyfriend that your new guy doesn't understand you.

*This isn't really a wacky point of view. I want to have a say in what my children are taught too! You know, when I have them. I just have the advantage of mostly agreeing with mainstream opinion on things that are taught in school. Also, of being right....and I'm willing to let go a little on my stranglehold of all information that would ever reach my hypothetical children ever in order to give some other kid whose parents are wrong about everything half a chance.

Monday, December 27, 2010


I admit, I am reusing old comic ideas...but I think there's a least a few people who didn't see this one last year, so why not?

Friday, December 24, 2010


The Long Promised Filibuster Post

It seems a little anticlimactic now. The tax compromise passed, despite Bernie Sanders' best efforts. The repeal of DADT and the START ratification process have kind of overshadowed the whole thing since. However, filibuster reform is getting serious attention right now, so I guess it's worthwhile for me to have an opinion...because you know, all of democracy hinges on what I think.

I'm probably for filibuster reform. In a country where the seat share of the two political parties consistently hangs out between 40 and 60 (it might be different if our partisan shifts were more volatile), and party line voting is becoming more and more the norm, a 60 vote supermajority requirement to pass anything is just ridiculous. At the same time though, I am not one of those people whose ideal scenario is that the U.S. would switch to a unicameral, simple majority, strong party legislature and just finally give in and try to be more like Europe. I think the reforms that the Udalls* are proposing are probably pretty decent...subtle tricks like requiring that 40 senators must vote to block a bill rather than 60 to unblock it. But in an ideal world, I'd like to see more attention to the party line voting part of the problem. This is a big makes sense for the senator from Vermont to be kind of an iconoclast, railing against a compromise made between a guy from Chicago and a guy from Kentucky. What doesn't make sense is when a Republican from Massachusetts is virtually indistinguishable from one from Utah. Part of the reason that the filibuster has been able to exist in all it's flawed glory for so long is because under old Senate seniority rules, party leaders had almost no way to discipline members that didn't vote with the party. You wouldn't want to see the strict seniority system come back...rule by octogenarians has plenty of problems too...but it seems like you could do something to undermine party discipline. (Interestingly, the Democrats still mostly use the seniority system, while the Republicans don't....this is one major reason why Olympia Snowe is on a much shorter leash than Ben Nelson).

I've been playing around in my head with some kind of system by which the state legislatures get to pick which committees they want for their senators on a rotating basis....mostly just because it'd be hilarious to see John McCain forced to worry about things that are actually relevant to Arizona, and Rand Paul answerable to the legislature of Kentucky which has actual poor people to think about. Then again, we do need foreign policy experts in the Senate, and what state is going to prioritize that? I also don't know the senate rules well enough to know if it's even feasible to try to control the way a party organizes itself, I'm sure the low hanging fruit is the tweaks in vote counting methods that are already being proposed. Ultimately though, I think it's better to not just concentrate on lowering the bar to get legislation passed, but on making sure the system complements the country that we have. To me, that means nationwide parties but occasional regional alliances, so long as they aren't about white supremacy. Right now, I think party discipline is undermining both of those things.

*also, I love the fact that our Senate currently has "the Udalls," but that's probably another post. Which would also be about hypocrisy, because political dynasties are bad...unless they involve Senators I like and a part of the country I consider cool.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Because terrorist anchor babies are the biggest problem facing America today

Andrew Sullivan is highlighting a study that shows that while all voters were impressively misinformed about basic matters of fact in the 2010 elections, Fox News viewers are really in a whole other class.

In general, I drift more towards the "there is nothing new under the sun" side of every argument. Voters have always believed the wildest kinds of rumors, impartial media was a blip on the radar if it ever existed at all, and politics has always been bitterly partisan.

However, it does occur to me that Fox News is something new. When else in history have people been able to immerse themselves 24 hours a day in reinforcing views? When the media was dominated by the broadcast news, people could split off with their own interpretations and partisan spin, but at least they were all getting exposed to the same facts. When the media was dominated by partisan newspapers...well every presidential biography I've read seems to describe the way that men who followed politics would gather downtown and discuss & debates issues, so a person's sources of information could only be as homogeneous as the place that he lived. Now, the people who might have been engaged in that discussion can sate their appetite for political information staying in their living rooms with Sean Hannity whispering in their ear that they're right about everything, and not risk offending neighbors or coworkers by engaging them. It doesn't seem impossible that this might have something to do with the fact that we currently have a Republican party that is completely detached from scientific reality on evolution and global warming, completely detached from economic reality on tax cuts and the deficit, and completely detached from political reality on Obama's radicalism.

What we do about it though...I don't know.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

American Exceptionalism....Civil War style.

His greatest achievement had been the construction from green logs and saplings of a trestle 80 feet high and 400 feet long with unskilled soldier labor in less than two weeks. After looking at this bridge, Lincoln said: "I have seen the most remarkable structure that human eyes ever rested upon. That man, Haupt, has built a bridge...over which loaded trains are running every hour, and upon my word, gentlemen, there is nothing in it but beanpoles and cornstalks." (p. 527, Battle Cry of Freedom)
I'll get to talking about the filibuster. Maybe I'll even figure out a way that this is relevant to my argument. But I have to return Battle Cry of Freedom to the library today, so it seemed important to lift my favorite quote before I did.

Friday, December 10, 2010

American Exceptionalism.

I am a huge hypocrite. Despite my post the other day about Obama's tax compromise the other day and how it's probably best to just be reasonable about it, and despite agreeing with someone this morning that what we really need is filibuster reform, I kind of love Bernie Sanders right now...who is hitting his 4th (5th? 6th?) hour of ACTUALLY filibustering on the senate floor against the compromise.

I'll try to put together some more coherent thoughts on this later. I'm at least 75% sure I can put this together into an actual policy preference that is not just "Keep the passionate and curmudgeonly old guys!"

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Oh no! Deficit spending!

Today's big story is that Obama cut a deal with Republicans on taxes; they get their two year extension on the tax cut on incomes above $250,000 and I think also some kind of extension relating to the estate tax, in return for extended unemployment benefits for 13 months and a partial payroll tax holiday.

I don't have very much original to add to this. I think Nate Silver is probably right about how it would have played out if Obama had taken a more we-don't-negotiate-with-terrorists approach to the Republicans. I don't think you have to be a nutty supply sider to think that this might not be a good time for an across the board tax hike (or rather, tax cut non-extension), and that it might help to be a fairly well off journalist to actually see that as the best case scenario. (As a good liberal, I am theoretically ok with my taxes going up at any time...but then I look at my budget, and even I have to admit that it wouldn't be as easy for me to make the sacrifice as it would have been 3 years ago. And there are a lot of people living closer to the line than I am). I do agree with Megan McArdle that the important thing now (in terms of the deficit at least) is what happens in two years. A lot of people are pointing out that 2012 is an election year, and so of course this is going to become a  major campaign issue, and of course the Democrats will cave to the same voodoo economics political pressure they always cave to. What I haven't seen discussed yet is that two years from today would actually be post-election. I think they could decide whether to extend the tax cuts or not in August 2012 or September 2012, just like they could have this year...but couldn't also the same political considerations that pushed this off into the lame duck session this year happen again in 2012? It'll be a campaign issue to be sure, but it seems at least possible that the actual decision will not be made until after the results are in. And in that case, what would we expect lame duck President Obama to do ...or newly re-elected President Obama? Would he need to make the same concessions to Republicans that he's making now? It seems at least hopeful to me.

Monday, December 6, 2010


The main thing I realized reading through the Sookie Stackhouse novels is that, wow, I haven't read many books that were that targeted towards an adult female audience. At least, not ones that had also been written in the last 50 years or so...I've read my fair share of Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, etc. And since it was so striking in the books, it was even more striking when I started watching the TV series, True Blood, and noticed the things that they changed.

Here's where I think it gets interesting:

In the books, Sookie (the female protagonist), occasionally fantasizes about Eric (vampire) despite being involved with Bill (other vampire) because...well mainly because she seems to be a warm blooded woman who's willing to spare a thought or two towards any guy with his shirt off.

On the TV show, she fantasizes about him as a magical side effect of having had some of his blood, which he tricked her into.

In the books, Sookie ultimately finds Eric attractive because of his sense of humor and impressive anatomy.

On TV, impressive anatomy may or may not figure into it...but Sookie's primary interest in Eric stems from finding out about his inner torment.

I think it's fair to assume that the producers of the TV show wanted to appeal to a wider audience than the books. I think it's likely that their goal was to move from a mostly female audience to one that included at least a strong minority of men...maybe not men who would then go and list the show as one of their favorites on Facebook, but ones who wouldn't complain when that's what their wife wanted to watch on Sunday nights. And so I think it's interesting that these are the changes they came up with; a female protagonist who is more loyal (at least mentally) and whose turn-ons include angst and brooding. Also interesting; as a woman, I find these changes pretty disappointing.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Things that seem like they might be true...

The absolute worst thing about the American public sector is the prevalence of non-cash compensation in the form of quality-sapping work rules. (Matt Yglesias)

Must be able to lift at least 20 lbs.

Most job listings are very badly written. One of the more useful pieces of advice I ever got was from a career counsellor in college, who told me to treat the required qualifications as the employer's wish list...not an actual list of requirements. Of course, that was back before any job I might possibly be applying for was sure to be getting applicants with ten and fifteen years more experience than me. The recession is pretty awesome that way.

One of the things that bothers me the most, however, is the legalese tacked on at the end of many of them, stating that you must be able to lift x amount of weight, stand for a certain amount of time, or reach overhead. And I'm not talking about physical labor jobs here...working in a warehouse maybe, loading trucks...but just your basic run of the mill office desk jobs. Of course, I feel free to ignore those sections; I don't run out and find some weights to make sure I really can lift however much. As an able bodied person, they aren't targeted at me. It is true that even the most sedentary jobs sometimes include something that would be harder to do from wheelchair or with some other type of disability...reach the top shelf in the supply cabinet maybe, and I'm sure employers would rather be lazy and not have to find workarounds for that kind of thing. But is it really necessary to attach the same language to practically every job listing at some institutions, making sure that anyone with physical limitations feels discouraged from applying? Hopefully they had career counsellors telling them to apply anyways too, but it still seems pretty wrong to me.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Politics is complicated, part ii

I have pretty much no moral qualms about borderline confiscatory tax rates on upper income brackets. I mean, I'm not necessarily for them...but the argument that's going to sway me probably isn't, "Won't somebody, please, think of the rich people!" It may not be technically fair (although, seeing as the very rich benefit quite a bit from government in general, I think a lot of it is fair), but life isn't fair, and the unfairness that some people might be less better off than the rest of us than they would otherwise be isn't really the kind of unfairness that tugs at my heartstrings. I'm also pretty dubious about the economic arguments for why we can't tax the rich too much. I suspect the Ayn Randian fantasy that somehow the very most valuable workers will opt out of the workforce severely discounts how much people at that level work for prestige and recognition rather than the ability to buy things, and I question whether the economy is actually driven by a class of super geniuses who couldn't be replaced by say, two people each being paid half as much. (Hey! Maybe high taxes on the rich creates jobs!) I'm also confused by the arguments that this income being taxed in the upper brackets has anything to do with small business investment. Aren't business expenses taxed differently? I suppose if the tax law is badly written, there could be business expenses that are not being treated as such and taxed along with personal income...but anecdotally, based on the girl I knew in college who drove an SUV that belonged to her dad's company, I get the feeling it mostly goes in the other direction.

But this is about why politics is complicated, not why taxing the rich is a no brainer. So here's why....the incomes of the rich aren't as stable as the rest of us, and so making them the foundation of the government's revenue stream makes that unstable as well. Revenue is always going to go down during an economic recession....unemployed people pay fewer taxes than employed people. But the more progressive the tax code is, the more magnified this effect is going to be. Upper brackets affect the last x dollars that a person earns...exactly the same dollars that are affected if your pay gets cut, or you don't get a bonus this year. I should probably have a citation for this, but I think variable things like bonuses become a more significant part of your income the richer you are. This wouldn't matter as much if governments practiced Keynesian self restraint and saved surpluses to cover future revenue shortfalls...or heck, even borrowed against future surpluses to cover current revenue shortfalls. But in the real world, where politics demands that a budget surplus be spent on something immediate and popular and that deficits during downturns be treated with panicked hyperbole that the government is bankrupt, I think it's something to be avoided.

(Which is not, of course, to say that I favor extending the Bush tax cuts on income over $250,000...just that there is some limit to how progressive the tax code should be.)

Thursday, December 2, 2010

RIP Office Frog

School Reform - Suspensions

School reform is another one of those issues that I find fairly interesting...although a lot of the discussion of it lately is more frustrating than anything else. This article in the New York Times isn't too bad though.

It's about the superintendent of Baltimore, and I think the most interest part of it is his decision that it was important to decrease suspensions. He created a requirement that someone in his office had to sign off on a suspension of more than 5 days. (5 days?! Admittedly, I didn't exactly get in a whole lot of trouble in school, or keep close track of the people that did, but 5 days is a pretty long suspension, right?). He's managed to cut down suspensions from 26,000 a year to less than 10,000 a year in six years. Obviously, that doesn't necessarily mean that the kids are better behaved...but in the same time the dropout rate has fallen by half, which is definitely significant.

I took P.E. my senior year of high school, which is a bad, bad idea if you are already fed up with the immaturity and stupidity of people younger than you. There was this kid in the class...a sophomore, obviously a stoner, who barely ever bothered to show up. And then, the one day he did, the teacher got on his case about the shoes he was wearing (some kind of Timberlands or something...not good P.E. shoes but he also wasn't going to die putting in the same lackluster effort towards P.E. that the rest of us were planning on) and sent him out of class. That still sticks out in my memory of one of the worst instances of teaching I ever witnessed. Who knows if that guy ended up graduating or not, but if he thanks to her.

I can see how a culture where suspension is the solution to every problem could completely undermine the message that school is important and dropping out means missed opportunities. Hell, it's practically like handing out free samples, and students who are already frustrated at school aren't likely to like it any better when they come back two weeks behind in all their classes. The trade off, of course, is that suspension is easier on teachers than a lot of other options...and if you are going to ask them to use a more labor intensive form of discipline, you have to accept that they are going to have less time for other things. But it might be a worthwhile trade off, and I think that whatever gains there are to be found in school reform are going to come from figuring out which of these kinds of things are most effective. (Rather than say, setting some arbitrary goal and offering to keep firing teachers and replacing them with shiny but not necessarily better new ones until it happens).

Also, the article mentions that the superintendent compares himself to a character in War and excellent excuse to bring up the fact that I read that book. (I read War and Peace, did you know? Mostly just so I could say I read it, but as it turns out, it's pretty decent). Which character though? It makes a big difference, since one of the main characters of the book is actually a guy who gets swept up in silly political ideologies but is completely inept at actually implementing them. Was it that guy? The failure of the writer to pursue this further makes me suspect that unlike me, he has not read War and Peace. In which case, woohoo! I am smarter than people who write for the New York Times by a completely arbitrary metric!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Gender Complimentarianism

 I'm developing a habit of starting drafts for posts based on articles that I want to say something about, but then waiting until the article is old and dusty and maybe not worth commenting on anymore. But it's not like I'm part of any larger time sensitive online conversation...and in this case, the article itself isn't time sensitive at all either. So here is my attempt to just spit it out.

A couple weeks ago, the New York Times magazine had this article on gender complimentarianism. I find this kind of stuff fascinating, because I think it underlies a lot of current political divisions (Why would a  conservative couple in a rural red states care passionately enough about whether two gay men can get married in San Francisco to donate money? Because of what it says about gender roles in their own marriage), because unlike energy or foreign policy it's easy to have a layman's position (I've been biologically female for 26 years...that makes me an expert, right?) and because ultimately I think I occupy an intermediate position between the two sides (Gorillas, chimps, and orangutans show dramatic gender differences, so why on earth would we expect humans not to? But at the same time, any observation of human beings shows that gender roles are at the very least incredibly flexible, and I don't know how any pragmatic approach to the world could refuse to account for that).

The world view portrayed in this article I think is ultimately more idealistic than pragmatic. Women should submit to their husbands, husbands should in turn be natural leaders, and if it doesn't work out that way one of them must be failing at their gender role. I imagine that they are free to argue whether the failure is because the wife was too overbearing and emasculating or because the husband just plain wasn't man enough. I think it's interesting that the example of submitting to a husband's will used in the article is choosing the name of a child...i.e., a decision with no actual real world consequences whatsoever. What about a woman whose husband insists on driving all night when she sees him nodding off and swerving around on the road? Or one whose husband wants to buy a house she doesn't think they can afford? It would be much more interesting to see how their philosophy translates to those kinds of decisions. Do they actually believe that men have some inherent wisdom that women should always defer to? Or maybe that even if women might know better in some situations, they should only assert themselves carefully and as to avoid undermining the fragile foundations of true manhood, potentially sending their husbands on a downward spiral of unemployment and sex clubs? Or does it really just boil down to mutual respect, a reminder that whoever you married once made it through life perfectly fine without you telling them what to do, and may have to again (with your children!!!) if you die or become incapacitated, so you should be able to accept the decisions they make even when you disagree with them. (Of course, in that case, it would go both ways...but I can see how speaking to a mostly female audience you might focus on the wife's part).

The article mentions the possibility that they're making a distinction without a difference; that ultimately the decision making process in "complementarian" partnerships looks almost exactly like the decision making process between two Berkeley gender studies professors married to each other. I think there's a good chance that's true. But I think it's also very interesting why that distinction might become so important to people. (This is a complete cop out of an ending, but I don't seem to have a better one).